I thought I would take a moment to share my thoughts that have been percolating for awhile now. In particular, I wanted to address something I’ve heard or otherwise read online around the lines of “what is art?” or “is that legitimate art?” or even “does this constitute cheating in art?” I thought I would minimally attempt to answer these questions head-on, if for no other reason to state what I think is art; note the emphasis is on my opinion. You may disagree, of course; but, hopefully you find this discourse useful.
When I was growing up digital art was just becoming prevalent. Photoshop and other apps were available that, while not directly written to support what we now know as digital art, were nonetheless being used to create works of art. Or as some might write: “works of art,” with the quotes to negate the statement and instead connote derisively that anything created using a computer was not itself art. Claims of cheating were laid upon such works and their creators, as if the computer was somehow shortcutting the artistic process in some intrinsic and important way. As if computers magically made everyone into a Rembrandt when moments before they were just cave persons hacking away on an antelope on a cave wall. And if you think cave paintings are primitive and uninspired then you haven’t really spent a lot of time looking at them. But that is beside the point. Even if it were hypothetically true that computers striped art to bunch of algorithms – albeit that is not the case at all – it still would not delegitimize the outcome, or the product, of such a process, in opinion; but, more on that later. Its worth noting that a similar argument was made for digital photography, too, albeit that came about many years later, though the argument existed in one form or another as soon as even film cameras started automating more and more of the base mechanics such as focal depth, exposure, focus, et cetera. Again, the argument’s core thesis focused on the idea that the tool did more of the work in some inhumane (in that literal kinda meaning) way that made the output incompatible to the pursuits of art, or even as a reflection of an artist’s skills.
I personally love digital photography for the ease at which it allows me to quickly and iteratively take photographs with a high level of confidence. But some of my favorite pieces, both digital and film, have nothing to do with the picture itself, but as the photographer I love them because I recall how hard they were to capture. Maybe it was that long hike at high altitudes and just being lucky to stumble on that lone flower under a tree with just the perfect lighting that keeps it a personal favorite. Or similarly with film, some pieces I love because there was a ton of work and luck in getting that just perfect shot that till it was developed weeks later did you discover if you had won the lottery, even if the payout was a measly five bucks. It was five bucks well earned. It still does not mean that it was objectively superior to work I created with 10 seconds of almost intuitive instinct on my iPhone. The art must stand separate from the artist and thus by extension the means used by the artist to create said art, in my opinion.
As a teenager, I along with a lot of other people tended to view digital art and digital artists as less legitimate than “real artists” – you know, artists who used physical mediums such as watercolors, pencil and ink, charcoal, acrylics, or even the penultimate of all mediums, oils. And if you used oils, well then you were the truest of true artists, ordained as all things holy and right. It’s a belief I held growing up, and I mention this not to defend the position but to note I understand how we got to the conclusion we did; regardless, the position that digital art is either illegitimate art or even just lesser art is simply wrong-headed, in my opinion.
Art is art, and any qualification of art by its medium should only signify the medium used, not be used to implicitly attach a valuation (or devaluation) of the art itself. More so, what I hope to argue for you today is that all the arguments in the world are bullshit when it comes to trying to establish anything remotely like “legitimate art,” or as a minimum such qualification is unnecessary since all art is ultimately legitimate for if there is even one person, even the artist themself, that sees the product of their hard work as art then it is, my noble reader, art.
As noted, I used to think the medium of the art made it more or less legitimate, and by extension the medium used reflected on the quality of the artist. If oil paintings and oil painters were among the rarest and highest echelons, as holy as the seraphim of heaven, then the devilish sprites mixed colors with acrylics and the more nefarious of hell’s labors were done in watery colors. And while I focused on pencil, itself left to the outer rings of Hell itself, somehow the use of charcoal could elevate you out of Beelzebub’s dominion and put you back into the lower choirs of the Almighty as an angel if not an archangel itself. The use of other mediums might gain you renown, but this was more a gain in notoriety similar to how the tritone or flatted fifth gained you notoriety by the Church with your accursed devil’s interval; you were still damned; unless, of course, you mixed in some of those heavenly oils then all was forgiven.
For the record, I’ve only ever done one oil painting (found above) back in the early 2000s while attending a class with the Experimental College at University of Washington. Of traditional mediums, I generally kept myself solidly and squalidly in the realm of pencil, ink and the occasional acrylics or watercolors; I was self-condemned to forever long for greater things but forever repenting for the sins of my choices. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of self-loathing in my teens. But I digress.
Somewhere between the above opinion and the one I now hold – that all art is legitimate – is largely one of a journey to find my own artist’s voice through fits and starts spanning the past three decades. Its a journey that includes both digital and 120mm film photography along with Japanese sumie and my now current choice of medium of digital art; its a journey that includes me first understanding and then overcoming my own bigotries, biases, and ignorance on what art is.
To understand art a bit more, let’s take a quick detour to another discipline I’m quite familiar with: engineering. As an engineer who has worked in a number of disciplines (think of them as mediums if it were art), I can tell you with, if not with great authority, then with great conviction the principles that I think define a well-engineered system. The principles revolve a lot around process such as it must be maintainable (people can come in afterwards and fix things), it must be testable (people need to be able to verify the correctness of the solution), it must be repeatable (for a given set of inputs you can dependably get the same output), and so forth.
As an artist, I think of art similarly; if not principles, then fundamentals that are universal to art. Namely, the fundamentals of art include composition, shape and form, value and color. In both disciplines, we are trying to solve a set of problems. In art, we’ve learned to decompose the problem by their type, or these aforementioned fundamentals. We tend to work iteratively, trying to first solve composition, generally via means of rough shapes and forms. Once we understand our composition, we apply limited set of values to make sure everything works at-a-glance. We then refine our shapes through more varied values, all while trying not to loose the initial broad strokes we achieved in the previous step. At some point, we’ve nailed our values and we move on to color, which is often done in stages as we enter into the final rendering stages. Note, some people can and do work on value and color at the same time, but this does not negate the fact that values and color are separate, albeit complimentary, fundamentals. So we have a process anchored to fundamentals that is true regardless of the medium. If anything, these fundamentals are a better gauge for whether something is art, or not. But I would not stop here to find a definition of art since even the fundamentals are just a means to an ends. But to what ends, you ask. Good question.
The fundamentals must all serve a greater purpose. And therein lies the very thing that makes something qualify as art: The Purpose. Oh ah, capitalized to make it singular, the alpha and the omega for which we lay upon our thesis here and today. The purpose of art, at least the visual arts, is to tell a story. A story that evokes a response in the viewer. That is the product we reference in the title of this post. And how we achieve said product, as it were, is just the means or process that achieves this ends. And thus we might come to understand why I put product over process to discover what art is.
Purpose is everything. Any more than, as an engineer, I cannot just build a maintainable, testable, repeatable system and call it good; said system must do something meaningful or minimally with a purpose. To wit, both engineering and art exist to fulfill an intent. In art, this story is sometimes called the narrative. Art is story, art is narrative. Art, or the visual arts at a minimum, is also easily compared to a language, albeit a visual language. It has its own sense of vocabulary, sometimes borrowed from the culture that the artist sits, sometimes unintentionally, assumptively borrows from the viewer’s culture, and sometimes is unique and specific to the artist. When the vocabulary is sufficiently unique to be ascribed to a specific artist, we might call this the “artist’s style.” Like any language, there is grammar including subject, verb, direct and indirect objects, adjectives, adverbs, et cetera. In this, a piece of art, any piece of art, tells us a story. It may be as simple as a woman sitting as a desk needling, or of a man screaming on a bridge, but every piece of art tells us a story. Even the absence of a story invites us in to tell our own story, thus you may see how even abstract art does not escape this definition, it merely pushes the narration from that of the artist to the viewer. Art tells not a singular story, but a multiple of stories as there is the story of the author’s intent, but also the story that the viewer imparts or more specifically interprets when they view the piece. And every viewer imparts a new story, even if slightly different than any other, that gives art this durability and universality. Art speaks to us for no other reason than that is its core purpose.
Both the medium, and the process of using that medium, is ultimately a choice by the artist. There are many reasons we might pick a given medium. Some artists are sufficiently versatile in their narrative voice that they pick a medium based on the story they want to tell. Others may pick a medium for its expediency, availability or general ease of use. Regardless, the medium generally is more a reflection of the artist, than something inherent to the art itself. All the decisions we, as artists, have to make are not changed by our medium. If I use pencil, ink, oils, or my iPad, I still must figure out a slew of things that have nothing do with the medium. It does not change my narrative, just how I approach my narrative.
People argue that digital art is too easy, that it short-circuits all the hard-earned skills that are required to make great art. Which is, quite frankly, bullshit. If anyone who has tried digital art can attest to, there is a very steep learning curve to using your tools well. Yes, the tools can certainly make some things easy to do over traditional approaches; this is especially true for colors which you can tweak throughout the entire rendering process, unlike traditional mediums where you must be much more thoughtful in advance since changing your color gamut gets harder and harder the further along you go. But does not mean we’ve obviated the need to understand color theory? No, it just means you can manipulate colors more easily.
