Toward a Digital Aesthetic

Introduction:  The Transparent Revolution

What does digital art look like?  Confounding this slippery topic is the chameleon-like ability of digital art to simulate to a very high degree the appearance of many traditional media and genre.  In addition, certain commonly held beliefs, some of which are in direct opposition to one another, add to the camouflage, hiding from our awareness the actual scope of current digital art.  For example, one idea, based on digital imagery made nearly a generation ago, holds that computer art is boxy and pixilated with sharp vertical and horizontal lines and jagged diagonals, that the colors are uncontrolled and super saturated, and that the predominate forms hinge on infinite swirling repetitions.  Oddly enough this idea survives and stands today in spite of a converse belief that digital art serves mainly to create seamless realistic environments and characters that are indistinguishable from photographic reality.  These incomplete and limiting views blind us to the fluidity and expressive potentials of digital imagery. 

There is also a belief that making digital art is an automated pastime requiring no more knowledge or artistic input than punching the “art” button.  This beach-comber model for sitting back while the computer does all the work, then simply choosing the best shell on the beach, is a misconception born out of computer phobia.  If taken to its logical extreme, the most insidious aspect of this misinformed belief would stifle exploration of the unique and fresh imagery generated directly from the digital system.  To ignore this potential and not utilize imagery that resides inside the digital matrix itself would be a serious artistic loss.

Digital art making tools serve many masters in and outside the visual arts.  As with a paintbrush, the computer can be put to use expressing many divergent genres, styles and “isms” within the field of 2D visual art.  To nail down a specific aesthetic for, so called, “digital art” which holds common ground for all its expressive potential would seem a daunting, perhaps, superfluous task.  But, computer art has been with us now for over twenty-five years to the point that a majority of the images flooding our senses each day through a number of different media are created digitally.  These new art making tools have revolutionized commercial art, photography, television, music and film and, as such, the term “digital art” is spread so thinly across so many artistic endeavors to be, as an art movement, virtually transparent.  However, as artists, who employ digital tools, make inroads into the world of fine arts it has become time for some serious consideration of what this art has to offer.  What separates it from what has been and what are the characteristics that will determine what digital art brings to the unfolding contemporary art scene and the continuing history of artistic expression?

The Death of Styles

While artists are often inspired to innovate by exploring a technique, a philosophy or a new tool, rarely do they set out to create a new style.  Recognition of a style has more to do with the critics, galleries and academicians that struggle, after the fact, to ascribe words, labels, context and a re-sale price to the artist's work.  All well and good, until the drive to innovate a new style becomes a major criterion for evaluating the relative worth of any particular work of art.  Or, until a whole art form is proclaimed "dead" by virtue of an apparent inability to perform adequately on the stage of stylistic innovation.  Then, we must question if, rather than the art being dead, perhaps it is the person looking at the art that has succumbed.  And, since new styles and art movements are the purview of the critic, we might proclaim it is the critic and not the artist that has failed to create something “new and improved”.

Today’s art world is so saturated with styles accumulated over the last 600 years of art making that we might have to consider things have run their course--stylistically.  Looking at the range of art available, all of which, regardless of the creative tools employed, can be pigeonholed neatly into this “ism” or that; we may have to consider that the "style-makers" have created a sufficient number of broadly defined styles to fit all occasions and visual statements.  So that, with a good degree of jaded security, one can say, "I've seen that…we've been there."

Consider for a moment that art commentary and marketing based on creating stylistic trends has died.  Perhaps we have entered an era where art is no longer a matter of this or that style; but is instead a strong, thick and murky brew of people and tools and diverse expression--an open field of creativity.  From this point of view, style is just another tool of expression.  And, since art is not about the tools used to make it, art criticism can no longer be an evaluation based on the newness of a style or the creation of a, heretofore, unseen genre.  Instead of a dead-end, I see a great "jumping-off-point" wherein the strength and worth of a visual statement can be evaluated based on one's skill to manipulate line, composition, color, form, rhythm; plus an artist’s sensitivity in selecting, manipulating or synthesizing divergent visual styles to create a particular work of art.  It is also significant that a movement toward creating art digitally thrives outside what appears to be a stalled “Fine Arts” scene.  The mix of people creating their art this way is incredibly diverse, with artists from all over the world looking over each other’s shoulder even as the art is made.  Perhaps the most important thing about current digital art is not how it looks, but who is making it and why.

