Belinda Reich

Defining Art

As someone who is creating and investigating art that is made using digital technologies, moving images, sound, the internet and mass culture, the delineating line as to what is and isn’t art, is obscure.

When defining art, Gracyk states succinctly, “the boundary of classification is constantly redrawn by the very activity of talking about that boundary”. As demonstrated by Gracyk, this has been true of art over time, and a conspicuous thought for those working in digital media.

To contribute to the conversation of the boundaries, I will explore some ideas around theories of what is digital art. First, I will look at artists’ intention and self-reflexivity, and how that can help differentiate between work that may be considered art, and that which could be considered design or communications, or mass art. Lastly, I will look toward future definitions of digital art within complex network systems.

Gracyk’s chapter on mass and popular art was an important chapter for me to think about when defining art, and how it differs from other creative pursuits. Tools I use, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, WordPress, cameras and computers are more often than not used in the creation of advertising and corporate communications. The tools are the same for the digital artist, as they are the communications department. The finished product at times is indistinguishable too. Can an advertisement be art? Advertising and the ‘art world’ have borrowed, stolen and imitated each other. Andy Warhol is an example with his Absolut Vodka bottle, kicking off a long association between many artists and the brand.

Some of the arguments that are presented by Gracyk seem steadfast and a little old fashioned, but he does an excellent job of presenting the complexity of the debate. Within this small space I would like to draw attention to the argument that it is the artists expression and their self-reflexivity that is an important element in differentiating between ‘fine art’ and ‘mass art’.

Expression theory, as laid out by Gracyk, can be seen in both fine and mass art.  In both, we can see ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions and ideas expressed. In fine arts - that which is shown in art institutions - we see a range of emotion and ideas from horror/fantasy (Cremaster Cycle, Matthew Barney, 1994-2002) to uplifting (outdoor video and light projections that have become ever-present at festivals around the world). Mass art similarly engages uplifting emotions and ideas (ubiquitously seen in advertising) to horror and violence (video games, movies).

There is a fine - and many times crossing - line between fine and mass art using expression theory. It is difficult to convey substantial and authentic emotions or ideas - and even more difficult to move an audience with them - that to succeed as a fine or mass artist is a testament to either artists' skill.

Yet, an element that sets the fine arts from mass arts (besides institutional recognition) is self-reflexivity. Mass art is generally produced via artists who work for corporations, and thus have little need for self-reflexivity. Mass art may self-reflect it’s own culture, but generally not in the critical way that self-reflexivity requires. Mass art more often that not exploits its and others’ history to succeed in a commercial sense.

So far, I have concentrated on art made using digital tools, and my final point will look at art within a networked environment. When I speak about a networked environment I am not speaking about how to promote art work online, but how images and culture behave online.

Images and culture in networked environments are “a dynamic form”, and according to David Joselit, “what the contemporary global artwork must be: an emissary, whose power arises out of cultural translation rather than avant-garde innovation, a form of international currency that can cross borders effortlessly”

A common concern with digital art online is that it is so easily reproducible and that provenance is easily lost, along with any potential compensation or sale. What Joselit proposes is “image diplomacy.”

The result of this kind of thinking is online databases of images such as Creative Commons, and the release online by GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) institutions of their collections - and metadata - to the public, for free and creative use.

This is but one option available to artists online, and one of great interest for myself as an artist. Further, and much less structured than the GLAM industry is the increased use of looped images or videos, most common of these is GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format).  

GIF’s are a culmination of the same ethos as OpenGLAM, which is to “contribute, participate and share”. This is what Henry Jenkins terms Convergence Culture, and Participatory Culture. He sees that “convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.” And that “participatory culture contrasts with older notions of passive media spectatorship”.

With this, I would suggest that a networked environment contributes to enabling self-reflexivity within participants, a trait that seem to be lacking in the previously discussed advertising and communications.

How to define art is subjective and varies from culture to gender to class to ideology and to education. The days of a grand narrative supporting one definition or another is long gone and we are now left with the view from everywhere.

It perhaps irks to see or hear of something self-labelled as ‘art’, when to you it clearly isn’t. As Gacyk’s book so well demonstrates, ideas and definitions of what art is has changed considerably over time. We are in the midst of great technological change, with unprecedented access to information and knowledge. It would be unreasonable to imagine that art and the definition of it will not be swept up in these changes.

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