What is New Media Art?
A range of new forms of contemporary art are enabled by modern technology, referred to generally as 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 Media Arts.
When we look at a painting 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 the literal 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 does the academic world of art divide this field 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. Art History is dedicated to understanding meaning in art – past and present – and it does this primarily according to movements and period (time) which are rough markers for conceptual shifts. We might generalize and say for example “all religious works”, but a disciplined categorization by meaning is impossible. The purpose of art is to convey idea, 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.
Media Art has often been 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 video games have struggled more to achieve academic status. This may be due in part to its interdisciplinary nature.
These complaints can all be summarized with a simple observation: On the level of meaning all art is subject to criticism. The questioning and transformation 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; to form bridges with other disciplines. Thus art is unbound by ideas. Yet organized by technique.
The goal here is to provide a foundation for 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 Media Art. As a starting point, we can define Media Art according to common techniques without regard to their content.
One of the wonderful aspects of Media Art is truly 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 mechanical motion. Evolutionary art is a form of algorithmic art (C.6) that attempts to mimic the biology of natural evolution. 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 engineering, the conceptual combination of machine and humanoid form found in robotics is not a technique but a kind of meaning referring to the mechanized human body which may be expressed in any media.
Cyberfeminist art, mentioned in Christiane Paul’s book Digital Art, is also not considered a technique in this framework. 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” as a whole, only clarify it with respect to distinguishing 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 and media 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 simultaneously.
Some prefer the term technology-based art, media art, or digital art for the contemporary situation of the digital medium. I prefer the term Media Arts 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 Digital or Multimedia, which consists of digital versions of traditional techniques. The essential point is that if we understand the difference between message and technique Media Art can be more easily understood as a new discipline.
Media Art covers all contemporary techniques for digitally-based art making, just as traditional Fine Arts is divided into classes according to traditional technique. Although technique can clarify academic distinctions in 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 lose our sense and ability to evaluate what is meaningful.
The challenge, as an artist, 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 yet mostly creative and imaginative the rest of the time. There are a significant number of Media arts which rely on scientific concepts for aesthetic inspiration – bio-art, data visualization, hacking – and while valuable we must also understand that they are limited, momentary explorations seeking to reconcile art and science within the vast range of meaning. The basic concepts of technique versus meaning can help us to clarify the discipline of Media Art while allowing its meaning to remain open to a much wider range of ideas.
– 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.