In a rapidly changing social and cultural environment, digital art is becoming one of the most important genres of cultural expression and innovation.

Last summer, in a miraculous turn of events, I found myself in front of Gustav Klimt’s gold-leaf masterpiece ‘The Kiss’. All I could do was stare in awe. Unfortunately, my bubble of amazement soon burst.

One of the lover’s heads in Klimt’s piece was blocked from my view due to a huge iPad being held high by another tourist. The spectators frantically recorded their experience of the masterpiece on portable devices. Shoulder bumps and selfie-stick jabs forced me to the back of the crowd.

Digital Art and The Kiss by Gustav Klimt
What I failed to see due to the invasion of the Ipad Army | “The Kiss”, courtesy of Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

The art snob in me was outraged.

Why couldn’t they understand the genius they were witnessing in person couldn’t be captured by a smartphone? I wanted to scream “LOOK WITH YOUR EYES!”. Yet, I simply held my breath and moved to a less popular but equally as impressive work.

Courtesy of the Museum of Selfies | news.artnet.com

Since this initial experience, I have had many similar occurrences. From MOMA to the Louvre, most museums allow visitors get their #monalisaselfie. After all, if you didn’t post it on Instagram, were you really there?

But what’s the harm? Maybe that tourist with the iPad was taking a photo for his grandmother who couldn’t travel to see ‘The Kiss’ in person. Maybe their Instagram post will go on to spark discovery of artists their followers have never come across?

Since considering this, I have come down off my high horse.

I’ll even admit it: I’ve taken a few snaps at museums myself. Since realizing it for myself, I believe we must all realize that this is the reality of the digital art world we live in.

It is human nature to capture and share experiences that have an impact on us. However, technology has not only changed how we consume artwork. It has changed how we create it, critique it, and share it.

Art changes with Society, Discovery, and Technology.

This is nothing new. During the impressionist movement, technology and science meant peasant Parisians could become revolutionaries.

Inventions such as portable easels and synthetic color had a major impact on artists such as Monet and Renoir. They could now paint outside and capture natural light like never before.

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Colour theory was developed. This forced artists to think more scientifically about their work. Artists also suddenly had to compete with cameras, which at the time were a threat to traditional art.

Pretty ironic when you fast forward to today when we constantly feel the need to use cameras to capture art.

Today, social media and the Internet have provided artists with an endless audience to share their ideas and creations with. These incredible changes have meant that anyone can participate in art.

What’s more is that the playing field has been leveled and artistic success is possible for anyone with a smartphone in their grasp.

Social Media Empowers Artists

The collision of art and technology has been empowering to artist and audience alike. Artists can expose their work to a global audience by simply clicking ‘share’ on any chosen social media platform.

Thanks to social media, artists can transcend cultural, geographical, and social boundaries. The traditional paths to success have been reshaped because of the Internet.

Moving to cultural hubs such as New York or London to mingle with renowned gallery owners and curators isn’t an option for most people, and no longer has to be. Digital Art can gain friction online and generate huge audiences from all over the world.

An example of how social media has led to success is the case of Youyoi Kusama. Dubbed by the media as “the Instagram exhibition to end all Instagram exhibitions”, the 88-year-old Japanese artist’s exhibition ‘Infinity Mirrors’ has launched her to global superstardom.

Although Kusama began ‘Infinity Mirrors’’ in the 1960’s, it is only since the 2000’s that it has gained such traction. Its revived success interestingly correlates with the rise of the smartphone.

‘Infinity Rooms’ offers six interactive rooms ranging from chambers full of luminous polka-dot pumpkins to expansive multimedia installations. The chance to be immersed into these illusions of infinite space has attracted throngs of selfie-seekers, making the exhibition the hottest ticket in town.

From the very first day ‘Infinity Rooms’ hit LA’s Broad museum, and every day to follow, the exhibition sold out of all 50,000 tickets within one hour of them going on sale. The hashtag ‘#infinitekusama’, has appeared on over 35 million Instagram and Twitter accounts since the exhibition opened.

@YouyoiKusama's #Infinity Rooms sold out all 50,000 tickets within one hour #infiniteselfieClick To Tweet

If the motivation behind viewing artwork is selfie infatuation, is this a threat to art? When this question was posed to the artist herself and the exhibit’s curator, they both responded positively.

It is true that the Instagram ready nature of the exhibition has helped it to grow in popularity. However, the idea of the ‘selfie’ feeds into the thinking behind the works of art.

A main feature of the exhibition is a repeated polka-dot motif, found in the ‘Obliteration Room’. The artist’s fascination with this repeated pattern expresses how she sees herself. Along with most people, Kusama views herself as one dot among millions of other dots in the universe.

When an audience member takes a selfie in the ‘Obliteration Room’ they are, in a sense, feeding into this idea. The impulse to share a selfie online triggers the infinite repetition of an image of oneself; another idea that has been central to the artist’s work.

