Truly Virtual Web Art Museum


The Face Without a Body

 by Rodney E.J. Chang
June 2013  

      Imagine confrontation with a head with a face full of charismatic expression, perfect in symmetry and with vibrant skin colors, just brimming with life.  Yet it remained motionless, resting on a tabletop, lacking a physical body.  Would your initial attraction, once you realized that the beautiful face had no body, turn into revulsion and even horror? 

      In a way, that is what digital art is today.  A beautiful face without any physical embodiment, as that possessed by traditional art media such as oil on canvas, stone and ceramic figures, even the vibrant colors swirling in transparent blown glass. 

     From the very beginning of human history, when art was done on cave walls during prehistoric times, artistic effort was rendered in a physical manner.  Cavernous walls were scrawled, painted or chiseled upon, to make markings with meaning to the human dwellers.  The substrate was physical rock, the materials applied were of materials gathered from the environment, such as colors derived from plants, animals, and minerals that were grounded into powder and mixed with oils (animal and plant) to produce paint.

     From the time of such primitive art, the tradition of using materials with physical properties lasted until the present.  But the choice of materials with which to make art has become more diverse and sophisticated.  Today “paintings” are rendered on fabrics such as canvas and linen, using “archival quality” colors made with a slew of chemical elements (for instance cadmium, iron, sulfur, titanium, chromium, lead and zinc) mixed with oils and chemically derived plastics.  Picture making has come a long way from the cave, but the objects all have the common foundation of a physical composition.  Even if the imagery lay on a two-dimensional plane, it exists as a surface of a three-dimensional object.  A stretched painted canvas has side wooden stretcher bars and a backside where screws and wiring are placed to enable the work of art to be hung and displayed on our present-day cave wall, the interior wall of the house.  Even the piece of paper upon which a drawing is rendered has a measurable thickness or “ply.”

     In a similar manner, carved objects since ancient times are imbibed with human expression and symbolic meaning.  Wood, rocks such granite, marble and jade, are manipulated.  Later clay was mixed with the right amount of water and baked, and metals melted, poured, and solidified into artistic forms.   Like the paintings, the sculptural objects take up and exist in physical space.

     Then in the last quarter of the 20th century came along graphic digital technology.  Suddenly imagery could be visualized using electrons to create colored light. The picture existed in a container (computer monitor, wireless tablet, smart cell phone, etc.) with a transparent viewing surface.  But this surface is not part of the artwork.  The pictorial element can be turned off, made to completely disappear.  The image now has no physical permanency.   Its source remains as mathematical algorithms.   When the viewing apparatus is on and the picture is generated, it’s like a face without a body.  We’ve come a long way. 

     To spook the established art world further, the art-like electronic manifestation isn't rare.  It could infinitely replicate itself.  It was like a virus that threatened to infect and change forever aesthetics, or simply contemporary good taste.  Galleries and museums have to shun it, ignore its spread throughout the Internet, hoping it would someday just fade away.  Physical works of art, hung on museum walls as if preserved in ageless tombs, might begin to seem out-of-date and obsolete, by a current public growing up with fleeting imagery. 

     Like every aspect of human life, even the human body itself, progress in the development and application of high technology is relentless and all encompassing.  Just the other day news media announced that a child, born without a windpipe, had an artificial one surgically placed.  It was made of material constructed from a 3D digital printer.  Another story in the papers proclaimed that researchers, now armed with powerful digital tools, have completed the replication human DNA.  What next?  Clones of ourselves?   Go through the trauma of delivery once, and then clone three more, if a family with four children is desired?   Theoretically, copies of ourselves, as many as we desire, might someday be sitting around, carrying on a conversation among themselves.  See others that appear as you, walking around at different ages!  When this becomes a reality and no longer merely science fiction, how will it influence our art?  Digital art can already be endlessly cloned from the original.

      Our “brave new world” has arrived.   The traditional art media are in direct competition with powerful digital art making tools.  Will the former survive in popularity or be relegated to the relic heap (inventory, collection) that is clustered in the mothballed space called the museum?  Today digital artists invent or discover at an accelerated rate new image special effects.  In the past, displaying such new visual effects would receive public acclaim for the work and the artist.  Even in the recent past an innovative application of paint was exalted as new art movements or “isms.”  For example, by deciding to paint with dots, a new style, or “-ism” of art, Impressionism, was proclaim by art critics and sanctified into official art history.  The artist, Pygoya, did something similar, using blocky pixels as building blocks of his digital paintings.  Nobody seemed to notice.

     Regardless, today innovative digital effects run circles around such past image novelty that were derived using conventional art media.  Yet the digital breakthroughs in picture-making go unnoticed, ignored, or even shunned by professional art critics.  There's no way that the reason is because the artist and his or her work are yet undiscovered.  Not with the open window of global visibility and consciousness that the World Wide Web now provides such digital creators, displaying their visual creations via online collaboration or their own web sites.  It’s as if nobody in the establish world is searching for innovation within the digital arts, paradoxically the revolutionary medium of contemporary life. 

     And the advent of the Internet reveals that there's just too much digital art; no official organization could possibly keep up with the rampant innovation that is constantly occurring around the planet.  It's a bona fide but undeclared renaissance in the visual arts.  “Why give it recognition?” so the commercial galleries seem to declare in unison.  The stuff is not rare.   Art making has become democratized; powerful graphic programs enable anybody to call himself an artist.  Then there’s no original, making every downloaded (usually pirated) image a “fake” ... a copy, a “reproduction” according to the traditional definition of commercialized art objects.  It's hard to sell the stuff.

      So the whole world waits to see how things will eventually play out.  Will the traditionalists survive or will their treasured masterpieces in the future become mere artifacts that refer back to the primitive times when the PC and then wireless gadgets had not yet become the new global reality?  Meanwhile innovative imagery manifests itself at an exponentially greater rate than can be achieved by painting with a brush, pulling prints off a press, or casting molten metal poured into a mold.  Today, so to speak, traditional artists work their craft, yes admirably by hand, in physical workspaces similar to the cave studio of primitive man, while artists converted to the use of digital gadgets to express and capture their feelings work with pixels of light – anywhere, at any time, at minimum cost to produce.

     Will digital technology overrun the arts too, like every other facet of human life, including our own bodies and the creation of weapons of mass destruction?  The traditional arts are putting up a good fight, but I wouldn't put my money on the aesthetic commodities, rapidly becoming irrelevant in the ever all-encompassing digital global culture.   Show a beautiful ceramic pot to today’s 5-year old.  Will it hold his attention or will the child quickly return his attention, and interaction, to the animation on his wireless tablet?

     Contemporary life is swiftly changing.  Someday that face without a body will have a body.  It shall become an everyday thing, possibly an appliance as common as a toaster or coffee brewer.  If digital files can instruct printers that make 3-dimensional forms using plastic and other materials, what’s next?  Living in interior space that appears physical, but mutated through holographic illusions?  Want new upholstery for the living room sofa?  Just download a chosen color and pattern with size specs for your old coach and watch it change before your eyes.  Now that would really be a “smart” house, complete with integrated applications of futuristic high-tech interior design that includes chameleon-like transformation of old furnishings.

       Someday that artful pretty face will finally have a physical body as all things digital expands into the living space through the manipulation of our perceived visual realm.



Some Digital art by Rodney Chang