The Poverty of Digital Art

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Sometimes I look back over the multitude of projects I have worked on over my relatively brief career as a designer, and it makes me tired. Half of the time I don’t even remember working on this design or that animation, and after time they begin to blend together. Most of them I remember with a bit of a cringe, while at best my favorites elicit a “oh, that was kind of cool.”

At the beginning of my career I dared to think of myself as a “digital artist” even though I was a designer, as if attaching the word “artist” to my work somehow lent it legitimacy. And as much of what I was creating was for use in churches, I too often considered what I was creating as something for “sacred use.”

The non sequitur of that wasn’t readily apparent to me.

I would write blog posts and articles about art and theology, art in the church, etc., in which (with a straight face) I would compare the great and beautiful and renowned works of sacred art that adorn churches the world over with the things we project onto those architectural eyesores we call screens. I understood the type of work I was doing in Photoshop as standing in the tradition of luminaries who need not be named. To be sure, I didn’t necessarily think that my work was anything that spectacular, but I honestly saw no real distinction between that art that adorns a sacred space and that which gets transmitted by means of often poorly calibrated projectors. For me, the ends were both the same; it was merely the medium that was different.

It took me some time to realize the truth that the medium is the message, as McLuhan presciently quipped. For whatever virtue digital “art” might exude, it now seems rather dubious to imagine that it can actually have any truly sacred use as art. The truth is that this has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the work, but rather the nature of the medium. It is my contention that there is, so to speak, a built-in poverty to digital art that precludes it from being capable of sacred use as art.

But first, a clarification. It has become somewhat commonplace (at least in the circles I inhabit) to conflate art and design, usually in the direction that what is really “design” gets ushered under the term “art.” For me, this was often a way to add legitimacy to my work, even though it didn’t really need that. The two are actually separate entities that have different ends, and conflating them helps no one. For example, while a postcard for an event has a certain end and may have great aesthetic qualities, to conflate it with a painting is simply silly.

That being established, most digital “art” that ends up in churches is probably best termed “design” in that it often does not exist for itself like art but rather has an external end to which it is directing the mind. For example, the postcard aforementioned has an end to give information about an event, and while it may look amazing as a postcard, it doesn’t exist for itself but rather for something else; in this case, the event. A work of art, on the other, has its own internal raison d’être. It is not about something else, but invites the viewer to contemplate it in itself, which may naturally lead to an external flight of the mind to higher things.

This is where sacred art comes into play and can even be distinguished from art for its own sake. Unlike art, sacred art has an end in that the contemplation is specifically meant to be directed to something higher; usually the term is its prototype.  The sacred art becomes a conduit of this mode of contemplation, in that like art it is about itself (that is, what it is portraying) but is intentionally so in way that presupposes transcendence. An icon of Christ is not meant to be merely a representation of Christ but rather is intended to be a spiritualized work of art, a means to draw the senses out of themselves. The somewhat abstracted nature of icons (e.g., the lack of realism, tendency towards flatness, historical anachronisms, etc.) illustrates this spiritual intent, as the icon itself seems to invite the viewer to contemplate something higher, to allow the veneration to ascend to its prototype.

But on a more mundane (and, for the icon, equally important) level, sacred art has built into it a necessary tangibility. While the image may have a sense of abstraction or stylization, it yet has an “earthiness” inherent to it as an actual material artifact.

A digital representation of an icon, and thus not an icon

The logic of sacred images is that the tangibility of the image enables the relation between the image and its prototype. In the case of the Incarnation, one cannot only abstractly consider Jesus as God without also affirming his material nature as man. As the material nature of Jesus in the Incarnation is the means of our theosis, so for images the material aspect of the image is what enables contemplation and spiritual union with its prototype. St. Theodore the Studite argued:

If merely mental contemplation were sufficient, it would have been sufficient for Him to come to us in a merely mental way, and consequently we would have been cheated by the appearance both of His deeds, if He did not come in the body, and of His sufferings, which were undeniably like ours.

 

(St. Theodore the Studite, On the Holy Icons)

On another level, sacred art also has an intentional and communal aspect that undergirds this tangibility. An example is wonderfully illustrated in this set of mosaics recently commissioned for a church in Houston. As the artist relates, much goes into the creation of mosaics, from the study that is required to pull off the form properly to the selection and sourcing of materials and pigments, all the way down to the angle of each piece used in the whole.