In his book, "The Art Spirit" Robert Henri states, "...there is the new movement. There always has been the new movement and there always will be the new movement.  It is necessary to pierce to the core to get at the value of a movement and not be confused by its sensational exterior."  So, while digital tools may or may not be used to produce a transformative visual style there is a deeper question regarding the emergence of an overriding digital aesthetic that speaks to our contemporary culture, as well as, our art.

Tracing the Legacy of Pop Art

An aesthetic is not as much about the appearance of the artwork as it is the complex networks of perceptual, presentational and even political rules that determine the strength and relevance of an artistic statement.  In this regard, an aesthetic acts as the filter or context through which specific work is seen to be necessary in its making and through its practice should offer a means by which we expand our perception of what art can be.  A new aesthetic requires and is always somewhat based on what has come before.  In this respect, an examination of Pop Art reveals some important foundations for an underlying aesthetic of today’s two-dimensional digital art.

Pop Art, itself, grew out of a reaction against “Abstract Expressionism” which had become the darling of the American art scene, as well as, an important cold war cultural export through the late 40’s and early 50’s.  By the end of the 50’s, “Abstract Expressionism” had served the purpose of incorporating the metaphysics of American Romanticism into a modern style.  But, artists were looking to return, in some way, to the real world.  The real world they chose, however, was not that of nature but rather the post war mechanized and mediated world of mass communication, mass production and mass consumption. 

Located at a safe, yet observable, distance from the juggernaut of American post war mass production and spiraling consumption, a group of English artists recognized in the U.S. a vast forest of signs and symbols indicating the rise of a new form of mass culture.  The idea of using imagery from mass media and commerce to comment on cultural and sociological concerns revolving around potential dehumanization through the joined forces of technology and the unprecedented consumption of a popular mass culture, combined with a visual aesthetic that harkened back to pre-war Surrealism and Dadaism, laid the groundwork for Pop Art.

After receiving its start in England, Pop Art took root in the U.S. during the 60’s.  The American art scene, which had witnessed early indications of “Proto-Pop” works from Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Stuart Davis, Joseph Cornell (among others), proved to be Pop Art’s most fertile environment.  An important factor in the success of Pop Art, following the triumph of Abstraction, has to be that Pop Art represented the first return, since Surrealism and Dada, to full blown depictive art.  The presentation of recognizable things was back.  And, while European Pop remained grounded in social comment, American Pop artists, perhaps in a further attempt to distance them from abstraction, maintained that the imagery used was based on detached, even random selection and a purposeful attempt to remove artistic expression from the work.

Whether or not the work was truly successful in this venture, Pop Art did evolve an aesthetic featuring the following broad factors:   (1) The use of images borrowed from advertising, photography, comic strips, and other mass media sources which had already been processed into two dimensional, flat imagery.  (2) An objective and detached attitude toward appropriation of previous styles of art, allowing for even divergent styles to be expressed in a single work.  (3) Mass media images were often combined with areas of flat unmixed colors, bound by hard edges into frontal and mostly centric compositions which did not reveal the handiwork of the artist in the form of textured or expressive brush strokes.  (4) This sleek and unaffected appearance, suggesting the depersonalization of mass production, allowed mechanical processes to gain acceptance in the making of fine art.  (5) Much of the work exhibited an unapologetic decorativeness and delved into areas of popular taste and kitsch that, along with commercial art production techniques, had also been consider outside the limits of Fine Art.  (6) The use of readymade image sources drawn from current media naturally tied Pop Art into contemporary subject matter fostering the feel of  avante gardism.  (7) Pop Art employed and stimulated to new levels of acceptance the use of printmaking in order to collage images and as a means to democratize collecting of art by the masses.  The later point backfired somewhat when the popularity of the prints soared. Subsequently, market dynamics managed to keep the price of this work too high for most of the masses.  But, even this miscalculation was offset somewhat by a booming business for poster art among young collectors of the period between the 60’s through the mid 70’s.

