Decoder for digital art and its meaning

Is digital art, fine art? Who is the true creator of a digital work?

Book Review: Digital Art and Meaning by Roberto Simanowski

Published 2011 by University of Minnesota Press

Have you found digital art as boring as I have? The impulse to yawn when viewing digital works drove me to pick up this book. Although I had no deep understanding of this art, I concluded that the artists must not be stretching this field to its greatest potential. I found the works awkward, especially when asked to interact with them. Their Alfred Hitchcock endings and endless loops to nowhere drove me crazy. So, not willing to be crazy for the life of this art form, I decided to learn more about it.

Understanding most things is an evolutionary journey I have to force myself to invest time in. Like the plethora of traditional visual art forms and their hybrids, digital arts, and other transitory contemporary art forms, will have growing pains – and me, Miss Curiosity, along with them.  The world is the canvas folks.  My hope is that at some point, like the joy I get when leaving a great musical humming a tune, this art form gives me something satisfying and memorable. Of course that means I must choose to participate – shake up my “known” existence.

Due to the abundant number of examples and theoretical discussions the author uses to decode digital art in this relatively short book (290 pages including 60 pages of notes, indexes, and bibliographies), I will present my comments in 4 posts (this being the first of four). Each consecutive post is scheduled for distribution every Monday morning.

I begin my discussion by sharing that the book seems to contain a reasonable ratio of female to male scholars and artists, although I have no statistical data on the actual numbers in this field of study. Growing up watching the importance of women’s issues rise and fall repeatedly, I scan art publications to see if women are playing increasingly important roles in the discourse. According to the 2010 U.S. consensus women slightly outnumber men and just talking with people you might figure there are more professional women artists than men. Do you have statistics on gender ratios in the digital art field or studies you can share?

Further, understanding the intent of unfamiliar terms and words used by this author kept me busy on my smartphone, which offered me quick access to their meanings. This book may be a “hurdle-filled” read if you do not have some understanding of philosophy. For me, this sort of investigative reading is invigorating. What about you?

If you choose to read this book, I feel the Preface and Introduction are important as they reveal the author’s perspective and forewarn you of expected bias, allowing you to better adjust your interpretations of content as the book unfolds.

The Preface, subtitled Against the Embrace, is purposely juxtaposed to books written to promote accepting digital media for media sake and physical experience.  Simanowski gives the reader a brief review of early digital theory and writings that focus only on code and interactor experience. He introduces the reader to opposing critical perspectives, and there are many, including Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Against Interpretation”, with her famous quote “Interpretation is the revenge of intellect upon art.” Ultimately, Simanowski fully rejects the idea that digital works cannot and/or should not be analyzed like other visual, literary, or performance arts stating “This book is driven by the belief that the first purpose that digital work serves is to produce an act of creative expression; it is not a mere product of technology or chance.” I agree, do you?

Simanowski also provides some historic background on digital art, starting in the 1970’s, when a movement emerged in which these artists turned over control for love of process.  He deals only with digital art in this book, so I will now take a moment to interject some information on art preceding the digital movement that paved the way for releasing controls on artistic outcomes.

Historically, and well before personal computers, “letting go” was demonstrated by artists in “happenings”, “collaborations”, and “collectives”; responding participants used a variety of artistic disciplines to create works that most often did not meet the originators initial projected outcome – demonstrating the originator’s fearless acceptance of unintended consequences.  As an active contemporary artist, I know these movements and attitudes remain spirited and lively today. However, I do feel that the intent today is more for mass spectacle / mass appeal than those earlier years of moral or social purpose. Perhaps I’m misguided, so what can you add?

From my perspective these early performances and installation works outside the elite institutions of “high art” between the 1940’s and 1970’s, were courageous steps that shook hierarchal social thinking ultimately leading to the uninhibited artistic freedoms we have today in the United States and other “free thinking” societies. Hear me clearly please – our freedoms came from multitudes of fearless characters that came before us – our history is critically important to understanding our today. Let’s give credit to whom credit is due.

In the Introduction “Close Reading”, Simanowski lays out his mission to bring the reader closer to a deeper understanding than the spontaneous interplay of the interactor and their reactions to codes. Going beyond the accomplishments and tricks that code performs, he helps readers develop the ability to analyze the aesthetics of the works he used as case studies. He doesn’t designate any work as “high art”, but does provide some great examples for you to access on the internet, which allow you to form your own relationship with this media. (Art examples: JCJ Junkman by Feingold  Text Rain by Utterback and Achituv Very Nervous System by Rokeby  Facade by Mateus and Stern )

Yes, I want to comment now.

