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Digital Art and Culture: A 21st-Century Paradigm Shift

"The Ever Evolving Egg" by Max Eternity. Click to view larger.

At a time when extreme, economic austerity measures are being considered and/or enacted by a number of Western governments – Greece, Spain, Germany, the US, and elsewhere – one has to wonder why, in the UK, a collective of government agencies in England have just allocated $815,000,000 for digital art and culture.

In speaking to this massive public works project, Alan Davey, CEO of the Arts Council England says, “How the cultural sectors engage with emerging and existing digital technologies in the next few years will have far reaching effects on our creative, social and economic lives, as artists and audience members.”

Commenting as well on the new program, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, said:

Our lives are increasingly defined by how we engage and interact with the world digitally and cultural organizations can't afford to be left behind. Too often finances, structures or traditions can constrain the arts from making best use of the technology which now sits at the heart of many people's everyday lives. This program seeks to show how digital technology can revolutionize our cultural engagement, helping people to derive greater value from cultural activities and to find new ways to generate income.

So, can this all be an act of feckless, fiscal folly? Perhaps, but it doesn't sound like it. And if a near-billion dollar digital art and culture project in England is seen as a sound financial investment to be included in public policy, why not here in the US?

Substantial evidence exists that while it may not always be easily quantifiable, it still remains a fact that civilizations reap great, long-lasting rewards from investing in art and culture. Proof of this was revealed last year in a 2010 report entitled “Champions Of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning,” in which Richard Riley, secretary of the Department of Education, wrote in part that “… learning in the arts can not only impact how young people learn to think, but also how they feel and behave.” Riley went on to say:

The American public is demanding more than ever from our schools, and rightly so. Parents and other caregivers want to equip young people for professionally and personally rewarding careers and they recognize that to do so we must give them greatly enriched experiences. As these researchers have confirmed, young people can be better prepared for the 21st century through quality learning experiences in and through the arts.

And yet, in practice, why does it seem untenable for Americans to grasp the beneficial cultural and economic aspects of the digital arts and humanities for children and the whole of society? The US government seems quick to invest trillions of dollars in subsidies for multinational corporations and private banks, already flush with cash, to grow and maintain a global gulag of prisons and endless war, while being considerably less than willing to spend proportionately on domestic social projects like public education and infrastructure, with the arts and humanities landing predictably at the bottom of federal budget lists, year after year, time after time.

In other words, while England is putting its domestic money where its mouth is, the White House and Congress provide wonderful, flowery rhetoric in tandem with very little hard currency.

Adobe is a multinational corporation that boasts a line of software applications, which have become household names. These include programs like Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Acrobat, Flash, and others. At the company headquarters in San Francisco, Pamela Sogge is the senior director of digital imaging marketing.

When informed of England's $815,000 investment in digital art and culture, Sogge said, “clearly I believe that digital art and culture is important … when you think about investment – particularly government investment – it comes in different areas … in education. I believe that digital is essential there … it is such an essential part of our society. “

Factory by Andrew Reach

“Factory” by Andrew Reach. Click to view larger.

Andrew Reach is a digital artist who, prior to becoming permanently disabled, was once an architect at HOK in Miami. Reach is a contributing writer at Art Digital Magazine (AD MAG), which has the largest archive in the world of feature-length interviews with digital and new media artists. His artwork is widely collected, and in an article entitled “Techno Meditations” an excerpt reads:

Using imagination and technology, I cleared a space within my consciousness to channel in a spirituality that became mesmerizing. In finding myself creating virtual circles, I realized that my own life had come full circle. Like the whirling Dervishes and Tibetan monks, I was using imagination and design to connect the ethereal to the real – the physical to the spiritual.

I'm grateful to be living in the digital age with technology facilitating my artistic reinvention, helping me cope with my disability and allowing my imagination to see the light of day; giving me a gateway to learn, grow and inspire.

Christiane Paul is the adjunct curator of new media arts at the Whitney Museum in New York. She's also an associate professor and the director of media studies graduate program at The New School.

This past summer – for the Whitney Museum – Paul curated a solo exhibition of noted digital artist, Cory Archangel. A native of Germany, Paul is the author of two books on digital art and new media and she informs that at one point the city of Berlin provided more funding to its citizens than America's National Endowment for the Arts provided for the entire nation.

In the following podcasts Paul shares her thoughts and expertise about digital art and culture:

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