Of course, for such a commissioning, the church community is deeply involved, pledging and sacrificing time and resources for something that will become an integral part of not only their spirituality and devotion and religious life, but also that of their progeny. The sacred art takes on an even deeper aspect in this respect in that there is a deep and local connection between the art and the parishioners, something that will affect their spirituality week to week, month to month and year to year far into the future. It doesn’t simply adorn the space or enhance it, but rather creates sacred space, transforming the church and its community in profound ways by virtue of its tangibility. The very material things that comprise it will leave a mark on its community far into the future.

There is also a special sacredness to having this piece of sacred art here and in this place. The uniqueness of it in its materiality creates a connection to its community as well as to the prototype to which it points. That this church has this work of sacred art takes on an extra sense of sacredness that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

It is probably safe to say that digital art has none of these characteristics, but the even deeper reality is that it simply cannot by its very nature. The material quality that forms the essence of sacred art simply doesn’t exist. There is a decided lack of tangibility which entails the relative poverty of digital “art” both as “art” but even more significantly as sacred art.

A cursory examination of the use of digital media (which I am using to designate both “art” and “design”) in churches or in worship is sufficient to reveal this.

Digital media is somewhat unique in human history in that it has become (in many places and for many people) a ubiquitous phenomenon. Everything from digital billboards to TVs to the devices we carry with us and (to a sober observer) seem to constantly caress display digital media/content/art/whatever in a never-ending stream. However, the uniqueness in ubiquity is simultaneously what empties it of its meaning and efficacy while concomitantly ensuring its ephemerality. Its most distinguishing features are perhaps these things, in that it is made to be consumed and discarded or ignored in favor of what is newer or shinier.

Digital media created for churches is no different, and thus largely falls under the same critique. Its ephemerality offers no substantive connection to the church or its parishioners, often not even from week to week, let alone over generations. It is generally mass produced and mass consumed, and even that which is custom built or created rarely has a shelf-life beyond one use. And while- depending on one’s budget- it is not necessarily cheap, it is often a relatively minor line item for a modest church, the decision to use X product often based upon its recent availability rather than its applicability. This sort of on-demand nature of digital media causes us to get as bored with it as we do with anything we can access at will.

No matter how much Netflix has to offer, there’s never anything to watch.

The upshot is that unlike sacred art, digital art has no capacity to inspire devotion or evoke wonder. It’s lack of tangibility forms a sort of proto-Gnostic approach to beauty that can be accessed only (and maybe) by one’s mind but not by one’s body.

And at the end of the day no one really ever notices it; perhaps an “oh, that’s cool” but then forgotten on the next song or when it is rotated out in favor of newer products.

This is, of course, not to say that digital media has no utility whatsoever, nor that it has no possible function within a sacred context. But the danger is that our modern infatuation with technology and the shininess of all that is new can lead us to mistake it for something else, or rather to substitute it for actual sacred art. The iconoclasm of the late 20th century was remarkable in that we traded stained glass windows for projectors and screens, somehow imagining that the latter could replace the former. That they can’t is hopefully slowly becoming more and more obvious as we get bored-er and bored-er with the constant effusion of digital media and as we find it harder and harder to concentrate for even a minute without our devices or focus on anything outside of our digital worlds.

The mistake has been precisely in trying to make digital art/design/whatever carry far more weight than it is capable of carrying. This is true not only in the design and structure of our worship but even in the very medium of how we communicate the Gospel. Digital means of communication are of course useful, but we can too easily slip into neglecting the tangibility that makes art to be art, and especially that makes sacred art to be sacred art.

That vital connection to the matter that comprises half of our being cannot be absent from the way in which conceive of and encounter the beautiful, for if we do it’s like only getting half of the Incarnation. It’s like fixating on a single jewel and throwing away the crown which it adorns.

As we enter the future filled with whatever lies ahead for virtual and augmented reality, the questions that should have been raised long ago in respect to digital art will become even more necessary, and the potential to disengage from the tangibility of reality will become an even greater temptation. All of these things have their places, but they must be employed proportionately, or else they are impoverished in their use.

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Jason Watson

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