Coming Monday, August 5 – Chapter 1 Digital Literature and Chapter 2 Kenetic Concrete Poetry. Does digital art begin with code conception? Is it only digital work when it requires digital media to reach its full potential and purpose?  What do you think?

Always IN ART,…MSH

12 comments on “Decoder for digital art and its meaning

  1. JPM says:

    Not being an artist, I am often perplexed by the word “art” as applied in any circumstance. Does “art” have to have a concrete manifestation? I have often thought that (just about) anyone can learn to be a technician- to copy a painting technique or learn to play a particular song- but what differentiates art from technique is the transformative creative idea that sparks the result. When that result is in a new form, it often takes a long time to gain acceptance. Perhaps some of our mental associations with the “digital” world get carried over to the “digital art” in a negative way. If some of the digital stuff can seem a little manipulative or gimmicky, or too ephemeral, it may be those associations, not the work itself, that prompts the response.

    • Art, as a verb, means some sort of action, including thought. Humans are creative by nature in concrete and non concrete positive, negative, and benign ways. I like to think of art as something that has no other function than to be a work of art. You have got me thinking. Do you have any experience with conceptual art? I recall an artists giving some geographical coordinates to a square block of sky once…I did look up in wonder. Thank you for participating.

  2. Terry Cook says:

    I find it difficult to get excited about digital art. I hope I am not mean spirited but when I think of “art” (and I know we could argue endlessly about what art is) I think of the creator, it’s intent, media used, message, etc. Yes, I know we can switch out computers, pixels, etc for canvas, paint, etc but digital art seems cold and leaves me feeling flat. I find it difficult to find much of the artist in this form of expression.

    • I totally understand your thought, but that is why I am reading this book. I don’t plan to change my art, as it is me. However, I am also a very curious person. I try not to dismiss something that I have not at least tried to understand – there can be some pleasant unexpected things to learn even though we work in other materials than digital. I am a painter and my work is my signature – the signature persistently alters to some degree, but I am confident that it is mine – I don’t revise with the next trending process – for those belong to others. So, in creative work, I look for authenticity and genuine artistic aesthetic. If you haven’t done so, consider linking to the examples at the end of the blog. My favorite is Text Rain…at least so far.

  3. Pat says:

    Perhaps we would better served by defining digital art, which (like most other mediums) encompasses a broad spectrum of things. I concur with Margaret: great art isn’t defined by the creator of it or the materials. I (a painter) am blown away by the work of Mapplethorpe and Ligon. Nothing boring about it.

    • Thanks PZK – more on the difnition coming in next posts. There is a tremendous amount of discourse on the definition of digital art and D-A genres. Hope you checked out the sample arts in the links at the end of the post.

  4. Betty Clark says:

    What I am aware of as I read your essay, is that my response to a work of art when seen in actuality, is different than when seeing an image of the same work of art, even if the image is well reproduced. My hunch is that when something is digitally composed, there is not the full body visceral experience of creativity in either the artist or the viewer. Something is quite different.
    Perhaps my experience of viewing and creating is just that,,,my experience….which, by definition, is limited.

    • Betty – thanks for joining the conversation. Yes, me to, the physical action of creating is maybe really the art. I get it. Also when something non digital is transferred to digital, like a painting, it is totally not the same as being in front of the work with the light bouncing off, being absorbed and reflected. Don’t look at Van Gogh works in a book or on the web…visit a museum! Talk again soon!

  5. Sandy Donhauser says:

    Should art be defined by gender of the artist. How many of us who appreciate art could tell whether a painting was created by a male or female? Are there tell-tell signs that cue us? I think we have to be careful in making a statement saying that digital art is not art. Aren’t we supposed to explore and experiment with mediums? The computer becomes another medium to explore art and create some unique images. The images and how they are printed effect the appeal. I have been a founding member of the NMWA and I understand that we don’t get the same recognition as men do but I’m still not sold on the idea of a museum just for women artists. When we are “conned” by critics into thinking that an exhibit is the rage and the art sells for thousands of dollars, what does this say about us? I volunteer for an art community gallery in central Florida. I describe the art as something for everyone; the art is both mediocre and well executed and it always interest me to observe viewers and hear them talk about the pieces they like. We know when we see art whether it speaks to us or not and it doesn’t matter whether it’s oils, acrylics, watercolours, pastels, graphite, photographs or digital. Think about the change in art before the turn of the 19thC.

  6. Carol says:

    Its hard for me to comment regarding what is art, but i’m not a huge fan of digital art as far as having it framed like a painting, but i do appreciate the patterns and colors applied to objects and fabrics.

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