Michael J. Masucci
5 min readApr 11, 2022

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The Question is not who is a Digital Artist, but who isn’t?

Fourth in a series on the History of digital art.

Imagine a time, not too long ago. At least not too long for someone of my age. I grew up in world where the futurists did not predict correctly the world we currently live in. They were predicting that by now there would be: flying cars, underwater cities, vacations on the moon, moving sidewalks and pills replacing food. But they never imagined the smart phone. Or even the proliferation of the personal computer. Or, now seemingly unbelievably, even the internet.

In fact, television shows like StarTrek, imagined a kind of crude flip phone, with no visual display screen, as the ‘communicator’ of choice several hundred years from now. And when Spock needed to access computer, he needed to visit the ‘computer room.’ But the flip phone, whose design was admittedly visually inspired by StarTrek, already came and went (at least for now) decades ago. And of course, classrooms, libraries, businesses and homes around the world have used their own personal computers for sometime now. We are often reminded that Thomas Watson, once CEO of IBM stated in 1943 that “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

So no, futurists are often (but not always) of dubious value. As are the numerous pundits who critique things without the proper background to have an informed voice. Last’s year obsession with NFT art, raised many questions, including, who is a digital artist? But for me, the better question is, who isn’t a digital artist? And why does that even matter.

In today’s computer-mediated world, imagine an architect designing a building without the use of a computer, or a recording artist mastering her latest hit without a computer. Or a writer not using one either. No, so just like so many types of artists, including of course visual, film and animation artists, many, if not most, are using computers. They/we are all digital artists.

But only certain artists define themselves through their tools. Many do, of course, as been the traditional in Euro-centric art history. But it was largely a question of semantics. Artists who used paint ( i.e. gouache, oil, watercolor, acrylic), were all called “painters”, named after the material used to make their works. Filmmakers were also named after the physical material they utilized. But sculptors were called ‘sculptors’ no matter if they carved in wood, molded in clay, worked in plaster, carved in stone or caste in bronze.

Today, visual artists working on computers are still called painters, even through no actual paint is involved. And filmmakers, using digital video, often having never even seen a foot of film in their careers, are still called filmmakers. As I said, it’s semantics and not really related to the reality of the tools or media used.

The recent publicity regarding artists who distribute/sell their works as NFTs are usually not different from earlier digital or computer artists. Somehow, the media has caught on that digital art exists, and they are using the wider adoption of NFTs (first used by artists since 2017…………….

But the simple fact is that artists (including so-called traditional ones) have been using computers for a long time. For example, even Andy Warhol, hardly known for his computer skills, experimented with computers.

You can read more about this in a Wired article from 2014:

https://www.wired.com/2014/04/an-amazing-discovery-andy-warhols-seminal-computer-art/

So, if the word ‘history’ means anything at all, it should at least attempt to represent a search for the truth. Even though as Winston Churchill noted,

“History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books — books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe”.

Who will ‘win’ the right to claim the label ‘digital art’ and why should that even be of concern to anyone. I suspect (and really hope am wrong about), that the current focus on ‘NFT art’ presumes that the digital art that came before doesn’t matter, or as some may still think, never happened. But it did happen and really does matter. It’s where the very DNA of digital art derives. And what I am seeing currently done today in web3, has happened already.

Of course, there is no doubt that in time, perhaps imminently, web3 will reveal entirely new types of arts-based practices and introduce us to types of art never before seen. But that hasn’t happened at the moment of this writing. Hopefully it will soon.

We need to better integrate the old and new histories of digital art, into a more representative and inclusive history. Today, when almost every artist is a digital artist, whether they self-define that way or not, we should get beyond the tools and into the work itself. Ultimately, I really don’t care how you made your art, if you used traditional or digital, if it was made DIY, or cost millions to make, whether it was improvised off the cuff, or it took a mathematical genius years to produce. Or if it was done with pre-existing off the shelf software of if someone wrote original code. All I care about is, if it makes me feel something. Unfortunately, so much of the current wave of NFT art leaves me cold, or looks like undergraduate art student work. I keep asking ‘where are the masterpieces’ of digital art history. They are out there, of course, old and new, recognized and not as yet. But it is time to address this question. And to build the roster of the digital art works that will survive the centuries ahead, and be listed and thought of right besides the cave paintings of Lascaux, the Great Spinx, the Sistine Chapel, the Benin bronzes or Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Do we even care what types of paint were used by the early French cave painters, what types of stone was craved to make the world’s largest statute, or what paint was used by Michelangelo sitting in his back, how exactly African sculptors caste their bust, or what brand of saxophone was used by Coltrane. Some do care of course, but for most of us, those are at best technical minutia.

Along time ago, Duke Ellington said “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.:” And that is still true. So it doesn’t matter what you call yourself, a ‘digital artist’ or simply an ‘artist,’ an NFT artist, or simply an artist. It will be the work that is remembered more than the designation.

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Michael J. Masucci

Internationally exhibited video and digital artist & lecturer. Commissioner & Chair, Santa Monica Arts Commission, Director, EZTV Online Museum.