What is New Media Art?
A range of new forms of contemporary art are enabled by modern technology, referred to generally as new media art. As a culture we tend to equate art with the products of film, television, and popular music. While these are well known, new areas for expression in art have greatly expanded in the past few decades.
Classically we tend to think of art as consisting of drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and more recently photography. In the modern world we might also including the production of film and television. The developments of computer graphics have brought digitally-based art to the general public through modern filmmaking. However there are many novel art forms arising from digital and physical medium which are still largely unknown and relatively invisible but which have been in production from many decades now. Some fields of New Media Art include kinetic sculpture, information art, organic and algorithmic art, interactive art, machinima and game design. Yet many forms of new media remain relatively unknown. I believe this is largely due to a lack of context and general theory in New Media Arts.
When we look at a painting, such as Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory (click here), we experience much more than simply paint. We perceive art immediately on the level of meaning. If someone ask, “What are you looking at?”, of a particular painting one response is, “A painting.” Yet we know we are being asked: What aspect of meaning do you find intriguing about this work? The primary function of art, implicit in our looking at it, is to convey an idea, message or symbol through seeing.
If art is about ideas and meaning, why then do art schools divide themselves into the tools of painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture? This is not a criticism but a philosophical question. Why not have a major in art of the body, another major in art of the emotions, and another in art of the sub-conscious? Physics has majors in quantum physics, kinetics, and thermodynamics, each different kinds of physics. As a discipline, physics is generally not divided according telescopes, microscopes and spectrometers – that is its tools.
So why is art, as an academic discipline, divided according to its tools? The reason is simply that art, covering all possible ideas of the imagination would be far too vast to be organized on the level of meaning. In fact, Art History is dedicated solely to understanding the ideas of art past and present, and it does this primarily according to period (time) rather than meaning, which is still too vast a landscape to organize art. We can generalize and say “all religious works”, but a disciplined categorization by meaning is impossible. The purpose of art is to convey ideas, to communicate meaning. We can, however, make the observation that art is classically divided according to the techniques of painting, drawing and sculpture precisely because the meaning of art may be anything at all.
New Media Art has often be criticized for having “no solid theoretical foundation”. This is partly because so many new forms seem to defy traditional classification. For example, is game design a form of art, a field of computer science, or a kind of literary narrative? Many of the recent objections to games as an art form have to do with content. In academia, painting has both beautiful and controversial examples through history, yet games have struggled more to achieve academic status. This may be due in part to its interdisciplinary nature.
These complaints can all be summarize with a simple observation: On the level of meaning, all art is subject to criticism. The questioning and transforming of meaning is essential to art. The goal of the artist is not to structure our world as the natural sciences do, but to surprise us, to spark the imagination.. Thus, art is unbound by ideas. Yet organized by technique.
The goal here is to provide a foundation for New Media Art on the level of technique. Painting, drawing and sculpture exists as sub-fields in art because the artist uses these tools to create whatever ideas they like. The divisions of technique are a convenience – in a college painting class one student may be creating landscapes, another surrealism, yet both are using paint and canvas. The same may be true of New Media Art. As a starting point, we can define New Media Art according to common techniques without regard to their content. One possible organization is found in the list above.
One of the wonderful aspects of New Media Art is truely vast number of ways in which expression may develop. Robotic art is mechanically-driven kinetic art (B.4.2) that attempts to recreate humanoid or insect-like motion. Evolutionary art is a form of algorithmic art (C.6) that attempts to mimic the biology of natural evolution. Why are robotic art and evolutionary art not included in the list above? The definitive test for a movement, as opposed to a technique, is that it may be expressed through any number of other techniques. There is a field of passive-motion robotics which uses no motors, thus robotics could also be naturally-driven. Robotic art may also be found in computer games, i.e. game robots, and also through illustration. If we see a comic book on robots, is it Robotic Art? Although the development of robots themselves requires particular novel techniques, the combination of machine and humanoid form found in robotics is not a technique, but a kind of meaning referring to the mechanized human body.
Cyberfeminist art, mentioned in Christiane Paul’s book Digital Art, is also not found above for the same reason. Feminist art originated in non-digital media, such as the Gorilla Girls in the 1960s, working primarily with photomontage. With the advent of the World Wide Web, cyberfeminism developed out of feminist art and shifted to the new “hacker” oriented medium of the internet. The message shifted from one technique to another. Thus cyberfeminism is about a particular kind of meaning, expressed through the technique of Internet-based art. Yet it is not confined to this technique, and is thus a movement.
It is important to mention I am not attempt to define “art”, only clarify it with respect to meaning and technique. Surrealism is a movement, pop art is a movement, cyberfeminism is a movement, dada is a movement, organic art is a movement. They are movements because their ideas can appear in many techniques simultaneously. Drawing is a technique, information-based art is a technique, computer generated art is a technique. A given work of art exists both as part of a movement, idea or meaning, and as a technique simultaenously.
Some prefer the term technology-based art, media art, or digital art for the contemporary situation of the digital medium. I prefer the term New Media Art to encompass all of the above forms because it carries no particular connotation toward any one technique while also distinguishing itself from Mixed media, which refers to a combination of traditional media, and from Multimedia, which consists of digital versions of traditional techniques. The essential point is that, if we understand the difference between message and technique, New Media Art can be more easily understood as a new discipline.
New Media Art covers all contemporary techniques for digitally-based art making, just as traditional Fine Arts is divided into majors according to traditional technique.
Although technique can clarify academic distinctions in New Media Art, finding meaning in any art form is the real challenge. In my opinion, all forms of art should be rich, and alive, with meaning. The beauty of art is that we may each define and evaluate meaning differently. A significant concern is that, in the presence of so many novel techniques, we may loose our sense and ability to evaluate what is meaningful.
The challenge is to be more open to novel forms of human expression so that our critical sense is shaped and refined — to be scientific (analytical) as needed, and creative and imaginative the rest of the time.. A basic understanding of technique versus meaning can help us to clarify the discipline of New Media Art while allowing its meaning to remain open.
– Art is unique, relative to other disciplines, in that its meaning or message is unbounded.
– Art is not academically organized by types of meaning as, say physics, is.
– Instead, traditional and new media art are organized by technique (painting, sculpture, information art)
– A given work of art has both a technique and a meaning
– Meaning is unbounded, and since art is an intentional act, present in all art.