Exercise 1.4 Digital Art

What do you understand by the phrase ‘digital art’?
List the possible meanings and indicate the one that you consider the most viable.

In this blog I first explore some meanings of the phrase ‘digital art’, and then move to exploring the terms ‘digital’ and ‘digital technology’. I then propose the most viable meaning and test the meaning against various forms of art scenarios and discuss a couple of cross-over areas where non-digital art meets digital technology.

Possible meanings of the phrase ‘digital art’

According to the Digital Art entry in Wikipedia [1]:

‘Digital art is an artistic work or practice that uses digital technology as an essential part of the creative or presentation process.’

According to the Oxford Dictionary [4] digital art is:

‘Art created or modified using a computer or other digital medium.’

According to the art terms listed on the Tate Gallery web site [5]:

‘… art that is made or presented using digital technology.’

The Austin Museum of Digital Art (AMODA) defines digital art (according to their web site [2]) as:

‘art that uses digital technology in any of three ways: as the product, as the process, or as the subject.’

An article by Lauren Tresp at the Chicago School of Media Theory [3] examines the three ways of the AMODA definition:

product: ‘a work that, in its final stage, must be viewed on a digital platform, as in a computer or some other electronic coding apparatus.’, and cites examples as video art, video game art, virtual reality, and Internet art.

process: ‘a work that is created through a digital medium, such as computer software. […] These forms are created at the digital level […] but could be printed out and represented materially.’. She cites examples such as algorithmic art, computer painting, computer-generated animation, and art generated within online communities such as Second Life.

subject: ‘refers to any medium of art production, traditional, performance, or otherwise, that refers to digital technology in its subject matter.’ She says ‘A book about social networking falls into this category, although the book itself is not digital.’

I think AMODA’s definition seeks to be inclusive of all aspects of digital technology where it touches art.  In fact they justify their definition (again on the web site [2]) as follows:

‘This definition is intended not to exclude, but to encompass as much creative output in a coherent vision. We seek to expand the public’s definition of digital art – and our own – in order to address the far-reaching impact of digital technology on art, on the world and on ourselves.’

Tresp provides some useful insight into the AMODA definition, but I take issue with her example illustrating digital art as a subject:  I don’t think a book about social networking per se qualifies as digital art. I own many technology books, and I don’t classify them as part of the digital artworld just because they refer to a technology which might possibly be used to host art as a product, or be used to generate art as a process.

However, there is one key sentence in Tresp’s article that I like: her succinct definition of digital art:

‘… digital art is art that could not otherwise exist without digital technology.’

But I feel this it too simple, and doesn’t take account of how essential the use of digital technology has been in creating a piece of art.

What is digital or digital technology

To describe the term ‘digital’, or ‘digital technology’, I refer to a definition on the web site Whatis.com [7]:

Digital describes electronic technology that generates, stores, and processes data in terms of two states: positive and non-positive. Positive is expressed or represented by the number 1 and non-positive by the number 0. Thus, data transmitted or stored with digital technology is expressed as a string of 0’s and 1’s.

 This is the binary number system.  It is the basis for every piece of digital information in common use today.
Digital technology is in contrast to analogue technology:

‘Prior to digital technology, electronic transmission was limited to analog technology, which conveys data as electronic signals of varying frequency or amplitude that are added to carrier waves of a given frequency. Broadcast and phone transmission has conventionally used analog technology.’ [7]

Digital technology needs a processor in order to function or to make sense of the binary data – the integrated circuit (or microchip) – and the microchip needs software in order to perform logical operations on the binary data.  Ubiquitous examples of digital technology used in pursuit of visual art are computers, digital cameras, mobile phones, tablets, digital TVs, projectors, computer monitors and printers.


Which meaning is most viable when describing the phrase ‘digital art’?

I have explored the meaning of the word ‘digital’, and the term ‘digital technology’. As for the meaning of the word ‘art’ I am avoiding a discussion of it here, and simply consider it as a creative work from which people will experience some emotion.

In my opinion, the most viable meaning for the phrase ‘digital art’ is the one given in the Digital Art page on Wikipedia [1]:

‘Digital art is an artistic work or practice that uses digital technology as an essential part of the creative or presentation process.’

The meaning works well for music / sound art and other forms of non-visual art, but as this course is about visual culture I will constrain my thoughts to visual forms of art.

Unlike other meanings, it address art as an artifact (‘an artistic work’) or as a process (‘a practice’). So this meaning allows me to say that I make artefacts of digital art and that I practice as a digital artist.

It specifically states the use of digital technology in making the art, which is absolutely fundamental to the concept and is common in most definitions of the phrase; but unlike other definitions it states that the use of the technology must be an essential part of the process which allows us to qualify the work based on the relative importance of the use of digital technology in creating or presenting the work.

And finally, the Wikipedia meaning constrains digital art to ‘the creative or presentation process’ which avoids my concern with AMODA’s definition that digital art can be a subject (as discussed above).

The meaning works for all forms of art where the art is created using only digital technology, examples being:

  • traditional digital painting, where an artist creates a work of art using a computer program and a form of input tool, like a stylus.
  • user generated art on massive multi-user virtual reality internet sites such as Second Life.
  • movies created using machinima art, being amateur movies created wholly from computer generated imagery derived from video game technology.
  • Algorithmic art, being computer generated art derived from mathematical equations – such as the creation of fractal images.

When considering a cross-over between analogue and digital technologies we need to consider how essential the digital component has been in the creation of the art, and I discuss two themes, firstly the use of traditional film photography versus digital photography, and then movies viewed on analogue TV versus digital TV.

If I could make a photograph using either a traditional film camera or with a digital camera, the fact that I choose to use a digital camera does not make the art a piece of digital art – I could achieve the same results with the film camera. However, if I apply certain artistic features which are only available in digital cameras then it could be categorised as digital art if the artistic feature was an essential part of the creative process. And likewise, if I take my photograph created on a traditional film camera and modify it using image editing software then it can become digital art providing the changes are essential to the final image and the facility for making those changes are only available in digital editing software (so, for instance, simply using the ‘crop’ function to reduce the size of an image would not make it digital art because a guillotine can do precisely the same job on a the physical photograph).

A piece of movie art (e.g a 1950’s movie) created before the advent of digital technology and made using traditional film does not morph into digital art simply because I use my digital TV to watch it. The digital TV is not an essential part of the presentation process because the movie can just as easily be viewed on an analogue TV. However, a movie which relies on digital technology such as computer generated imagery (CGI) to produce an essential part of it’s work can be classified as digital art and if it is watched on a traditional analogue TV it does not lose it’s classification as digital art.  However, I recognise that because movie production now generally use digital cameras, and digital TVs are the norm in the homes of the developed world, the scale and format of movies and TV programs created today are unlikely to retain their visual quality when viewed on analogue TVs.

So, as in many areas of art, it appears the phrase ‘digital art’ has a number of areas where there is blurring of boundaries as to what constitutes digital art – no doubt it will continue to evolve as digital technology itself evolves.



[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_art

[2] http://www.amoda.org/about/

[3] https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/digital-art/

[4] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/digital_art

[5] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/d/digital-art

[6] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/digital

[7] http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/digital


Main research during this part of the course




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