What about digital art makes it “art”, and what makes it a worthy component of the 21st art landscape?

Megan Powell  |  Ed Francesca Gransden  |  20 July 2020

The digital age has brought an entirely new way of looking at and experiencing the world around us. If we agree that art can reflect and critique society, our gravitation towards heavy reliance on technology means that to reflect society, art must suitably respond to an innately digital world.

Today, we communicate through new languages and mediums and so naturally, we find an emerging generation of artists who are more likely to use digital art as a means to express themselves. The reason we are posing the question of why digital art matters, however, is that it has emerged very rapidly and is more difficult for older generations to understand. Consider Baby Boomers’ relationship with technology; it is more likely an external part of their being, a facilitator but also often a hindrance. Digital natives, on the other hand, have instinctively integrated technology into their way of experiencing and interacting with the world. They “see” through Snapchat and Instagram filters, fluidly shifting their identities and perception of the world between online and offline and not necessarily in a binary way. 

As audiences have been forced to migrate online to get their culture fix this year, the debate has resurfaced on what exactly constitutes art and a “true” experience of it. Cumbersome virtual gallery tours of the National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam have felt, in many ways, like a compromise on the “real deal.” But, there’s an opportunity for digital art to step in and say: here is a form of art that you can experience online as it’s meant to be. In particular,  younger audiences who have grown up watching YouTube tutorials and intuitively teach themselves to use new technologies can instinctively relate to the tools and mediums used by digital artists. These artists are commenting on a reality that these audiences authentically experience themselves.

© Sian Fan, 2 min excerpt from “Downtown”. Courtesy of the artist.

Sian Fan is an emerging digital artist having recently graduated from Central Saint Martins in London. She expresses that “technology is massively changing our behaviour. There is an entirely new level of human experience we didn’t have previously, an alternate dimension that we can tap into. And it isn’t separate from our physical experience, it’s an additional layer.” Sian’s subject matter and tools respond to the sharing ethos of the internet that democratises access to acquiring new skills. “That in itself is an empowering change,” she says. “I’m majority self-taught in the technology I use, this wouldn’t be possible without the nature of the internet as it is.” The challenge, however, is convincing art traditionalists that there is a significant level of skill required to produce this work.

Sian Fan, Downtime (2020) © Courtesy of the artist.

From a more academic or art historical perspective, Sian says that there shouldn’t be a debate within the art world as to whether digital art is art. “Duchamp cleared this up years ago. If someone can take a toilet and turn it upside down and sign it and call it art, then how is digital art any different? Art is all about pushing boundaries and widening that definition inch by inch.” Critically, it’s also important to appreciate that digital art brings with it a new set of tools and mediums to express a unique range of ideas. It doesn’t exist for its own sake but provides a different way of reflecting the world of today, often as the most appropriate method.

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