In a digital world, what is art?

By Andrew Ayres

What is art? It’s not an easy question to answer, as art being a form of expression is open to interpretation by the individual. Historically art has been defined by something physical, a painting, or sculpture, but in an increasingly complex and digital world, the notion of what constitutes art is changing.

There are few who would argue that the Mona Lisa, or the statue of David are examples of art, but in the modern world with the ability to send and received images at the speed of light, and have many people experience a piece at the same time regardless of location the landscape for what we call art is changing.

As a species, humans have a strong desire to hold onto the past, and keep around us symbols of times gone by, the fact that you can view a five hundred year old painting, or a statue from the same era speaks to the desire we have to maintain a link with the past.

But in an increasingly digital era it begs the question, what should we be saving now? Despite what some may claim, predicting the future trends is near on impossible, and understanding what we have now, that future generations would like access to in five hundred years’ time is challenging to say the least.

An along those lines how do we wish to be remembered? Do we wish to be defined by future generations as an era of random memes, or something else? The world changes at a fast pace and understanding what we have now that can be considered art is a challenge. And given we are in an era where more and more people feel free to express themselves, and their opinions on social media, finding a definition of what art currently is may well prove impossible.

There is also the matter of how we store digital art for future generations, the evolution of the digital landscape has only really come on in the past few decades, yet already we have technological obsolescence rendering some media used to store the raw data semi unusable, bar for enthusiasts who work to preserve the technology of past decades, much as scholars preserved the works which we now consider to be the great pieces of art from human history.

Popular culture in some ways defines what we consider to be the great pieces, with works able to reach a much greater mass than at any other time in history, yet the fast pace of the modern world also means that that which is popular one day is forgotten the next. Do these blips in the annals of contemporary history then merit saving and preserving, or do we consign them to the dustbin of history? Forgotten by all but a few.

One such project is the Internet Archive, and one of their better known projects is the Wayback Machine, which works to capture snapshots of websites as they change and evolve over time, because with the fast pace of current living, nothing stays the same for very long, and sometimes in creating new things, we can lose the old which we don’t appreciate at the time. But the volume of information out there that could broadly be considered art is so huge, that even the most dedicated project crawling the web will not be able to capture it all.

But that very pace at which technology is changing may also prove our saviour, as we gain the ability to store previously unthought of volumes of data reliably, and relatively inexpensively. So, our rapid advancement may prove both a blessing and a curse. We also have the ability to keep art in a distributed manner, with copies stored all over the globe, increasing the likely hood that it will survive for some time to come. If an asteroid were to hit the Louvre in France, we couldn’t exactly have someone repaint the Mona Lisa, it would be lost forever, with ironically only the digital records and many copy images to preserve its memory.

This begs another question, does part of what defines art lie in its exclusivity? The fact that it exists only in one physical location adding to the interest and allure of the piece? Do we by the almost universal access to medium such as the internet somehow dilute what art is to the point where it loses meaning?

Again, this will be a question answered by future generations as they are left with what we have chosen to save and consider its worth against their own standards of the day.

It is the choices we make now that will ultimately decide what we leave for the future. What defines us and the era in which we live as expressed through art. Certainly there are still painters doing works that may be one day considered great, and this physicality to their existence means the chances of them surviving for future generations could increase.

It may be that the expansion of our ability to capture information and store it will render all of this moot, as we increasingly capture more and more of the world we live in and commit it to storage.

It may be that the biggest challenge for future generations may not be the availability of art, but rather being able to sort the genius from the background noise of the sheer volume that we have managed to collect, and that we have managed not to define ourselves against the backdrop of all that we’ve saved. Maybe we will become an era that is not able to be defined, as we’ve not been forced to make a choice about who we are.

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