What is New Media Art?

History of New Media

What is New Media Art?

Rama Karl Hoetzlein, 2009

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.

Art Form Description Example
A. Traditional Art Art which uses classical tools
A1. Drawing Art using drawing tools (graphite, chalk, ink, pencil) Leonardo da Vinci
A2. Painting Art using colored pigments applied to a surface Pablo Picasso
A3. Sculpture Art using a combination of physical materials in
3D space
A4. Printmaking Art created by pressing ink onto a surface
A4.1. Relief Printing Ink rests on the top of the surface (woodcut, wood engraving, linocut) Katsushika Hokusai
A4.2. Intaglio Ink goes into groves made in the surface (engraving, etching, mezzotint, aquatint) Gustave Dore
A4.3. Planographic Ink is selectively applied by treating the surface (lithography, monotyping) Fancisco Goya
A4.4. Stencil Ink is pressed around precut shapes (screen-printing, pochoir) Andy Worhol
B. Modern Arts Art which uses non-traditional tools
B1. Photography Art created using a photographic process Ansel Adams
B2. Filmmaking Art which to present a sequence of images
B2.1. Pre-Film Special techniques for presenting temporal images Kinematoscope, Zoopraxiscope
B2.2. Film Based Filmmaking with a photographic process George Melies, Chaplin
B3. Video Art Art using broadcasting, television or video as the medium Naim Jun Paik, Bill Viola
B4. Kinetic Art Art driven by physical motion (closely related to Sculpture)
B4.1. Naturally-Driven Art Kinetic art using natural forces (wind, air) Alexander Calder, George Rickey
B4.2. Mechnically-Driven Art Kinetic art using motors Duchamp, Tingley
B4.3. Puppetry Kinetic art using human-interaction to create motion in objects Jim Henson
B4.4. Performance Art Kinetic art using the human body as the medium Yves Klein
B5. Mixed Media Art which uses a combination of traditional media together
B5.1. Graphic Design Art using cut shapes, drawing and type to create visuals Mayakovsky, Klutsis
B5.2. Photomontage Combination of drawing and photography Peter Kennard
C. New Media Art Art which uses digital tools
C1. Multimedia Art Art which uses digital versions of traditional media
C1.1. Non-Linear Editing Art of filmmaking using digital video Germain
C1.2. Digital Painting Art of painting using digital tools (e.g. photoshop) David Em
C1.3. Web Design Art of graphic design using web page as canvas
C1.4. Interface Design Art of graphic design to create software interfaces
C2. Computer Graphics Art using computer modeling and rendering to create virtual scenes Gilles Tran
C3. Interactive Art Art involving human-interaction
C3.1. Indirect Interactive Art in which cameras and detectors passively record human motion Camille Utterback
C3.2. Directly Interactive Art in which direct manipulation is required of the viewer Sommerer & Mignonneau
C3.3. Video Games Art which is bi-directional, narrative and exploratory.
C4. Internet Art Art using the internet, or web site, as medium Vuk Cosic
C5. Information Art Art using databases and social or statistical information as a source. George Legrady
C6. Algorithmic Art Art using a mathematical formula or algorithm as the source of form or structure. Peter Beyls, Jean Pierre Hebert

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.

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29 thoughts on “What is New Media Art?

  1. I totally agree, and this article is the reason why I bounce around with so many different mediums. I have struggled to commit to just one, but is that a bad thing? The short answer is no. Why do they categorize art that way? Media studies is so versatile and would be nothing without art.

  2. I find this discussion fascinating. As a high school art teacher, I am struggling with how to incorporate new media into my curriculum. It seems students coming into high school are deficient in the basic traditional artistic skills of drawing, painting and sculpture, so I feel that a studio class should provide them experience with those “hands-on” skills. However, they are quite adept at basic technology skills. especially in regard to social media! Still working out all these issues!

