Defining Digital Art

This essay is an excerpt from my book “Art of the Digital Age” which was published by Thames & Hudson in 2006. The book is available on Amazon at the following URL.


Defining Digital Art

Before we attempt to define digital art, let’s take a look at the art experience and create a context into which digital art can then fit. The definitions of art are myriad and an endless source for debate. It may be said that all great works of art communicate simultaneously on four levels: sensory, emotional, mental and spiritual. It is this multiple synchronicity of body, mind and intellect that helps to define our complex reactions to art, as well as the everyday world. We experience through our senses and each person carries within them the evolutionary adaptations humans have made to survive, as well as an intellectual and emotional record of their personal life experiences. While these adaptations are not absolutely essential for survival in modern society, they do influence how we perceive the world, and art, and also provide an explanation for the power electronic and digital media have over us. One simple example is our involuntary visual attraction to motion. If two computers were set up in a dark room, one with a static image and the other with moving one, our eyes will naturally look toward the moving image. Sound, on the other hand, fills the space we are in and gives us different cues, such as the location and direction of movement of the sound source. While vision and hearing are our two dominate senses, touch, taste and smell do follow closely. While taste and smell generally fall into the world of culinary experience, touch is become an important part of the contemporary art experience. While traditional museum and gallery behavior used to consist of “look, and don’t touch”, interactive art requires the participation of the viewer to complete the piece, and can be described as “look, please touch.” When it comes to the emotional component of the art experience, it is really a matter of how effective the piece is in eliciting a response from the viewer. If there is no emotional component, there is generally little interest on the part of the viewer to spend significant time with the work. This also applies to the mental aspect of the work, as well. In this case, the mental aspect refers to the content or intellectual message the artist is trying to convey. The spiritual level can be described as that which communicates on an inspirational or non-intellectual/emotional level. Simply put, the art touches one’s soul. When all of these elements combine together, the art experience becomes a deeply moving one and the viewer leaves the work changed in some way.


From the artist’s point of view, the above definition may not accurately reflect their original intentions when creating the work. The process of making art is radically different from experiencing it. Artists tend to be more involved with the process than the end result. Also, most artists do not look at every piece they make as a potentially great work of art. The process of creating art is an experimental and evolutionary one. It is primarily intuitive, rather than intellectual. Creative “mistakes” are often what produce great work. Artists may also choose to focus on a combination or only one of the principles mentioned above. A politically motivated work of art is primarily intellectual and emotional, whereas other works, such as abstract imagery, may be more sensory or spiritual in nature. Artist statements are one of the best ways to gain insight into what an artist is trying to accomplish, although some may argue that if the work has to be explained, it is not a successful piece. Digital art also carries with it the ability to be changed at a future date, as well as the mutable aspects of the interactive experience. For example, a piece of interactive software will have a different visual or aural result that depends on how the user interacts with it.


It is also important to consider what lies between the artist and the viewer: the venue. In the past, where the work was on display was often a means by which creative work became known as art. If it was on exhibit in a museum or gallery, it was generally considered art. There is much to be said for this perspective, as curators are recognized experts in their fields and have an informed knowledge of the work they choose to include in exhibitions. The art historian also plays a major role in this process, as documentation and the amount of published criticism and writing associated with a particular work or artist creates credibility.


Turning our attention back to digital art, have we now found out what exactly it is? Where does the definition lie: in the mind of the viewer, in the thoughts and techniques of the artist, or in the words of the art historian or critic? Because of the wide range of uses of digital technology in the art making process, arriving at a clear-cut definition is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Simply put another way, digital art is the end result of the creative process in which an artist uses the computer as their primary tool, medium and/or creative partner. Many artists use the computer to visualize their work, and then create work using traditional media. Digital art can also take many forms, both traditional and new. These forms blend and the distinction between them is not always clear. Traditional forms of digital art include prints, photography, sculpture, installations, video, film, animation, music and performance. New forms that are unique to digital art include virtual reality, software art, and net art. A more precise definition and understanding of digital art will evolve as we examine its relationship to technology and contemporary art, how it is actually created, and the inner makeup of a digital artist.