An Art Lover's Guide to Digital Art
Essay by JD Jarvis

Click names or images
to take the MOCA tour


Photographer, artist and philosopher Larry Bolch wrote, "Photography is not an art. It is a medium through which artist's may create art." One can make the same statement about so called "digital art". Considering digital as a medium for the creation of art, rather than an art itself doesn't help narrow it down much, however; because then you have to wonder; "which art?" Perhaps a better way to state the problem, today, is to ask; "What isn't digital art?" Computers have invaded and expanded nearly every art form. From the digital creation, recording, manipulation and distribution of music, to animation and film editing; from word processing to the instantaneous cueing of hundreds of complex theatrical lighting and scenery changes digital tools are there helping artists make art. Yet, if you are an artist making two-dimensional compositions for display on the web or for sale as any of a wide variety of print you may expect some strange resistance and lack of external validation.

No one seems to question the authenticity of a digitally performed theatrical cue or to worry that the word processor has made writing too easy. Now that the computer has replaced the mathematician's chalkboard, pencil and slide rule, no one asks, by virtue of the tools or lack of materials used; "Is that real math or did the computer do it?" Still, as pervasive as digital tools have become in the creation of a wide range of art forms these questions are asked of two-dimensional inanimate art created on a computer. For the sake of this review this is what I mean by "digital art". And, with the help of some wonderful examples collected here by the MOCA gallery, we will look to where this work has come and perhaps shed some light on the path ahead.


Bolch also observed, "the artist chooses the media and the goal of every artist is to become fluent enough with the media to transcend it. At some point you pass from playing the piano to playing music." As digital tools are employed by more artists working in more diverse fields the analogies that for so long have attempted to describe the commonalties of all art forms begin to come into sharper focus. The writer, musician, painter, the film editor or photographer sit down before pretty much the same sort of art making devise and share the common craft of digital information processing to achieve the work; making it immediately clear how poetry can share a kinship to painting, photography and music.

Well over a decade of practice and experimentation in making digital art has brought to the scene artists possessing a fine degree of skill with imaging software. And, yet the average person or art lover knows little of what a digital artist does to create their work. Software salesman are of little help, since they work hard to promote the myth that art on a computer is just a mouse click away. Compared to painting which, even though few can handle expertly, nearly all can understand the process; the learning curve for the appreciation of digital art seems almost as steep as for the manipulation of the tools themselves. However, this is not an excuse for the critic or art lover who refuses to seriously consider digital art simply because they don't know how it is made. Art is not about the tools used to make it; but in the organization of color, line, form, composition, rhythm and the interplay of all these in support of the subject matter or intent of the work itself. These are the basic and well established tenants of visual art and as fundamental to digital art work as to the cave paintings of Lascaux.


This point is best demonstrated by work created with "Natural Media" software. The digital artist working in this vein has an assortment of tools designed to make marks which simulate on the computer screen and in print nearly all traditional paint and draw tools. In the MOCA galleries the works of Mavi Roberto, Joan Myerson Shrager, Jago Titcomb, D.L. Zimmerman, and Steiner Rosenburg are prime examples of this genre of digital art. Their pictures are built up mark upon mark until the composition is complete. The look and even a good part of the feel of traditional drawing and painting media can be achieved with skill and patience. That these marks appear as pure light on a glass screen is indication of both the revolutionary advances and the tradeoffs that the digital artist makes.

New production techniques such as multiple undo, and the ability to save work at various stages along its development and to integrate one version or piece of art seamlessly into another are great boons to art making. Digital work never reaches that level of material preciousness at which even the most courageous painter would not risk destroying their work just to follow some wild inspiration. The digital artist has adopted a medium that works as fast as one's imagination and presents constant opportunities to refine composition and fine tune color. On the other hand, spontaneous accidents and the effects of gravity do not come easy in digital media and often what can be achieved in a single looping wet drippy stroke of paint must be rendered laboriously by the digital artist. Not having to stretch canvas, wash brushes or mix and then wait for paint to dry may deny the digital artist some material pleasures, but also saves time. While elapsed time is certainly not an issue nor a criterion for judging any piece of art, time saved using digital tools is almost always re-invested in experimentation and decision making. Subsequently, this investment in design should make digital art among the tightest and most well considered compositions in art today.


With the genre of "Photo-Manipulation" we recognize how much digital art shares with the art form of photography. The first highly technologically driven art making system to suffer the burden of "point and click" simplicity, traditional photography had to wait out the proliferation of popular understanding of the process and the subsequent recognition by the masses of the nuances necessary to create great pictures before gaining its rightful place in the world of fine art. Today this struggle belongs to digital art. But it is digital photography and the lessons learned by traditional photography's move up to fine art that is helping to drive the ultimate acceptance of digital art. And, in return, the digital darkroom has revolutionized how we make photographic art.

Producing sensitive imagery in the tradition of the chemical dark room, as we see reflected in the work of Jeff Alu , Steve Bingham, and Ricardo Baez Duarte required tedious and imperfect techniques that are now achieved with unprecedented speed and pin point control by artists who have more time to focus on ideas and composition than the long process of trial and error that was necessary leading to a degree of control over wet photography. Digital photography tools reduce exposure to dangerous and uncomfortable studio situations while expanding aesthetic potentials through new production techniques. And, this particular expanded aesthetic is with us constantly in our daily lives.


