Art in Potentia

On the Immateriality of Digital Art

Essay and Art by JD Jarvis

Oral History

Digital art is made inside a place that serves as our best metaphor yet for the human mind. The "painted" or "printed" object that digital artists fabricate for the purposes of show-and-tell and/or marketing conveys creative work which is composed and stored in an encoded and largely dematerialized form on electromagnetic storage units. Like poetry that must wait to be read or music that must be played or performed in order to exist at an experiential level; this is "art in potentia." The composition must be decoded and transformer by some physical means in order for it to be seen or touched. Without a system of conveyance from the non-physical state into the physical world Art barely exists.

I often imagine Art as thoughts pretending to be objects. While these objects undeniably exist in physical space the inception and power that brings them forth is immaterial electromagnetic and chemical processes inside the human brain?thoughts. In this respect all Art starts off as art-in-potentia. But then even our perception of that art object becomes a matter of dematerializing the object into impressions of light, sound and touch that get perceived by our brain and then mixed with the history, personality and creativity of the viewer's own thought processes. The art, itself, then goes from pure thought to pure thought with the physical object being a bridge or form of conveyance between minds.

So that, while it all hinges on physical tools, objects or actions as mechanisms for conveying thoughts, the degree to which physicality is required can be brought into question, especially with the introduction of new tools and materials. We digital artists must produce a thing to be owned, but the art I describe cannot be owned only conveyed. We buy and sell the object but not the art. At both ends of the process it is a form of art-in-potentia that we experience.

This is the challenge presented by digital to traditional art markets. These markets are all about ownership of an object. As this object moves further away from physicality toward flatness and the conveyance of thought over materiality the more these markets resist. We have seen this drama play out several times.

Abstract Expressionist paintings remained very much a physical object, but by favoring abstraction and gesture over the replication or presentation of subject matter forced the appreciation of the art into a more cerebral and internalized arena. With the help of a massive promotional effort the art-marketing world, however, overcame this shock.

Minimalism affected several forms of art and design but overall continued to focus on striping things down to its essentials. Ad Reinhardt, whose work spanned both Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism said, "Art begins with getting rid of nature." Minimalism took literally Clement Greenburg's claims of Modernist painting's reduction to surface and materials and later critics began to speak in terms of metaphysics to explain the experience found in this increasingly dematerialized art. It is interesting to note that while Minimalist paintings seemed to reduce materialism the paintings themselves grew in physical size. In hindsight, one might say that in order to add value to what was perceived as a materially reduced work of art the canvases grew bigger and bigger. It is ironic that the term "minimal" is applied to some of the largest paintings I have seen.

Photography, of course, forced the issue of flatness (lack of texture), new tools and reduced materialism even further and required even more time and education on the part of the viewing public in order to finally gain acceptance. But, this was not until photographers adopted such "value adding" practices as manufactured scarcity and adopting arcane processes and obscure materials into the production of a photographic image. If nothing else, Photography shows the importance of demonstrating hard work and special knowledge in order for a technologically based imaging technique to overcome the issues associated with reduced materialism. Artful images are, of course, the greatest aid to acceptance.

Digital Art is not without its arcane procedures or special knowledge and can readily adopt the models for manufacturing scarcity, but I believe what Digital Art has to overcome more than other creative imaging techniques is this notion of art-in-potentia and a wholly new level of dematerialized art making. In the case of Photography the image, for the most part, is captured from the natural world lending at least a shadowed connection to materiality. When digital artwork comes from an artist's association with the hidden world of digital processes, involving few actual materials, cybernetic tools and virtual workspaces the reasons for a market based on materialism and ownership of objects to increase its resistance multiply exponentially.

Without splitting too many hairs we can say that we have seen digital imagery produced for a Fine Art market for about a generation. Many inroads have been made in that time and acceptance continues to increase. Yet, at the level inhabited by most artists there remains a challenge in getting local, regional and even national competitions or galleries to even consider including digital art. Often digital art finds itself ghettoized into its own separate-but-equal category and we still have to field questions in front of our art as to whether or not it is "real" art. "My granddaughter loves to play with the computer," remains one of my favorites. In which case I can only imagine sharing that comment across time with all the original Abstract Expressionists and reminding myself that time heals all wounds.

As our culture continues to digitize more and more of its experience, the mind-to-mind sharing of aesthetic experience becomes less and less focused on the need for an original material object. We can see now the importance that a good quality illusion often holds over actuality. Ownership is shifting its focus from individual objects to a central digital device used for acquiring, storing and presenting dematerialized experience. This cat is out of the bag, never to return. We cannot know exactly where it is heading but the path it will follow is increasingly digital.

While we continue to make objects for the sake of conveyance and search out new forms of presentation, the notion that art is and always has been rooted in pure immaterial thought is important. As digital artists we honor and embrace this. The art object only alludes to the "real" art. The object is an illusion, which leads us back to the real place where everything first resides--in our human mind. And, in the case of digital art, this path runs through our best tool yet for representing this limitless creative space.

JD Jarvis
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Dunking Bird Productions

Go to:
A Response by Randy Morris
On the Marketing of Electronic Art

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