Democratising Art Through Digital Art

Democratising Art Through Digital Art

Contribution by Jyoti Punjabi on September 5, 2023

Gone are the traditional days of long-practised patronage where art operated in a hermetically-sealed bubble reeking of exclusivity, hierarchy and privilege. The art world has finally internalised codes, algorithms, pixels and the internet.

And we are here for it.

Welcome to the new disruptive age of digital art.

Not everyone in the art world might agree with this viewpoint. Purists and conservatives worldwide fear that digitalisation and technological advancements in the world have issued a death knell for traditional art as we know it, where brushstrokes and canvases “should” still reign supreme. On the other hand, in this world of techies where openness and equalising principles are focused on breaking down the established status quo, new budding artists and art lovers couldn’t disagree more. The two parallel universes can and must cross-pollinate: if paintings exist because of well…simply walls, many would agree that in that same breath, why can’t art be put forth through new formats of presentation, deriving from traditional art forms with components of new technology?

Early Days

Experimental technological approaches towards art were first used in the 1950s, namely “Oscillon 40” (1952) by American mathematician Ben Laposky, where he used an oscilloscope to manipulate electronic signals and photographed them in the shape of waves. Oscilloscopes, mainly used in medicine and engineering, were never intended as an artistic tool, and Laposky’s fusion of the two, art and computing, led to a wave of collaborative efforts by artists seeking new technologies with the help of mathematicians and programmers. And as technology made its advancements by leaps and bounds over the decades, so did its collaborative relationship with art. By the 1980s, the cost of computers decreased, the gaming culture flourished, interconnectedness and sharing resources rapidly grew, making technology more accessible and leading to a new era of digital art.

It was, however, met with scepticism, much like the medium of photography that wasn’t recognised as a form of art by critics for years. But if we had to go by the art critic Clive Bell’s notion of “the most important elements in works of art”, which are “the relationships and combinations of lines and colours”, one would have to agree that digital art has legitimised its place in the world of art today. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York would definitely think so. After years of resistance from the art world, in 2014, the MET uploaded high definition images of its most famous paintings that could be downloaded, and created a digital collection of almost half a million artworks – a move which would be considered controversial for it was a stepping stone towards opening up the world of art, for all.

Lower Entry Points For One And All

According to a study conducted at Stamford University in February 2015, digital art represents all the ones “whose production and presentation crucially involve computer processing”. Basically, any artwork made with digital technology, or presented on digital technology, shattering all traditional barriers. The result? Lower entry points. All that’s needed is access to a computer, democratising the artistic process from the very beginning. Given the rampant access to computers within our society today, digital art provides a platform where anyone with passion and creativity can participate. Accessibility to basic digital tools today allows for artists from various backgrounds to share their unique perspectives with a larger audience. And in some cases, a global audience.

And while the internet sure helps in ensuring that the artist’s work is more visible and accessible to wider audiences, advanced technology enables artists to manipulate and transform that same art, increasing their productivity and saving time due to more straightforward tools to resize, position, reposition objects, change colours, undo mistakes and erase them without a trace and more importantly, with less waste. Cue: digital art and reducing the need for physical materials–a new approach to sustainability in art?

Two Are Better Than One

By combining artificial intelligence and art, we’re looking at a harmonious blend between both seemingly-antagonistic worlds: combining the best of human and machine creativity into one immersive, interactive medium where algorithms can generate unexpected combinations and outcomes, providing artists with alternative perspectives that perhaps would not have been recognised in more traditional mediums. Rather than viewing technological advancements in art as a threat, it is essential to recognise how the two can collaborate by leveraging artificial intelligence’s capabilities and enhancing the artist’s creative process to create new and unique dimensions.
Sougwen Chung, a digital interdisciplinary artist and “human and machine collaboration” adept has long collaborated with a robotic arm called DOUG. She programmed the robot to emulate her drawing style. The result? Chung can begin to explore new ways of creating art, new dimensions to her drawings where the AI system can learn from her work and contribute new ideas, but she still holds the reins on the style, process and creative outlook. A match made in digital heaven.

Accessibility And Affordability

Over the last few decades, digital art has gone through an important surge in popularity. In Mauritius for instance, where digital art still remains a relatively unknown and unexposed concept to the majority of the population, the Porlwi by Light festival, organised by Move for Art from 2015 to 2017, where the capital city of Port-Louis was decorated with light installations and immersive light projections, was a real stepping stone for many into the realm of digital art. And what stunned the audience was mainly how accessible it was and how they could just “step into a space” and experience art as opposed to having to view it hanging on a wall, hoping to decipher old and new meanings to an otherwise-still image. This dynamic medium has revolutionised the way people believe art needs to be consumed: without crossing borders, by almost bypassing traditional art gatekeepers.

Physical space has been, for a long time, a known limitation for marginalised artists who did not match the criteria to have their artwork showcased in physical galleries. Digital art galleries are now commonplace in all the major cities in the world: from the magical and burgeoning teamLab in Tokyo to the Art & Science Museum in Singapore, to Sensistan in Goa, India, to La Fabrique des Lumieres in Amsterdam, there is no dearth for digital art exposure in the world that we live in today.
Interestingly, urban spaces have increasingly allowed digital artists to expose their world to wider audiences, but also giving unrestricted access to an open resource of culture and knowledge to everybody. Digital artist Refik Anadol’s installation named Dreams was splashed on the facades of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2018; he used computer intelligence to process over a century of archived images of Walt Disney and projected them on the building in real-time or as a preset. Immersive, transcending space-time and creating a connection with audiences with no physical constraints or limitations.

Cut to: social media platforms and their pivotal role in the art landscape today. According to the 2017 Hiscox Art Trade Report, 91% of the galleries that were surveyed actively utilise social media as a promotional tool for their business, but also for the artists and the art that they exhibit. Social media then isn’t just a mere platform for digital artists to exhibit their work; it becomes a means and medium for interaction with their audience who get to delve into the artists’ ethos, their process. A window into their artistic soul, almost, beyond geographical boundaries.

A New Way

Digital art, in the way that it has broken down barriers for art enthusiasts and artists, has opened up new frontiers of creativity and engagement, in a way that the world has not experienced before. By embracing this relationship that is symbiotic and interconnected, institutions are now beginning to shape a future where the integration of technology and human creativity can lead to extraordinary achievements and art movements, paving the way that blends innovation with tradition.

A revolution in the landscape of art as we know it.