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Creative Life News Blog

Art and Technology: A Dubious Alliance in the Digital Revolution


Deruta Still LIfe (digital art) by Janet Strayer
Deruta Still Life (digital) by Janet Strayer

Digital Painting, AI, NFT: Is It Real ART?

Painting with pixels and electronics instead of with paint and brush: Is that art?

Fine art, from cave-painting onwards, has always been made by human hands using whatever tools and materials were available. Since that time, human brains have also used available technology to pursue artistic interests. Advances in pigments and paint formulae, along with tools like lenses, mirrors, grids, printing press, camera oscura (a darkened box with a convex lens that projected a vague image of external object onto a wall), and modern cameras have captured the creative imagination throughout history.


So why the animosity towards art that is mediated by the computer? Because it's cheating? Because a machine only copies and cannot originate? Does the camera "cheat" by relieving the human eye and hand of the hours of dedicated labor required to construct a hand-painted artwork? Yet, cameras and photography have become an accepted art form. So has the much older art of printmaking. The printing press, like the computer, is an intermediary machine that processes work created by an artist, who needs to know the necessary techniques of printmaking that render stunning etchings and the like.


Greater resistance occurs in reaction to computer-art than to these other forms of technologically-mediated art. This may reflect a a longstanding "human vs machine" ambivalence or downright fear of computer algorithms and robotics overtaking our human capacities.


Does Technology Degrade Art?

Many art traditionalists publicly scorned as blasphemy David Hockney's book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. (2001) about Renaissance masters' use of the camera oscura. Why such a vehement reaction? At that time, my art teachers at a classical realism art school agreed. They could create, and teach us to create, similar remarkable effects without such "cheating" devices. This is true for many painters in this tradition: they have remarkable skill, and no one disputes this fact. Nevertheless, it does not diminish Vermeer's greatness as a painter to think he may have used a camera oscura. Yet, this is the scornful attitude taken by many. Let's consider a very different viewpoint.

Artistic skill is undiminished by tool-use. Quite the opposite. Did traditionalists condemn Durer's famous use of a viewing-grid to aid drawing forms in foreshortend perspective? Artists have always explored new tools and new media as part of the creative process. I can imagine a cave painter's thrill to discover that carbon ashes made different marks when applied by stick, lump of fur, or fingers. The power of tools applied to creative visions can be expansive rather than diminishing art.

Computer-Mediated Painting: Is it Art?

Let me cut to the chase. We're well beyond the point of debating whether original digital painting is art. It is. Painting with pixels is just as much "art" as is painting with traditional paint. Whether it's judged as good art or not applies to both digital and traditional media.The computer provides tools (software-mediated brushes, colours, and more) is just a tool, like a paintbrush is just a tool.From my perspective, the skills involved in the two approaches differ more in technical aspects than in artistic-creative ones.


Artistic Vision and Purpose

Artists in both digital and traditional art media explore and apply similar principles of design, spontaneity, and expressiveness as they envision and work upon a painting. Their tools differ, but it's the artistic vision and skill that matter in both. The two can even mimic one another to some extent. Physical and optical texturing of digital paintings can resemble actual paint; and pixel-painting can be meticulous rendered with traditional paintbrushes (Chuck Close). But the wonder, to my mind, lies in their differences and the ways these two approaches can enhance one another. Here's a personal story that may outline some of the issues raised by traditional verus digital methods of painting.I was studying classical realism at an art academy in Toronto to learn classical painting techniques. At the time, these skills weren't considered valuable at my Vancouver art school. I knew my art was headed in different direction, but I wanted to learn classical techniques to assure that my own brand of expressive painting resulted from choices, not defaults. While learning classical techniques, I continued playing with digital painting, something I'd enjoyed doing as a break.


A Personal Perspective

My very first solo show in Vancouver some years ago, Child Out of Time, was of digital paintings. It clearly reflected classical training put to imaginative ends. I chose to work in digital media at that time because it closely reflected the dramatic inspiration for this series: an old monochrome photo of unknown children, displayed along with war memorabilia in a tiny civic archive in Europe.


When making this digital painting, series I used the traditional rendering techniques I'd been taught at the academy and applied them to pixels rather than paint. I blended and refined the many layers contained in a painting, knowing that the effect I wanted was of a timeless photo, no brush strokes. Must say, I missed the direct, sensory contact of traditional painting with brushes and paint. But it was the right technique given the image I wanted to create: a photo that looked like something real but could not have been.

digital painting by Janet Strayer
Garlands,digital painting by Janet Strayer, first prize, Artist's Magazine, 2010

I had much to explain about my digital technique in those still early days of digital painting.

During a subsequent exhibition that combined digital with traditional painting of similar content., I was asked to give a public lecture and demo. I hoped at the time to illustrate the points I'm making now: that art is art, regardless of the tools. I'm not primarily a digital painter, but I've been attentive to how the digital art field has exploded in recent years.

Although I personally prefer the sensuous feel of paint and kinetic movement in making paintings, I routinely go back and forth into digital media for exploration and fun. It's also fairly easy, or at least quickly done, to swipe, obliterate, or try several digital versions across layers of a digital work. Here's an example of an optically textured digital painting and my acrylic painting upon which it was based.

Penelope Waits, digital painting at left + acrylic  and painting at right  by Janet Strayer
Penelope Waits, digital painting at left + acrylic and painting at right by Janet Strayer

Current State of Digital Art

The public has caught the digital wave, despite the scowling rebuke of many traditional artists and critics. Why scowl? New technology is often part of the artistic process. Print-making and photography have proven this, and have become art media in their own right. So has digital art.


