Many modern artists use high technology equipment in their works. Whereas traditionally artists used a pencil or brush to make beautiful works of art, artists in the early twenty-first century are now using sound, video or computer generated images. Digital art developed from simple patterns and shapes made using computer programs to finished works of art which can look as realistic as a watercolour or oil painting. Modern art exhibitions often include more videos and installations than traditional painting or drawings. Even artists which use traditional techniques increasingly use modern technology such as the internet to display their works and communicate with other artists. Modern technology provides a means for artists to create works faster with more tools than ever before. I will be discussing the impact of some of these technologies in relation to the art of some modern artists. I will argue that modern technology such as the computer and video is another tool for an artist to use in their work. I will especially focus on the video artwork of Tracey Moffat and the computer artwork of Lillian Schwartz as but two examples of artists today who use modern techniques. Moffat is an Australian contemporary artist who uses film extensively as an art-form, and many of her works are based on and reflect the modern technology of Hollywood movies and television. Schwartz is an artist who has a long history of using computer technology to experiment ways of creating and manipulating works of art. She has also written extensively about the topic of computer influence in art, and about art produced by computers.
Modern technology is having a huge impact on recent art. Modern artists are using new materials and techniques to produce their artworks. Whereas in the past painting and drawing were the main mediums used by artists in their work, now in the 21st century installations, sound, video and computers are becoming more widely used and popular. Artists today are continually experimenting with new technology in different ways, finding new ways to use old mediums and finding new mediums as well. In modern art displays such as the various Biennales held around the world, video plays a dominant role, as well as installation art and increasingly, digital art. There are even exhibitions that solely focus on digital art, such as Ars Electronica held annually in Linz, Austria. The internet is becoming used more with many contemporary artists using it to display their works with online galleries, talk to other artists and sell their works. Internet sites such as or offer artists an opportunity to sell and display their works and communicate with people throughout the world. Computer programs such as Photoshop and Painter allow artists to easily manipulate photographs and paint pictures using custom artists tools which can create the effects in a few minutes of what previously would have taken months to paint. Many artists today are involved in using digital art technology to produce websites, computer games or online art exhibitions. The website is one example of a site which mostly displays digital art, that has over 100,000 posts by many different people. Digital art is increasingly being displayed in contemporary art exhibitions as well as being online, becoming more popular towards the end of the 20th century. “Digital art made its official entry into the art world only in the late 1990s, when museums and galleries began increasingly to incorporate the art form into their shows and dedicate entire exhibitions to it.” (Paul 2003: 23) The impact that these technologies is having on contemporary art is sometimes hard to pin down at one time since they are moving so fast that they are constantly changing and being updated. However, while modern technology provides artists with many opportunities and ways to produce art, it still functions similar to any other artists tool of the past. Films are being produced for art galleries just as paintings were made for exhibiting by the impressionists, such as the films made by Tracey Moffat.
Tracey Moffat is inspired by images which come from television and movies to make her own films. These films show that she is not only using new technology to display art, but her ideas for the films are based on the technology itself. In one of her recent films, Artist, Moffat shows a collection of clips from movies and television programs which show how Hollywood and contemporary society depicts artists. By showing popular television shows slant on what the idea of an artist means to modern society, this reflects the view of the ordinary person, who can sometimes misunderstand contemporary art. This film reflects the sometimes uninformed, sometimes humorous view of society towards artists today. She shows a clip from the Agony and the Ecstasy with Michelangelo destroying his first painting in the Sistine Chapel, a comic scene from the movie Batman with Rembrandts and Degas paintings being vandalised by the ‘Joker’ and a scene from the television show Absolutely Fabulous, as well as other scenes from art movies such as Surviving Picasso. This clever 10 minute documentary gives an excellent insight in the way artists are perceived in modern society, how “five decades of mainstream media have perceived the creative process and creators themselves” (, especially given that the word artist now more often than not in popular usage such as on television and on the radio, refers to a musician rather than a visual artist, with many people today sometimes confused by a postmodernist style of visual art where anything is allowed and considered art. In another of her short films, Lip, Moffat shows clips put together of black servants in Hollywood movies talking back to their ‘bosses’, in what she is trying to show is the discrimination which is often evident in films towards minorities, and “reveals the narrow margin Hollywood has allowed black actresses to shine in” ( While watching the films the racism in the movie may be subtle, but when she appropriates many images from different films and puts them together it is much more apparent.
