The Digital Aesthetic: What it is and is not

Joe Nalven, Sandiego Times Online | Commentary – Before I can even utter the phrase digital aesthetics, I can sense objections such as ‘it is not an aesthetic, it is just a toolset, like paintbrushes and oil paints’ or ‘images made with a computer can never be art - at best it would be a computer aesthetic’ or even ‘we are now in a post-digital age.’ Such objections are useful because they lead into interesting discussions about art and aesthetics as appreciated by the thousands of cultures throughout human history and across the earth, and not just a narrowly defined view culled from but a few cultures or a view based on the monetary value attributed to objects of art.

Etymology and Avoiding a Preemptive Bias

Let us recall how our understanding of aesthetics was framed in the mid 18th century by lin Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. He narrowed the Greek term, αἰσθάνομαι (aisthanomai, meaning “I perceive, feel, sense”) to taste or judgments about what was perceived. The word, aesthetics, became intellectualized. Etymologically, one might argue that he should have used the word aesthetics to refer to the study of perception rather than that of beauty.(1)

This is reminiscent of the 15th century debate in Italy, where a liberal art was more noble and intellectual while the more mechanical arts (like sculpture) were ignoble, and had the connotation of being practiced by slaves. That’s what Da Vinci thought of sculptors like Michelangelo.

Yes, an European elitism proved up by the expansion of its colonial empire. The question is whether such notions have infiltrated the way in we think today about the arts and what is aesthetic? Perhaps, perhaps not.

But we can easily dispense of that historical bias by taking an approach that is more familiar to cultural anthropologists. Here, we find an openness to arts in all cultures, not just those limited to a few. This is a partial solution since we can then specify which canon of art we are speaking of. This solution does not address paradigm change within specific canons.

The starting point for an inquiry into art that is more anthropological in approach might be to focus on ‘the object maker in a specific cultural context.’ Different cultures employ different tools, different media, different themes about life, survival, relationships and so forth. Some cultures may emphasize the importance of visual presentation, others sound – a variety of emphases coming from our five senses, in effect, a multisensorial approach to different cultural approaches to artmaking and art appreciating. And, of course, individuals within any culture may bring a novel way of reinterpreting existing cultural norms.

A doorway into what a digital aesthetic is: A commentary on a digital aesthetic

Mel Strawn

What is distinct in digital capture and art processing includes things like transparency and imaginative juxtaposition (the sur-realist’s meme). It forces or invites a creative experience for artist and viewer alike just as the possible encounters of particle bits shape and emerge in sometimes beautiful evolutions in nature. Digital tools greatly increase this serendipitous creativity, not pre-planned or designed, but entered into with amazement and often joy, sometimes anguish.

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Mel Strawn / Building Permit

 We have long been involved in optical seductions-from Vermeer’s camera lucida to the discovery and influential incorporation in art, design and architecture of all the beasties and structures seen, known for the first time, in the microscope, not to mention the explosion of scale in our concept of the universe via the telescope.

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Mel Strawn / Urban Night Rite X

What is also distinct is the fine scale of the elements that can be used in making a digital image. Abstractly-bits, ones and zeroes; concretely, pixels. We can invoke and conduct like an orchestra’s maestro. These technological extensions of our eyes and hands also extend our potential vision, literally and in the realm of the creative and expressive.

In no way can the potential for incredible detail and complexity possible in digital imaging be matched by hand in a human being’s realistic work-time frame. So, complexity/subtlety, visually perceived, and the radical ability to amplify and modify and transform “signals” is our to-be-explored realm of a distinct and creatively new aesthetic. Yet simplicity sans detail and complexity has its historical and also possible place.Tools have the feedback effect of enabling creative new thought. . . . the thought or the pre-conceived idea to be executed need not precede the use and selection of the tool.

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Mel Strawn / Iconic Twist

Toolsets vs Aesthetic

Some only see the tools in the making of art. So, in this view, there is no oil painting aesthetic, nor a digital aesthetic. But this is a narrow view of about art making and art appreciation.

I am reminded of Aristotle’s discussion of different causes – in particular, the formal cause. First, Imagine a pile of bricks; then, imagine that pile of bricks made into a house. The difference is the form (the design or shape of the house). That formal difference is not measurable in the same sense that a brick is measurable.

So, when we point to tools for art making, they have the same lifeless existence as a pile of stones. When put into play to make a specific shape or design, we might ask what shape or design is invoked. Is it random? Were the cave artists of Lascaux making random designs or where their cave paintings signifying what had meaning in their hunting culture. They lived in a specific cultural milieu as well as having specific media (cave walls) and specific tools that were employed. And these were different from that complex of ideas that existed in other places and times.

It is easy to overlook the invisibility of ideas that form part of the mix of using a toolset, but these are just as important as the tools themselves. The tools do not move themselves.

In talking of a digital aesthetic, then, the discussion is part of individuals, their toolsets, their media, their cultural milieu (perhaps zeitgeist) feeding off one another. Compartmentalizing them is an example of a category mistake.

Paradigm shifts – accounting for change

An important aspect about a digital aesthetic is how it is, and is not, getting inserted into the canons of art, especially the canon of Western art since the digital age has sprung from Western technology (though not limited to it).

Clearly, all the world around us is falling under the influence of digital. In the world of art, the digital influence is accepted more as a reproduction and database technology than as an essential ingredient into the contemporary, pluralistic aesthetic. This is less true in popular culture where digital FX has become important commercially. Think Avatar! Think Shrek! Think video games!

Less obvious are inclusionary fine art exhibits. One exception I encountered was in Florence, Italy last year. I noticed two side-by-side posters outside the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.

One poster sported a collective show of the work of Picasso, Miró, Dalí – Angry Young Men: the Birth of Modernity. Adjacent to that poster was another, but one featuring art in digital media - Virtual Identities, a reflection on digital culture.

The distinction was one of medium and time period – modern followed by the digital age. Importantly, there is no remnant of that elitist distinction of more noble vs less noble or more intellectual vs more mechanical. What the Strozzi was showing were two equal art adventures with different media, different technology contexts, different cultures defined by the passage of time.

From my perspective, the Western canon needs a swift kick in the posterior. Time to acknowledge the digital aesthetic.

I do see the need to demonstrate how the digital aesthetic actually operates upon a specific cultural tradition, in this case, the Western canon of 2D visual art. For this, the reader is invited to continue reading in the companion article, Illustrating the digital aesthetic: Reimagining Innocent.

(1) Aesthetics as a Branch of Philosophy, Ruth Saw and Harold Osborne, British Journal of Aesthetics Volume ONE, Issue 1, Pp. 6-20 (2) The Social Position of the Artist, Anthony Blunt, Artistic Theory in Italy 1450-1660. (3) Beauty in context: towards an anthropological approach to aesthetics, Wilfried Van Damme.

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