One of the arguments offered for not accepting digital images as art is that computers are required to produce them, placing them in the realm of technology, not art. This is a spurious argument, and here’s why.
To produce any work of art requires some level of technology. Paleolithic people shaped wood and stone to produce hammers, axes, and spears. These processes were culturally specific, and we refer to them as prehistoric technologies. An example is the distinctive Clovis technology found in projectile points throughout the Americas that were left behind a loosely associated common culture that overspread North and South America after the last ice age, beginning about 11,000 years Before the Common Era and dying out about 5000 years ago. Stones have been found in North America which may date to the Clovis period, and which seem to have been subjected to similar techniques to produce, not tools, but figures of animals and primitive faces. The tools were made from necessity and the carvings from wonder and awe. One is technology and the other is art, but the underlying techniques are the same.
Okay, that seems kind of far afield from what we now call art. Let’s look a little closer to home.
Consider the representation of light in paintings. While the sun appears often in ancient Egyptian art, but it does not function as a source of light in the pictorial sense–The figures under these suns are flat and shadowless.
The frescos on the walls of ancient Roman villas are better at representing light, but not by very much; objects and figures are illuminated by diffuse, almost directionless light. What shadows there are seem almost an afterthought.
In medieval religious painting the art of modeling with light advanced a little, but it was not until the High Renaissance that lighting became a major force in painting. Shadows, modeling, even chiaroscuro can be found in the works of daVinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and other Renaissance masters. In the century that followed, through Caravaggio to Rembrandt and Vermeer, lighting itself played an ever more prominent role in painting. By the time of the Dutch masters, lighting was not just a technique in a painting, it was the star.
During the Renaissance the representational aspect of painting moved progressively toward hyperrealism. Vermeer’s work in particular looks almost photographic to the modern eye. The Renaissance also saw rapid advances in optical science. Galileo’s use of the telescope and vanLeeuwenhoek’s use of the microscope took place in the early 17th century, approximately contemporaneous with Vermeer. These facts have led some scholars to wonder whether, during this time, art and technology may have run together. Did some of the great painters of the Renaissance use optical devices, particularly the camera obscura, in making their masterpieces.
In its simplest form, a camera obscura is nothing more than a darkened room for the artist to work in, with a pinhole in the wall to an adjoining room or the outdoors, where his subject is bathed in bright light. The pinhole projects an image, inverted and reversed, of the lighted room onto the opposite wall of the darkened one. The fundamentals of this technology were known to Aristotle. As better optics developed in the High Renaissance, improvements became possible that made the device a practical tool. Replacing the pinhole with a lens made the projected images sharper and brighter. Introducing mirrors or additional lenses could correct the inversion and reversal problems. By the time Vermeer was working, technology definitely existed which might have allowed him to have projected the image of The Girl with the Pearl Earring from life onto his canvas and traced it out, line, color, and all.
A fascinating idea, but it begs the question: so what if he did? Is this image somehow diminished if it can be proved that he used this tool in its creation? Can the features that caused us to regard this work as a masterpiece be somehow altered retroactively by new knowledge about actions that were completed centuries ago, long before history had passed judgement on Vermeer’s work? Do the qualities that define art arise from the techniques used to make it, or are they inherent in the artistic object itself?
Perhaps what is really being asked is: did these men cheat? If they are discovered to be cheaters, would they no longer deserve the reverence that has previously been afforded them? Considering the second question first, I think the reputations of these great men are secure. For one thing, many of the great Renaissance paintings, such as daVinci’s The Last Supper and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling panels, are frescos, which do not lend themselves to the camera obscura and are no less masterful than their works on canvas. These men were not dependent on optical devices, even if they might have used them once in a while. I think even that unlikely. DaVinci, who was as interested in technology as he was in art, wrote extensively about his theory and practice of painting, yet never mentions any optical tools. It is hard for me to believe he would not have described his apparatus in detail, complete with diagrams, had he used one.
Vermeer is another matter. He left no writing to explain himself to posterity. He bequeathed to history only the skeletal biography that can be gleaned from the vital records of the Catholic Church and the town of Delft, passing references in the writings of other Dutch artists of his time, and his paintings. He had no formal education, appears not to have apprenticed with any established artist, and had no students of his own. His paintings are almost all interior scenes drawn from the same perspective in the same two rooms, presumed to be in Vermeer’s own home or studio, with strong chiaroscuro lighting. All this proves nothing conclusively, but it is all consistent with these works being painted-over camera obscura images. At the beginning of the present century British Artist David Hockney, among others, began pointing to certain peculiarities of line and perspective in Vermeer’s pictures which are consistent with the use of an optical device in the composition his works. These curious things, along with the fact that there are no preliminary sketches or studies for any of his works, make a strong case that Vermeer, at least, used optical technology in the creation of his masterpieces.
Does this mean they are not masterpieces? I think every work intended to be art must stand on its own merits, regardless of how it is produced. Artists use the tools and materials available to them to produce their works. Woodblock printing, first on textiles for practical uses (technology) and later on paper for illustration and inspiration (art), came to Europe at the dawn of the Renaissance. By the 15th century intaglio had moved from wood to metal; engraving and etching were invented. In another century a few great men had fully mastered this new technique. Were Dürer, master engraver, and Rembrandt, master etcher, lesser artists than the nameless woodcut artists who preceded them, simply because they used new technologies? It is hard to imagine anyone seriously making this argument. Similarly, if Vermeer learned of (or created) a technology that allowed him to make paintings such as he did, should he have avoided using it lest he diminish his stature as an artist? That makes no sense to me.
This question is dear to my heart because I practice a new form of printing that involves a novel technology. I make digital images. Many fine art photographer’s do not consider digital imaging to be photography, because the finished images often don’t look like what we think photographs ought to look like. Painters often don’t accept it as art because pigments aren’t applied to a medium with a brush, and images are not unique–multiple copies can be made. Artists in traditional printing media are often reluctant to accept digital imaging because the techniques are radically different than their own. And just about everybody in the fine art world is skeptical of an “art” so deeply rooted in technology.
I am certain, however, that over time digital imaging will become as widely accepted as as other forms of printing have already become. In the right hands they are tools that can be used to produce art. All it will take will be for people who care about art to look past their anxiety about the technology at the images themselves, for that is where the art is, after all. Digital images will hang in galleries and museums alongside artistic lithographs, seragraphs, mezzotints, etc. The curators who recognize this early, who can tell which is the art and which is simply noise, and who begin to collect and sell this art sooner rather than later, will be all the richer, both artistically and financially, for their insight.