In many of her films and images Tracey Moffat has used a style which is close to an appropriation similar to that done by other postmodern artists. In the series of photographs called GUAPA (Good Looking) (Fig.4) she shows photographs of people from different races roller-skating in a rink as though it were a contest with a referee, the image borrowed from similar television images. She uses a soft magenta colour effect in the images, which contrasts with the action which is taking place. The people in the film are dressed in unusual outfits, which gives an impression possibly of a futuristic sport. In one of Moffat’s films, Heaven (Fig.2), she shows footage of men getting changed in a car park near a beach, and she takes the position with the camera of someone watching who possibly is not supposed to, or whom the people in the film are uncomfortable with having there. She is someone watching the surfers who is not supposed to, “shamelessly plays voyeur to a succession of surfers changing into their wetsuits in parking lots” ( show/moffat/index.html) Once again, Moffat is responding to the programs shown on television and in the movies, and by making art on this theme it shows that television and movies are influencing the art which is being displayed in contemporary art galleries. This film makes art out of a seemingly ordinary activity, includes shots of a car as seen from the inside and outside, as well as surfers wearing ordinary clothes and jewellery. She appropriates these symbols of modern life such as the cars and modern clothing and uses them in an artistic way to express the voyeur theme which she is trying to get across. In her film, Bedevil (Fig.3) which is composed of three separate films, Moffat appropriates images from modern life such as the American soldier in the first story ‘Mister Chuck’, the railway tracks in the second ‘Choo Choo Choo Choo’ and the landlord and eviction in the third ‘Lovin’ the Spin I’m in’. The images from these films have been partly inspired by memories from her early life.
Tracey Moffat uses for inspiration in many of her films the movies and television programs she remembers from her childhood. Modern technology in this way is having an impact on the art produced by artists such as Moffat, who bases her ideas directly upon ideas coming from these things. In her films, she uses imagery which comes from popular culture, from television programs and movies that she has seen including from sources which are not often seen as part of the art world, such as B-grade television programs and television advertisements. She “makes use of the stylistic resources of advertising and even so-called ‘trash-TV'” (Reinhardt 1999: 7) She grew up in Brisbane in the 1960s, and during this time experienced much of popular culture through different types of modern culture on the new technological tools of television and cinema, “from melodramas to deeply surreal film noir” (Sever 2001: 12) She also uses modern music in her films such as with cuts showing Jimmie Little singing in the film Night Cries (Fig.1). This film shows a woman caring for her dying mother, as well as showing many years before the woman as a young child at the beach with her mother who is much younger then. Moffat has used the film to create an effect similar to that of Frederick McCubbin’s The Pioneer which shows a dying person on one side and the same person much younger on the other. This gives the audience a feeling of sadness as they think about all the events which the person went through in their lifetime. The audience would see the way the woman would feel bound to care for her mother in the same way that her mother cared for her when she was a child. Moffat also has considered using computers in manipulating photographic images, because the number of things she can do is greatly increased with many computing tools available for the artist.
Photography is always a wonderful challenge… Of course now with computer manipulations the possibilities make you exhausted even thinking about it.
(Tracey Moffat, quoted in Hentschel 1998: 23)
American artist Lillian Schwartz made many experiments with computer art during her long career. Computers are being used by recent artists as tools with which to analyse and create works of art. Schwartz was one of the first artists to experiment with computer images and computer effects on art. She worked closely with scientists in the 1970s in the early stages of computer development, and developed one of the first rock music videos. She also made one of the first digitised films to be shown as a work of art, her video Pixillation showing diagonal red squares and other shapes such as cones, pyramids on black on white backgrounds. This video is regarded as one of the most important early works of computer film art which with her other work is “now considered seminal works of computer art…composed of programmed abstract images.” (Rush 1999: 172) She worked in the early stages of her career with scientists as Bell Laboratories developing mixtures of sound, video and art. Later on, during the 1980s, Schwartz made many experiments with artworks manipulating images using computer technology and creating some artworks of her own.
Schwartz extensively used the works of Leonardo Da Vinci in experiments with computers. These experiments showed some of the ways in which computers can be used to change and develop images. These images expand the audiences perception of artworks which they already know. She used a 3D computer generated model to show that the lines on the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan match the perspective lines of Leonardo’s fresco painting of the Last Supper, showing that his painting may have been designed to appear as an extension to the room from where the monks would have been sitting to observe it. Thus technology has given a new dimension to the painting by allowing viewers to better understand why it possibly had been made. Similarly, in Schwartz’s most famous work, the Mona Leo (Fig.5), she spliced the left side of the Mona Lisa (Fig.6) with a flipped left side of the red chalk portrait of Leonardo (Fig.7), arguing that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait by Leonardo. She shows that the Leonardo self portrait and the Mona Lisa line up perfectly, as when the two images noses were aligned the rest of the face lined up exactly. Using lines drawn on the image, she shows the bottom of the eye, eyebrow, nose and chin all line up together. She also removes the grey tones in the Leonardo self portrait and superimposes the Mona Lisa eye over it in further experiments to show how the images are closely related. Without the aid of a computer, these experiments would take a much longer amount of time, for instance if she was to paint the Mona Leo by hand. Her new works each function as separate works of art in themselves with all the characteristics of a work of art, so the computer is a tool which creates art just as a paintbrush does. This can be considered an art of appropriation, as where an artist has borrowed the images of another artist to create a new work.