As photography reached a level of maturity in the 1920's and 30's many modernist artists began to experiment with different techniques of using photos in their art; among them the collage and montage. In the USA during the1950's the fad of psychoanalysis coupled with the advertising industry's discovery that surrealistic imagery in its attention to sex and other dreams of desire was highly marketable; fostered an enduring love for "trick photography". It is no small coincidence that a couple of decades later page layout, photo-editing and typography harbored the first mass oriented implementation of digital imaging tools. The advertising and magazine industry jumped at the chance to have one machine that could handle all these different crafts and it has never looked back. Thus, "photo-collage" represented in the MOCA collection by the work of artists Damnengine, Larry Hopewell, and Gulner Guvenc has become the most prevalent kind of digital art exhibited anywhere, today. Collage is most often the kind of art that people seek to do with their new computers and, as such, has formed a populist wave of art making that can hardly be ignored.


Even before photography became a fine art it was a popular one. Due, in no small part, to what philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin called the "voodoo cult" of photography. That is, the ability for a photograph to freeze time and preserve people, places and events long after they disappear in the mists of memory. Therefore, the photograph, even a simple and personal snap shot, is a very potent item, whose aura in our everyday lives can surpass that of art. Of course, along with this reverence comes the reverse and the purposeful mutilation of a photograph can harbor a darker spirit. This darker spirit has become quite popular in itself as a post modern society turns to themes and activities previously considered "on the fringe". I ascribe the term "Tabloid Culture" to this type of art as a nod to the marginality from which it is ascending and to the media which has made it so relatively accessible. And, of course, digital tools are there helping it happen.

The highest form of this art is displayed in the MOCA galleries of Alessandro Bavari, David Ho, and Shannon Hourigan. And, while these artists use techniques and tools outside of the range of simple photo-manipulation, their intent to create dark, mysterious, uncomfortable and often allegorical illustrations with amazing photographic realism is quite evident and striking. On the other hand, the dark collages of Shannon Hourigan retain more of the character of a direct photograph. In doing so, Hourigan manages to create work that fully exploits this voodoo concept of photography and in the disfiguration and distortions of her photgraphic images questions of violence, body image and self mutilation are given full voice.


In and of itself, however, paint is paint. Photography and even collage are no longer anything new. And, since we already know that art is not about the tools that we use to make it; we might rightfully ask, so what's new about digital art? For well over two hundred years the world of fine art and its counterpart in academia have been driven by the notion of stylistic identification and innovation thus creating the age of "isms". Art work has come to be judged either by how well it fits into an existing style, or is favored most when it breaks beyond these prized barriers and delivers something all together and strikingly new. For digital art to join in this time honored game, to become present in the world of Fine Arts, it must move beyond mimicry of traditional media and forge new visual ground.

In order to survey this new territory the artist must search for those things that no other visual arts tools can do. For example, computers are number crunching machines with a propensity for diligently performing tedious tasks at lightning speeds; data in data out. This was of little value to the visual artist until 1972 when Benoit Mandelbrot brought together his own scattered research in "self similarity and iteration" and named it "fractal geometry". Almost instantly from that point through today the science of mapping the hidden geometry of nature has been a visual matter. Fractal geometry provides the mathematical algorithms that are the virtual backbone of many of the unique tools that digital image editing and generating software are built upon.

For certain artists this means the creation of imagery that is both excitingly new and strangely familiar as seen in the MOCA galleries of artists Janet Parke and Karin Kuhlmann.

Fractals are patently beautiful with breathtaking depth, sumptuous color, dynamic flowing lines that tickle and delight the eye. In their repetition of forms is suggested the math of the eternal. As such, fractal imagery is often powerful and always seductive. And, yet fractals while wildly varied are still highly recognizable "formula based" images. This makes working with fractals some of the edgiest digital work being done, because it yields imagery that can so easily seem trite and lacking in human warmth, putting itself directly on a collision course with those that fear mechanization of art. How does one make art that springs from the cold soul of the motherboard and yet carries the caress of a human hand and heart?

Integrative Digital Art

The answer to this challenge comes in another of the computer's innate abilities, that being the ability, by the reduction of all sorts of input into a homogeneous data flow, to integrate and synthesize widely divergent material into a single work In other words, not just paint or photo or fractal, but a fluid synthesis of all sorts and kinds of media, materials, processes and styles. This "Integrative Digital Art" yields some highly personal and varied approaches to how the art is made, as well as, how it looks. It brings into play all the imaging sources, drawing tools, automated filters, traditional and digital processes that one can summon. It explodes and expands "multi-media" by being, virtually, every media. There are many strong examples of this in the MOCA collection by artists such as, Hans Deiter Grossmann, Afanassy Pud, John Clive, Kent Oberheu, Kolja Tatic, Ileana Frometa Grillo, and Orna Ben-Shoshan.