The critical question, for me, is whether the process of making art remains with the artist or with the machine. In digital film-making, for example, the artistic product still rests with human design and intervention (good or faulty) in the process. But what happens when algorithms in a computer program, itself, are sufficient to produce the output? Start it up and the computer generates the rest. WIth this, we enter the territory called Artificial Intelligence/AI.

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Artificial Intelligence (AI): Who IS the Artist? Who does the Creating?

When developed for artistic purposes, AI can produce impressive results. AI programs can synthesize an enormous database of photography, paintings, calligraphy, fractals, texturized light refractions, and more. Even more impressive is that the algorithms now include programmed randomness in their iterations, permitting them to go beyond the images in their database. This yields results that can differ in unpredicted and sometimes impressive ways, even when starting with the same input. Such differences result entirely from the program and database. The inclusion of this "randomness" factor is important because it keeps a degree of unpredictability in the algorithms, similar to the human process in creating art. When computer algorithms are used in this way, advocates refer to it as "Generative Art" or "AI Art" (https//aiartists.org).


We may applaud the creativity that builds such computer models. The variety and sophistication of some Generative Art productions are amazing, like 3D holograms or shifting visual compositions within a given viewing field. Although I'm all for artists using new tools, I admit to a problem in assessing as "art" products that are entirely computer-generated.

How much of the signature artist's own i intelligence and intent is expressed and communicated in such a product? This problem is mitigated if the artist is also the programmer and decision-maker regarding final output, as in Mario Klingemann's work (example shown).



Origins: How Digital Art Came to Blast Through the High-End Market

Sophisticated digital (AI) artworks now sell in the high-end art market for prices that can match or exceed traditionally painted works. New ground is being broken in this field, but the history of computer-generated visual output with built-in randomness was evident in the 1960's.

Schotter (Gravel) by Georg Nees (1968) at the left starts with a row of 12 squares that gradually alters as the rows move downward (the algorithm increases in the magnitude of randomness in the rotation and location of the squares). Vera Molnár's (1974) computer-generated work is beside it

historical examples in digital art progress

Some of these early works are impressive, and AI art has come a long way since then. Artists like Warhol did a computer graphics series in the 1980's. Digital art has gained a place in academic (Rutger's Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, for example) as well as commercial ventures besides the computer industry. If you're curious, Mario Klingemann has an interesting article on creativity in the AI age in the American Scientist: Inside Your Creative Mind (July-Aug 2020).


In the 1960's, with access to analog computer technology still limited, a few artists and computers scientist began experimenting with analog computers. Algorithms were used to guide a computer-driven pen across paper or to create typed X/O constructions of images. By the 1990s, personal computers and digital software revolutionized life for us all (for better or worse). Digital art became accessible to diverse creative people. Commercial digital art as well as some fine-art examples were displayed in Times Square electronic billboards in the 1980's. The use of digitized material also increased in fine art (Rauschenberg and others). Cindy Sherman's mixed photography and photo-manipulation rises to an artistic level uniquely her own.

In the 21st Century, when David Hockney's canvas paintings were the focus of multiple retrospectives worldwide, he was also enthusiastically using his iphone and ipad to sketch new digital works. His digital works became the focus of multiple world-wide exhibitions, some displayed via actual phones and tablets. Nowadays, fine-art validation comes to digital media as renowned museums worldwide, including the Whitney and MOMA in New York, add digital art to their collections.








NFT Art: All the Rage Now but ....

When I first heard the term, "non-fungible token"/NFT, I thought it was either a mushroom or a new football team. It's a term that has shaken up the art world and generated billions in sales in 2021 alone. NFT means the digital item so labelled is unique and cannot be replicated or divided (though it can be co-owned among share-holders). Like the original painting of Mona Lisa, an NFT can be reproduced in photographs and prints, but the original (like the original oil painting) is the unique and authentic item. The rights to an NFT are protected by a securely digitized certification of authenticity that tracks its ownership. The NFT acts as a one-of-a-kind asset that can be bought and sold on secondary markets. Selling an NFT means you are selling the ownership of the artwork, not the artwork itself, which may have exact digital duplicates.


Here's a little history to help understand these NFT mushrooms. The first NFT entered the scene in 2014 with Kevin McCoy's "Quantum", a pixelated image of a hexagon, that changed form and colour as the image pulsed. With the advent of crypto-currency marketing of NFT in 2017, a series of "CryptoPunks", or simple digital characters, were designed by Watkinson and Hall. Initially free, they now sell for thousands. These rather unsophisticated works had a big impact in the NFT market. By 2021 NFTs gained world attention when Everyday by digital artist, Mike Winkelmann (known as Beeple) sold at auction for nearly 70 million.

Blue-chip art auction houses and galleries have ventured into this new marketplace. NFTs are typically associated with digital artworks, but can also be applied to music, JPGs, video characters, and even original social media output

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I'm more focused on the art than the marketplace. But if you're curious, anyone can create or collect works in the NFT arena with a digital wallet, cryptocurrency, and a fee paid for processing your digital artwork on any NFT platform. After purchase, these works can be sold and resold on secondary markets using cryptocurrency. Remember though, intellectual property copyright belongs to the creator, not the buyer. This means that if you think of making an NFT of someone else's work, ensure you have permission first. And if you bought it, just as with any artwork, you may own this unique painting of Mona Lisa, but the idea/vision/actual design of the Mona Lisa is the intellectual property of the artist-creator.

As for me, I'm leaving the computer now and going back to the easel.


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