|The Evolution and Status Quo of Digital Art:
An Artist's Perspective
John Antoine Labadie
I. Introduction. How we came to where we are.
In the 21st century digital technologies have become a powerful force in nearly every part of life, from art to pedagogy, from science to communication, from entertainment to navigation. The impact of various digital tools and techniques has also deeply pervaded the art world on an internationally as well. Within this technological revolution, digital art has become an integral part of some institutional and educational environments while it is still less than familiar in others. In art culture work made through digital means has had a dramatic impact over the last 15-20 years. Even so, working with computers to make art has a history much deeper and richer than most would suspect.
When one thinks of the word “artist” it is often in terms of works made of paint on canvas, carvings in stone, or drawings on paper. What does the phrase “digital art” or “digital artist” conjure in terms of a definition? Digital art has a history that is more than half a century old. Even so, the acceptance of digital art, and consequently digital art making techniques, into the art community is sometimes still not without controversy. The controversy is essentially this: some artists believe that the computer, not the artist, primarily creates digital art. This attitude indicates a lack of understanding as to the means by which digital art is created.
So just what is digital art? Generally speaking, “digital art” can be regarded as original, creative work developed on a digital computer and created and/or presented by some form of digital technology. As such, the term digital art extends to a wide variety of works and ways of working. Moreover, digital art can be generated completely by a computer, derived from a previously existing source, or exist as an image, environment or installation developed using digital hardware tools (mouse, graphics tablet, projector) and software (Photoshop, Illustrator, FinalCutPro). From a purely technical standpoint the term digital art might also be utilized to describe artwork accomplished using traditional media (paint, wood, metal) or processes (painting, printmaking, sculpture), which are then scanned, photographed, or videotaped so as to make a digital facsimile. However it is accomplished, the term “digital art” is most accurately applied to artwork that has been originated through the intercession of computing technologies. In addition, one has extensively modified this art or more computing processes and it has been generated and presented as part of an original, creative enterprise.
How did digital art come to be? What a marvelous tour it would be if somehow we could take a leisurely cruise through human history to identify some of the pivotal developments that have collectively brought us to our present state of computing, and digital art, early in the twenty-first century. The trip would surely have to include such milestones in human intellectual history as the development of numbers, the introduction of mechanical aids to calculation, the evolution of electronics, and the impact of electronics on computing theory and practice, and the to be on site when the first artist-programmer asked the computer to perform an aesthetic task just for the sheer marvel of doing so.
“The Era of the Pioneers” (1956 to 1986)
“The Paintbox Era” (1986 to 1996)
“The Era of Multimedia” (1996 to today)
As we can see by this brief overview of the development of digital art, even four decades ago terms such as computer-based art, the world wide web, large format digital prints, 3D imaging, virtual reality, iPod, computer animation, interactive art, 3D printing (and rapid prototyping), and the graphical user interface had yet not entered our collective vocabulary. The decades of the 1950s through the 1990s were alive with individual, academic, and corporate experimentation and innovation focused on the possibilities and benefits computers might offer. The experiments of this period are the basis of the computer based art and animation we experience today. And along that path of development we see many contributions, but no single creator or creative force underlying the establishment or overall evolution of digital art. Even so, it is possible to put together many kinds of lists of major and minor innovators, of luminaries, of those with unique vision who made contributions unlike anyone else. Such list will vary. A few such names have been mentioned thus far and more will be added before this piece is concluded. In addition, a selected list of online references for digital art organizations, museums, and galleries is provided as an addendum.
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