In keeping with the vagaries of popular culture, by the early 70’s Pop Art seemed to have run its course.  To its credit, as a series of ideas and strategies open to constant redefinition, Pop Art has continued to influence subsequent generations of art making.  Hardly, any of the genres of work following Pop Art, such as Minimalism, Op Art, Photo-Realism, Installation, Conceptual, Environmental/Earth Works, Video Art and such, would have been possible without borrowing some aspects of the Pop Art aesthetic.  Pop Art provides, here at the turn of the century, the basic structure supporting the formation of a Digital Art aesthetic.  Mindful of the ubiquitous nature of the computer to serve the ends of any number of established styles, genres and historical movements, the challenge before us is to describe how digital art pushes beyond its Pop Art framework to arrive at something unique and powerful in contemporary life and art.

Toward a Digital Aesthetic

Let us begin with a look at how digital art accommodates and ultimately expands upon the seven broad tenants of Pop Art previously described:

(1) “The use of images borrowed from advertising…”

Digital technology has ushered in a new era for the acquisition and integration of widely divergent material, whether visual, aural or text.  A key factor in work employing digital technology involves the digitization of a wide range of inputs into the common material of binary information.  Today it is possible for the visual artist, writer, designer, filmmaker, and musician to sit down before, essentially, the same device to manipulate this common material in order to produce work.  The fact that even certain processes such as, selecting, copying, pasting, running filters are now common practices for all these, heretofore, individual crafts is just the tip of a highly integrative and creative synthesis of forms.

In addition, digital technology represents not only a tool for mixing art of various forms it is also a new form of mass communication.  In this respect the tool itself is an integral part of a global mediated environment from which artists can draw inspiration, as well as, source material.  The fluidity of a visual image in this techno/social environment is unprecedented and far exceeds the potentials suggested in the Pop aesthetic.

(2) “An objective and detached attitude toward appropriation of traditional styles…”

The post-modern notion of appropriation, which meshes with the enhanced ability for digital tools to acquire and reshape all kinds of experience into a common material, carries over into an attitude toward established genre of artistic styles.  Using digital imaging software, designed in many cases to mimic the marks of numerous types of traditional media, many artists now explore expressing an image, as it would appear in several different media and styles.  This mixing together of divergent media and styles of expression is greatly enhanced by numerous digital processes involving saving multiple versions of an image during its production and the ability to draw upon these versions to create a master image that is a synthesis of each version.  Unfettered exploration of style, media and composition takes hold when a digital artist understands the freedom resulting from being released from the accumulated preciousness of one’s work.  This preciousness is enforced by the cost of expended material and, as the work approaches completion, the built up anxiety toward ruining many hours of work by following an artistic experiment that might not easily be undone.  Digital art, for the most part, does not suffer from this damper on creativity.

(3) “Often these images…did not reveal the handiwork of the artist…”

While there is no common look to the art being made, every digital artist has to share two basic modes of display.  That is, the work can be expressed on a monitor or as a digital print.  Since the original work occurs and resides in the digital matrix of computer memory and storage systems, this “original” is essentially immaterial and virtually non-existent until expressed in either of these two forms.  Due to its infinitely reproducible binary nature and the fact that some form of reproduction or expression is required to materialize the original into any visible form, digital art is simultaneously an original and a reproduction.

Digital Art is truly and unashamedly the art of illusion.  The expressive nature of the artist’s imagery belies the fact that either of the two basic modes of display offer a flat mechanized image largely unaffected by changes in ambient light conditions and absent of truly tactile texture.  The line between detached mechanical production and expressive, handcrafted artistry is blurred to the extreme in digital art, because it is, in fact, both.  And, whereas Pop Art used a similar flat, non-expressive representation to reflect on depersonalization in a consumer culture, Digital Art represents a return to artistic passions in a culture where expressive appearance is valued over material truth.  In a sense, Pop Art dealt with ideas observed in a culture of commerce and mass communication while Digital Art springs forth from the artists that are now living in the unfolding results of that culture.

(4) “This sleek and unaffected appearance…allowed mechanical processes to gain acceptance…”

Many art lovers have embraced the various technologies of lithography, screen-printing, photography, film and video as a means toward making fine art.  Digital Art, however, by employing the darling of our current technology finds itself in conflict with two cultural beliefs that Pop Art was apparently not able to eliminate.  One is the belief that art ought to be hard to make and the longer an artist toils on a particular piece the more valuable the art becomes.  The other concept our culture wants to believe is that its current technology is virtually perfect in materializing the dream of eliminating errors and relieving human drudgery.  Thus digital artists squirm under the conundrum of making something our culture believes should be difficult and labor intensive while employing our premiere technology which has been designed and sold to make all things easy and labor free.  We still have a cultural love/hate relationship with our art and our technology.  Digital Art simply finds itself inextricably at the center of these deep seated and passionately held cultural beliefs, offering proof that neither belief is, nor ever was, thoroughly correct.

