21 Aug, 2009

A brush with the digital art revolution

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Computer art, one of the wonders of the digital age, can be traced back at least to the 1950s when Dr Desmond Paul Henry experimented with a Sperry bombsight computer bought in an army surplus store in Manchester. Encouraged by the famous Salford painter LS Lowry, he produced innovative art spun out of a computer. Since then, the digital revolution has propelled art into new and often controversial areas.

You can now view almost every painting in a public gallery in the world instantaneously using a search engine. We take it for granted, but it is amazing. You can buy and sell art through virtual galleries such as Saatchi, read a daily magazine (artdaily.org), or create and alter designs using Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, which have transformed the graphics industry. It has long been possible to “paint” on a computer screen or tablet using a stylus or a mouse but new applications, led by Brushes on the Apple iPhone, promise a game-changing approach to painting. They enable anyone to “paint” with their fingers on the touchscreen of a smartphone to produce art which, viewed on a screen, is difficult to distinguish from oils, watercolour or acrylics, thereby passing a kind of Turing test.

If the much-rumoured Mac device with a 10in touchscreen includes apps such as Brushes, it could become one of the most popular ways of painting. I have been playing around with Brushes and am surprised how even people with limited natural ability can produce passable stuff. You can expand the size of the screen image eight times so you can paint detail, and there is an “undo” key so you can erase previous brush strokes as often as you like until you get it right. It is the painterly equivalent of a monkey writing Shakespeare.

All this is grist to the mill of those who wonder what art really is. It has been claimed that the advent of photography killed painting as a reproductive process, but now that photography has become manipulable thanks to Photoshop and so on, painting is making a comeback as a way of seeing the world as it is, or as it is through the eyes of the viewer. Either way, people 100 years hence may find it difficult to find what the world really looked like today as most photographic images will have been manipulated in some way.

The web is awash with people experimenting with new forms, from street art – such as Brian Eno’s 77 million paintings , not to mention his Bloom app for the iPhone – to art created in virtual worlds such as Second Life, where you have to be in the world to get the full immersive experience. What will emerge as lasting art out of all this activity, only time will tell.

With painters and photographers we more or less know the provenance. But who should get the credit for art produced by algorithms or random means? The software program, the programmer, the computer or the person who pressed the button to start the program, or whoever had the original idea? Does the fact that you can endlessly change what you paint with Brushes make it any less a work of art than a traditional painting, which may have had lots of layers added before the artist was satisfied? Maybe, as Oscar Wilde said, art never expresses anything but itself. Interestingly, the digital revolution in art has been a largely bloodless one. On the whole it has not displaced existing art – it is likely that more people paint in the traditional way than ever before – but it offers opportunities for anyone to explore. It doesn’t have to stay on a computer since you can publish it in limited editions, as David Hockney has done with his Brushes experiments on the iPhone. Or, as is starting to happen, you can print it out on a canvas, thereby making the art revolution turn full circle.


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