Digital art sits at the vanguard of art’s technical progression – it is hard to think of an artistic tool further from those used to sculpt the Venus de Milo than an iPad. So why do new media artists continue to use the visual tropes of Ancient Greek and Roman art in their work?

Elizabeth Harris  | Ed. Peter Traynor  |  26 January 2022

Jessica Murtagh, Quality time together, apart (2019), Glass vase. Courtesy of the artist.

Contemporary artists are aflutter about playing with the hallmarks of Ancient Greek and Roman art: Adelaide glass artist Jessica Murtagh makes fine, luminously blue modern amphorae, and Bai Yiluo’s Civilisation shows classical busts speared by pitchforks. But these tangible works are (in their physicality, at least) closer to the handiwork of the ancients than a VR work or NFT. Yet, even digital artists whose ability to render the new is more boundless than for any other art form – continue to look to the roots of Western art history for inspiration.

Stuart Ward, Neon Venus (2021), Digital Animation, 0:16 minute loop. Courtesy of the artist.

In a kind of referential inception, some digital artists cite Baroque artefacts that themselves looked back to the world of Caesar. Canadian digital artist Stuart Ward’s illusory and delightfully colourful renderings of Neo-Baroque aesthetics, recall not only the sculptural forms of Ancient Greece, but the awe-inspiring myths that infused ancient art. The dynamic curlicues, colour and heavenly skies that surround the steady grandeur of Ward’s Neon Venus evoke the wonder and cultural power of legend. Placing relics at the centre of his works, Ward re-situates classical iconography in the visual age, challenging our minds not just with the trickery of optical illusions, but with the question of whether icons can ever be truly anachronistic.

The continued vitality of the art of these two ancient empires is a tale of iteration an act that (appropriately, when considering digital art) resonates with developers and artists alike. The Agile Manifesto (whose tenets have taken over the world of software development in recent years), states that ‘[a]t regular intervals, the team [must reflect] on how to become more effective, then tune and adjust its behaviour accordingly.’ As the shadow of classical art has fallen across history, the masters of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Pre-Raphaelite and now digital art, have taken their turn at reflecting on, and tuning not just the visual attributes of antiquity, but the question of how these foundation stones of Western art history are treated: Do they form essential aspects of the canon, or does our obsession with them point to an unhealthy focus on the West?

Serwah Attafuah, AETHER: Galaxy Goddess (2021), Digital Animation. Courtesy of the artist. 

Serwah Attafuah, a digital artist based in Western Sydney, describes going to the Vatican city as a child and, seeing the abundance of Eurocentric visual culture, thinking ‘I really want to create something that references people like me.’ Interrogating the dominance of white, colonial voices in art history, Serwah says, ‘Whenever I go to a gallery or a church or I’m looking at something historical, black people or other minorities aren’t showcased, or I know that their art has been hidden or stolen. So, I’m trying to merge those archetypal art history references and then bring them into a new context, my context.’ In AETHER: Galaxy Goddess, Serwah depicts her digital ‘reflection of self’, embodied in the Greek god Aether. The divinity sits on an Ionic plinth, toppled and broken columns scattered around her. She holds the planets in balance, the centre of an altered, personalised pantheon.

Baptiste Picq, Super Dolphin Kart (2021), Digital Animation, 0:12 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

While many digital artists use ancient art as a springboard from which to question art history, others look to the similarities between the cultural products of the past and those of our time. Drawing a considerable Instagram following to his playfully tweaked masterpieces, Baptiste Picq’s Athens 2021 drop on Shiny NFT is a ‘bridge between antiquity and modernity’. A series of three short motion graphics show Greek black-figure vases, which form screens on which a faceless figure plays an Olympics-inspired arcade game. The cheekiness of these works – the chirruping of dolphins as they race in Super Dolphin Kart is giggle-inducing – is not just entertaining, but reminds us that classical art is not just the realm of academics and connoisseurs, but was born out of the everyday needs, desires, sufferings and joys of those who went before us.

Instead of a banal adoption of classical mores, it appears that the art world is iterating on the work of the ancients to sculpt and code a visual language that truly represents humanity. By playing with the canon, integrating it into the ultimate ‘other’ world of the digital, artists can challenge the dominance of Western artistic traditions.

Digital Museum of Digital Art, Instagram Post, 22 June 2015 (2015), Digital Animation. Courtesy of the Digital Museum of Digital Art.

This extends not just to art itself, but to the institutions that surround it. The Digital Museum of Digital Art’s (DiMoDA) interface resembles a cyberpunk raver’s temple: The pediment frames three android-like heads and two game controllers. But the Western eye links the architectural attributes of a museum so closely with that of an Ancient Greek temple, that despite the neon glow, and unearthly lightness of DiMoDA’s ‘entrance’, there can be no mistaking that this is a museum. Why is it that such a radical museum continues to look to antiquity for its design? Public institutions from universities to town halls to courts have adopted the pillars and pediments of the Parthenon since the Greek Revival to absorb some of the perceived philosophical dignity and authority of the ancients. With its mischievous rendering of a stolid museum façade, DiMoDA is rather pulling this authority into the modern day; its influence is acknowledged, but its power is channeled towards the future.

There is a simple answer to why digital artists have continued the long tradition of tinkering with Classical forms references to ancient art are visual cues that are widely understood, and provide a prototype (not just artistically but philosophically) with which artists can tinker. The presence of marble statues and Adonis-like figures in digital art speaks directly to the ability of visual language to endure across time, through iteration. With or without Ionic columns, the spaces in which we experience art can be transcendental, or at the very least prompt the social and intellectual stimulation that humans have felt in shared spaces since the time of Socrates (whether in his agora or at Agora Digital Art.

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