Technology Has a Lot to Offer Art
Jesse Richards - April 23, 1999

Art and technology haven’t always been the best of friends. Whenever new technology is introduced, it takes the “serious” art world time to catch up and accept it. It happened a century and a half ago with photography, and now it’s happening again with computers.

To many people, art and technology are antithetical. They mirror the separate analytic and creative halves of the brain. Putting artistic methods into technology or science would be counterproductive, as introducing science and technology would take the “feeling” and “humanity” out of the arts.

This myth is evaporating, but it’s taking time. Just as recent discoveries indicate that the two hemispheres of the brain share a lot of duties, technology and art are beginning to tentatively mingle.

While I could throw out some ideas, I can’t speak for what art has to offer technology and science — I don’t have enough information about recent developments in scientific fields of study. But there are plenty of ways that science and technology influence art. Specifically, the digital revolution of the past two decades and the proliferation of computers have had important implications for visual art — as well as incredible opportunities.

Clearly, the main influence of technology on art is with computer-generated art. Graphic design, publishing, advertising, and product design, once done with paper layout, are now done exclusively on computers. Special effects for movies and television, book and magazine publishing, computer-generated logos and book illustration, and countless other computer art forms have transformed many industries in the last few decades.

Computers have had a much less comprehensive introduction into the world of fine art. Most art in galleries and museums continues to be made with traditional processes, and a lot of artists and galleries are reluctant to fully welcome computer graphics. Maybe they’re scared that computers will take over, eclipsing other media.

That fear can’t last for long. Just as fears about photography faded as photos found their niche in the art world, so too will apprehension about computer art be replaced by gradual acceptance. Computers can’t and shouldn’t replace other art forms; they simply create new possibilities, just as photography did. It’s already been going on: Many professional artists are computer-literate, creating freelance computer art in addition to showing other fine art. Robots painting

Computer graphics are more likely to help the art world advance than take it over. Using the photography analogy, photography took over the perfect recording of images, which enabled painters and sculptors more freedom in getting abstract. Unable to compete with the realism of photos, they had to get more creative. Photography is one of the most important factors in the rise of modern art.

Another good example is the invention of chemical colors in the 19th century, which let Monet break tradition and make history with Impressionism. It then helped Seurat and others delve into a whole new realm of art, just exploring color. Fears that it would break tradition were realized; art did change drastically, but in hindsight I think most of us would agree this was for the better. Maybe a hundred years from now art historians will look back at the artistic breakthroughs inspired by computers and see clearly what we can’t yet anticipate.

Besides creating art, computers have other implications for the art world. Most of these revolve around the Internet. Once it’s properly utilized, the Web could make art accessible to millions of people who can’t or wouldn’t go to a museum. This is already partly true, as I can go online and find a picture of almost every important piece of art in the world.

But maybe in the future virtual galleries will be more common, with current exhibits being shown online as well as in downtown New York. Maybe the technology will become good enough to convincingly show what is missing now — seeing the art brilliant against a huge white space, and discovering the rich textures of paint that are currently lost on the computer screen.

Web pages, in their increasing abundance, also teach art lessons to Web surfers’ subconscious. Even novice surfers can tell the difference between a well-constructed Web page and a poor one. Unlike newspapers or advertising, where there are few instances of unprofessionalism, Web pages are often aesthetically poor. By seeing these worst examples, people can appreciate the better ones.

People also have to learn layout and design concepts to create their own home pages, which are becoming more common. The future will see this art become more refined. Hopefully clashing colors, unreadable text, and blinking advertisements will be eliminated on the Web as well.

Another interesting thought is that in some respects everyone creating a Web page is an artist. What is art if not expressing yourself? By combining text, pictures, sounds, and video, the individual becomes a do-it-yourself director, conductor, or montagist. He or she is also an amateur writer, crafting illustrated personal essays about eclectic interests.

Another subtle infiltration of art is found in Web art — downloaded pictures, wallpapers, and screen savers. For a hundred years, people have had music in the background while working; now they can finally have art, too. As opposed to art on walls and in lobbies, the choice of wallpaper and screen saver is a personal expression and is something that people look at constantly in the workplace and at home.

The Web is also making things a little easier for artists. Hopefully online auctions and art sales will increase, just as other Web commerce is increasing. The Web makes it possible for artists to sell their own work without shelling out 50 percent of the profit to a gallery.

It also makes it easy to display online portfolios, either when looking for jobs or freelance work or just showing people your ideas. The Web makes it infinitely easier to brainstorm and achieve a dialogue among artists. Granted, it’s not being used to its full potential right now, but that will change.

Setting up a Web page with your art means like-minded individuals can find it any time, even if they’re halfway around the world. No more dragging huge portfolios around to show only a few people. Why not show a thousand people a day without lifting a finger?

To conclude, computers can also make artists out of a lot of people who might think they don’t have a creative bone in their bodies. Computer graphics programs are fun and easy to use.

Without a background in art and years of practice, you probably won’t produce anything really cutting-edge, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create worthwhile art to impress your friends. Assuming you already have the computer, learning computer graphics techniques is much less expensive than learning traditional media.

Forget buying paints, brushes, palettes, cleaner, or an easel, or engaging in more expensive arts like photography or sculpture. Just download some free art programs or buy some cheap ones. A great all-purpose program is Paint Shop Pro, which is available free for 30 days at After that it’s only about $100, which is amazing compared to $700 for industry leader Photoshop, and it’s still a great program. The only other costs are paper and an occasional printer cartridge. Mastering computer graphics is also less time-consuming than painting or printmaking. And if you’re lucky, you can even practice while you’re at work.

While encouraging non-trained artists to dive into the art world may scare some traditional artists, it can only give you a better appreciation of art and the techniques involved in creating good art. Feel free to explore and use your newfound skills to direct your own personal Web page. And who knows? Maybe in a hundred years, we’ll be able to go to downtown New York and see huge interactive Web page displays lining the walls of the most chic galleries.