The sharing of selfies online not only mirrors this key concept but also forges a communal experience of the work online. The spectator engages personally with the art and transforms this experience to a communal one by posting their selfie online.

Just as ‘Infinity Mirrors’ expresses how we are one in a million, yet experiencing this together, so do selfies. In this case, you could argue that social media popularity enhanced key themes of the work. This is only one example of the outcome of the interaction of art and technology.

On the other hand, since the exhibition’s debut in Washington, smartphones have been banned from ‘Infinity Rooms’. This was due to a visitor smashing one of the luminous pumpkins when they allegedly fell over it while trying to take a selfie. So, the concept of museum selfies remains open to debate.

Digital Art, Illuminated Pumpkins in an Infinity Room
Yayoi Kusama’s Infinite Punkin Room | Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Musem

Artists have the power to market themselves. For many, their Instagram feed becomes their own carefully curated exhibition.

These days, the more followers and likes you receive online could have a serious impact on your chances of being discovered.

However, is this need to create an Instagram brand or ‘aesthetic’ influencing artistic expression?

It could be argued that artists are motivated to create art that looks attractive online. Furthermore, artistic institutions could be motivated to promote art that looks good online over works that could be more powerful in person.

Is artistic expression, literally and figuratively, being boxed in by Instagram?

Artists could be pushed into trying to make art that fits into little squares on a news feed. For example, images with repeating patterns are more eye-catching and attractive to scrollers and will generate more likes and therefore attention.

Or, will artists now be more motivated to only produce work that is specifically designed to render well in two-dimensions? This could threaten new art. The thinking and concepts behind their creations being cut down to fit into a caption or tweet. After all, art is more than images and cannot be flattened to be posted online.

This idea has been taken to the next level by the introduction of museums specifically built to provide visitors with exceptionally insta-worthy environments.

The Museum of Ice-Cream first opened in 2016, in New York. Since then, its success has led to three others opening in Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Complete with a sprinkle pool and gummy bear room, you could describe it as the lovechild of Willy Wonka and a unicorn. Celebrities, selfie-queens, and bloggers flock here to make the most of the millennial pink backdrop it provides.

Pink Ice Cream Room exploring digital art
MOIC Los Angeles Image courtesy of Katie Gibbs

Untraditional? Definitely. But is this really art? That’s questionable.

The co-founder, Mary Ellis Bun, makes an argument that it is. She describes The Museum of Ice-cream as a place where artefacts and paintings mix with an imaginative world you yourself can enter.

According to Bun, at the museum, you aren’t just an observer but instead become a welcome, active participant in the piece. It enhances the way visitors think about art by “providing a canvas for observers to create (their own moments) on”. In a way, the spectator also becomes an artist.

Another important aspect to note is the intelligent design the numerous artists have put into the museum. Besides being super-photogenic, lighting has been taken into careful consideration along with space. The installations must be as powerful in person as they are when seen through a phone.

How the installations make people feel is another driving force behind the carefully thought-out design. If the goal of art is to make you feel, reflect, and think, the Museum of Ice-cream does achieve this. It just has the additional outcome of an aesthetically pleasing photo that will go on to join over 66,000 images tied together by the #icecreammuseum tag.

Is the internet changing how art is made? Social media platforms can be just as restrictive as they can be liberating. For example, censorship forges boundaries and dictates which creations are deemed appropriate for public consumption.

Instagram and Facebook have a strict no-nudity policy which, technically, would rule out many classical and renaissance masterpieces from becoming modern digital art phenomena.

Not only that, but it also rules out many contemporary pieces from being showcased on these social media platforms. This then prevents their creators from benefitting from them.

LA artist Micol Hebron highlighted the arbitrary nature of what is deemed appropriate online. For example, she posted a photo of a topless female with male nipples photoshopped over the female nipples. If she had just posted a topless female, it would have been removed almost immediately.

However, due to the slight alterations she made, the photo remains online to this day. I understand that this #freethenipple scenario could open a whole new kettle of fish. However, it does lead to a very important question we must face.

Is social media and censorship beginning to dictate what art is created and what art catches on? Does this mean that artists will favor safer artistic options in favor of getting ‘likes’ rather than making a statement?

Technology Can Make Art More Accessible

Not everyone can live within reach of the Louvre or the MOMA, but technology is helping to change this.

For example, Google’s Arts & Culture platform has made it possible to access works of art from all over the world on your mobile phone or laptop. You can explore thousands of museums and objects in high definition detail. The diversity of the content available spans not only the globe but the ages.

@Google's Art & Culture platform lets you see any masterpiece in human history, all from the comfort of your sitting room #SaveMonet #SolongmuseumsClick To Tweet

You can virtually explore The Guggenheim in New York City and enter the ground floor and witness the architectural masterpiece that it is. You can examine every brush stroke in Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ along with 211 other high definition artworks by the artist up close and personal.

The platform also uses metadata to make connections between works. So, anyone can compare 500 Rembrandt artworks from 46 different institutions in 17 countries in a matter of clicks.

