Questioning Digital Aesthetics

by Bo Kampmann Walther***


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How are we to unite existing interactive computer art with a speculative, philosophical aesthetic? In the age of digital simulacra, a work of art is never safe, never to be trusted, never to be invested, read the new headlines, since a digital piece is always already in the hands of a consumer who is both interpreter and creator. Or should I say re-creator? The original is also a copy, a representation of something that may have never been there. The work of art can be distributed; like airport terminals residing in the no-man's-land between Heimat and foreign matter, digital art is transitional and stochastic in its vigorous and immerse design. It is always in the process of becoming something else - or becoming someone else's. What is the object of digital aesthetics? (1)

Let me for a moment narrow the current theme of inquiry and propose that there is no such thing as a digital aesthetic. It should be clear, however, in the course of this paper, that I do not necessarily affirm this peculiar thesis; but, still, there can be good reasons for presenting it. Hence, if the subject of digital aesthetics - the digitally rendered and interactively applied work of multimedia art - is precisely defined negatively, because it cannot be fixated in robust, formal parameters, and because it cannot be locked up in one structure of meaning; does, then, digital aesthetic have an object? In the absence of the possibility of 'stopping' emerging, digital creativity and productivity, the banal question becomes more and more urgent: what is the object of digital aesthetics? 

But the thesis is wrong or even false in its very foundation. What is crucial about a (philosophical) aesthetic is not the diverse works of art - be they analogue or digital - that can be gazed at and analysed around the world, but, distinctively different, the rational prism through which we in the first place become spectators of the essence and epistemology of art. The problem is that this prism between art consideration and art production does not exist in itself (one can not, for instance, install it on the walls of Guggenheim Downtown). Instead, this prism provides for the transcendental conditionals that are necessary elements within and therefore the underlying ratio upon which we are able to discuss art, values, taste, and significance. In respect of ontology the aesthetic discipline thus reaches deeper than poetic or historiographic theories, since the latter ones precisely assume that there is art around, and that we all somehow know when it is there, and when it is not there (and then we can go and have a look at it in our favourite museum).

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***Bo Kampmann Walther, Assistant Professor, Ph.D., Centre for Interactive Media, University of Southern Denmark, + 45 65 50 36 16,
(Mail): walther@litcul.sdu.dk,
(Net): http://www.sdu.dk/hum/bkw/index.htm
Part of this paper was presented at Digital Arts and Culture, Bergen 2000. I thank the kind people of the conference for a generous critic and stimulating curiosity. The current paper forms a part of my forthcoming book Digital Aesthetics: New Genres of Seeing and Knowing (spring 2001).

(1) I would like also to thank Lars Qvortrup for kindly forcing me to consider this thesis - and especially to refute it!