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3: Death To Photoshop????? What!!!!!

2: Already Twelve Kinds Of Digital Art

1: What’s All This Talk About Digital Art?

3: Death To Photoshop????? What!!!!!

Yes, I just published an article on the web titled DEATH TO PHOTOSHOP!!!!! (always with five sensation-mongering exclamation points). But why would anyone dare to suggest such a thing????? It might even be dangerous considering how devoted some users are, and how huge Adobe is.

Actually, the article deals with a very fascinating theoretical issue. I’m not targeting Photoshop but the muddle that comes from so many people tweaking photos in Photoshop and then calling the results “digital art.” (I argue that you have to do more than tweak; you have to transform that photo.)

Basically, Photoshop has become the omnipresent tail that wags the beautiful digital dog.

This is not just a theoretical issue. Curators across the country are arguing over what constitutes “photography,” “prints,” and “digital art.” A few days before my article went live, I got an email from an art show I had entered. They had decided to merge these three categories!

Why????? Because, as Keith Yingling, Director of Communications for A.J.A.S, explained in an earnest reply to my protest: “We had the best intentions in mind when we decided on a separate digital art category, but then questions started to seep into the process, controversy flared, emails were exchanged between the staff. To bring order out of an imbalance of opinion we decided for the Fall exhibition to bring Digital and Printmaking under the Photographic umbrella. We recognize this as a short term fix, and I can assure you that outstanding digital art entries will be accepted as digital art but within the Photo category for, hopefully, this one time until everyone agrees on the ground rules.”

CONTROVERSY FLARED!!!!! That’s my favorite part.

The director went on: “We plan to host in October an email discussion group among some of the top digital artists in the U.S. and China. I invite you to be a part of this group...Several college/university professors on our board will spearhead the discussion...The end result will be, hopefully, a statement of rules governing what constitutes photography, digital art, and printmaking.”

Rules????? I’m not optimistic because the middle territory (where a photo is drastically manipulated but still obviously photographic in nature) will always be a problem. Never mind. I’m honored to be part of this quest and I’ll report the results in this column.

Here’s where we are today: the great majority of “photographs” start in a digital camera, are touched up in Photoshop, and output on a digital printer. I say, call these puppies photographs. But sometimes the artists themselves are genuinely confused about what label to use--after all, there’s a lot of digital going on there. The problem gets gnarlier when the “photograph” mutates into something quite different from the starting photograph. What is that thing?!

Personally, I’m happy to be far removed from this problem. I decided early on that I would use no photographs or scanned materials; I'd start with a blank screen. Recently a curator from an art center visited my studio to discuss my approach. She too was struggling with how to define categories for an upcoming event. “Well," she announced, "why don’t we just make that our boundary? The artists have to start with a blank screen.” Because, I said, not that many digital artists are starting with a blank screen. Maybe in a few years, the common practice might swing that way. But right now we’ve got all kinds of limbo!!!!!

I know one "photographer" who doesn't even use a camera. He uses a scanner as his camera. So his work is surely digital, 100% digital But it looks photographic and he calls it "photography." Are you going to say it's not?

Notes: The article discussed above can be found on creativity-portal.com....My most theoretical piece--TOWARD A DIGITAL MANIFESTO--is not part of this series but can be found on artisticnetwork.net.

2: Already Twelve Kinds Of Digital Art

Here’s what I think is the single most surprising thing about digital art. People on the outside think there’s this ONE weird new thing loose in the world. In fact, that one thing has quickly fragmented. There’s already a dozen kinds of digital art. Surprising, right?

The biggest camp is Photoshoppers playing with photos. Many people learned Photoshop at work; thousands more had to learn it to teach it, especially photographers in academe. Suddenly all these photographers were making collages in Photoshop and calling the results digital art. Or somebody takes a picture of a girl friend, drops a filter on her so the girl friend looks new and weird. The interesting issue in most Photoshop work is when does a photographic object become a digital art object? (The emerging answer: when there’s a significant change.)

Another big group is making conceptual art and calling it digital art. Remember all that stuff artists were doing in the 1980s? Idea art, let’s call it. But you incorporate a computer in the process, and then you’ve made digital art. So they say. Suppose one screen shows a man, and the other screen shows a woman, and the images morph back and forth. This shows something deep about gender identities. So they say. And you clearly do need a computer to handle your morphs. But why call it digital art?