Certainly, traditional mediums have more constraints. And hidden within these constraints can be found great virtues that an infinitely malleable medium such as a digital canvas may never quite pull out of an artist’s well of untapped and latent or even dormant abilities. Constraints push us to be more thoughtful given we cannot undo our decisions. And how we solve the problems of working around this constraints can often be a hallmark that makes an artist stand out from their peers. I think of Ansel Adams and his seminal photographs of Yosemite national park. He had to lug around heavy equipment to mostly unreachable areas with great thought ahead of time to capture the picture he wanted to take. He had to not just worry about the physical location, he had to take into account time of year, time of day, number of exposures, length of exposures well in advance of making the arduous trek. And then lug everything back to this lab to do even more processing to finally get the picture to match what he had envisioned weeks, months, or even years prior. And there was no way to go back into the field like you can with digital photography and near instant feedback if you got the shot you wanted. Ansel Adams inspires us not only for this photographs that capture the marvel that is Yosemite, so inspires us also its the dedication and perserverance he exhibited in the pursuit of his artistic vision. In this regard, both product (his photographs) and his process (all that lugging up and down the side of mountains without the instant gratification of a digital camera) make both man and his work stand out. But note how we separate out the art from the artist. In this way there is product and there is process.
Still don’t believe me in this separation of artist, artist process, and artist product? Let me present you with an analogy. Imagine yourself, as a consumer, go to a steak restaurant and order a hamburger. You want a delicious hamburger. Do you care whether it’s prepared in that kitchen? Do you care that they had to run down the street to buy the hamburger from a burger joint? Do you care if they use their own grinder to turn steak into minced meat? Do you care if it was frozen beforehand? Does any of that really matter? No. It’s a hamburger. You will either find it delicious or not. In this analogy, the hamburger is our art, the restaurant is our artist. Yes, if you are a restaurant you should likely care about these questions. Heck, if you are a connoisseur of hamburgers then you may care even more than the restaurants about the answers to all these meta questions. But guess what, most people are not connoisseurs. Most people are not restaurants. They just want to eat a damn good burger.
As artists, we care a lot about process. For us, its a part of our expression. It matters to us since its how we commune, as it were, with our work as we try to build the narrative in a way that others, when they see it, will be able to understand. Its very labor intensive, and its hard for us as artists to look away from all the energy invested as being without value. Surely the fact that I labored a week on this piece with little or no sleep makes this piece more valuable? Nope. The art must stand on its own. The art itself is really only the last slice of time, as it were, from a set of almost innumerable slices of time that started with the first slice, the proverbial white canvas. We, as artists, care about all those slices. As a viewer of the art, we only care about the last slice. As a connoisseur of the art, we care about the art and the artist, and thus like the artist, care about all of those slices. In this regard, a connoisseur cares about the medium, not for the medium’s sake, but as a proxy to better understand and appreciate the creation of the art itself through the artist’s lens.
And I think this is where the rub lies. We have a community of artists telling a bunch of people how to think and qualify artwork. And I find this a decidedly inverted way of thinking. Restaurants do not tell us what food is or is not, or if said food is delicious; we tell the restaurants. There are a lot of artists who will generally say that art produced digitally is somehow lesser than the traditional varietals because they devalue, largely through ignorance, the entirely different set of skills that go into producing work digitally. Along with what I think is a fundamental lack of understanding of what a computer can and cannot do. But we get to this place from the fact, I feel, that we as artists tend to also be connoisseurs of other artists. So we get vested in not just the art, but the artist and by extension their process and medium. I’ve found that the people who are the most vociferous against digital art are they themselves artists of traditional mediums, which likely reflects a status quo bias inherent in all of us. More so, a person unfamiliar with the process of digital art, especially as an artist, finds themselves in this quarrelsome argument with themselves where their ignorance of the medium does not stop them having an opinion of the medium, even if said opinion is not formed from any true experience in which find solid footing.
But all of this is not entirely a bone to pick with people who think digital works, as a medium, is not worthy of the appellation of art. Or worse in some ways, they admit it’s art but just of a lesser form. I would extend my disagreement with anyone who has any critique of an artist’s technique. Is tracing art? Is using photographs as reference art? Is photorealism art? Put another way, can you cheat in art? I personally do not find photorealistic renderings of other photos art, regardless of the medium or technique, largely resting my argument on the basis that the new piece of work does not say anything meaningful that the original photograph did not already say; the work is not additive or original and thus not worthy of the moniker of the label art. Its certainly artistic in that sense that there is true skill involved to produce such a rendering, but skill itself just like the medium does not define whether something is art, in my opinion. My objection does not lie with the rendering, it lies with the lack of narrative. But do a photorealistic rendering of an original composition and I’m all over it. In the end, I’m more interested in my art than my process, at least when it comes from hearing from others; people who are interested in judging or criticizing my medium or approaches tend to find themselves talking to unsympathetic ears. If you think my traditional works somehow show more skill than my digital work then you’re both uniformed on digital processes, and are entirely missing the point, in my opinion.
Art is language. Art tells a story. Art evokes a response in the viewer. That is art. Whether I paint it in oils or crayons or electrons does not enter into the definition of what art is.
I make burgers, you can love them or hate them, I do not care per as is your right to like and dislike what you will; but, just stay out of my kitchen. I’m joking; do come into my kitchen, share and talk! But if you order a burger from me, I’m going to cook you a damn fine burger my way.