Lev Manovich is at Daejeon, South Korea.
In this post, I will talk about “digital art”; the differences between “high [digital] art” and “popular digital art,” and meanings of “art” in contemporary society. In the 1990s, the number of artists who were doing digital art as a career and who were regularly participating in key international digital arts events such as Ars Electronica, ISEA or ZKM exhibitions, and SIGGRAPH was probably only a few hundred. At least this was my feeling. But around 2002-2003, “digital art” (or “media art”) started to grow very quickly. And by 2008, it was a massive phenomenon. This continued and in 2010s what was a particular cultural scene become one of the most popular cultural forms, like photography or painting. While art museums, art galleries, and auction houses still prefer to show and sell physical objects, on the web digital art rules – just search for “digital art,” “generative art,” “algorithmic art,” or “procedural design.”
The explosion in digital art popularity in the 2000s happened because 1) PCs became fast enough and their graphics and media capacities reached a sufficient level; 2) New programming art languages (i.e., Processing, MAX, pd, etc.) allowed more people to start doing it; 3) The web allowed quick dissemination of works, information about exhibitions, tutorials and other parts of “digital art” ecology, and also created an audience for this art.
In my view, most works that are called digital art (or media art, etc.) have no meaning. (They also don’t create unique visual or media worlds, or offer unique aesthetics – but the same can be said for all art produced in modern period.)
This by itself is not a problem – if the digital art creators, curators and others involved could honestly admit it. “We show beautiful moving wallpapers generated using the latest neural nets, supervised machine learning, and graphics cards.” “Here you will entertain yourself via a few very simple interactive gestures, and the wallpaper on the screen will respond in some ways, although you will not understand how exactly.” And so on.
For all such works which we now see in art exhibitions, in companies showrooms, in shopping centers and on the web, it would be honest to say that this is not “art” – these are decorations and interactive entertainment toys. But this is not done. Instead, we read long statements about the intentions, the meanings, the “issues being explored” (a list of keywords follows), and so on.
So what I don’t like about much of “high” digital or media art today is that so many works pretend to have meanings, or to “explore” some popular themes and issues, or to “make visible the tensions between [two terms follow] and so on.
But of course, if an artist says “this is only for your fun, viewing pleasure, I have nothing to say” – this will not qualify as art in contemporary culture. Would you get a grant for this? Would you be included in the art exhibitors? Would you graduate from an art program?
Certainly, the same problem exists in contemporary art in general. But since I spent many years being very active in digital art, its fate continues to concern me.
However, there is also some good news. If you search the web, or Pinterest, Behance, ArtStation, or Deviantart for “digital art”, you will a different kind of art – not what is shown in exhibitions or festivals or written about in the art world or media art world. It is not pretentious. It does not “address issues.” And statistically, this is likely to be 99.9% of what “digital art” is today in culture in large today, as opposed to high culture – museums, art schools, university art departments, art and high culture journals, and the academic publications in media studies, art history, digital culture studies and so on.
This “digital art” are 3D renderings of characters, objects and environments, inspired by fantasy art, anime, manga, video games, and films. This also includes images of landscapes, people, fantasy scenes, and so on edited or created in 2D software such as Photoshop. And many other kinds of images or animations created in many other digital software such as Cinema 4D, SketchUp, Blender, Unity, Revit, Grasshopper, etc.
This art is more honest, and while most of it is also not original, I respect it more because it does pretend, like “high [digital] art.”
My first attached image below shows such examples from Pinterest search for “digital art”. The second image shows first result for my Google image search for “media art exhibition 2019.” As you see, these are two different worlds – although there is some overlap.
As shown for example by a discussion on Quora linked below, many “digital artists” want to be hired by “industry”, and I assume that most of them did not go to art or design schools. So one of the purposes of some of this “popular digital art” is to show your skills in particular narrow areas:
“There is a big difference between functional art work and purely “pretty” artwork (I speak for mainly entertainment work), a giant massive following does not equate to having the ability to be hired especially if companies don’t find your work usable for design.”
This discussion may help us to understand what “art” means in contemporary society. What allows people call themselves “artists”? Here are some of the common conditions as I see them: 1) you graduated from an art school or art department in the university; 2) you sell objects our society identifies as art. This can be done via your website, another online platform, or galleries. 3) You regularly participate in activities that our society classifies as art. This can be drawing in your free time, or singing, or performing music, etc. However here things are not as simple – for example, millions of people who spend significant time on their photography and share their work on Instagram may think of themselves as “photographers” rather than artists – may be because in our society category “photography” (meaning commercial photography) exists separately from “art.”
And here is the (4) – artists are people who are regularly engaged in activities that require instruments the society associates with art. These can be canvas, brushes, special pencils, and other tools available in all art stores. But these can be also software that industry which used to be called “media authoring” or “media editing” and now is usually called “creative” [applications]. This includes thousands of photo editors, collage makers, drawing, 3D modeling, animation, music composing, and sequencing programs. So “popular digital art” is also an example of this. You are using some of the software for the creation, and because you are working in digital media, you can call yourself a “digital artist.”
Permission to repost: Lev Manovich