Another huge group is making what these artists called “computer art” or “computer-generated art.” (Personally, I avoid these phrases and always insist: “My art is artist-generated.”) But computer artists take pride in making art that announces its pedigree. See that transparency, that precision, that peculiar strangeness that you can make only on a computer? This, friends, is computer art and you should like it, apparently, because it’s made on a computer. Is that a sequitur? I think these artists quickly run up against what we might call the fine art dilemma. The public doesn’t care so much about how art is made as they care about the bottom line: is the art memorable or meaningful? In the end, computer art has to pass the same aesthetic threshold that every pencil sketch and watercolor has to pass. Is it art? Is it good art?

A close relative to the computer artist is the programmer artist. These people write programs that make the computer make something pretty or interesting. Engineers and techies fill this arena.

A lot of digital artists are using digital tools to replicate the look of traditional media, whether oils or acrylics or airbrush or charcoal. You’ll see great displays of talent in this direction. I could discuss the pros and cons but conceptually there’s not much to discuss beyond the initial question: should a new medium be used to mimic an older medium?

Another main group is fine artists trying to make bold new art, the kind of stuff you see in ArtNews or a good gallery--but they want to do it with digital tools. Turns out the computer, though just a cold machine, is a great friend to the experimentalist, take-a-shot-in-the-dark type of artist. I’m in this group.

I didn’t get to video, animation, sci-fi, 3D, installation and all that wonderful commercial graphics we see on TV (ESPN is hot in this area). In future reports, I’ll revisit the groups. I’ll discuss all aspects of digital art. If you don’t agree with me, send a succinct comment. I see this space as educational so I’ll include slings and arrows.

1: What’s All This Talk About Digital Art??

First thing to know: digital is here for the long haul. It’s big and will get bigger. And it’s interesting, intrinsically interesting, even if you don’t “digital” yourself.

Here’s the micro version. For every tool we know in the real world--a ruler, a brush, a glob of paint--there’s now a digital twin based on math and capable of infinite manipulation. The real or analog world is relatively static; things want to remain the way they are. In the digital world, as I often say: “The paint never dries.” An image can be 3 by 4 inches or--in an instant--it can be 3 by 6 inches, or 18 by 99 inches. You can make the whole image redder or eliminate all the reds. You can place filters (a term from photography) over the image and make it look radically different. Etc. Etc. Etc.

So, you’re wondering, what’s the big good things and big bad things?

First, two bad things. In digital you give up the unique, hard-to-counterfeit object, e.g., real oil paint on real canvas that the artist actually touched. Consider photographs and lithographs, the world of multiple copies--digital is part of that world. Many artists don’t number their prints; I’ve settled on editions of 10 as a compromise (there’s some scarcity but I don’t have to charge much for the first numbers). A few artists paint on the digital print and call the result mixed media. Then you are back to the unique object but it won’t have the permanence of oil or some other media.

Another bad thing is that computers are so powerful and perform so many neat tricks so quickly, people get two wrong impressions: the machine is making the art; and any child can do it. Everybody knows that word processors won’t write a word for you--they merely let you reformat your manuscript in lots of ways. A computer used for art is basically an image processor--and lets you reformat an image in many different ways. The best analogy is with a digital keyboard. There’s a lot of trick s in that thing, and the cost might be only $100. But if you’re not a musician, you won’t get music out of it. Ditto with an image processor. As always, artists make art, and digital won’t change that.

Here’s some good things. Computers are fast; you can try lots of ideas quickly. It’s like having a dozen eager assistants, mixing paints, priming canvas, painting backgrounds. Second, digital can do tricks that have no equivalent in the analog world. And digital is very clean. Personally, I love working with sprays and dangerous chemicals; but you need a lot of space and a good exhaust system. With digital you need a big desk.

Here’s the main caveat I would throw up to people thinking about digital. Are you comfortable with machines? I’ve always loved science, technology and machinery. So it was easy for me--a lifelong fine artist and experimental artist--to segue into digital. But if you hate machines, forget digital. If you prefer a brush in the hand and real paints on a palette, ignore digital.

Going ahead anyway? Here’s the main advice I would give. Start with a small program or the beginner’s version of a famous program (such as Photoshop Elements 3). Play with the software. Max it out.

To close, I’ll mention the most surprising thing about digital. To people on the outside it’s a weird new art form. But people in the field know it’s already a huge sprawling frontier with dozens of outposts, many of which don’t speak to each other. There’s photo manipulation, conceptual art, programming art, installations, video, computer-generated art (where the goal is to announce the computer’s role), and several other varieties.

My theory (not widely accepted) is that the future of digital art is fine art as traditionally defined. My work is aimed at exploring what that can look like. I see that my work is becoming more ”painterly” but I don’t want to replicate oil painting--what’s the point? I want to create new kinds of beauty that can be made only with a computer.

writing and art © Bruce Price 2005