It also uses more sophisticated machine learning. This enables the platform to use visual recognition of the collection to cluster certain objects together. For example, you can choose ‘portraits’, ‘horses’ or even ‘ladys in waiting’ and the platform will provide you with an array of works relevant to your subject of choice.

Does viewing art through a screen devalue it?

While I am not saying that seeing art through a screen is better than witnessing it in person, but as Amit Sood, the director of Google’s Cultural Institute put it; “It doesn’t matter how you get it, as long as you get it”.

Google’s Art and Culture and interactive museum websites make art go further and reach those who otherwise it may not. These technological advances also make it easier to learn about and appreciate art.

Technology is Changing how we Create Art

Sterling Crispin is an example of an artist that is using technology to create artworks in forms that have never been seen before.

For example, his ‘Cyber Paintings’ are a series of digital prints on canvas that are made using a virtual reality app, created by the artist himself, called ‘Cyber Paint’. Crispin describes the app as “a creative tool and a space for self-expression that uses data as material.”

On his website, he explains that the app leverages familiar tools for mark making and accelerates them using the capabilities of Virtual Reality. The app is medium-specific, therefore allowing new kinds of creations that were never possible before. It is capable of simulating every way that paint can be applied to a surface realistically.

As the artist makes new paintings and develops a body of artwork, the software also evolves, creating a new feedback loop between the artist, the artwork, and the app. He created the app with the aim of transforming the traditional art form of painting by infusing it with the unique potential of computation in VR

In the words of Sterling, “the app isn’t really a painting simulator, despite its name, it’s a laboratory for algorithmic mark making”. Technology is allowing artists to push their creations beyond what was traditionally possible.

Cyber Paint Digital Artwork
Through The Fire And The Flames_05042017_224311, a painting created using Cyber Paint | sterlingcrispin.com

This idea has been taken to a whole new level by CloudPainter, an artificially intelligent robot painting project. Cloudpainter’s creator, Pinder Van Arman, claims that his robots are artificially creative.

His first painting robot could draw simple lines with a paintbrush and used a ‘connect the dots’ technique to create works of art. Since then, Van Arman’s painting robots have become far more sophisticated. His latest robot used custom 3-D printed paintbrush heads, has two robotic arms to enable multitasking and uses both deep learning and artificial intelligence.

Van Arman even believes that his robots have surpassed both his ability and creativity. After experimenting with algorithms, the robots are now capable of making independent aesthetic decisions. The creative process that the robots undertake can be best explained using the example of portraits.

First, the robot takes numerous photographs of its subject, then it determines which one would be the best to paint. This is achieved using facial recognition to scan the subject’s features and evaluates the image as a whole in regards to aesthetic value, light, contrast, composition, and symmetry.

Feedback loops ensure that every painting has a beginning and an end just as it would for a human painter. Between the start and end, for human artists, there is a mid-process. This middle section of creating artwork includes mark-making, followed by standing back to evaluate the changes made over and over.

@PindarVanArmen's robots may be the next step in autonomous digital art #paintmelikeoneofyourfrenchbotsClick To Tweet

Cameras ensure that the robots can mimic this process. Just as a human would, the robots watch what they are painting and make appropriate adjustments. When the robot sees that its brushstrokes are no longer making the painting come any closer to the original composition, the feedback loop lets the robot decide to stop.

But is this really art? Can machines really be creative?

Some would argue that the Cloudpainter is no more than a glorified printer. However, you also have to consider the fact that the robots have been taught to replicate the same process that humans carry out when being creative.

Another capability of the Cloudpainter robots would make art traditionalists even more uncomfortable. They can now break down any masterpiece into statistics and evaluate what makes them so appealing to the human eye.

The Cloudpainter’s reproduction of Cezanne’s ‘Houses at L’Estaque’ would make anyone squirm. Through a combination of AI and personal collaboration with the artist, the robot memorizes every brushstroke used in the painting to enable analysis and eventually recreation.

Personally, I don’t think replication is art, but maybe converting art to data will become an art in its own right in the future.

Cloudpainter turns art into data | cloudpainter.com

Technology and new discoveries continue to change not only art but how we view the world around us in every way.

New technology has also changed the way art is produced and with these new realities come challenges for anyone working in a creative industry. Technology has expanded our definition of what art is and made us capable of thinking about art in a more dynamic, openminded way. It has also increased accessibility to art, making it no longer a realm of the elite.

But, is technology also a threat to the integrity of art and therefore it’s value?

As with many aspects of creativity and modern society, it’s a blurred line that’s up for interpretation. It may be that digital art will lead to the end of the more traditionalist concept of art. Or, we could see a backlash in its creation as we’ve seen in music with the vinyl renaissance or in society with the ever-growing tech-lash against social media use.

All we do know is that art is here to stay. As always, art will grow to fit the medium it’s placed within. 

What are your thoughts on digital art? Do you think seeing a painting on a screen is the same as in person?

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