OK, OK – It’s digital, but is it art?

21 Jun

Townsville art show 2013. Three digital prints.

I recently hung three of my digitally manipulated pictures in a local art show, and was delighted to have them there. They were printed on photographic paper, mounted on board, and hung in a small group at eye level. Soon after they went up they were approached by a two ladies who proceeded to criticise them in loud voices “And look – they are just prints! Just prints! – But we won’t tell anyone shall we!” they said and stalked off. It turned out they were exhibiting oil paintings elsewhere in the show.

But it was an interesting and useful moment to stop and consider what I am doing with my own digital art. David Hockney is one of the most famous artists to have embraced digital art. He says;
“Most digital art is hand-denying, and not that interesting anyway.”
What a paradoxical indictment from such a prominent artist!

Anyone who has kept a visual diary will know that there’s a big difference between looking and seeing (Indeed this is one important property in diagnostics). The discipline of visually recording a scene forces one to take note of nuances usually disregarded. Looking is a positive act, it must be done deliberately.

We live in an era when everyone has a means to record their surroundings on camera. Vast numbers of photos are taken. The very prevalence of the camera and availability of cheap colour printers has devalued the photographic image. These pictures are not art. At the time of the ubiquitous TV reality show, where observers live an exciting life in absentia, photos do something similar, by asserting something even more insidious than art – they claim to be reality. But photographic reality has never been truth. Further, the ability to manipulate whatever accuracy existed in the image using any Photoshop type of program means that any remaining authenticity has crumbled. View a glossy magazine, models have been photo-shopped out of existence and all begin to conform to a vapid middle ground beauty. For this reason Hockney’s comment is spot-on. You cannot now trust any photograph.

Nevertheless, this ability to digitally add to, subtract from, and manipulate an image has allowed photography to shift back in the direction of drawing and painting. Images depend on the influence of the artist’s hand, the juxtaposition of forms and textures not previously possible expands the artist’s pallet. Thus it is possible to present ideas in a new way.

Is it appropriate to adopt contemporary technology to the service of art? Well, of course it is. Artists have always been quick to start using technology available to them. Such great painters as Leonardo Da Vinci used the pin-hole camera to study perspective, and the Dutch painter Vermeer is said to have used the camera obscura to project an image of his landscapes onto the canvas. This technology assists particularly in perspective, but also relative sizes, shapes, and particularly tonal values which are reduced from their wide range in nature to just a few on the surface.  Is this cheating? I think not. If the ipad had been available to van Gogh he would have embraced it like a shot.

One advantage in making a digital image is the element of time, it is faster. The image can rapidly and easily be altered, changed, knocked back and manipulated until the artist is satisfied. The same process can however be a downside. The effect of time during which a painting is made, changing light, movement of the subject, changes in disposition of the artist, influences the final image subtly and sometimes almost blatantly as in Monet’s paintings in which a person walking through a field can be seen at different places as they progress across the canvas. He also studied changing light in series of paintings taking many days to produce a large number of images of the same scene at different times of the day.

So, back to Hockney who, despite his previous disparaging comments, now “tosses off” works on his ipad or iphone in large numbers. He has exhibitions composed entirely of his works displayed on ipads. What does he really think? I believe he doesn’t only want to show us what he sees but to remind us how to really look at what is around us.

Back to the question “But is it art”. Innovation and controversy have always been highly valued in art. The distorted forms and outrageous colours in Henri Matisse’s images were originally derided by critics and public alike. They are now considered beautiful. Any modality, whether it be literature, dance, painting or even digital images that takes a piece of truth and displays it in a way that makes us dream… that is art.


14 Responses to “OK, OK – It’s digital, but is it art?”

  1. angela at 1:12 pm #

    I’m on the fence about this…have been for a long time. I don’t know, however, if I agree about phone photos not being art. I went hiking once in the Grand Canyon, and the person I was with took the most beautiful image of deadwood on an old flip-phone. I printed it out (only 5×5 without major pixelation) – it looks like art to me… ~ a

    • Xraypics at 2:05 pm #

      Thanks for the comment – you make a good point. But I don’t say all photos are not art, just quoting Hockney’s comment about the crumbling value of the technological image. Hope you enjoyed the controversy. Tony

  2. how can your images not be considered art? they are unique and amazing! the comment from the women made me think of penny’s comment to silvana a few days ago. the comment was about some racist remarks, but the gist is the same, “All humans who ridicule and make less of another human being are pointing a finger at themselves, but because they can’t see beyond their own self interests – they don’t realize who the finger is really pointing at. ”

    penny is a very wise woman!