(5) “Much of the work…delved into areas of popular taste…considered outside the limits of Fine Arts.”

The question of what is inside or outside the limits of Fine Arts is always a lively issue.  Certainly one of the most vital and important aspects of Digital Art is that the tens of thousands of artists working world wide with these new tools remain, for the most part, off the Fine Arts radar.  Thus representing a new and fertile source of largely unaffected art making, capable of being exhibited and discussed instantly world wide without the intervention of traditional museums and galleries.  Digital Art does not need Fine Art.  This lends Digital Art the air of being a populist movement, with a large potential for democratizing art making.  Digital Art stands to further blur the line between high and low art, enriching both camps in the process.

For example, much of the Digital Art one sees grows from the tradition of Photography.  Photography with its own long history as a populist image making technology, turned mass media device, turned Fine Art is both model and material for Digital Art.  While augmenting and expanding traditional photography, Digital art has exploited photographic manipulation and synthesized a new form of collage art that often straddles the separation between high and low art.

A Brief Digression

The story begins in the dark under belly of New York city in the 1930s and ‘40s, where the blood soaked world of gangster violence, crime and suicide was brought to light by the camera of Weegee, the crime-scene paparazzo whose work ushered in the age of tabloid journalism.  Lowbrow but highly lucrative, tabloid journalism soon spun off into its own publications and gritty photojournalism began to share space with photo-manipulation.  It started innocently enough, Madame “X” and Mister “Y”, were an item of gossip (the great-grand-daddy of all Journalism), but no one had a picture of “X” and “Y” together.  Why not cut and paste them together?  Surely everyone would understand the context of two separate photos, pictured together.  Not a lie exactly but, “you get the picture”.

In a short time, there was found to be something equally as compelling behind photo-hoaxes as there was actual photos.  The context for these photo-manipulations required a sense of humor but also played on the shock of seeing the impossible in a photograph.  It’s not that we believe what we see, rather it is that a photograph, one of our trusted senses for cultural reality, has been altered; a point of reference distorted and put to use somewhere outside the truth.  Tabloid Culture photography, if not real, is then Surreal and capable of opening up the whole body of photographic reality to examination.

And, proudly serving this imaginary news since the early 1980’s, that wonderful light bending mechanism, the computer.  Of course, page lay out, pre-press proofing, enhanced typography also played a role in making the computer the tool of choice in commercial art and design.  But, the manipulation of photos and the ability to collage elements collected from many image sources into a cohesive and believable composite is also unsurpassed with digital tools.  Today, digital art based on this ability to manipulate photos and collage elements is the most prevalent type of imagery likely to emerge from art website or gallery exhibition.  But, there is something else that has carried over and prevails in much of this work and that is the dark and somewhat creepy subject matter; the Tabloid’s low culture legacy turned toward high art.

In current Digital Art we find a range of this work, some with classical overtones as with Alessandro Bavari, especially in his, “Sodom and Gomorra: a reportage from the lost cities”, suite.  Alessandro works particularly hard in his art to soften what he refers to as the “crudity” of photography.  According to Alessandro, “to distance the viewer from the fierce crudity of the photograph, I use a technique of layering “patinas”, the same technique used in oil painting with glazing in which transparent layers lend distance to the image.”  The “hyper-realism” of the photograph is blended back into other environmental elements, some of which Bavari creates in 3D software, to compose images with strange and allegorical connotations reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch and Giotto.

In the work of two Australian artists, Shannon Hourigan and Steve Danzig, the harsh reality of photography is exploited rather than pushed back.  Both artists rest the sensibilities for their work in modern cultural concerns.  Shannon recognizing the “politics and interpretations attributable to photography” focuses her work “in exploration of the horror and beauty of the female body as an object or mechanism of violence”.  Her images often evoking distortions and defacement remain on the whole realistic representations, while Steve Danzig pushes the photos of his models into compositions that are abstractions of recognizable human content.  He states about his work “the photographic source penetrates deep into our psyche and questions nature and reality through the wizardry of technology.  We are ‘techo-junkies’ in our daily digestion of ‘reality marketing’ as presented in all media programmingwe want a REAL experience within a very surreal situation…”  “The realism of a photographic image becomes a reflection of our voyeuristic nature to project ourselves into a sense of realism or fantasy within the image.”