    1. Thanks for your input! Use of traditional media has indeed declined due to digital and social media. It is interesting that you compare traditional artistic skills (drawing, painting, etc.) to your students’ adeptness at social media. Do you find they are proficient at using tools for social connectivity (e.g. facebook, twitter), or that they are adept at using digital creativity tools (e.g. after effects, photoshop), or both? These are really quite different. There is, of course, no need to teach the social media skills, since they will already be well versed, and continue to develop these for personal reasons. In fact, I find them a distraction in most classrooms. However, creativity tools like Photoshop and After Effects, are different. When used well, they require patience, skill, focus, and intelligence, like traditional media. In the real world, there is a strong need for any artist who is proficient, creative, and disciplined, whether through digital or traditional media (although admittedly digital skills pay better). It can come from any type of media.

      However, I’d also suggest that there is no good substitute for traditional practice. Physical media responds in complex, subtle ways which are always only simulated by digital media. Photoshop is no substitute for paper (for example, I go to digital arts tradeshows every year, and every year I test the latest digital stylus. I have yet to buy one, as they are never as refined as a sharp pencil.) Digital “painting” is no where close to the complexity of oil painting – yet, then again a canvas cannot easily approach animation. They have different affordances. Yet the subtlety of physical media helps the student artist to find focus and patience, and is the foundation for digital skills they can build to later on.

      Thanks for commenting. It’s nice to hear from an art teacher at the high school level, which must have its own unique set of challenges.

  3. Dear Rama Hoetzlein,

    I was wondering if you would give me permission to use your graphic – What is new media Art? to demonstrate a point I would like to make about art, design and technology and how we need to a embrace both the old and the new.



    1. You are welcome to use the graphic in any materials, or lectures, so long as you retain the copyright info present in the image. If this is for a print publication or article, please include this in the caption text or citations.

  4. Thank you for agreeing about the potential inclusion of textiles and the associated loom technology in map.

    Perhaps, I should have inverted what i wrote by starting with all paintings are not art. Since textile’s makers are largely anonymous, it is a challenge for most all viewers to feel comfortable seeing the tapestries at Christiansborg Palace in the same way they would see say the Rothko Chapel. Having seen the Queen’s tapestries for the first time last year, I was stunned how all the tapestries were made to fit the audience hall to even the coulmns. I learned the expense of commissioning them was so great that it was major part why the Danish crown was bankrupted. Textiles in the Medieval and early Renaissance period were far more costly and valuable than painting. The mass production of textiles starting in the industrial revolution lead to the commoditization of textiles, and to our not fully appreciating historical material. Of course, printing, photography, and other reproductive technologies did the same thing to “fine” art. Howeve, a know human being like Andy Warhol, Daminen Hurst or even Thomas Kinkade can leverage there talents through this technology . Textiles having very few known artists means the viewer must a certain security in their eye, and be open to other artistic expression. This could be said of New Media Art too. What is interesting to me is the number of artists in the past 100 or so years who collect collecting textiles.

  5. You are a really deep thinker in regards to art in general. How you laid out the the development of art through materials and technical development is excellent. I would be curious how you would respond to adding another medium —-weaving. The first physical evidence of textiles is nine millenniums ago. The first depiction of a loom was seven millenniums. At its simplest level, a loom is a binary device that evolved into an industrial machine. The Jacquard loom invented at the beginning of the 19th century was a huge step in automation. As you may know cards were essential to Jacquard’s loom and they were not unlike the old key punch cards used in early data processing. I would like to add not all textiles are works of art like all paint on canvas is artwork. Obviously, most all people would consider the Unicorn Tapestries to be art. However the industrial revolution radically changed man’s relationship to textiles.

    1. Thanks. Looking at technique, I would suggest that technologies for weaving can be understood in much the same way. As with painting, weaving has evolved from an traditional practice with historic tools to a modern one with modern tools. The technology has made many of the same transitions as other media, from fully manual weaving, to mechanical tools (looms), to digital tools. Thus, as a technique it has a similar history and should be added to the map above.

      The challenging aspect is meaning. I am curious why you say that: “I would like to add not all textiles are works of art like all paint on canvas is artwork?”. Why would all works on canvas be art, but all works on textiles not be? Perhaps you are referring to the craft of hobby weaving, but there are also hobby painters. Or perhaps you are referring to mass produced weaves, but there all also mass produces paintings (those in many modern galleries are fakes using sophisticated relief printing techniques). Most forms of art, especially the established ones, have both low and high forms. Recently I had a chance to see the beautiful Queen’s tapestries at Christiansborg Palace in Slotsholmen, Denmark.

