OP-ED

Far from displacing traditional skill or media, good digital art exists symbiotically with it

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I have now been working in digital media for twenty years. Now in my case, I came to these tools and processes in graduate school. When I was in the illustration department at RISD this technology was not yet available in the department at the point up to when I graduated. As a result, my arts foundation was entirely in traditional media. What this gives me is a demarcation between a pre-digital era and post digital.

Even from the beginning of my journey into this new world, I began to hear criticisms that recur to this day when the subject of digital or computer-assisted artwork comes up. There were some folks who were upset by the seeming intangibility of the media- that is the very virtual of art that is made up of bytes and electrons lacks the visceral quality of a brush loaded with paint, or the bite of a carving tool into wood. Some folks were unhappy with the overall aesthetic that they felt the tools brought- believing that the precision brought a sort of coldness. And then, there was one argument I witnessed where an exasperated professor declared that the use of digital media would be the death of traditional illustration – that is, folks would simply push a button to make art.

In response to these concerns, I have several observations. The first matter is the absolutely crucial and transformative role that digital media has in the professional creative fields, particularly in design. I can say that there are very few graphic designers I know who bemoan no longer needing to spend hours laboriously cutting and pasting individual letterforms, only to have the client decide to change the slogan at the last minute, or that they want a font that’s you know...more bold or something. I’m hard pressed to find an event or wedding photographer who misses the days of having to develop and process six rolls of film, only to discover that the father of the bride had his eyes closed in a crucial moment. The ability to make significant changes and offer a variety of options, coupled with the almost time traveling capability of multiple iterations and the much loved undo and history functions allow designers to not fear the constraints imposed by more permanent processes and media. Add to that toolkit the option to immediately share and communicate these designs for review, print, or even three-dimensional production, and you have some formidable abilities indeed.

When we come to the larger question of aesthetics, this is where I ask folks to keep several thoughts in mind. To begin with, I do not believe that all digital media has that same stiff, cold quality that it may be associated with. One may now find far more use of collage, natural media emulation, and subtle manipulation of actual tangible media. Even if one does look at work with a more mechanistic style, however, I think it unrealistic to fear that this will somehow significantly supplant or displace a more naturalistic aesthetic. The arts exist as a continuum, where individual taste often may range between styles, and one style may indeed invite a sort of counter balance. The Romantic and Arts and Crafts movement served as a response to the industrialization of the 19th century, as much of the more blues-based rock and harsh punk music of the 1970s was a counter to the polished electronic prog rock (Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, Electric Light Orchestra) and disco. For that matter, back in the ’90s when everyone was busy grabbing MP3 music files from Napster and ripping their CDs to the computer, if you had told folks that 20 years later they would see those same vinyl records that they had pawned off at a yard sale now being sold at a high price in bookstores, you’d have been laughed at. Yet, we now see that many folks now celebrate the analog eccentricities and more nuanced sound.

I would further argue that far from displacing traditional skill or media, good digital art exists symbiotically with it. No matter how powerful the tool, it cannot serve as a surrogate for experience and informed judgment. And much of that experience comes from a grounding in tangible, hands-on media. When I look at some of the most substantial artists working in the digital realm, these are folks who have also worked in everything from acrylic paint to film photography. These are people with a real appreciation of craftsmanship, a solid basis in composition, an understanding of art history. In my own case, the foundation of my work comes from sculpture and drawing. The characters that populate my virtual world begin as three-dimensional models built from found object materials, and my subsequent illustrations are first realized as a series of drawings in order to better understand their personality and relationships. The computer is not a prosthetic device that adds good ideas or creative vision- rather it simply serves to amplify whatever it is given. That is its power, and with that power one must consistently aspire to excellence.

Krzysztof Mathews of Warwick is a graduate of the RISD Illustration department (Class of '95) and the university of Wisconsin-Madison (MFA 2000), and works as an instructor in the department of Art and Art History at the University of Rhode Island. He delivered these remarks at the recent reception of the Brave New World exhibit of digital art at the Warwick Center for the Arts.

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