Arts & Culture Visual Arts

Art in the Digital Age

By Oliver Maughan

British landscape painter Oliver Maughan explores the role of art in our increasingly digital world.

In 1936, the philosopher Walter Benjamin published his seminal essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Benjamin was contending with the question of where art belongs in an era of technological development, during a time when mass culture was becoming a central aspect of modern society. Today, we find ourselves in another new, though similar, era of sorts, dominated by digital technology and the internet.

With digital technology came an influx of innovation in the art industry, including increased accessibility to collections, artists being able to promote their work much further afield, and the development of a completely new genre of art of digital and graphic design.

Digital technology is of our zeitgeist and it is somewhat expected that art, as a very socially involved practice, has been embracing it. As early as 2005, the Museum of Digital Art was opened in Zurich, Switzerland, making it the first European museum dedicated to digital art and virtual space.

A survey by the Pew Research Center revealed arts organisations also shared this sentiment and saw great potential for internet and social media as a positive force to increase the scope of access to art, allow for more effective marketing, and improve cataloguing standards.

For artists, the digital age has brought in many new technologies. One is social media which allows them to interact with their audiences at a much more intimate level, as well as expanding their exposure to new groups that may not have normally been interested in fine art.

Online platforms can make the day-to-day running of the art industry much smoother. Visitors can book their exhibition tickets online and auctions held on the web can be attended by international buyers.

Technology has also provided new media for artists. In the past decade, there has been a surge in new artforms, such as interactive art installations and digital paintings that would never have been possible without technological development.

Nonetheless, there are also some cautions we must take as the art industry becomes increasingly entangled with technology.

When Covid-19 hit the world, the internet became a proxy for many real-life activities we could no longer engage in, such as entertainment and communication. As museums and galleries shut its doors, the question of how we could continue accessing art became much more prevalent.

Returning to Benjamin’s 1936 essay, we must consider the idea of ‘aura’, which he defines as a quality integral to artworks that cannot be replicated by mechanical reproduction. Despite being an accurate visual representation, the reproduction lacks the original’s unique presence in space and time. He emphasises that mechanical reproduction of artworks means the original loses its authenticity, and therefore its aesthetic value.

This is also certainly something to consider in the context of today’s digital age, where there is increased tendency to use virtual, online exhibition spaces. Their usefulness in times like the pandemic must be appreciated, but ultimately, experiencing art online is not the same as the ‘real thing’.

While online collections and catalogues allow for a wider geographical audience range, there are still issues with digitising artworks for the purpose of display. For example, photographs of artworks are helpful for depicting and recording the general appearance of the original, but nuances are difficult to see. The colours, texture, and scale of the work is usually lost, thus the intended beauty and optimal experience of it are too.

I will never forget the awe of seeing Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. A famed work by the Dutch Golden Age painter, it is infinitely more magnificent when experienced in real life. Confronted with its over-life-sized scale, one is imbued with a sense of monumentality that I have never been able to experience when viewing reproductions of the work. Rembrandt’s mastery of oil paint to render luminosity and atmospheric light can truly be appreciated. The artistic treatment and unique qualities of oil paint, as with other traditional artists’ materials, are lost when translated into other media.

The internet exposes us to so many new artists and artworks, but the immediacy and overwhelming volume of imagery at our fingertips brings the risks of obscuring the true amount of time, and physical and creative labour required to create art. The cost of digitalised art is to lose the highly valuable detail of the hand of the artist.

There are positives and negatives with digitalised art, but ultimately, it is important that we do not replace traditional art forms. Art in the digital age is a continuation of a long lineage of art history, and it is integral that we do not forget about the discipline’s heritage.

In the hectic and sometimes overwhelming digital world, we must take time to step back from our screens and enjoy some of life’s unique pleasures by seeing art in the flesh. There really is nothing else like it.

www.OliverMaughan.com
@OliverMaughan

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