The Next Frontier: Digital Art

Stephen Doyle

Technology is changing everything. Why should culture be spared?

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen says software is eating the world. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts we are approaching a technological singularity, currently slated for 2045. But even if your views are more moderate, there’s no denying technology’s accelerating impact on culture. The average American now spends seven hours a day in front of screens. This shift will have consequences for the future of art, as artists increasingly embrace technology and the establishment embraces them. In the past decade, critics and collectors have recognized, even sought, the work of artists like Petra Cortright and Man Bartlett, who take social-media apps as inspiration, subject and medium. New-media art reached a zenith in the spring of 2013, with the first-ever purchase of a work made using the Vine app (which allows users to share six-second videos) at the Moving Image art fair. Shortly after, the New Museum established a grant for artists who use Tumblr, a site for sharing images and videos, in their work.

Given this, what endures—what ends up defined as “art”—may surprise and even offend us, in the same way great art provoked audiences in the past. Imagine telling the first people who saw a photograph that this magical technology would come to be one of our most valued and democratic means of self-expression; or the Futurists in 1909 famously declaring a racecar more beautiful than the circa 190 b.c. sculpture Nike of Samothrace (Winged Victory). David Hockney, who five decades into his career began drawing and painting using iPhone and iPad apps, said it best: “Picasso would have gone mad with [the iPad]…so would van Gogh. I don’t know an artist who wouldn’t, actually.”

So what mark will today’s artists leave for historians of the future? I’m no expert, but it’s possible that videographers, web engineers and app developers will be remembered alongside contemporary artists like Gerhard Richter, Cindy Sherman and Richard Serra. Their art could come in the form of algorithms, virtual-­reality applications or even an online world like EVE or Second Life. Perhaps the next Banksy will be a cyber-activist artist who hijacks a swarm of drones from Facebook.

And what about social-media channels like Twitter? While it may be hard to imagine culture-changing art in 140 characters, with more than 110,000 symbols to choose from, there exist at least 10^700 unique tweets—for comparison, there are only about 10^80 particles in the entire universe.

Perhaps artists of the future will even find a way to embrace social media’s increasingly ephemeral nature. Snapchat, with more than 700 million Snaps (messages that, unless screen-grabbed, disappear after one to ten seconds) sent every day, best symbolizes our culture’s growing desire for speed and impermanence. It’s possible to imagine a day when a Snap changes culture, its original message lost—deleted forever—but passed along into eternity via an infinite number of slightly different screen grabs.

Maybe as media gets more and more ephemeral, there will be nothing left that will endure, and cultural evolution will grind to a halt. Or perhaps ephemerality itself is just a fashionable trend, and a parallel movement toward consciousness, meditation and presence will ultimately evolve humanity into a more contemplative state—bringing us full circle to worshipping ancient, timeless relics like a stone-faced Buddha.

Our new columnist, Carter Cleveland, is the founder and CEO of Artsy, an online resource for art education and collecting. In each column, he will address the interplay of culture and technology.