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.