Is digital technology making art better or worse? Computers help us create art, maybe a little too much

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It seems strange that artists, who are so often inspired by the past, have embraced digital technology so much today. The digital revolution happened almost instantly in art, and now almost every piece of art we encounter was brought to us using some digital technology.

A common defence of this revolution is that digital technology enables everyone to create and market their artwork on the cheap. In 1991, director Francis Ford Coppola remarked that thanks to camcorders, “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.”

In a sense Coppola was right. I can definitely picture a YouTube viral video called “fat girl from Ohio is the new Mozart” — though I doubt it would be an example of fine art. More likely it would show someone getting badly injured, remixed with Auto-Tune.

There’s no doubt digital technology, and the Internet especially, makes it easier to produce art cheaply. The catch is that digital technology benefits really awful artists as much as, or possibly more than, talented ones.

I’m thankful that digital technology makes home recording studios and micro-budget filmmaking possible. But alas, it also makes countless people like Soulja Boy and Rebecca Black globally famous.

Two catastrophic changes have recently upset the art world. First, non-digital art like print media is crashing and burning. Second, digital art forms like viral videos have become hugely popular. Obviously, digital technology has deeply altered the role art can play today.

But some art experts dismiss the influence of digital mediums. On Curiosity.com, John Maeda — president of the Rhode Island School of Design — argues that art is always about “How can I, the art piece, change your relationship not to me but to something else or to the world?” And according to Maeda, “That question has nothing to do with technology.”

In reality, technology not only determines where we consume art, but how deeply art is able to affect us. Music, for example, hits us very differently if we hear it on YouTube through shitty speakers instead of at a live concert. And while digital technology allows everyone to “see” the Mona Lisa (perhaps on Google Images or in a history textbook), few would doubt that seeing it in person would be more emotionally stirring.

Many artists believe digital technology has made their art better, viewing it as just another tool of the trade. In a Curiosity.com debate titled “How is Technology Changing Art,” freelance journalist Lu Fong argues digital tools help expand an artist’s colour palette.

Centuries ago most painters couldn’t paint with blue pigments since they could only be extracted from expensive lapis lazuli stones. Thus, when artificial pigments were developed painters suddenly had a new colour to use. Fong says digital technology similarly gives an artist “more tools, more options, and in some cases, whole new ways of stimulating people’s senses.”

Undeniably, digital tools have ushered in new creative possibilities. Movie editing software allows for snazzier editing. Sound editing software can salvage crappy performances (by synchronizing instruments so they’re perfectly in time and pitch-correcting voices). And many photographers applaud digital cameras for enabling users to take endless pictures without ever developing film.

With all these technologies, there is the potential to advance creativity, but also to make artists appear more accomplished at their craft than they truly are. In the case of something like Auto-Tune, the computer basically does the artist’s job for them.

Then there are cases where digital innovation was responsible for creating entirely new art forms, the most obvious example being digital music.

Perhaps the boldest example of digitally-dependant art is CGI. Like so much dazzling digital artwork though, CGI can place boundaries on an artist’s creative vision. Surely there are elements of a painting or drawing that can not be replicated on a computer. Looking at something like the Simpsons I can’t help but feel the hand-drawn animation of the early seasons looks so much more alive.

Arguably, people like me who reject some art simply because it’s digital have no logical reason to do so. Many proponents of analog and non-digital art may be guilty of committing the “naturalistic fallacy” — that is, the mistaken belief that the more “natural” something is, the better.

But humans are from nature and computers are not, and that seems like a legitimate reason to advocate for “naturalistic art.” Even science demonstrates that computer-generated art is “too sharp” for human senses.

Listening to analog recordings, people often note how the music sounds warmer than digital music. This happens because analog machines “compress” high frequencies and “boost” bass frequencies, which is more natural to human ears. Humans perceive high pitches as louder than they really are, and while analog machines compensate for this, digital ones do not. Like many digital creations, it’s as if the computers producing them had in mind an audience of computers, not people.

In the end, the debate over digital art is mostly a matter of personal taste. But artists usually say they make art to tell their own stories. And, in my not so humble opinion, the more these stories come out of computers, the less they will be able to say about the artists themselves.


Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf

  • #1 Fan

    The ‘naturalistic fallacy’ is actually something that certain moral theories commit: namely, defining ‘the Good’ in terms of some natural property (e.g., pleasure). Also, J. J. Cale will change your world…