Digital artist Harold Cohen watches
Computer art typically refers to any form of graphic art or digital imagery which is produced with the aid of a computer, or any types of art in which the role of the computer is emphasized. This wide-ranging definition also includes traditional disciplines that use computers - for instance, it encompasses computer-controlled kinetic art (especially sculpture) or computer-generated painting - as well as equivalent forms of applied art (computerized designs, architecture). In any event, it's the latest type of contemporary art - a sort of ultimate postmodernism. Such a Machine Age artform is a far cry from the Stone Age cave painting of the Upper Paleolithic. Although the 20th century has witnessed the emergence of various strains of avant-garde art, including animation (Walt Disney), collage (Braque), junk art (Duchamp), assemblage (Jean Dubuffet), conceptualism (Edward Kienholz, Yves Klein), installation (Joseph Beuys), Performance (Allan Kaprow) and video art (Andy Warhol, Peter Campus, Bill Viola), computer-generated art is far more revolutionary - not least because it is has the potential (as artificial intelligence grows) to attain almost complete artistic independence. When its first primitive forms appeared in the 1950s many critics questioned whether it truly was art. They wondered: could concepts such as 'meaning', 'expression' or 'form' - still apply to computer art? As technology progressed, so did the creative output of computer artists and their artworks have gradually become accepted within the established art world. Today, curators prefer to refer to it as digital art or new media art because this implies it is more serious or fundamental than simply the adoption of a new tool. The best known digital artists include the German pioneer Manfred Mohr (b.1938); the American artist Ronald Davis (b.1937) who is associated with the movement's geometric abstraction and lyrical abstraction; John Lansdown (1929-99), and Jean-Pierre Hebert whose specialty is algorithmic art and mixed media. See: Top Contemporary Artists.
WHAT IS VISUAL ART?
Artists first began experimenting with computers in the 1950s. The first computer art show, Computer Generated Pictures, was held at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York. Another large-scale exhibition of computer artwork - Cybernetic Serendipity - was held in London in 1969 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. At this point most of the artwork produced (called Digital or Cybernetic art) was graphical and emphasized geometric shapes in different random combinations. Not particularly exciting today, but ground-breaking in their time.
The next development came in the 1970s with the introduction of the light pen or stylus. This was a digital pen that allowed the user to move and juxtapose items around on the computer monitor, allowing more flexibility (today they are often used with digital personal organizers). Well known artists like David Hockney (b.1937) and the British painter and college artist Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) experimented with the technology. (Later in 1992, Hamilton used the Quantel Paintbox system to manipulate his 1956 collage Just What is it That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? so as to reflect the contemporary era.)
But computer art doesn't just refer to images created on screen. It also refers to piece of artworks where computer technology was used somewhere in their creative process. For example the artist Harold Cohen (b.1928) produces his own computer programs to randomly generate a variety of abstract drawing, which he then blows up and colors by hand. Programs have also been used to control the movement of Kinetic sculptures.
As technology and computer software has developed, the possibilities for computer art continued to expand. The Copy Art movement (c.1976-86), which sprang up in the United States and spread to Europe (via Lieve Prins in the Netherlands, Jurgen O Olbrich in Germany, and Bruno Munari in Italy) gave a boost to computerized artforms. The advent of the inkjet printer in 1976 made it easier for artists to create giclee prints of their works. At the same time, French artists including Jean Mathiaut, Philippe Jeantet, Jean-Pierre Garrault, and Daniel Cabanis, experimented with flatbed copying, image processing, video integration and digital graphics.
In the 1980s and 1990s the term began to encompass interactive environments that placed both viewer and artist at the interface between the real and virtual worlds. Artists concentrated on manipulating imagery with the help of computer software tools. Thus new companies like Adobe (launched in 1982) created easy to use artist software, like their vector drawing program Adobe Illustrator. It is still one of the main programs used by computer artists today. The digital manipulation of photographs with software programs like Photoshop have created a new breed of exciting contemporary artists such as Andreas Gursky (b.1955) and Jeff Wall (b.1946).
In Japan, a small group of computer artists called Dumb Type, founded in Kyoto in the mid 1980s, specialized in the production of installations - featuring music, dance, theatre, video and photography - whose imagery totally immersed the spectator.
During the 1980s, postmodernist architects like Frank O. Gehry (b.1929) developed Deconstructivism: a sort of anti-Euclidean style of avant-garde architecture, using computer software derived from the aerospace industry. This 3-D form of computer art is exemplified in buildings like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1991-97).
The internet has been an important means by which computer artists publicize their works - artists can submit their creations to online galleries or self-publish by uploading their works to a personal blog or website. It also created interactive possibilities which some artists use to create a virtual experience. For example the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta (b.1976) invited visitors to the Tate Modern, London to log onto a temporary website, choose a religion and receive a virtual blessing (Blessed Bandwidth, 2003).
There are many differences between computer art and traditional fine art (painting, drawing and sculpture). Digital art, once created, can be easily mass produced (which is why it is popular with artists who practice pop art and poster art). Imagine the huge quantity of artworks that Andy Warhol would have created if he had been able to use computerized screen printing technology! Traditional art on the other hand is generally more time consuming and as a result each piece is unique. While traditional art can be digitalized, as in computer illustration, the question remains, is the artist's soul missing in digital art? Can digital art truly express the inner emotions of an artist? Traditionalists say no, there is no comparison. Contemporary artists disagree insisting that computer art is a highly skilled trade which can take years to master (hence the popularity of digital art courses in art schools). They insist that the rules of art such as chiaroscuro (shading), composition, form and values exist in digital art just as much as in traditional art. For this reason, does it matter whether the artist holds a mouse or a paintbrush? No doubt the debate will continue. (Any bets on how soon before a computer artist wins the Turner Prize?)
What is clear however is that computer art has touched the lives of ordinary people in a way that traditional art could only dream of. It's almost impossible to buy anything today - from food items to books or holidays - without being exposed to computer art, whether it's in the form of packaging, a book cover or glossy printed brochure. And that's before we even mention its central role in the film, animation and games industry. If art had a goal to influence humanity, computer art would probably win hands down.
For more about digital arts, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART