9. Ontology and Aesthetics of Digital Art


Many would claim that the traditional idioms of visual art have lost their capacity for large-scale innovation. Arthur Danto,[1] for example, has argued that the exhaustion of innovation is symptomatic of art having completed a historical process of self-investigation (aimed at clarifying its own essence).

I have indicated some of the problems with Danto's approach elsewhere.[2] There is no 'grand narrative' of art's self-discovery at issue. The exhaustion of large-scale artistic innovation is due, rather, to the structural conventions and properties which are constitutive of pictorial representation simply being incapable of further significant development at the structural level itself.

There are limits to new ways in which the representation of three-dimensional material can be achieved within the traditional idioms alone. The emergence of abstract art opened up new possibilities here, but these too appear to have now been exhaustively developed in structural terms.[3]

In talking of structural factors, I mean specifically two basic conventions, and a group of visual properties. The first convention is the semantic capacity to project likenesses of three-dimensional items; the second is the syntactic capacity to represent these as spatially connected states of affairs—where, for example, relations in front and behind can be distinguished from above and below. (Mathematical perspective and its variants are the most systematic forms of this.)[4]

The structurally relevant visual properties include transitions from light to dark, and the relation between contour, mass, and detail in the delineation of form. In painting, of course, these factors must also be related to colour.

Now if we try to explain why a specific artist is so important, or how a new movement or stylistic tendency serves to extend the scope of visual art, then reference to the role of structural features is inescapable. Artists and tendenciesrefine or innovate by reworking the relation between key structural features so as to open up new possibilities for other artists.

The problem is, however, that the physical nature of media such as drawing and painting places constraints on how far the structural features can be taken in new diredions. To give an important example (which I will return to in Part One of this chapter), when creating a picture, an artist operates, necessarily, along an axis defined by two logical extremes. The picture can be created either by marking out the contours of a three-dimensional object or by assembling and blending marks so as to represent its mass, or, of course, by combining elements of both.[5] How the artist relates to this axis is a matter of choice, but that he or she must relate to it is determined by what a picture is—as a function of line or mass, or combinations thereof.

Because this axis is so inescapable, it is hardly surprising that it has sustained a great deal of artistic innovation. An artist who achieves things of substance in relation to this —or other structural properties and conventions—at the same time opens up possibilities of relevance to other artists also.


There are two other related factors which set digital art apart from traditional visual idioms. They are of great complexity, and will be the subject of the entire next section.

Part Three

The first factor is the interactive dimension. The vast majority of visual artworks allow for alternative viewpoints in how they are perceived, and this will involve active positioning in relation to them. But the audience is not called upon to engage with the work in a way that alters its existing physical and virtual structure by virtue of such repositioning.

In some avant-garde tendencies such as Dadaism, Surrealism, and Conceptual art, objects or scenarios have been created which do solicit such engagement, but this is very much the exception rather than the rule.

With much digital art, matters are the other way round. In the case of digital imagery, significant modifications to the original program can be performed, in principle, wherever and whenever it is realized using the apparatus through which it is realized. The viewer of such digital imagery is, in principle, an active participant in the generation of the work, rather than a passive observer.

This is possible because the digital image's software program, by its nature, allows for further refinement and development. Such a program may become obsolete by virtue of new developments in hardware, but notionally, at least, it is always open to permanent transformation at user-level in a way that film and video are not.

There are five main vectors of interactivity.

  1. local and non-local interface—the former where one is in physical proximity to the computer, the latter when one accesses it remotely

  2. where the boundaries of interaction are rigidly set by the artist, i.e. the user's choice is restricted to such things as pressing 'Enter', opening or shrinking windows, or choosing between links. It involves no significant creative feedback from the computer

  3. interfacing based on computer responses to an audience, occurring whether or not the audience is aware that an interaction is actually taking place (e.g. when the computer generates imagery in response to movements by the audience, or to other environmental variables)

  4. by voluntary interface where the user navigates a program, i.e. exercises choices which are reciprocated through the computer opening up new creative possibilities of interface in response to them

  5. user-transcendent interface—where the user instigates and guides a program which is able to then develop at various levels of autonomy in formulating and projecting visual configurations

Now whilst some of these relationships, can, in principle, be involved in certain machine-based avant-garde art practices (using VCRs, televisions, telephones, and the like) they are not basic to such practices. However, they are integral to major kinds of digital art, and the last two factors —navigation and user-transcendent autonomy— are unique to it. This is because continuously evolving or relatively autonomous functions are possible only through digital technology.

The most developed form of navigational interaction, to date, is Virtual Reality's immersion scenarios. Some VR programs involve visual engagement through user-headware, but in projects such as Char Davies' Osmose of 1995 the immersion is more total through the user wearing a motion-tracking vest that also monitors breathing and balance.

Osmose offers perceptual virtual vistas of unfamiliar quasi-natural forms and more abstract optical effects. These reconfigure in correlation with the agent's movements and gestures. The sights and sounds thus presented can be projected onto a larger viewing screen for the non-immersive spectatorial audience.

Figure 13.
Char Davies, Vertical Tree, from Osmose, 1995.
Digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted display during immersive performance of the virtual environment Osmose. © Char Davies


1. Danto's most sustained presentation of this is in his After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 1997). A rather more focused and philosophically stimulating account of Danto's main thesis can be found in the final chapter of his The State of the Art (Prentice-Hall: New York, 1987), 202-218. Here Danto considers the possibility of art having exhausted itself through having run out of possibilities, but he neither follows this idea up nor considers it as the basis of an alternative to his main thesis.
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2. In 'Postmodernism and the Visual Arts: A Question of Ends', included in a number of anthologies, most recently Contextualizing Aesthetics: From Plato to Lyotard, ed. H. Gene Blocker and Jennifer M. Jeffers (Wadsworth Publishing Company: Belmont, California, 1999), 239-251. For some interesting alternative approaches to Danto, see the special issue of History and Theory, 'Danto and His Critics: After the End of Art and Art History', vol. 37, no. 4 (Dec. 1998).
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3. I discuss the structural basis of abstract idioms at length in Chapter 6 of the present work. See also chapter 5 of my book The Transhistorical Image: Philosophizing Art and Its History (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002), 143-165.
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4. Of course, it is possible to create or use an image in a context where the distribution of the image's virtual spatial connections is meant to be read on the basis of codes or stipulations which accrue to the context. But the decisive sense of syntax in visual representation is the principle of unity which governs the distribution of virtual spatial relations within the work's internal resources. The external codes or stipulations just add an extra level of syntactic meaning to the work.
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5. An artist's position on the contour-mass axis is determined on a comparative basis. This means that whilst there will always be some artists who are emphatically contour- or emphatically mass-orientated, there will be others whose orientation in these terms is much more dependent on exactly which other artists they are being compared with.
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Last verified: August 1st 2013.