art in the digital age

Art in the Digital Age

With the advent of photography, which by 1860 enabled reality to be reproduced exactly, it was lamented, “Art is Dead!”, and the somewhat precarious relationship between the mass (re)produced world of the machine and the individual work of art came to the fore.

Since its beginning, the machine has had an indelible impact on not only the parameters of the art object, but its role in society. And just as the emergence of photography forced the art world into what has proven to be a very fortunate re-examination of itself, the computer is quickly inheriting this role of mechanical medium and perhaps, helping to usher in the dawn of a truly universal art form, i.e. not just play-things for the wealthy.

Man has always been interested in qualifying his relationship to nature. In the past, this relationship was always perceived of as a polarized one, no doubt born from our constant struggle against the elements. Soon we evolved, thanks in part to the power of mathematics, into Mother Nature’s favored student, complete with opposable thumbs and an uncanny resemblance to God. Michelangelo drew man circumscribed by a perfect circle, and delineating an equally ideal square, while building anthropomorphic monuments to the glory of mankind in stone, while Alberti invented perspective, exclaiming, “At last I can see the world as God sees it!”  With this newfound ability to translate the world around us into precise geometrical abstractions, came a new conception of our surrounds, and ourselves.
We had finally uncovered a universal order, and the world and all its mysteries were  within reach. Painters represented this vision with underlying geometrical patterns and shapes, while architects justified proportions with musical scales and ideal ratios in the hope of evoking a visual harmony by tapping into this cosmic order.

Then came the shattering revelations of the modern era: Einstein deconstructed matter, and Godel undermined the A priori validity of mathematics, Quantum Mechanics questioned time itself in casual relationships, and all around, just as the artist was increasingly eager to justify their work through the social sciences, these fields were retreating from any and all objectivity.

The art world began splashing paint around in subjective streams of consciousness, partly in reaction to the intense formalism that the abstractions, begun with the invention of the camera, lent themselves too, and partly as a reflection of the new and more active role of man’s imagination.

Today we live in an age stripped of myth and tradition. As a result of the anthropological shift from the past as a system of determination to man’s consciousness, and the concurrent replacement of the age-old struggle of man versus nature with man versus knowledge, i.e. man. we have arrived in the age of information. We are solitary souls floating in an existential river of uncertainty, connected to our fellow man only by a network of pixilated information. Never before has so much knowledge been available to so many. The computer has extended a single idea’s sphere of influence to a point of no return. Just as the globe is saturated in an instant with the whim of an individual, what once took centuries to find can be lost in the blink of an eye.

Admittedly, this insistent homogenization might be seen as a threat to the individual, and in turn, a threat to humanity, but another more constructive view is that of a vehicle for empowering the historically oppressed many, and spearheading an art form no longer for the elite few, but for everyone concerned. The digital age can be seen as the logical extension of the modern movement in the arts. Duchamp’s self-critical pieces, and movements such as Dada and Surrealism, have proven incapable of criticizing the state of things, and unable to de-mystify the art object. Museums quickly hung their contributions behind their own ropes and represented them to the public in their own terms, rendering them impotent. The internet threatens to bypass these institutions altogether and finally knock art off its pedestal, out of the graveyard of museums, and onto the path of its true vocation once again: to breathe fresh air and insight into the human condition.

In the past, computers have only aided in the production of tedious drawings and laborious precision, but today we see an art form generated by the computer and dedicated to its insistent rationality.
These ‘computer artists’ work usually in conjunction with a programmer who helps translate their ideas into the language of the computer. This typically consists of encoding a series of coordinates for desired points that will create a complex image similar in its additive process of pixels to a pointillist painting. So far, the computer is capable of mimicking works of the past and generating convincing landscapes, but not yet capable of ‘creating’, but rather merely implementing steps of a pre-designed program. The impact digital technology has had on our art forms has made the question of whether or not the computer is a tool or medium a matter of semantics; what artists are doing, and hope to achieve, is far more relevant.