    • Xraypics at 2:09 pm #

      My lovely wife once showed me that when I point at someone, one finger points out but three fingers point back at me. I really appreciate your comments, thanks again. Tony

      • that’s a great observation. she sounds like a very wise woman!

        a friend emailed me this link; i plan to read it tonight, but thought you’d enjoy it. the images alone made me think of you and your art.


        from the sunny patio, where i just finished the butterfly mural!

      • Xraypics at 8:13 am #

        Thanks, I’ve just looked at the article and enjoyed it very much. The images are stunning. Coincidentally there was a picture from T Smith Knowles showing aloe flowers emerging from a mass of cordelines. It was the kind of scene one might walk past any day, but captured and encapsulated in a photo becomes fascinating. The art of seeing the extraordinary within what is familiar. So many scientists, and radiologists for that matter look at images every day and fail to appreciate what they see. In clinical meetings I sometimes tease the group “Why go off to see the Taj Mahal or the Niagra Falls when we have all this beauty before us?”…. Tony

      • seeing/admiring xrays has always affected me; the human bones are so delicate, and I’ve always lingered to admire the images. you are right; there’s so much right in front of us to capture our attention if we’ll just stop and refocus!

  3. leecleland at 3:04 pm #

    /Just finished reading Art and Fear, I think it was you who put me onto this book. Anyway – it’s Art. If you get an emotional response to any type of art form – music, dance, literature, photography – it’s Art. I find these 3 images of yours resonate with me somewhere deep down and I don’t need to understand them to be able to appreciate them.

    • Xraypics at 12:11 am #

      Thanks Lee, nice of you to say so. The principle is the same isn;t it – an emotional response can be a good one or a bad – the response is the important thing. If a picture makes you angry – by definition that must be art. Fascinating. Tony

  4. MikeP at 5:24 pm #

    Oh baby… Tony…. love your write up and your ‘ART’. This unfortunately comes up more so than not. There has been a mixed media show were I reside for years, paintings, sketches. sculptures and lastly photographs… manipulated and not. I have boycotted its existence for 3yrs because of the judging process. Not one award to a photographer… and they have 10 given out. At first I didn’t catch on… probably because I see art and appreciate it in all genres. I feel my photography has grown from being exposed to all forms of paintings and especially digitally created art. I truly feel our screen is our paintbrush… I never belittle another’s form…. I embrace it for what it is…’ART’ period. I wish others in our small community would do the same.
    Keep creating!!!!

    • Xraypics at 12:15 am #

      So there is small minded prejudice everywhere. I spoke to the organiser and she has made a note to have a digital art category next year. I noticed that some of the photographic exhibits had been enhanced, so technically they already have digital art in the show. The question is whether there will be a qualified person to judge it… that’s another matter! Still, I do the art for me, and if others appreciate it all the better. Keep well mate. Tony

  5. dedepuppets at 12:23 pm #

    It is really interesting that this prejudice still exists. I have embarked on digital imaging quite early on and I started teaching Photoshop in 1995. I have heard it all :). In my opinion art is not the outcome, art is in the process. The computer is a tool, just as the paint brush is. And don’t worry no matter what your medium, there is always someone who says: “but it is just xyz”. You would not believe how often I hear: but it is only “papier mache” when people talk about my puppets and discard it as a medium for children. People can either relate to your art or they can’t. If they can’t they are most likely to pooh pooh what you do. That’s human nature, isn’t it?

  6. annerose at 1:09 pm #

    Yes, there’s always been a lively discussion of what is art! I agree that artists have (probably forever) embraced technology and digital images are for sure one of the technologies of this time. I’m glad you enjoy making the images and yes I’d consider them art in any exhibition…

    • Xraypics at 1:41 pm #

      Thanks, I’m reading an excellent book called “But is it Art” by Cynthia Freeland which came to me after I’d posted the blog. It will be interesting to see if i add to or alter the blog after i have read it. Tony

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