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Digital Art: Medium or Metaphor?

In Art, Commentary, News on March 11, 2010 at 2:56 pm


Digital Art: Medium or Metaphor
by Scott Ligon


Digital Art has traditionally been categorized as a tool and as a medium. The software program, Adobe Photoshop, for example, is one of my favorite image making tools because of its unparalleled ability to manipulate and synthesize elements from different sources, allowing one to create something unique and cohesive. Digital art is also considered to be a medium, when the digital platform is used from start to finish. This is often applied to creative endeavors, which are time based, interactive and/or virtual.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I keep coming back to the conclusion that digital art is not a medium.  Notwithstanding, at any given time in any given circumstance, digital art may essentially function as a medium

Ultimately, I’m not overly concerned whether people want to consider digital art to be a medium or not.  Yet I do believe that it is true, that digital art does function beyond the constraints of a medium.  But even more important than that being true, it is irrelevant. Even the asking of this question implies an outmoded way of thinking.

“Fully realizing the enabling potential of digital technology requires fluidity of thinking. It requires the ability to consider the potential relationships between elements rather than subdivide them into increasingly arbitrary categories”

Digital technology is blurring the boundaries between mediums, to extent that already many former, long-standing boundaries have completely lost their meaning. Whether something is a still image, moves, interacts with the viewer, has sound, or is only sound, comes down to the various choices in one’s digital toolbox, rather than examples of different mediums. This blurring of boundaries changes the approach to creative endeavors.

Why?  Because, a medium as traditionally defined has certain specific characteristics. In many respects, mediums are also defined by their limitations.

Imagine this.  Oil paint has a slow drying time and acrylic paint has a quick drying time. A painter who uses either of these mediums had better understand these qualities if he or she is to create a successful painting. An artist who creates a metal sculpture had better understand the limits of his materials before he or she installs a forty foot structure in a public area! Digital art (or digital technology applied to creative pursuits) functions beyond the constraints of a medium.

And yet, digital art is made up of the placement of programmed ones and zeros. It has no inherent characteristics. If it appears to have characteristics at all, it’s because of current technological limitations.

When we think of digital 3D animation, for instance, we might think of smooth geometricized figures–a kind of simplified realism with sophisticated lighting. If 3D animation seems defined by these characteristics, it’s because, given the technological limitations of recent year, this style of 3D animation could do well. Hence, due to such temporary technological limitations, this particular application of digital art has the appearance of a medium.

We see this, recognize these qualities, and can then identify this work as digital 3D animation.

Every day, software designers are developing better and better interfaces, working to eliminate or minimize barriers, and aesthetic imperfections. And every year processing power and file storage increase exponentially. Which suffices to say, that technical limitation in the digital art realm is always temporary…not an inherent characteristic.

Without absolute limitations, I would suggest, digital art cannot have any characteristics. For, through evolution, it can look like anything. Consequentially, without any characteristics, I feel hard pressed to define digital technology as a medium.

I considered (and many smart friends have suggested) that the ones and zeros–the digital information itself– could be the defining characteristic of a medium. Ultimately, I don’t feel like this is a satisfying conclusion.

This digital information is the underlying structure defining any digital creation, but it is not perceptible in any practical way. We can only perceive the result of this invisible structure. As even when an artist is working directly in code, that person still utilizes digital information indirectly. Code and concept define the work, not the specific arrangement of billions of ones and zeros.

This structure functions in the same way that atoms function in the physical world. Atoms are the underlying building blocks of the physical universe. They define everything but are imperceptible under normal circumstances. They make everything physical, including us, but we have no direct relationship with atoms. Instead, we have a direct relationship with materials, and when we apply one of these materials to art-making, we might consider it to be a medium.

Ones and zeros to the digital world = atoms to the physical world. I believe this is a pretty self-evident analogy.  If we accept this analogy and we also consider digital art to be a medium, then it would follow that atoms are the medium of the physical world.

Clearly this does not define a creative medium in any helpful way. Although I find this a satisfying poetic notion with some truth in it, such an equation demonstrates a flaw in logic.

Youtube: Scott Ligon talks about the Digital Art Revolution

We would consider oil paint to be a medium if we were to try to say that oil paint is a sub-category of the “atom” medium.  However, we would have gotten pretty far away from any useful definition of a creative medium.  And so it is with ones and zeros in the digital realm.

There are non-material mediums. Television as traditionally defined is a medium, for example. Television is not materially based, but it still has specific and defining characteristics.   Though, these characteristics may soon change to the degree that we either redefine the medium of television, or give the medium a different name.

An important thinker in digital technology is Pranav Misry.  In watching this linked video from 2009, where he presents at a Technology Entertainment Design (TED) forum, one can grasp a vivid illustration of the potential (and future application) of digital technology. Misry’s TED lecture offers an opportunity to see the seamless and intuitive way that the digital and physical worlds will be integrated in the near future, when the boundaries between atoms and ones and zeros continues to blur, until they become irrelevant, substantiating my belief that it will become increasingly useful and obvious to recognize that digital technology functions beyond the constraints of a medium.

Fully realizing the enabling potential of digital technology requires fluidity of thinking. It requires the ability to consider the potential relationships between elements rather than subdivide them into increasingly arbitrary categories. This, of course, echoes the creative process itself.

Interestingly, in spite of all this change, there are no new visual elements. We continue to work with line, shape, color, etc. Digital technology simply provides new and unprecedented ways to combine and synthesize these elements into something unique and personal.


SCOTT LIGON, the author of “Digital Art Revolution, Creating Fine Art with Photoshop” (Watson-Guptill/Random House) is an award-winning digital artist who frequently lectures on the subjects of creativity, filmmaking, and digital art.  Ligon is the coordinator for the digital foundation curriculum at the Cleveland Institute of Art. And he is also the author/director of the short film Escape Velocity, winner of “Best Experimental Film” at the USA Film Festival in Dallas, which has played in theaters and festivals worldwide.

  1. […] Ligon is also an author and filmmaker, with his first book “Digital Art Revolution” having  just been published.  His short film “Escape Velocity” has been shown nationally, resulting in it winning “Best Experimental Film” at the USA Film Festival, Dallas, Texas.  And in an essay that Ligon penned for Art Digital Magazine last month about the new reality of technology and art, I found myself reading one of the most lucid statements I’ve heard in the last 10 years, when Ligon wrote: […]

  2. […] aside, Scott Ligon, digital artist and author of Digital Art Revolution contributed an article to Art Digital Magazine where he says: “Fully realizing the enabling potential of digital technology requires […]

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