The dynamic canvas: Debate on traditional versus digital art continues

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January 10, 2021 12:30 AM

Digital artists around the world have been expanding their arena of tools to create unique artworks. But how exactly is digital art placed in the art world, especially in comparison to traditional art?

Digital art is often perceived as less tedious compared to the traditional form, as the common belief is that it does not require years of training.Digital art is often perceived as less tedious compared to the traditional form, as the common belief is that it does not require years of training.

In 2018, Obvious, a Paris-based art collective, created an artwork titled Edmond de Belamy. What made it special was the fact that this was the first time a portrait was created using artificial intelligence. Surprisingly, the artwork fetched $432,000 (more than 40 times the estimated selling price of $7,000-$10,000) at an auction by Christie’s in New York. For those who thought digital art isn’t worth the money, this was an eye-opener.

A consistent decline in the cost of digital art software with the exponential growth of technology has made creating digital art affordable for artists and for people to participate in the production process. The debate on traditional versus digital art, however, continues. Kiran Nadar, founder and chairperson, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, says digital and traditional art are separate entities. “While digital art is growing rapidly, it’s not necessarily killing the importance of traditional art, which will always have the sentimental value of its creator,” she says.

Digital art is often perceived as less tedious compared to the traditional form, as the common belief is that it does not require years of training. “It is true that digital art has been looked upon as something outside the realm of fine art… perhaps because of the notion that one which does not use human hand is not real art,” says art curator Lubna Sen, founder, The Art Route, a fine arts institution and organisation dedicated to visual arts. “As the digital footprint of art has increased, acceptance of this medium has also increased.”

Falling Girl (2008), an immersive installation by American digital artist Scott Snibbe, for example, was not just an interactive artwork, but also allowed the viewer to become an active part of the story. It follows a young girl’s unnaturally slow descent from the top of a skyscraper to the ground. It emphasises the shortness of life with the help of technology and the image of a falling girl narrates that story.

Delhi-based independent digital artist Aaryama Somayaji, however, believes that traditional and digital art forms are not at loggerheads as is often perceived. “I constantly go back and forth in my process of producing an artwork,” Somayaji says, adding, “Most of the times, I draw and conceptualise my ideas on paper first.”

For the masses, digital art works as it doesn’t have any specific set of rules, feels Siddharth Lenka, a Bhubaneswar-based independent illustrator and digital artist. “It gives everyone the chance to create in their own way,” he says.

Breaking new ground
Digital art isn’t just created using software and graphics editors such as Photoshop. It encompasses a wide range of artistic expressions. Sound art, for example, is a form of digital art. It emphasises exploration and experimentation of auditory perception to create an artistic piece. Sound is used as a primary medium and its frequency is used to create a visual piece.

Similarly, breathing is also used to create art. Ohmerometer II (2018) by Helen Collard & Alistair MacDonald was an original interactive piece, which allowed visitors to make music with their breath that resonated and created patterns. Durham-based Miriam Quick’s artwork Sleep Song (2018) tracked her breathing pattern as she slept to create graphic and musical patterns, leading to the final finished piece.

French artist Gilles Tran’s Blowing in the Wind (2007) focused on 3D rendering software such as POV-Ray, Cinema 4D, Poser and FinalRender to create a life-like installation on how gravity affects its subjects. Another famous work of digital art was American Camille Utterback’s Abundance (2007). Located in the city of San Jose, it was a public installation, which captured the movements of people going about in a plaza. The captured silhouettes were projected as a dynamic animation on to a cylindrical building. The movements of passersby, therefore, became a part of the visual, turning the building into a dynamic canvas.

Digital artists around the world have been expanding their arena of tools to create unique artworks. What works in their favour is that the tools available to them are unlimited and there is no set standard for what can or can’t be used. Not surprisingly, digital art is ever changing and evolving, crossing boundaries and creating new ones.

Far-reaching impact
Many might argue that everything on the internet should be free and accessible, but this model won’t work for digital artists who earn a living through their work online. Another challenge is the distribution of unauthorised digital copies, which makes it almost impossible to prove the ownership of an artwork in question.

But even with all its challenges, the scope of digital art is far-reaching, say experts. “This area is only going to gain more momentum with newer digital innovations,” believes Smriti Rajgarhia, director, Serendipity Arts Foundation & Festival, adding that the scope of digital art, its process and presentation have been explored through films, graphic novels, comic books, etc, over the years. Some of the recent works of popular artists such as Akbar Padamsee and Vivan Sundaram, in fact, show that these artists, formally trained in the ‘fine arts’, also took to Photoshop and other editing tools to give a new dimension to their art.

