Is it art? Is it great art? These are the questions confronting digital art. For digital artists everywhere, I’d like to announce that the first question is answered. Yes! It’s art. So stop asking.

But great art?? Ah, the question looms over us. Here we are in treacherous terrain, with no clear answers. Indeed, the answers will be played out for years to come. All I can do here is to clarify the discussion so that everyone can participate. If we stand way back, we see FOUR major areas of digital art:

a) Photo-manipulators (which I write about in earlier columns here).
b) Fine art people like me who want to compete with oil painters, etc.
c) The whole area that might be called electronic/video/installation/ conceptual art; popular in some universities and museums. (The next column will be about these artists.)
d) Finally, there’s the huge area that started it all--the programmer/ mathematical/algorithmic/fractal sort of digital art. I want to focus on this area now. Here the lead-off questions are particularly menacing. These people--who often don’t seem to know there’s any other kind of digital art going on--are making a huge amount of fascinating art. But is any of it great art?

Basically, what these artists do is try to extract art from process. They utilize a set of rules, and hope the relentless working out of those rules will result in art. Consider the snowflake. Nature has a simple set of rules for generating snowflakes. A few rules, an infinity of snowflakes. Every one is beautiful. I’ll say every one is art. But great art? I think we have to say no. My sense is that a lot of math-heavy digital art hovers at that same divide.

Programmer/algorithmic artists want to see what nature (as embodied in a computer program) will do. They want to coax the machine into making the art. (Indeed, some purists insist that the machine has to do all the work or it’s not valid.) Often, when the result appears, we are caught between two conflicting emotions. First we are impressed and perhaps even dazzled that something so interesting, precise and complex could be made by a dumb machine dumbly obeying rules. We exclaim, “What human could do such a thing!!” At the same time, we are troubled by the shadow of coldness, by the unease that something alien has moved among us.

I think this dichotomy has been a part of human consciousness since the start. Imagine the first time a human used a straight edge to draw a line. That was high tech! Look at all those perfectly straight lines! But after the novelty wears off, we start missing the rough, awkward, oh-so-human line....Too many of these, however, and we hunger for op art and geometric art!

You can explore the fourth kind of digital art by going to Google and entering “algorithmic art.”

One name I often run across is Eric Heller (ERICJHELLERGALLERY.COM). He sent me a note stating: “When a watercolorist puts brush to paper, physics rules the results.” See how he moves the artist out of the equation. His strengths are that he’s a real scientist (a professor of physics) and humble before his processes. But great art? You decide.

An artist named John Simon, who started as a programmer, actually cracked the New York art world doing this kind of art. He gained attention for a piece called “Every Icon,” a grid measuring 32 squares on a side where each square is white or black. A program is working its way through every possible combination. Centuries from now, the grid will be all one color for an instant. You can see this grid in action at NUMERAL.COM (then click “online artworks”).

On a site called GALLERYDIR.COM, I saw some fractal art by Vicky Brago-Mitchell. I was really impressed. I thought: “This woman has taken fractals as far as I’ve seen.” Then I had that contrary thought that has to nag all serious artists: “How would she take this to the next level? Or is this the next level? Can we put these pictures up against Matisse or de Kooning?” I asked the artist for a comment. She ignored me except to write that “Debating what art is, or even worse, what great art is, is just not my thing.” But let’s give credit: her fractals precipitated this column! Debate their success for yourself.

How do we get to greatness? Well, maybe it is a tedious question. And yet I guarantee you it is the question lurking behind a thousand discussions every day. Perhaps different words are used: Is this good art? Is this important art? Is this art I need to understand? Is this art that will endure? People--even people not too interested in technical things--are increasingly comfortable with accepting digital art as art. But...great? There we have our work defined.

It’s worth noting that some non-digital artists have been, in effect, programmer artists. Sol Lewitt made rules, and his assistants followed them. Or consider a lot of experimental, surrealist and “automatic” approaches to painting and writing. The artist gives control to other forces, and hopes--imagine a little jockey on a big horse--to whip those forces onward to triumph.

When I first started making digital art, I felt that I was obligated to work with what the machine gave me. I’m not sure why I felt that way, but I did take a lot of pride in this credo. So, for several years, I was myself one variety of algorithmic artist. Then I began to miss the roughness that paint can produce, and the obvious human brushwork that you see in the great paintings. I started, increasingly, to interfere and alter. Now, my digital art is a somewhat unorthodox 50/50 blend of beauty I trick the machine into producing, and rather traditional painting techniques on top of that.

I’m sorry I can’t tie this up neatly. I just feel that algorithmic art faces a dilemma. It’s like waves on the ocean, wind-carved sand on the beach, shadows in a forest, patterns in marble, the clouds in the sky, droplets streaking down a window--natural processes create these things. We love these things! But somehow what we call great art usually has to have the human touch meddling in there somehow. The more formal, technical or math-based that digital art becomes, the more that many people are likely to wonder, but where’s the feeling, where’s the humanity?

News from a different galaxy....My literary site is Lit4u.com. I’m particularly proud of a long poem called THEORYLAND that appears on this site. THEORYLAND is a poignant satire of the games that some professors play.


Blogger humor_less said...

You really think "Fractals by Vicky" has taken fractal art "as far as I've seen"? Do you get out on the web much? I'd suggest there are many fractal artists who are doing far more in pushing the envelope. Here are a few you might want to check out:

Panny Brawley
Jock Cooper
Earl L. Hinrichs
Damien M. Jones
Karen Jones
Dan Kuzmenka
Samuel Monnier
Tina Oloyede
Joseph Presley
Jurgen Schwietering
Mindy Sommers
Terry Wright

10:28 AM  
Blogger Jan Neal said...