Schwartz uses computers to manipulate many other images which relate to art and art history, creating new works of art. Schwartz’s experiments with computers to manipulate images were done decades before digital art became popular in the late 1990s. She used shapes generated by a computer to make images on the computer screen, such as using trapezium shapes to create an object recognisable as a cat (Fig. 8), as well as triangle shapes to represent a human head. (Fig. 9) She also experimented with ways to superimpose multiple images onto another recognisable image in an effect of a collage, as with Statue of Liberty (Fig.10) and Homage to Van Gogh (Fig.11) Computers applied in such ways can create collages and images faster than possible by hand. These images function not only as experiments with computer work, but also as works of art in themselves. Statue of Liberty is composed of different elements which have been put together using a computer, similar to Cubist collages and Dadaist photomontages of the early 20th century. She warped images of faces of Rembrandt into a photo of Einstein, showing similarities in the facial features (Fig. 12), a task which would be almost impossible to do by hand, but only take a few seconds with the aid of a computer. She similarly combined images of works of art in a poster for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in her poster Big MoMA (Fig. 13), an also near impossible task by hand, but relatively easy with computers, and still creating a legitimate award winning work of art.
The role of computers to be used by the artist has been addressed by Schwartz. Computers can today perform many functions for the artist, from creating artworks through altering photography or by flipping shapes, changing colours, adding tones and a seemingly infinite amount of other uses. Computer artists can create interactive images, robot installations, digitalised and/or 3 dimensional images. Many of the ways which this latest technology is used to create art makes art into a genre becoming close to being a video game or a movie. In her research on computers, Schwartz discusses whether art produced wholly by computers can be considered as art, the question is asked as to what a work of art means, “Is it the final piece of art (or output) by which creativity is judged, or is creativity independent of the art.” (Schwartz 1992: 256) She asks whether it means that something must be produced creatively, or are people impressed with the craftsmanship and effort that has gone into a work such as a Michelangelo or Titian when they think of it as art. For if it is only the craftsmanship which makes a work of art then computers can surely produce artworks since they have the ability to work faster than humans in many ways. Paint and brushes can be regarded as technology of sorts because they are implements which are made for the artist to use in his painting, just as a painting computer program is there for an artist to create his works on. The Renaissance artists had assistants to mix paints, prepare canvases, or in the case of Rubens even finish off the painting. The computer can be regarded as assistant which allows the artist greater time to put into creative ideas, and less into repetitive tasks which can easily handled by a computer.
The computer is very much like an apprentice… Since the master (the programmer or artist) does not have to be present for many of these operations, it seems as if the computer is acting in place of the artist. We have again found our scientist-artist, and it is the computer itself.
(Schwartz 1992: 233)
Video and computers are having a huge influence on modern art. Modern art exhibitions are increasingly incorporating the use of both video and computers, as well as other technologies. In addition, artists such as Moffat are using ideas obtained from new media such as television and Hollywood movies which are being displayed in art galleries. Schwartz uses computers to manipulate images and create new works of art. Art is continuing to change with the introduction of new technologies. Artists are effectively using these technologies in their works, and will almost certainly continue to do so in the future. Moffat’s use of film and Schwartz’s use of computers shows that these new media can and are often used in art, and are every bit as valid a medium as a paintbrush or pencil.
Reference List – Books
Cooke, Lynne and Kelly, Karen 1998, Tracey Moffat: Free-Falling. Dia Center for the Arts, New York, USA
Duckrey, Timothy 1999, Ars Electronica: Facing the Future. A Survey of Two Decades, Massachusetts institute of Technology, USA
Goodman, Cynthia 1987, Digital Visions. Computers and Art. Harry N. Abrams inc. publishers, New York, USA
Hentschel, Martin 1998, Tracey Moffat, Wurttembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, Germany
Hertz, Richard and Klein, Norman 1990, Twentieth Century Art Theory. Urbanism, Politics and Mass Culture, Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey, USA.
Lucie-Smith, Edward 1995, Movements in art since 1945. Issues and concepts, Thames and Hudson, London, UK
Paul, Christiane 2003, Digital Art, Thames & Hudson, London, UK
Popper, Frank 1997, Art of the Electronic Age, Thames & Hudson, London, UK
Reinhardt, Brigitte 1999, Tracey Moffatt. Laudanum, Hatje Cantz Publishers, Ostfildern, Germany
Rush, Michael 1999, New Media in Late 20th Century Art. Thames & Hudson, London, UK
Schwartz, Lillian F. 1992, The Computer Artist’s Handbook. Concepts, Techniques and Applications. WW Norton & Co. Inc, New York, USA
Sever, Nancy 2001, Tracey Moffat. Invocations, ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Australia

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