'Is it art?' is one of those rhetorical questions which tired reviewers pose when they are not quite sure what they have been looking at or how to comment on it. At a time when painting and sculpture, the once conventional branches of fine art, have sort of gone out of fashion, it is also probably a meaningless question.
But now that we have digital art, a lot of those people who fought so hard in the latter part of the last century for recognition for their particular branch of non-painting/non-sculpture have now turned on digital art, saying it is not quite right. Somehow the intervention of digital/electronic/ internet rays represent a formulaic or mechanistic or artificial or plagiaristic interposition which they believe should preclude the originators from claiming their work as art.
It is not as if many of them particularly care about the classification but, since the contrary assertion is made, it deserves to be nailed. But it also raises the question posed by Internet Art, a recent Thames and Hudson book by Rachel Greene, of whether the digital end of art should ever bother to single itself out for special consideration.
Greene herself notes the different attitudes of people to specifically internet art - which, if taxonomy is at all important, probably belongs to a sub-group of digital art because normally it is viewable, and normally it is designed to be viewed only on a monitor. She points out that for most people the computer screen, like the television screen, has lost its exoticism.
Which means it is quite difficult to think about how you can sufficiently differentiate computer art from any other screen image.
Also, who are the people who create this kind of art? Is it not, as Greene says, that 'internet and software artists, often self-identified as programmers, are not 'real' artists'?
In the end, you sense, it doesn't matter to Greene any more than it should.
As ever, it is what has been created which matters. In any case, the way that all digital images are ultimately created by sets of coded instructions is reminiscent of experiments by art heroes such as Marcel Duchamp and composer John Cage, with work created by the executants following sets of instructions from the artist.
Greene's book is both a study of the state of art on the internet and a critique of its recent and current condition. For whatever reason, the publishers decided to do the book in an A5 format, which hardly does justice to either the visual material or the thoughtful text. An example of what it should have aimed at is Elemental, the World's Best Discreet Art. Edited, or more accurately selected, by Daniel Wade and Mark Snoswell, it is a collection of terrific digital art from around the world. The work was chosen by an eight-strong advisory board including Pascal BlanchÚ, who worked on Myst IV Revelation; Benoit Girard of Digital Dimension; Dan Prochazka, product manager for Discreet's 3ds Max, Character Studio and Mental Ray;
and Discreet's Asia-Pacific industry manager Peter Moxom.
This is a vanity publication from Ballistic Publishing which contains only work produced using software by Discreet, part of Autodesk's stable.
Fortunately the software is industrystandard for three-dimensional illustration and, since those artists chosen for inclusion in this book use it with such brilliance, one does not mind that it is little more than a very glossy and extensive brochure.
The book is divided into 13 categories, including Beauty, with disturbingly realistic humanoids; a scary Humanoid in Repose; and Character in Action.
Other categories are Exterior Architecture, Interior Architecture, Product Design, Transport and Environment.
There are images of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, a retail concept sketch from London's Glowfrog Studios, a design competition by Indonesia's 3DesignArchitect, some cool interiors from China's Chen Qingfeng, a delicately intricate restaurant from Thailand's Montree Termrattanasirikul and an elegant domestic interior from Australia's C3D Imaging.
Also included are interior visions from Guochang Wang of Mississippi State University, which look like Ronchamp crossed with Barragßn. The book is page after page of talent from artists all around the world: apocalyptic visions from Finland, brooding antique architecture from Spain and Brazil, a charming abandoned air harbour from Brazil, and a strange and battered airship far from home on some featureless planet.
This is dream territory and you half believe that it could all become part of an animated digital environment in which the distinctions between real and simulated are so blurred that maybe it does not matter any more.
But before you actually lose the plot, step back from the seductive pages to ask several prosaic questions.
Firstly, does this mark the return of figurative art after a century of the 'isms' of modern art? Many of the images in the people sections of this book could almost be by Leighton, Watts, Alma Tadema or Waterhouse. Are the latter more artists than the present-day creators of the digital dream creatures in this Autodesk book?
I suspect they are actually no better connected with truth and beauty. But it is disturbing that for some sections of digital art, the ultimate objective seems to be the creation of images so precisely drawn that viewers must imagine they are looking at high-quality photographs of reality. Just as the invention of the photograph in the 19th century eventually pulled the rug from under realistic painting, surely people will take the view that making digital or even film-based photographs of the real thing might have a lot more point. Yet that is to ignore the convention of the horseless carriage: maybe digital art has to go through a period of strict realism to make the point that it can cut it on the realism front. And in the near future, it will start to move in its own new direction.