You may notice that none of these artist's works looks like the next. There is, therefore, no discernible emergent style. So, if we are about playing the same, age old game of stylistic innovation visa vi the established world of "Fine Art"; even this genre of digital art has reason for being marginalized by "the big show".


No artist sets out to create a style. Often one is directed by technique or philosophy or a new tool to innovate, but the recognition of a style has more to do with the critics, galleries and academicians that struggle to ascribe words, labels, context and a re-sale price, after the fact, to the artist's work. All well and good, until the drive to innovate new styles becomes a major criterion for evaluating the relative worth of any particular work of art. Or, until a whole art form is proclaimed "dead" by virtue of apparent inability to adequately perform on the stage of stylistic innovation. Then, we must question if, rather than the art being dead, perhaps it is the person looking at the art that has succumb. With styles being the actual purview of the critic, we might proclaim it is the critic and not the artist that has failed to create something new.

In truth, we may not be able to adequately address the question, "what's new", in two dimensional inanimate art simply by employing digital tools. Today, looking at the range of such art, all of which can be pigeon-holed neatly into this "ism" or that, regardless of the tools employed; we may have to consider that, in a broad sense, things have run their course stylistically. Which is to say that the "stylemakers", the critics, galleries and academicians, have created a sufficient number of broadly defined styles as to fit all occasions and visual statements. So that one can, with a good degree of jaded safety, say, "I've seen that, we've been there." Consider that art commentary and marketing based on stylistic trends has died. Perhaps we have entered an era where art commentary must become as nuanced and as sensitive to individual perception as the artists themselves. Art is no longer a matter of this style or that style. It is a thick, murky, strong brew of people and tools and diverse expression. Style has become just another tool of that expression and since art is not about the tools used to make it, art criticism can no longer be an evaluation based on style or genre. Instead of a dead-end, I see a great "jumping-off-point" wherein the strength and worth of a visual statement can be evaluated based on one's skill to manipulate line, composition, color, form, an artistís sensitivity in selecting and manipulating a visual style along with the other tools used to create a particular work of Art.

In his book, "The Art Spirit" Robert Henri states, "...there is the new movement. There always has been the new movement and there always will be the new movement.. It is necessary to pierce to the core to get at the value of a movement and not be confused by its sensational exterior." In the case of visual digital art, a good indication as to the nature of this core comes by way of recent developments in music; another "digital art". Everyone is quite aware of how digital tools have revolutionized the making and distribution of popular music. There is an explosion of new music created and distributed by individuals utilizing smaller, more powerful and more affordable digital studios and tools. Driven by creativity and artistic desire without requiring "big money", mass approval and massive retun on investment, this whole movement has the "music industry" ( a close facsimile of the "Fine Arts" industrial complex) quaking in their Gucci's. In a recent NPR report, Roger Linn, inventor of digital drum pads and a session guitarist, foresees the day when "there'll be fewer professional musicians, but more people making music."

In the same report, Chicago recording engineer, Steve Albini names this phenomenon "the triumph of the amateur" and notes the same trends one can observe in the visual digital arts. According to Albini this triumph of the amateur, "has led, aesthetically, to a lot of poor sounding recordings as musicians experiment with equipment without basic knowledge of audio recording. But, culturally, it has been democratizing, empowering and valuable." In terms of the craft of visual art, rules have been broken and often these new artists appear to know much more about software than art. But, the genie is out of the box and expanding creative bandwidth will always win out over perserving outmoded traditions and dogma.

Don Archer, creator and chief curator for the MOCA website, sees strong evidence that the kind of digital art we see here is the most popular and widely practiced art making of all time. "Digital art needs no defense. It's here, it's pervasive, it's succeeded in encouraging digital artists by the tens of thousands all over the world. It is the most popular art form ever. It should be taken for granted. It does not need the imprimatur of fine art critics, which will come anyway."

THE ROAD AHEAD: A Futurist's View

That we find very little of the two dimensional visual digital art that I have been focused on here in this essay in the established fine arts galleries and magazines is strongly indicative of where the truly vast market and validation for this work lies. It is "out there" in that much larger world which has, for so long, been disenfranchised. Ahead lies an even more far reaching period of democratization and the advancement of new markets, modes of display and distribution that will certainly revolutionize all aspects of what we now call "art". Style will become a tool for expression, not opression. Art will become, simultaneously more personal and more pervasive.

In this essay I have limited my comments to specific "styles" of one particular art form, this is not to say that digital tools will not lay the basis for, as of yet, unimagined new "art forms". As we more fully realize the consequences of a media which can integrate widely different input into a unifying form of binary expression and translate that expression into a myriad of perceived forms, we will arrive at a whole new terrain for, not only art, but how we perceive and experience our own consciousness. We will have "symbiotic art", capable of expressing color as sound and motion as music. The observer will become a functionary of the art itself and the designer will become a poet of the senses. With this will come the awareness that we already live in a virtual world transmitted to us by our evolved senses that, after all, only give us a single version of what remains, without us to observe it, a basically undifferentiated universe of electromagnetic waves, particles and constant energetic motion and change.

JD Jarvis
November, 2002
Las Cruces, NM

JD Jarvis website