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Digital Goes Critical
Now That Digital Art Has been Brought
Inside the Museum, Will the ArtWorld
Take it Seriously?

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

There is a tendency among some to want to make an “art” of anything… the art of business, the art of tennis, the art of the Dow Jones...

But acknowledging that there is an “art” to doing something well, and declaring something to be an art are entirely different things. There is clearly an art, for example, to creating good computer programs. But is there such a thing as digital art?

First, a clarification of terms. Digitized art is what you get when Canada, the United States, and Mexico collaborate in an exhibition of North American landscape art [CBC] that is displayed only in cyberspace. Or when the Canadian government offers an online gallery [CBC] of 200,000 images—everything from the Group of Seven to Inuit sculpture. It's not actual art but the digital representation of actual art.

Digitized art spawns the virtual gallery or museum. The Smithsonian Museum of American Art [New Jersey Online] is attracting more visitors per month (60,000) to the virtual images on its website since it physically closed for renovations than it attracted “live” visitors (54,000) during the last month its building was open.

In the commercial marketplace, enormous digital image archives have been assembled by companies such as Corbis and Getty Images. Neil Rudenstine, stepping down as president of Harvard University, recently said he will head an effort to create a mammoth digitized art archive [New York Times]


But digital art is something quite different from digitized art. A generation of artists working in pixels and logarithms and CART monitors proclaims that digital is a new medium, a fully legitimate medium in which 0’s and 1’s replace paint and canvas.

Getting critics and curators to agree, however, has been more complicated. Despite numerous websites devoted to digital art and thousands of practitioners, many mainstream art critics have maintained that digital as an artform has not yet really taken shape [New York Times]. What hasn’t really taken shape, however, may be, more exactly, a framework, a vocabulary in which digital art can be discussed and appreciated by non-practitioners.

The online world has promised us a new, more democratic way of doing things, where innovation and understanding of the world are untethered from the traditional arbiters of taste and legitimacy.

But the online world, for all its innovation and vibrancy, can itself be quite exclusive, and it has taken recognition by a more traditional but ultimately more accessible authority– the museum – to push digital art into the wider world.

The Whitney’s first digital acquisition was made as far back as 1994 [The Art Newspaper]. Last year for the first time, the Whitney Biennial (the show everyone loves to hate) included art in a digital medium, serving notice that the larger artworld was paying increasing attention. Also last year the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art awarded a prize [Wired] for digital art.

Then, as the clock ticked 01:01 on January 1, 2001 (01/01/01), SFMOMA, its doors closed and locked, opened 010101: Art in Technological Times for online viewing.  Director David Ross, a longtime champion of art in/and/about digital technology staked an unmistakable claim for the medium [Wired] and for his own institution. 

Now, a few months later, digital art may have achieved some critical mass [New York Magazine] with the opening of BitStreams on March 22, 2001, the Whitney’s first major exhibition devoted to the practitioners of a kind of art that even now few can yet define [The New Republic] and some still say does not yet exist.

There are signs that longer term admittance to the art club is shaping up as well.  The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, by way of a gift from AOL, has assembled the first-ever museum collection [The Art Newspaper] of internet art.

Like its most immediate ancestor, video art, which has struggled for decades for legitimacy, digital art is finally in play in the larger artworld, and discussions about how it can be defined are now taking place well outside of the immediate digital community.  


“Digital art is like soccer—it never attracted the best athletes until this generation,” asserts Mark Tribe, founder of the pioneering art site Rhizome.org…. ‘As a practical matter…, we’ve now reached a tipping point’[New York Magazine].

Digital art reaches the tipping point when it successfully turns the wired world to artistic ends remote from those envisioned by the engineers who brought that digital fusion of the telephone, the television, and the computer into existence. 

Glenn D. Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan explains: “The digital reproduction of works of art on the Internet is just that, but the experience of works of art uniquely created for the Net is a fundamentally different category [New York Times].  A stored Winslow Homer is digitized art.  Jeremy Blake’s Station to Station, “a series of five monitors on which geometric forms and landscape images appear and disappear in a fairly complex contrapuntal sequence” [The New Republic] is digital art.

If Station to Station, a part of BitStreams, does not quite break the mold of purchase and display by private or public collectors, other digital art does, and some of its creators, though trained conventionally as painters, prize it for its power to “thwart conventional categorization” [New York Times]


But despite “uncertainty surrounding what it means to own, exhibit, create, or simply view works, computer-aided art is gaining credibility from collectors and institutions, who are not only buying it but commissioning it too.

Last summer, Magdalena Sawon, co-director of Manhattan’s Postmasters Gallery, sold two editions, for $15,000 each, of Text Rain (2000), a digital work by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv. "This was the first time a substantial interactive computer installation was bought, [ArtNews] by people who were also buying this for the first time," says Sawon.

The history of digital art may go through a set of steps increasingly familiar in cyberspace.  First, creative amateurs circulate their own work without charge partly because there is still no market for it and partly because no one quite knows how to charge for it. 

Second, nonprofit institutions confer legitimacy [New York Times] upon and provide protective custody for the kids while introducing them to the right people. Third, a true market emerges, and the kids get rich, if they are lucky, or are cast aside, if they are not. 

The combination of 010101 and BitStreams may mark digital art’s passage from the first stage to the second as “digital artists…break down another boundary: the one between them and the art world’s upper echelons[New York Magazine].

But it also expands a discussion once confined to a truly tiny coterie of freaks and geeks [San Francisco Chronicle]. Though major shows on the left and right coasts may mark a museum breakthrough in North America, there are, in fact, more digital artists in Europe [The Art Newspaper].

From the Europeans, the American shows may provoke something less like imitation than refutation. Some refutations will be of the “there is no such thing” sort. When digital goes critical, art goes epistemological [Feed]. Others will be of the “been there, done that” sort [Wired]

But such dismissals may, in turn, provoke a counter-attack from a nontraditional constituency excited above all by the technology and inclined to dismiss more narrowly art-critical dismissals as elitist [New Republic].

Of such assertions and counter-assertions are vocabularies created and art historical canons established – essential conversations which help to establish and extend any artform. One thing is certain though, digital art is here to stay. As David Ross put it when the SFMOMA show opened, “We’re all frogs in the slowly boiling pot, …and we’re not jumping out” [New York Times].

Additional Reading: Our "Digital Art" Archives

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