A Commentary

by JD Jarvis, MOCA contributing editor,
distinguished digital art critic and artist

What do digital artists do: Photo, paint and print

Until the advent of digital art-making and print production, the terms, “photograph”, “painting” or “print” were easily and universally understood. But trying to adopt these terms to describe what a digital artist does is often confusing, at best, and actually inadequate, almost always. To “call it what it is” would require new terms that are cumbersome and mostly meaningless to the segment of the public that has a normal interest in art. So, we find ourselves in a sometimes contentious battle with our own sensibilities trying to describe what we do.

For example, if we really “call it what it is” we cannot use the word “original” in its established form. “Original”, that is, meaning “one-of-a-kind” and not referring to a “never seen before objet” as in the phrase “original thought”. The “original” digital image is barely an object at all, existing in a state of encoded information that cannot be seen without the aid of a viewing or imaging device. Any such viewing of the file is a real-time “production” of that image. NOTE: not a “reproduction” which is another kettle of fish, but rather a “production” or perhaps a “replication” of binary code into visual image. You can “print” this image (and we can go into why the term “print” does not really “call it what it is” some other time) and destroy the data file and this image on paper becomes “the only replication of the binary art file to ever exist”, but is it the “original”? It is most assuredly at that point a “one of-a-kind object” and could, possibly, benefit from this marketing cache. Of course, you could draw or paint on this “print” and contribute even more to the aura of its object-hood, thus making the piece a more traditional “mixed media” work.

We also refer to the source of a traditional print as a “matrix”, but the binary encoded digital original is far more than a negative, colorless impression of an image as is the etching plate or litho stone. Ironically, the digital original is so much more in terms of a complete piece of art and, at the same time; in terms of its physical presence, so much less than a traditional printable “matrix”.

Such irony abounds when media and techniques have outrun existing terminology. Just for fun…here is a brief comparison of some of the things we “call it” and actually, “what it is”:

Print………….…Micro airbrush rendering or inkjet replicant
Original…………Screen (CRT or LCD) replicant oriInkjet replicant
Paint…………....Digital freehand markings
Photography……Digital image capture and manipulation
Mixed Media…...Mixed software (unless, of course, you mix your micro airbrush rendering with other traditional marking media, as described above).

As “digital artists” we, now find ourselves in the lag time between the traditional interpretations of most of the terms we would like to use to describe what we do and the acceptance by a significant number of art appreciators for the ways in which digital technology has expanded or colored the meaning and use of these terms.

Ordinarily this disconnect between what we call it and what it actually is would be cause for examination and even promotion. Usually the art's world is attracted by innovation, new ideas, concepts and working methods. But in the haste to have digital innovations, ideas, concepts and working methods accepted as if they are seamlessly similar to traditional means for creating art, we may be throwing the baby out with the bath water. We say, we “paint”, we “cut and paste”, we “dodge or burn”; but only in terms of visible outcome do we actually do any of these things. Some people really want to know how you can call it a painting when there is no pigment, brushes or canvas. Some people want to know how you can make a photograph without sequestering yourself in the dark and dipping your fingers in smelly chemicals. Some people want to know how you can call it a print when there is no physical matrix brought under pressure against paper to make an “imprint”. Some people want to know how you can push some buttons, evoke an algorithm designed by an unknown mathematician, packaged by another team of software designers for “ease of operation” and call it “Art”. Perhaps we shouldn’t have used these terms at all but rather focused more attention on how very different digital art-making is.

Of course, a good part of this disconnect has to do with how deeply digitalism threatens some haloed art paradigms. Such as “originality” (noted above) or “materiality”. While most everyone agrees that art should be made of some thing or another, everyone can agree that art begins as an idea in the brain of the artist. If one is lucky, this idea may be an “original”, meaning that no other brain has held this idea before this time. History has proven that this rarely happens, but let’s assume we have an original idea. Let’s also assume that this idea can not be adequately expressed in words and requires some form of, well…form. This will require material and tools and technique. So, unless we are going to re-invent all these, we are most likely to choose some established materials to objectify this brilliant idea. Here, the original idea which has been up to this point pure thought runs into much more competition or challenge during its conversion to material. Since each material or working method has a history attached to it, “originality” becomes clouded by what has been done with these materials in the past. For example, pity the poor original idea that finds expression as a Cubist painting. No matter how original the idea the baggage of its materiality would undermine it.

Many forms of digital art, especially the visual digital arts, have suffered criticism for the lack of materiality. Many point out the lack of real texture, of the embossed quality of a traditional etching, of the lack of painterly smells, the smeary feel of the pigments. The fact of digital art is that most of the material, tools and techniques for making art have been re-invented and that digital freehand-mark-making is quite a different animal from traditional painting. The same may be said for photography and printing and yet instead of celebrating this we try to ameliorate it by adopting traditional terminology and copying traditional materials and fitting into traditional exhibition and marketing paradigms.

Digital Art will not come into its full maturity until we are willing to drop old ways and take the far riskier, more unsure avenues that have opened up to us. Why not relish in the closer similarity that the digital “original” shares with pure thought; that being, that it is and will always be immaterial code stored in some sort of ever active, always amendable state. That any direct objectification of that coded original is a “production” (not a reproduction) of the original thought-work. That viewing a digital art work is more like experiencing a poem, or a film for that matter, in that the bringing forth of that image into a material space represents not only the poem itself but the “performance” of a specific set of visualization tools. For a poem is nothing until it is read and a film is just a big round metal can until it is projected.

Of course, digital artists need to eat and people still need to possess things, so selling and owning will never disappear. But with digital art we make a significant step toward the appreciation of art being less about possession and more about sharing with the mind of the artist. That is not to say that the impression of texture is not there, nor is light or form absent. What digital art points out so completely is something we have known all along; that these “things” are all illusions at the service of an even more illusive and immaterial “original”, which remains always in a state resembling that of our thoughts. These “things” are among the lies that, as Picasso noted, art employs to reveal the truth.

JD Jarvis
December, 2004