  6. its nice to see your article, after checking the posts i felt u r generous in permitting your article for citations, thanks and i want to use some aspects – not copying..ok., in my ongoing PhD work in New media Art practices with Indian context. sure i use accordingly with citation. hope you oblige my request. looking forward.

  7. It was created using a combination of techniques. The overall site is CSS created with Dreamweaver. The ‘theory’ pages are implemented using WordPress. The pages with videos were created using a specially made Shockwave Flash player.

  8. This is great! Very informative. Thanks for taking the time to post this in details. People should know about this. Keep it up.

  9. In general, I feel there are two types of meaning. First is the individual, or personal meaning, which is brought into a work of art. Even in structuralist, or scientific art, there is still an individual meaning because all works of art are a choice. Why does one make a choice to apply science to art instead of more traditional materials? So even though an artwork may claim to supercede meaning, there are still choices made by the artist. Second is the social, or cultural meaning, which is the effect the artwork has on culture. In general, I agree with media theorists that this has been greatly influenced by media, so that we live in a society where it is very difficult for the individual artist to have any effect on culture. However, I would first question the goals of the artist who seeks to have an “effect” on the world, since it is impossible to separate the artist’s desire for social change from their desire for success in art. If you ‘seek’ meaning, you will have a hard time finding it. In addition, if one wishes to change culture, there are many other disciplines which have greater direct impact, such as law or politics. The cultural meaning of art, in my view, should not be explicitly sought after, but implicit in the process of making art. If making art does not inherently have meaning for the artist, it is unlikely that the artist could create meaning for others.

    I prefer Picasso’s view of meaning: “In my opinion to search [for meaning] means nothing in painting. To find, is the thing. Nobody is interested in following a man who, with his eyes fixed on the ground, spends his life looking for the pocketbook that fortune should put in his path. The one who finds something no matter what it might be, even if his intention were not to search for it, at least arouses our curiosity.”

    Returning to your question, technological art is certainly growing recently, yet this could not last indefinitely. There is no movement in art which has not come and gone. You might say technology in art is not a movement, but a new method of making art. I would say it is both a technique and a movement, because artists now are not just using technology to make art, they are claiming that the technology gives it meaning – bio art, organic art, algorithmic art, etc. Science is viewed now by artists as a source of meaning. Its interesting, like all movements are interesting, but could not last indefinitely. It is very similar to the Constructivist movement in Russian art, which explored a rationalization of the image through abstract shape. Meaning will change over time.

  10. Thanks for your clarify, I agree with your analysis very much but there are still some aspects I would like to know your point (hopefully in real), especially about the process of creating meanings in the new art practice since a lot of these experiences dialog within technological based events/abstractions not directly or symbolically related to human habits. The risk is less artistic meanings in terms of more functional design.

  11. Thanks for your reply.. My response would be that the goal is not to “extract” meaning from the technological platform, but that the meaning created remains somewhat distinctly created from the technique, which is itself only used as a means of organization. A painter, for example, does not necessarily create meaning exclusive to the technique of painting, but may create meaning from any source – which may or may not include the technique itself. The language developed by the artist is, in my view, not rigidly defined by the technique but only loosely informed by it. The space of possible expressions using a particular technique is still open to many kinds of meaning. When I say that the theory is “based on technique”, I mean only that it is a convenience from an archeological/historical view, since meaning is so open in art… just as the academics of fine arts is conveniently divided into drawing, painting, and sculpture, but meaning is not defined according to these.

  12. Very deep and problematic questions/answers about theorizing a future for an Art based on techniques.
    This difficulty of extracting meanings out of a technological platform, it becomes a problem of language. The new artist has to be able to structure an understandable syntax merging the principles involved in the system developed, related to the historical and technological necessities he is living. This is the core effecting the new media experience in a process of social sharing. But is this always happening?

  13. I like your diagram and I want to use it for a presentation (due credit observed). What I don’t understand is why graphic design not connected to game design. That’s all.

  14. You’re welcome to copy portions as a quote /w citation. I ask that you not copy the entire text, but of course you are free to create a link to this page.