But Is It Art?


I’ve installed yet another camera app (My Sketch for iPhone), that, along with the paint-and-draw tools in my iPad (ProCreate, ArtRage, Adobe Ideas) keep making me come back to the question: when does art become nothing more than a technological trick accomplished by a five year old (or a 65 yr old for that matter) with a digital lens and the right software?

Some would challenge the notion that photography of any variety was art. And my tracing then “painting” my digital landscapes–my wife thinks that’s a cheap shot: sort of artsy but not the real McCoy.

I see her point, up to a point. But I am learning to see differently using these tools.

There is a skill involved here. I feel like this is something I can get better at–reproducing shadow, texture, the appearance of depth, realistic hues and free-hand shapes that are facsimiles of the painted object. But if I’m using something with a digital screen, she thinks automatically that makes it nothing more than a diversion.

What was the public response when the first camera lucida was used to “make art” of visual street scenes from European cities or to create portraits of famous people?

Wikipedia describes the tool as “an optical device used as a drawing aid by artists.” So there. And be aware of a controversial claim that many of the “old masters” of art actually used optical aides rather than free-hand drawing to produce their “masterpieces.” See Hockney-Falco Thesis

Still, that creative genius we have known for centuries as art, we have held a more or less common understanding of what it is. Now, anyone with a cell phone is an artist?

The same would go, I suppose, for digitally-produced music. And hold onto your hats: it won’t be long, I’m guessing, until you’ll be making three-dimensional artsy-objects with an inkjet printer. So right here in my office, I could create the Mona Lisa, the Brandenberg Concerto and Michelangelo’s David and not break a sweat.

But would they be art?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I like the look of mixing photography and drawing – two ways of seeing and describing the world, each with its own advantages and limitations. Maybe thy can serve the purpose of covering for each others limitations.

    I find it quite easy to accept a very broad range of things as art. The more interesting and more difficult questions are things like:
    Is it good art and why is it good art?
    Why did the artist do it?
    What does it contribute to me and or to the world?
    I’m reminded of a Bob Dylan line – “What good am I…”

  2. I’ve struggled with this question since I got into serious DSLR photography 10 years ago. Even with “normal” digital images I still get the “Yes but it’s been photoshopped” line, in other words it’s not real photography and you’re not a real photographer. Never mind that almost all professional photography before digital was developed using all kinds of arcane tricks in the darkroom, and aRAW image coming from a DSLR HAS to be developed in Photoshop or similar software. You can’t explain that to deaf eyes tho.
    I rarely just let a digital image alone trying all kinds of artistic filters and tools. The fact is anyone now can take a quality digital image but it’s the subjective, personal interpretation of the image with the various tools that allows the creator to express themselves in a unique, creative manner.
    For me, no matter what arguments I use to try to convince myself that it is art, I sadly confess that my own gut won’t let me say that it is. I feel like I’m cheating. There are real galleries here that display oil and watercolor work along side digital paintings. I can’t help but say “photoshopped” myself when looking at the digital images. As to whether it’s art I guess it depends on the person as to the definition of art. For me personally it’s not art, even though I enjoy digital dabbling as my favorite hobby. The real brushes, palettes, paint tubes are sitting in a box nearby, patiently waiting for me. Right now I have some digital images taken this weekend to play with.

  3. I don’t see why the mere fact of being digital rather than physical stops something from being ‘art’. There is a particular look and feel to art made digitally, but so what? That applies to other media too.

    For me digital media are just another tool that you can use. I have made purely digital prints, but I have also used digital processing as part of the way towards making a physical screen print.

    Even if all you do is press a software button it can still be art, but since over the years I’ve made lots of digital prints I would say that I suppose. Whether it’s ‘good’ art of course is another matter, but that same question can be asked of lots of work in traditional media so again so what?

    The relationship between digital imaging and ‘fine art’ is something I’ve written about a lot in my blog. As a printmaker I find lots of people are confused about the difference between an original work of art and a reproduction, and the relentless marketing hype that surrounds so-called ‘giclee fine art prints’ has not helped.

    A simple test – is the work you are looking at conceived by the artist for the medium in which you see it and is the work made by or under the direct direction of that artist. If the answer is yes, then you have an original work of art (good or bad is a separate question). If the answer is no – as for example with a reproduction of a painting made on an ink jet printer – then it isn’t an original and it probably isn’t art either.

    A much fuller picture is in my various blog posts, but I’m not going to presume on Fred’s good will by posting endless links.

  4. Ian, I’d be pleased to send both my Fragments readers to your discussion of this topic on your blog.

    Becky, the image came from Charlottesville on the grounds of the hospital behind our motel.

    Maybe art is an creative expression of one’s sense of beauty, form or meaning, and tool is irrelevant if it accomplishes that end for the “artist.”

    I know I don’t ask such large questions when I have an AHA moment and envision a finished work, no matter what image source I start with. And I know when I’ve “said” well what it was I wanted to say about the subject.

    Not everyone on InstaGram is driven by those impulses, however, though their final product might not give a clue to their hopes for the image.

  5. I’ve started using a lot of these “art” applications for my own blog, but I never really stopped to think about the “art or not art” aspect of them (funny, because I was an art history major). Sometimes, I think we overthink art, and expect it to be grandiose and spiritually elevating for it to qualify as “art.” But sometimes, it just “is.”

  6. No being an artist myself, I am not very interested in the issue. But I’m with Becky: your piece of work evokes a mood and an emotional response, and people will respond to it in their own unique way.

  7. I am starting to think of art in much the same way as I regard consciousness. We all know what it is, we a,ll I think experience it or have the possibility to do so, but cannot define it, cannot find one place in the brain or in our societies where it lives. Or maybe it is more like a drive, like hunger or pleasure, and must be gratified in whatever way we can find to accomplish it. For some, the energy of that drive gets subverted or suppressed. That would certainly make for a kind of emotional deficit, a sadness and loss.

    And like consciousness, it is not really necessary that we define it. We need only to use it towards the best ends we can, for our own sakes; use it to make sense of the world, to make order or meaning. And in that, there may be beauty seen by others.

  8. I agree it is not necessary to define it to do art or enjoy it. But it is a central concept to what our culture values. And funders–who are cutting financial support of the arts right and left– need to be convinced that creating, curating or training for the arts deserves their money, so we’d best be able to tell them what it is and why it is important. Plus, I hate having a word in my vocabulary that I can’t define. And like the word LIFE, we can’t really define it, but only say what happens to matter when it possesses this energy or property. Art seems about has hard to pin down, but we know it when we see that it move us.

  9. Art is imagination, an increasingly scarce commodity these days with the prevalence of mindless vacuousness in visual and printed media. It is to be treasured, nursed, and propagated by any means necessary.

  10. Fred–I forget that, living in Kansas, “Art” is a dirty word describing something not deserving of public support. You would wish to re-label anything approaching “Art” around here. *laughing*