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Why is Digital Art Controversial?

Bright, bold, colourful, and emotive, David Hockney’s paintings of Yosemite National Park capture the California landscape in his trademark, hugely popular style. But they’re not really paintings.

Hockney’s Yosemite Suite exhibition, currently on display at the Pace Gallery in Palo Alto, consists of 28 images of the national park, created entirely on an iPad. Some art critics and fans are receptive to the veteran painter’s use of modern technology, but some reacted coldly.

Adrian Searle, writing in The Guardian, said an iPad can do “all the things painting can do, except paint.” His critique went on to be even more biting. He said Hockney’s iPad images “have no texture, surface or sheen,” and that there is “something inescapably dead and bland and gutless about them.”

For some, digitally-created art will never count as “real” art in the same way that painting, drawing, sculpting or even photography does. Searle says Hockney’s iPad images “can never hide their electronic origins,” which implies that they should want to. Which, of course, they would only need to if being electronic was something to be ashamed of.

Digital art and its detractors

Digital art encompasses any picture created using a computer. As such, digital art has existed almost as long as computers themselves. The first work of computer art is thought to be a copy of an Esquire pin-up girl, created in the late 1950s on a $238 million military computer.

By the 1960s, computer art contests had become popular. Digital art was still in its primitive stages; most pieces were made out of manipulated sine waves, and thus lacked detail, but it wouldn’t take long for digital art to get where it is today. Whatever the critics say about Hockney’s iPad pieces, they can’t deny that the digital tools he is using are capable of simulating his bold painting style.

Even with the capabilities of these digital art tools, many art critics still prefer traditional methods. This is the case even when an artwork looks like it was created digitally. Stuart McAlpine Miller’s artworks, for example, have the appearance of being created with the aid of a computer overlay program but are in fact entirely watercolours. Art critics praise the painstaking effort it takes McAlpine Miller to achieve this “computer-generated” look through “old school” methods but were he to swap his paint brush for Adobe Photoshop, he may lose some of this respect.

It’s hard to tell exactly why it is that some art critics object to digital art creation. It could simply be a fear of the new. The New Britain Museum of American Art draws parallels between the struggle photography had to be accepted as fine art, and the current struggle digital art is facing for the same thing. This suggests that eventually, digital art will come to be accepted. But for now, critics still have reservations.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones expressed outrage at a recent viral news story about a new “self-portrait” of Rembrandt, created by a digital art app, saying, “No computer art could match the emotional heft of a human original.”

Can digital art be real art?

Despite reservations like these, it seems that digital art might be on the same track as photography, likely to be accepted as fine art sometime soon, but not quite there yet.

The Museum of Digital Fine Arts obviously has its cards on the table when it comes to the digital vs traditional art debate, but it still makes some interesting points about the usual criticisms of digital art. One of these is that digital art has no “original” like a painting does. The author of this article suggests we should compare digital art not necessarily to painting, but to music. The last time Beethoven performed Piano Concerto #5 was the last ‘original’ of that piece, but more recent performances by others are still considered art. Even digital recordings of these performances count.

However, there has been one high profile attempt to take on the “no original” argument in a different way. S[edition] is a digital art buying service which offers a limited number of copies of digital-only artworks to art buyers. The idea is that s[edition] gives digital art the same perceived value as traditional art by making it more scarce and expensive to own. High-profile artists such as Damien Hirst are on board, so time will tell if digital art auctions do start to raise as much money as their traditional counterparts.

Another path to acceptance for digital art could be through its adoption by multimedia artists. Artists like Owais Husain frequently use digital formats in their mixed media installations alongside more traditional techniques like sculpture and painting.

Despite these things happening, the biggest factor in accepting digital art could in fact be time. As app developer Tamara Sword wrote in the Huffington Post, Generation I, who were born and raised with digital technology, barely see a difference between traditional and digital forms of media. For them, digital is “real.” With this in mind, perhaps the next Rembrandt will make their masterpieces with apps.

Written By

Simon Davies is a London based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues and solutions.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ron Tully

    July 27, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    thank you for sharing this was informative and interesting.

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