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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.

Our trip would take us to ancient Greece, to what is today Iran, and across the ancient world into China, into Europe during the Industrial Revolution, to Germany, and England, and across the Atlantic to the United States after World War II. Somewhere in the later 1940s or early 1950s we might chance upon a room-sized collection of wires and tubes that would form one of the first electronic computing machines.

Along the tour we would surely have come to understand that no single genius could fairly be identified with invention of computers. Even so, as with the history of nearly any complex system, more than a few individuals can be identified who have offered their genius to the effort to innovate the wide range of technologies that constitute electronic computing, and digital art, as we understand these domains today.

As one might expect, the origins of digital art are inextricably connected with the evolution of the computer, computer software, and a variety of computer peripherals. And, although there must have been many aesthetic computing experiments along the way that are now lost to history, it appears safe to say that computer/digital art as we know it appears to be little more than fifty years old. The record of the “pioneers” of digital art is recorded in a great many places on the Internet (a search on 15 April 2008 provided 41,800,300 results for the term “digital art”), and in more books and articles than anyone might care to read.

One of the primary resources for information on the development of digital art is the online “Digital Art Museum.”  The DAM breaks the history of digital art down into three phases.

“The Era of the Pioneers” (1956 to 1986)
In this time frame are included many of the earliest known experimenters in digital art. Many of these investigators were not artists by training but engineers and scientists. It is certain that their collective visual explorations added essential inertia to what was and emerging medium literally outside of the attention of the general public. At this point in the development of digital art the experimental writing of computer programs was central to most of the work produced during this era, as “off the shelf” software simply did not exist. Computer displays were monochromatic and computer-based printing technologies were nearly non-existent. An example here would come from the work of Charles Csuri at the Ohio State University would write literally thousands of lines of code to develop an animation of a battlefield scene programmed according to a series of variable about the soldiers participating in the battle.

“The Paintbox Era” (1986 to 1996)
It is in this era of digital art that commercial software became available to the general public. The releases of these applications did not constitute an immediate flood of graphics programs into the market but there was a slow and steady development of consumer software that had never before been available to the non-programming public.  The early commercial applications attracted artists to the field of computing who were, not trained primarily as programmers or engineers. It was these “early adopting” visual artists who had the vision and the experimental fortitude to create electronic works that could be accomplished without deep programming knowledge. It is during this era that the “paint program” made its first appearance brining with it the introduction of the pixel to visual artists. Additionally, this is a time when the first affordable computers were introduced into the market. An example of this was the Apple II computer (sold in 1976 for $1300.00 US) developed by Steve jobs and Steve Wozniak is considered by many researchers to be the first true “personal computer brought to the general marketplace. Finally, this era also saw the introduction of peripheral devices such as the scanner and the mouse. In this time frame the computer (in one form or another) became part of society throughout much of the world. The personal computer, the software, and some useful and interesting peripheral devices were now in the hands of artists.  

“The Era of Multimedia” (1996 to today)
Within this era digital artists were moving deeply into new forms of imaging through the GUI (graphics user interface). The application “Photoshop” came into being in the early 1990 and photography has never been the same.  Along with the general public, artists also entered the exciting new space offered by the Internet, and interactive art, and the myriad avenues offered by other commercialized forms of digital media became a significant focus for many creative investigations. During this period digital art becomes more a more common area of study in academic art programs, in museums (particularly with the founding with many institutions focused on “digital art”), and into the public consciousness. The in the early 21st century it is clear that the great expansion of computer gaming, online art forms, digital media, digital photography and videography, web design, and virtual worlds (among other technologies) have opened the public and media consciousness in utterly untried ways and forms. Digital art in its many forms and manifestations is now available to anyone with an Internet connection, and has in this way become nearly ubiquitous.

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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