Yes, to all…but why the gothic blackness, the grotesques?  I found some good answers in the work of Robert Brown, whose collage and photo-manipulations stand squarely and unabashedly within popular culture.  He says, “The reality of our world is filled with chaos and weirdness and shock and violence and sex and a whirl wind of information that is undecipherable…”  “I try to place my work smack dab in the eye of the storm where it is calm but where the ruble is flying around me so I can examine it.”  “The power of photography is based in reality, this acknowledgement holds power beyond the skill of the artist.  When a painter paints a morphed, distorted figure, he has created a new world.  When I morph and distort a photograph of a figure, I am rearranging the REAL world, which is very upsetting.  Messing with reality is frightening to people.  I think that is why so much photo manipulation out there is dark and disturbing.  Mutilating photographic forms into something spooky is very easy.  The trick is to pull beyond simple grotesques.  However, after all my work I must say that I don’t believe it’s possible to do extremely advanced manipulations of photographs and not have an element of foreboding in the work.”

One thing is certain, traditional photography froze time and people and places.  What was done when the shutter snapped shut was, for the most part, done.  Digital Art has freed photography from its own finality and in doing so has pointed out the fluid nature of the ways in which we have come to perceive modern realities.  In the hands of a digital artist a photograph is just the beginning, neither real nor unreal.  As to the question of what is high and what is low in the arts, Brown states, “The word ‘high’ suggests trying to elevate something above normal reality, out of the mundane.  But under closer inspection, the mundane is not mundane at all.  ‘Low art or people’s art’ is an attempt to grapple with what is around us.”  An undeniable part of our culture is now the computer and the effect its processes are to have on our realities, as well as, our art.

Let’s continue with the last two factors from the Pop Art aesthetic and see where that leads:

(6) The use of readymade images sources…tied Pop Art into contemporary subject matter fostering the feel of avante gardism.”

Computers are contemporary subject matter.  Computers are also the medium for contemporary cultural communication.  Our culture’s “avante garde” is quite noticeably engaged in proliferating computer use in all endeavors.  As you read this, you are forming the digital aesthetic.  How’s that for current?

(7) “Pop Art employed and stimulated to new levels of acceptance the use of printmaking in order to collage images and as a means to democratize collecting of art by the masses.”

Digital tools have brought the art of Collage to a much higher level than has ever been possible.  The appropriated image itself can now be cut and pasted, as well as, tinted, reversed, repeated, inverted, resized, made transparent, blended and stacked into visually interactive layers.  Pop Art adopted hand held screen-printing, at first, as a method for gaining some photographic control over an acquired image.  That is, by making a silk screen of an image, that image could be enlarged, reversed, positioned and repeated within a composition.  And, although a mechanical process, it was also the means by which a lot of “expressive” errors found their way into the work.  These errors being in a sense the last evidence of the artist’s hand in the process.  Digital tools have further erased most of these errors and precise, seamless, powerful collages are the result.  And, when this work is viewed through the “once-removed” patina of the digital display modes the integrative process of Collage is complete.

Pop Art enlivened the printmaking business and since printing is one of only two ways in which digital art is visualized; two-dimensional digital art is essentially a printmaker’s art.  Prints are the chief means by which the digital artist can materialize imagery into a physical commodity and, in turn, access their most viable market.  Richly colored, long lasting, affordably priced, digital art prints stand poised to, once again, enrich and enliven a print market.

So, the Pop Art aesthetic is how Digital Art gets its foot in the door.  But, beyond the scope of Pop Art, there are other issues and capabilities important to the formation of the Digital Aesthetic.

Beyond the Drawing Board

Digital Art has no claim to the origins of visual complexity.  Many other art forms have demonstrated deep levels of complex imagery.  But, imagine the most complex pattern or design you have ever seen; now copy that image reverse and rotate it 180 degrees and superimpose it over the original (repeat as necessary).  The techniques for making digital art provide a means by which patterns of immense complexity can be objectified without being frozen into a material state, thereby allowing the most complex work to remain as malleable as an idea.  The effect of working in this mode is to grab hold of a thought, express it, examine it, modify it and then integrate what normally was fleeting fancy into finished work.