Most computer artists, such as Lawrence Press and Hiroshi Kawano, are exploring the phenomenon of serial imagery, and usually generate an image repeatedly while transforming it, creating movement. Press speaks of the ‘scale of randomness’ while Kawona feels it necessary to justify his ‘multi-planer sequential image projection’ by citing past artists with similar interests, such as Monet’s series of the Rouen Cathedral, done in the late 1800’s, or Andy Warhol’s repetitive portraits of everything from stars to Campbell soup cans. Unfortunately, these investigations are far from novel, and as a result redundant.
Artists have long since explored the notion of translating movement onto a two-dimensional surface, and the impressionists thoroughly examined the differing appearance of a thing over time. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, Muybridge’s photographic series began the motion picture industry, and in the 20’s, the Blue Reiter Group in Germany started an interest in space-time painting that found its way into the canvases of the Cubists. The most tectonic example can be found in the work of Duchamp, in particular his ‘Nude descending a Stair’, which overlaps partial projections of a figure according to precise mathematical equations and ratios. In other words, these were all important and exciting steps, but they have been done. It seems these artists and the work they are producing are more the result of the ease in which the computer lends itself to such activity than any real furthering or even understanding of the pursuits of past artists.
Other ‘computer artists’ are equally redundant, such as Leslie Mezei, who compares her ‘Bikini Shifted’ to Picasso’s early work, and Peter Struycker, who apparently missed all of Mondrian’s efforts, and Robert Mallery, whose sculptures speak more of the machines used to cut, laminate and polish the stone, than the computer that plotted its cross sections. The most pointless of all are those fascinated with the phrase ‘computer aesthetic’. This is simply a superficial return to trivial attempts at creating an aesthetically pleasing picture. Even if one were able to recognize such a thing, upon encountering it, he or she would be compelled to ask, after all the progress that has been made since Picasso’s violent dismissal of the pretty picture in 1907 with D’amoiselles D’avignon, it’s nice but, so what?

Sadly the bulk of work done by computer artists is discouraging. Carl Sagan once attributed this to the rare combination of a rational yet creative individual needed for such an art form. A more plausible explanation is simply that those with true vision have separated themselves from this avant-garde labeling, and have either resolved to treat the computer as a means to an end until new technologies expand its capabilities, or more appropriately, they have decided a new paradigm is needed.

As we move forward in the digital age, we have no choice but to redefine our art forms, and what in fact their roles might be. There are those that claim art has formalized itself into an early grave, and Roethko’s ‘Red Square on a White Background’ signified a closing bracket to traditional art forms; the lid on the coffin. Apparently, we have come as far as we can with paint on canvas, and they would have us believe it is time to move on.

There is a synergetic relationship between the work of art and the artist, or more generally, between man and the object-the two defining each other. Given the computer’s capacity to shape how we live, and even why, we should not ask what can the computer do, but ask ourselves, what do we want to do?
There is a certain incongruity most of us feel when talking about computers and art; a concern perhaps that the individual work of art, the ‘creative gesture’ Le Corbusier dedicated his life to, will become obsolete. Before we fall prey to our long standing suspicion of the machine, we must acknowledge that the computer is on the road taken by mankind, and accept that it has and will continue to have a profound effect on our art forms. This uneasiness might someday seem as silly as those that dismissed Picasso’s first work because “Nostrils don’t look like that!”. Presently, however, we can only ponder as to whether it will ever be possible to program passion, or if we might someday be able to mathematically represent wonder.

Imagine Duchamp’s vision of the artist being able to someday generate an art form directly from his mind, bypassing such tools as pigments and brushes. Imagine a three-dimensional dream created by the internal reality of the mind; from a world beyond the imagination. Certainly this would tell us more about man’s subconscious than a few pre-conceived Freudian questions, rather it might shatter all existing boundaries between the world we believe to be real and the one we believe to be the product of our imagination. Is this not the very aim of the modern day artist?

Perhaps the computer will take us past the limitations of present day art and beyond, as Einstein would say, the threshold of wonder, and into the final frontier: the depths of consciousness.Perhaps we will find the answers to some of the most primal concerns that mankind has had from the very beginning, or, perhaps, we will go too far.