Hi Bruce,

I share your wondering, and it might be because I paint digitally in hopes of producing digital fine art. I have so often been in that position of dealing with people who do not understand digital art and find myself explaining that the machine didn't paint this, I did. There is no "portrait button" to hit and get a likeness. There is no button to create a design that my mind can create after studying a subject. Maybe fractal art, beautiful as it can be, puts the digital artist in an even more defensive position.

With that said, I have to admit that there is a world of design out there in the fractal art world, and great skill is required to get the art he or she is after. I don't know if we can ever collectively agree on what great art is, but I know fractal art requires skill and thought to produce, and astoundingly beautiful designs come from this art form. Maybe when we understand it better it will be given credit as a great art form. Perhaps we will see it as just a more exotic tool used by the artist than the brush.

11:08 AM  
Blogger blogger said...

Hey, Bruce -- Thanks for a great series of articles. It has been somewhat frustrating these past nine years to describe to people what I do. "Oh, they say, computer art." Well, no, not exactly. "Digital photography" -- nope, not that either.

"Digital Art" -- Like you, I usually begin with a "blank white screen" and create the images using the tools of Photoshop (not Illustrator or anything else, just Photoshop 4.0 in the beginning, now up to version 9.0 CS2). Early on, I decided to limit myself to this one software application -- like choosing ink instead of pencil, just a choice to be made. Others will employ whatever software works for them.

Nothing is scanned (oops, there was a series or two where I collaborated with another visual artist, using his drawings as a jumping off point, but that is the exception rather than the norm). Nothing is photographed. "Blank white screen" plus specific choices made by the digital artist. After that, the discussion with potential collectors can turn to fractals and the other types of contemporary work being made.

Interesting, Bruce: I've also decided that Editions of 10 are best for me and my work. Others will do what works for them. For the most part, I offer the work in two sizes (usually 30x40" and 16x20") on canvas, which took me awhile to get used to -- didn't want to pretend that these were reproductions of traditional paintings (you know, the giclee's and all that), but finally decided that I like the look of the work on heavy canvas, and it's durable to boot. Probably throws another wrench into the discussion, but whatever.

But haven't we been here before? It seems like "just yesterday" that photography was the new kid on the block, and the gallerists and curators were wondering what (if anything) to do with it. Some things never change. Give 'em 20 years, they'll be fine with all of these new digital categories of art when the prices for "early digital art" (from the late 20th Century) is selling for big bucks in the auction houses!

6:59 AM  
Blogger Glocal Coordinator said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Glocal Coordinator said...

Hi Bruce,

I only deleted my previous posting to improve the grammar and typos a little bit, not because of what I wrote... There might be a few typos that slipped away on me though ;-)

Here was what I just wrote...

Thanks for maintaining a blog about explaining Digital Art...I am really enjoying your perspective and your Theoryland poem also got a nice internal chuckle from me...

There certainly is alot to explain with regards to Digital Art especially to those who do not yet understand Digital Art and its 12+ sub-genres.

I am coordinating a year-long "digital" public art commission at the Surrey Art Gallery right now called GLOCAL and at the moment, their project falls into the more "conceptual/idea" category you have outlined in one of your postings about Bitforms etc etc.

They are planning to use webcams (including mobile phones maybe) to allow participants to engage remotely and directly with an interactive realtime video-processing screen...they still have a year to brainstorm where the "Art" (maybe even "Great Art") will be in all this so I am sure they would be open to your feedback and opinion.

So, my job is actually to explain Digital Art and primarily this collaboration to docents, teachers, students and residents of the general gallery-going public.

The project is at:

The blog link above might not be their final public blog but it is the most complete one for now.

Anyway, since their project is in development, I am curious to get your personal feedback about it...

They want it to be derived from Digital Art but evolve out of it to the world of social-networking sites and community based art.

What, in your opinion, will keep their project as it currently stands within the realm of Digital Art as you understand it and what aspects would likely go outside of this realm?

Based on what you have seen so far, would you consider their project to be Digital Art or something else?

Also, my own personal art practice uses a Digital Art medium that you have not yet addressed in your blog...that of virtual worlds and video games. I am a virtual worlds (avatar) performance artist using Second Life and World of Warcraft and this is starting to become that trendy digital art medium that might show up in places like Bitforms sometime soon (if not already)...I was wondering if you will be blogging about this sub-genre of Digital Art? Is it just 1970s performance art with a computer and a virtual world?

As for your work, I still see it as a form of "virtual painting" except not as sculptural as paint since you are using pixels to distribute light instead of paint itself....but essentially, your aesthetic concerns seem very pre-digital (making collectible images out of light configurations).

It is possible that historians might lump in your art practice with that of pre-existing visual art so I am not sure how your practice matches your ideal of making a purely "digital" artwork that you first envisioned in 1997.

Every argument you have made about how all other Digital Art practices only seem to be parroting previous art movements does not make your practice an exception..just a personal opinion though but I would love to talk more about it.

Oh, before I forget, here are some of my personal virtual world blogs:

Cheers and thanks for making this blog...I might quote you from your postings in my Digital Arts primer I have to hand in on Monday, if that is ok (you would get full credit). They share some of your concerns about Digital Art and what exactly it is (if anything, at all).

-Jeremy Owen Turner, Project Coordinator - GLOCAL - Surrey Art Gallery - B.C., Canada.

3:12 PM  

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