But Is It "Art"?

“I recently attempted to enter some of my inkjet-printed Corel Painter work in a local art show. The prints were declined by the judges because they didn’t feel that they fit into any of the competition’s media categories.”

I hear stories like this all the time from digital artists. Despite the fact that computer-mediated art has been evolving for over three decades, many traditionalists have trouble embracing the medium of digital art. This scenario is not new. The medium of photography took a similar path in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well.

The early technology of photography (heavy equipment, slow film speed, lenses) served to create imagery that reflected the soft-focus “pictorialism” found in painting of that era, when photography had yet to find its own voice. By the end of World War I in 1918, camera equipment had become more portable, enabling photographers to shoot a wider range of imagery. Advances in film technology facilitated greater experimentation in the darkroom. This evolution provided photography with its own vocabulary and hastened its acceptance as a valid art form.

Digital imagery has followed a similar trajectory. In the 1970’s, computer technology was just beginning to embrace imaging. Output was crude by today’s standards—images were composed of ASCII type with large, visible pixels and limited color. Today we have archival output on traditional fine art media, pen tablets capable of capturing the full gestural expression of the artist’s hand, and advanced applications like Corel® Painter™ and Adobe® Photoshop®. And so the question remains: “Is it art yet?”

The definition of art is a slippery slope. There are dozens of blanket expressions covering the subject: “Art is in the eye of the beholder,” or “I know it when I see it,” and so on. This is how I define it: art is human expression that communicates the originator’s emotion or feeling to others, prompting the receiver to experience the same emotion or feeling.

I don’t claim that this definition is exclusive or all-encompassing. It is simply the criteria that works for me in both creating imagery, as well as experiencing it. My goal is to communicate an emotion or deep feeling to others. By this criteria, art expresses the human condition between the sender and receiver.

This communication can take place via an extremely wide range of media: paint, word, dance, stone, cave paintings, and the list goes on and on. The problem with a new media format like digital art is that it doesn’t easily fit into the public’s preconceived notions of art. The result is the aforementioned rejection of a digital print in an art competition.

There will always be those in a position of power that utilize their personal art measuring sticks to dictate public taste. As artists, we must follow our own creative muse and express that which is vital to ourselves. The audience may be large or small, but is it art?


John Derry
Somewhere in Nebraska

Excerpted from the Winter 2008 edition of Corel's e-zine, The Painter Canvas.