Indicative of this fluidity are the issues that arise from the ephemeral nature of the digital original, which is not present in any recognizable manner.  The notion of owning an “original”, which cannot be enjoyed without first being materialized by secondary means, removes the digital original to a place beyond the slight object-hood of a photographic negative.  If ten people on the world-wide-web are looking at the same image on a web site, which screen has the original?  The same might be asked of a print of that image.  Where is the original?  How much does it matter?

With digital technology the formal codification of “limited” print editions, developed mainly in the last century to affect market prices by artificially creating scarcity, are nearly pointless.  Outside of maintaining accurate records of print production, the digital artist needs only limit an edition to the number sold.  This, of course, raises some real issues with the traditional concerns for authenticity and ownership and yet, this too, only reflects the fluidity with which modern images are made and exist inside digital technology.  Will our cultural definitions of such matters evolve to match the capabilities of this technology?  They most certainly have to, as is evident in the music industry’s attempts to address and maintain its fortunes in the new fluidity of binary encoded art.

Also, tied closely to the digital workflow comes the enhanced capability to create and display serializations of work.  The ability to save versions of an image as it evolves to a finished state, as well as, preserve all the experiments that one tries within a single composition demands display as a series of works, rather than a single image.  This notion is evident in animated loops of digital imagery, as well as, mounted prints in a series.  The concept that a digital image is never quite done and remains malleable and open to further and future iterations is an important factor in the way digital art is made displayed and marketed.  When considered in conjunction with “sampling”, a production technique “cross-over” from digital music composition; an exhibition based on a single image sampled and re-configured by numerous artists into separate but related works is a natural extension of digital capabilities.

The Velocity of Imagination

Digital does have its drawbacks. Random effects that occur with natural media cannot be duplicated in digital without hard work, attention to detail and patience. Painters have used these random procedures for hundreds of years to add spontaneity and looseness to work, as well as, to open and tap into subconscious resources stimulated by surprises made by materials not necessarily under the artist's control. But, there are degrees to randomness, as well as, surprise. For example, when one splatters paint across a canvas, although the results are ultimately a random consequence of gravity, viscosity and absorption; the pattern is also recognizable and somewhat predictable. Sprinkling salt on wet watercolor has identifiably different results than stippling paint with a toothbrush, yet these actions are random and happen automatically without much artistic effort or exertion of control.

Within the digital aesthetic, filters and fractal generators designed to perform algorithmic image distortions or to apply pixels in specified patterns provide the sort of random actions that produce certain controllable and, yet, unpredictable results. By exploring and piling action upon action the digital system itself can present unexpected and beautiful results. As with splattered paint the resulting forms can suggest, to the artist's imagination, meaning; and even indicate further, more directed, additions to the developing composition. As the artist works back and forth between steering the process, then relinquishing control to the caprices of the tools and materials; a symbiotic dance between the maker and what is being made is formed and nurtured. This visual jam session gives rise to imagery that the artist could not have imagined without the spontaneous interface between the psyche, the artist's hand and the work as it evolves in the moment.

Digital technology greatly facilitates and expands upon this bond between human artist and image generating processes due mainly to the speed with which the technology can respond and show the results of, what a moment ago, was only contained in the mind. Making digital art in this fashion is very much like having a conversation with something infinitely deep and yet intimately personal. We now have a tool that works as fast as our imagination.

Outside the Box

The true measure of an aesthetic lies in its ability to find expression outside the surroundings in which it was created. The "chicken or the egg" relationship between an aesthetic and the culture from which it emerges suggests that wider issues and developments within a society occur simultaneously with new art. Traditionally, new movements in painting were echoed or often led by developments in poetry and literature. And, in modern times, music, film and theater have reflected and supported new aesthetics. The notion of an emerging Digital Aesthetic occurs upon noticing the mixture of acceptance and resistance that digital technology is fomenting in the music, film and fine art industry. "Sampling" and "downloading" music is seen as either creative liberation or theft. Photo-realistic 3D modeling and streaming high definition imagery expand the possibilities for filmmakers, while putting many traditional trades and distribution models in jeopardy. Some printmakers and even photographers are livid about having to share the term "print" with digital artists. These are among the many symptoms or signs of cultural changes wrought by digital tools.  But, the digital aesthetic becomes particularly evident upon seeing what seem to be distinct digital influences emerging in the distinctly analog endeavor of Painting.