American-French art theoretician Joseph Nechvatal had always been fascinated with the relationship between real and virtual. Through his work Computer Virus (1991), he aimed to create computer-assisted paintings, using custom-created computer viruses. The patterns were a result of the ‘virus’ attacking the image.

Nechvatal describes the art piece as a part of the viractualism movement, which seeks to investigate the interfaces between the technological and the biological.

Then there is French digital artist Pascal Dombis’ Irrational Geometrics (2016), positioned in Wellington Street, Perth, Australia, which combines digital technology and traditional glass manufacturing, The piece is composed of five printed glass panels, creating a fold-unfold movement that gives viewers an idea of infinite shape and viewpoints. The final piece may sometimes appear as a glitch on screen, giving the feeling of unease, destructure and chaos.

Digital art is often regarded as the best medium to create and raise awareness, and this was visible during the anti-CAA and Black Lives matter protests last year. The art shared online on various social media platforms lent a voice to these protests and immortalised the fight and the cause undertaken. “We need to treat digital art as an alternative consciousness-raising space, not as along traditionalist lines of production. There are new institutional, educational and donor-oriented spaces that are investing in digital forms, given their replicability and easy transmission, which is critical for public arts initiatives and spaces,” says Rahaab Allana, curator for photography, Serendipity Arts Festival.

Nadar, however, points out that even though digital art has had a positive impact in terms of making the art world more approachable and less intimidating for a new set of viewers, it is hard for it to replace the real-life experience of traditional art.

Flourishing market
In 2018, Irish artist Kevin Abosch brought Blockchain technology and photography together, and created a piece of digital art titled Forever Rose. The work was based on Abosch’s photo of a rose and sold for $1 million worth of cryptocurrency, making it the world’s most valuable digital artwork ever to be sold.
Another young artist Robbie Barrat’s AI Generated Nude Portrait #1 (2018) took the art world by storm, as he used AI to train a neural network to generate its very own nude portraits. The machine, however, failed to learn proper human anatomy and instead generated blobs of flesh. Nevertheless, the final result was a beautiful and unnerving piece of art, which became the talk of the town. The 20-year-old French artist sold it for $75.74 and earned another $1,300 from the sale through taxes. Although the number might seem less, but what is interesting is that Barrat made 174 times the money he put in its production.

The value of an artwork in the primary market depends on a lot of factors such as the artist’s career, supply and demand, effort required and the rarity of the work, says Sen. “On an average, a digital work is available at price points lower than non-digital art. However, the manner in which digital art is consumed will also determine its price,” she says. According to industry experts, the market for digital art is flourishing. One of the major contributing factors for this has been a shift in interests of the younger generation. Divya Gupta, a digital artist based in Bengaluru who illustrates for the brand Chumbak, says that digital art speeds up the process of creation and streamlines a lot of things in between. “Changes can be made quickly and this goes well with clients who sometimes have last-minute additions and suggestions. You can also blow up the artwork to any size and fit it anywhere,” she says.

Digital artists have always been in demand as animators in various fields such as movies, TV, video games, commercials, etc. Brands hire them for illustration work. Therefore, sometimes they enjoy greater success than traditional artists. But when it comes to gallery exhibitions, they lose out to traditional artists, as very few galleries and museums have embraced digital art exhibitions. Jayesh Joshi, an independent digital artist based in Gurugram, feels that selling and marketing of digital art depends on a lot of factors. “One could get really successful or fall flat on their face. It depends on what you make, who you make it for and how you put the work out there. I choose to sell my pieces only as art prints to be framed or displayed, and that does see me lose out on a fair share of other things such as apparel,” he says.

Raising awareness
The 2017 Hiscox Art trade report, brought out by art collector and insurer Hiscox, discovered that 91% of galleries surveyed around the world actively used social media as a promotional tool for their business and the artists and art they exhibit. Instagram was considered by 57% of this community as the most effective social media channel for raising awareness. One thing is clear: increasing proximity between digital art and its audience through social media platforms is an important part of what makes it stand out compared to traditional art.

Brands and firms, too, are paying more attention to their social media image and often employ digital artists for creating quirky social media posts for them.

Many independent digital art pages such as Sanitary Panel and Art of Resistance are, in fact, now a brand in themselves. Social media also allows the audience and consumers to continuously interact with a digital artwork, which humanises it and helps the artist in terms of diverse feedback. “Along with artists becoming more comfortable with technology, the emergence of online viewing, combined with a huge increase in activity on social media platforms, suggests that collectors, too, are becoming attuned to looking at art on a screen,” says Jagdip Jagpal, director, India Art Fair.

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