Today is the day of reckoning: the day we find out if Disney Animated wins a SXSW Interactive Award in the Art category. We’ve been incredibly lucky lately, receiving lots of external recognition for this treasure of an app that’s so close to our hearts. But this time it’s a bit different: we’ve been shortlisted for an art award. But can an app be art?
Whether or not something is art is a question that has been posed for about as long as art has been defined. Art is by nature fluid, its boundaries always changing. Only 100 years ago, flower arranging and needlework were considered art, while photography and film were certainly not. I strongly believe that apps can be part of today’s arts spectrum: painting, sculpture, dance, installation, theatre, music, film, photography and now, creative apps.
The very fluidity of art ensures that it is always the subject of debate, and that’s why I don’t assume all will agree with me. When MoMA purchased video games for its collection in 2012, they received an onslaught of criticism. As one MoMA curator described it, ‘all hell broke loose’. There was a barrage of tweets and esteemed art critics made claims like: ‘exhibiting Pac-Man and Tetris alongside Picasso and Van Gogh will mean game over for any real understanding of art’.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, art, right now, is:
“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
So can apps be the above?
Yes, yes and yes!
Firstly our process shares many parallels with other art forms. For instance, like devised theatre, we never quite know what we’re going to end up with when we embark on the conception and creation process. We come together with our source material, and work out how we’re going to use it as a jumping-off point to delight audiences in a new way. We have to build room for this uncertainty and imagination into the way we work. We’re pretty sure we’ll end up with something awesome, but at the beginning we really don’t know precisely what it’ll be.
As the dictionary definition states, art should involve ‘creative skill’. A great degree of creative skill in required in the genre of app we produce. By nature every app brings together a mixture of different types of media. The best apps emerge when a group of people work together who have very different skills, but share a creative vision. Touch Press’ team specifically includes people with backgrounds in television, software engineering, publishing and design. Whether the task is coding or storyboarding, they all express ‘the application of creative skill’, each in their own unique way.
To focus on coding, it’s one of those skills that isn’t so widely perceived as a creative art, but it genuinely can be. Here’s an example: in Disney Animated we needed to find a way of presenting animated film clips in a way that simultaneously showed the film clip itself but also the process of how the animation came together. In one visual, cohesive experience we needed to convey both the final animation playing and how it was made. Is that even possible? Yep – we worked it out and came up with the Layered Clip feature. Users can watch the clip as normal, but if they stroke downwards, they peel back the layers of the animation process, revealing early animation concept art, rough animation and cleanup animation. An artistic process is about constantly coming up with creative solutions to problems, and this is exactly what our software engineers did, and do all the time.
Creating technology is about crafting something completely unique; building from the ground up. In a mashed-up world, where sometimes nothing can feel original, where culture is constantly regurgitated and reformatted, treating the iPad as a canvas can produce refreshingly unique results. Technology follows Moore’s Law. This is exciting to artists because such rapidity of change prevents staleness. Therefore, if you’re an artist-come-technologist, you are by nature constantly pushing creative boundaries and hence looking at the world in new ways.
And finally, purpose. The dictionary definition states that art’s primary purpose should be beauty and emotional power. I remember the first time I opened The Elements. I admit, at first I was slightly overwhelmed – I hadn’t encountered the periodic table since I was about fifteen. I was drawn to tap carbon on the top right hand side. And suddenly there was this huge diamond twinkling and rotating vividly, hypnotically. And wow, I could touch it and rotate it. I’d forgotten that this element with such current murky political and environmental connotations also could hold so much beauty. Our smart phones and tablets have become so intimate to us that they offer a playground of possibility for emotional resonance.
The judges bravely opened up this debate when they tossed our Disney Animated app into the ring on the shortlist for the Art category of the SXSW awards. But poke around the App Store and you will indeed find gems of genuine beauty and emotional power – and not just from Touch Press. When it comes down to it, art can take the form of any medium. What really counts is why we make what we make. And that’s why apps can be art.