When I began to notice a digital character in significant numbers of current traditional paintings, the question I asked myself was; are these truly signs of a developing aesthetic or was I simply saying to myself, "I could do that on my computer"? In fact, many painters admit to designing their paintings first on a computer then transcribing this work to canvas and paint. However, rather than painters expressing the signs of a new aesthetic, often this is simply another case of painters adopting, as they have from the beginning, more efficient and accurate production techniques.

The evidence became clear when I ran across the work of painter, William J. Bitunjac, on display in issue #47 of "New American Paintings". Here is an excerpt from his artist's statement on page 21: "All my work begins at the computer, the driving technology behind our current vision of modern culture. Each painting is designed and executed in light and silicon, long before material form is allowed. The pixel, now almost universally understood as the primary element of computer generated graphics, is recorded in paint, cast out of plastic and cataloged by color. The artist's mark can no longer bear the weight of grace and violence, a burden placed on the author of each stroke by expressionism and gestural abstraction. Paint becomes a tool that can only construct an image. The artist becomes a worker, responsible for the construction of the designed object. The mark, the pixel, the tiny acrylic square of paint, has almost no recognizable origin. The designer produces an image, the computer and software interprets the image, the monitor/printer relates the image, and the artist only recreates, in mechanical fashion, what he is given. The production of the work becomes an algorithm, a system for proceeding."

Beyond using the computer to design work, it is evident that Bitunjac has, also, cast himself in the role of "the ghost in the machine"; reflecting his deep attention to the changing material and conceptual conditions of contemporary society as it transitions from an industrial culture to a culture that trades in information and the myriad of ways in which this information can be expressed. He is seeking answers to questions, such as, what does it mean to step into the role of the computer, to carry out a process along predetermined parameters? Where does the art happen, in the planning or the production? What is required to be "digital", a computer, a process, a primary element by which to construct--pixel or byte or brick of light? What are the unknown ideals we will absorb by involving one machine in the production of nearly everything in our culture?

By playing the role of both creative spark in the form of artist and designer then, later, performing as the human equivalent to computer software by single-mindedly following a pattern set forth by external non compassionate sources; Bitunjac explores the anonymity and de-humanization that takes place when the art making is directed by machine. Thus, his work represents this moment in our culture’s development when we find ourselves gaining control over a device that seems to have, only recently, rushed forward like an unexpected tide.  In fact, we are just waking up to the materialized world of our technological dreams.

Bitunjac's work negates its digital origins by being manifested as paint and negates human expression and artistic intervention through the application of rigid, purposely inorganic production processes. These constructed paintings represent what Mr. Bitunjac refers to as a “symptom” of the “confusion and chaos and constant negation of preexisting relationships we feel in our current cultural climate”. Through work, which is a synthesis of digital and traditional painting, he asks that we examine our relationship to "a digital technology that we desperately admire specifically for the fact that it is not in any way human, knowing full well that for humanity to attain what we desire we must forsake our humanity, which we are unwilling to do."

What Does Digital Art Look Like?

The sum total of what has been discussed, so far, is to describe the manner by which a digital aesthetic has grown from and expanded upon traditional forms of photography, collage, and the making of marks either as in drawing or paint.  We see that digital techniques suggest that a synthesis of many existing forms and genres is certain.  We have examined the ephemeral nature of the digital original and the mechanized means by which the system’s visual output contains the passion and complexity of the artist’s original vision while maintaining an aloof and mediated component to the work’s authenticity and presence.  As a device that has become important to modern culture, the computer represents both the material and the medium by which this culture examines and shapes itself.  The cultural values which place appearance that “fools-the-eye” over issues of material and ownership are reflected in the overriding prevalence of mimicry and simulation in digital artwork.  We have touched on the liveliness of an unaffected art, which has gained much and has much more to offer by virtue of its democratization.    And, finally, beyond the Pop Art concerns for images borrowed from consumer culture and techo-depersonalization, the Digital Aesthetic stands as an example of artistic passions reanimated within and by the very device that many had promised would put an end to such things as passion, art and self expression.

What does Digital Art look like? For now, if the art raises questions as to whether it is a painting, print or photograph and the answer to all three inquiries is, "yes"; then its probably a piece created from within the emerging Digital Aesthetic.

Notes and sources for this essay

JD Jarvis
November, 2002
Las Cruces, NM

JD Jarvis website