The pixel problem

Claire Neesham
Times Higher Education Supplement, 27 November 1998

Digital art is still viewed as the poor relation to painting, sculpture and even photography by many in the arts establishment. Claire Neesham investigates

Earlier this autumn the Colville Place Gallery in central London held an exhibition of work by Guillem Ramos-Poqu!, head of fine art and theoretical studies at Kensington and Chelsea College. The exhibition was entitled "Invaders - Digital and Mixed Media" and illustrated Ramos-Poqu!'s technique of combining traditional painting with digital methods. So far no surprises. But what may seem strange, half a century into the computer age, is that the Colville Place Gallery appears to be the only commercial gallery in Britain that specialises in exhibiting works of digital art.

The Tate Gallery was unable to produce anyone to talk about digital art. Its press office seemed to think we should already know the name of the person we wanted.

A hopeful sign, perhaps, is Richard Hamilton's current London exhibition. It includes several recent works in which the PopArt pioneer of the 1960s has exploited the computer techniques of the 1990s.

Why does the art world have a problem with digital art? And are there signs that attitudes are changing? It would help if we could say what constitutes digital art. But the question is not unlike that perennial favourite in art colleges, "What defines quality in art?". The traditionalist view allows artists to track back through history to justify their work. The institutional theory relies on a group "in the know" defining what should be art. Others base a decision on perceptual qualities.

Defining what is meant by the term "digital art" is just as complicated. Ramos-Poqu!, for instance, combines the pixelated printed image with actual paint. Others create images for the web, or design virtual worlds. A digital artist may even hand over authorship to the viewers with a CD-Rom or a sound space. There are artist printmakers who use a computer at some point, but do not emphasise its use in the final work.

Beyond the problem of definitions is a problem of attitude or perception. In 1996, Ben Davis from the Getty Information Institute in Santa Monica, California began a Scientific American review by asking, "What distinguishes formerly classified digital satellite image archives from abstract art?" He went on: "As I gaze at my computer screen I can't always tell the difference."

This perception that digital art is not that different from other forms of digital imagery, and that its production may not require the same level of skill as a great painter or sculptor is widespread. Even artists such as Ramos-Poqu! and Paul Clifford, a senior lecturer in fine art at the Chichester Institute who also combines digital imagery with more traditional media, admit that some in the art world class images made on a computer as inferior. Ramos-Poqu! believes this perception of digital art can in part be blamed on practitioners who wow the viewer with digital effects and gimmickry, ignoring subject matter and issues. Clifford feels that this has left many people in the art community with the impression that digital art is naive. This is compounded by the similarity between some digital art and commercial advertising graphics. Ian Middleton and Keith Watson, the directors of the Colville Place Gallery, come from a graphic design background. Middleton admits that he and his colleague were interested by the fact that artists who used computers often used them in a very similar way to designers. The point is reinforced by Ramos-Poqu! who asks, "So, when does an image created on a computer become fine art? When is it advertising?" For Ramos-Poqu! the answer lies in what he calls the perceptual-interpretative or ecological-hermeneutic critical dimension of the work. He believes that "ecologism," the emerging counterculture in fine art and philosophy, is concerned with a critique of society and culture, using a visual language to articulate social, ideological and ecological issues. But he and Clifford admit that some digital art falls short of such insight, which may help explain the art establishment's reticence.

Andrew Wilson, assistant editor at Art Monthly, a British contemporary art magazine, says that one of the problems with digital art is that it "promises a lot more than it delivers". He feels that the artists tend to fall into two categories: the traditional artists who use a paintbox program rather than a brush, and those artists who concentrate on using the latest digital effects. Neither approach inspires Wilson, who believes that artists should be considering the impact of the digital technologies themselves and reflecting this, just as Cubism captured exciting changes taking place in science at the time.

Content is also of concern for Peyton Skipwith, deputy managing director of the Fine Art Society, a London-based commercial gallery that specialises in 19th and 20th century fine and applied arts. He says: "I think a lot of computer stuff is style rather than content." Skipwith feels that prints of images created on a computer are more mechanical than hand printing, and he points out that it is the variations between traditional prints that give them their value.

Middleton and Watson acknowledge that it is possible to make millions of identical prints from a digital image. They address this by issuing limited edition prints signed by the artists. In some cases the price also includes a second print, illustrating a second difficulty with some digital prints - their limited life. The printing inks used for early digital prints often had a quite limited colour range and were not colourfast. The paper quality was also poor. This situation is now changing, however, with better quality printers that use colourfast inks, produce a wider colour spectrum and can print on high-quality handmade papers.

Together these improvements are expected to help improve the perception of printed digital art. For other art forms such as web art or installations, acceptance may be further off. But perhaps the biggest barrier to widespread acceptance of digital art is the word "digital". For artists such as Ramos-Poqu! and Clifford the computer is just another medium. The real value of their work is in its ability to bear witness to current events and attitudes.

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