Digital Art Worlds:

Technology and Productions of Value in Art Education

Copyright © 2004 - All Rights Reserved

[Article published in Foundations in Art: Theory and Education in Review 26: 7-15.] 

Torin Monahan

Arizona State University

School of Justice & Social Inquiry

[PDF version



“Our real illiteracy is our inability to create.” – Hundertwasser




This article follows student conversations about the role of information technologies in art education.  Drawing upon ethnographic research at a Los Angeles arts high school, I argue that information technologies challenge traditional forms of artistic creation, but – perhaps more importantly – they encourage students to question and reconstruct meanings and experiences of art.  What students discuss as the “value” of art is constantly negotiated in tension with competing definitions of artistic purity, and this reveals the politics of exclusion at work in attributions of value.  Through discursive and creative practices, students reference information technologies to establish themselves as a reflexive community that simultaneously consumes and produces cultural products and collective identities.



art education, art worlds, information technology, discourse, artistic value, Los Angeles




Howard Becker (1976, 1982) defines art worlds as social networks of individuals that create “art” through the collective coordination of conventional knowledge that is embedded in common practices and frequently used artifacts.  This social construction thesis inserts works of art within larger arenas of activity such that what counts as art is constantly negotiated across multiple social and cultural domains.  In other words, social relations radiate out from works of art and can be traced in order to understand what constitutes artistic meaning and value in art worlds.  Yet, what happens to art or art worlds when information technologies disseminate not only art or its social relations but also the means of its production?  This is the question explored in this article.

             Technology has long been theorized as an agent of artistic change.  Discourse about technology and artistic value has generally focused on how tools for art re-production and dissemination alter experiential meaning and political potential (Benjamin, 1989, Adorno, 1973, Smith, 1993).  The capacity of information technologies to extend questions of artistic value to the level of media of creation has profound effects.  On the one hand, in digital media one can no longer sustain the myth of pure cores of materiality (e.g., discrete artifacts like paintings) that can be tainted through processes of technological intervention or mediation (such as copying).  On the other hand, as shall be seen in conversations with art students, digitally created art manufactures a new kind of purity – in terms of binary encoding and transmission – that defies potential material corruption.  In practice, these two realities intertwine as art worlds come to terms with hybridized creations, for art is always embodied, and claims to purity are always political.

             Antoine Hennion (1995) suggests that by attending to mediation practices with art (such as a conductor interpreting a musical score), social science researchers can bridge artificial gaps between signs and things to approach issues of artistic value construction in their full complexity:

Restoration of mediations which renders null [and] void the opposition between signs and things, and shows how, locally, heterogeneously and specifically, a continuous effort at recomposition projects the instability of our relations in ‘things that last’ (Durkheim), giving in return to our relations a part of their solidity.  It is to a theory of action that the analysis of mediations leads. (p. 259)


As this passage illuminates, art worlds inscribe objects with social instabilities in the process of continuously affirming the object’s status as art; in turn, art worlds draw stability from the concrete property of the objects in question and in mediation.  The study of mediating practices, then, creates a window into the construction of artistic value within emerging art worlds, and discourse is the mediating glue that holds assemblages of artistic meaning together.

             This article focuses on mediation by following the production of “artistic value” as seen through the narratives of students at one arts high school in Los Angeles.  The findings should also have strong resonance with college-level art educators who are grappling with similar questions concerning the implications of using information technology in art education.  The data for this study are derived from a year-long ethnography of technology projects in Los Angeles public schools.  From 2000 to 2001, I conducted fieldwork at a dozen school sites across the city, concentrating primarily on the development of infrastructure projects (i.e., wiring schools for Internet access), but also on the varied uses of computers by students and teachers (Monahan, 2001, 2002).  At the arts high school, I observed classes that incorporated information technology into the curriculum, such as sequencing software for music students, imaging software for graphic design students, and choreographic software for dance students.  I had numerous informal conversations with students; I conducted eight formal, semi-structured interviews with students, teachers, and administrators about the use of information technology in arts education; and I held one focus group interview with a government and business class comprised of about thirty Seniors. 

             In spite of its status as a Los Angeles “public school,” the student demographic at the arts school is over 50% white, with a balance of black, Asian, and Latino populations making up the remainder.  Female students noticeably outnumber male students, probably counting for 60-70% of the population.  Most students are affluent, and this skewed demographic for a Los Angeles public school can likely be attributed to the competitive audition process required for student admission – meaning that affluent students are more likely to have had access to the necessary training to audition well.

             Using this ethnographic research as a backdrop, this article concentrates on the focus group interview held with students in 2001.  The reasons for selecting this one interview for in-depth analysis are that it accurately represents students’ articulations in private interviews and conversations yet simultaneously illustrates students’ collective knowledge-making process in a very clear fashion.  The attention here is upon the negotiation of artistic value in tension with students’ mutable definitions of “artistic purity.”


Negotiations of Value and Meaning

In the Los Angeles arts high school, students engage in complex interpretations about the meanings and possibilities of information technologies in processes of artistic creation.  The student narratives analyzed here can be divided into three main categories: mutual coexistence of modes of production (both “traditional” and “technological”); necessary evolution and adaptation of artistic communities to technology; and ambivalent potential outcomes of technology and art syntheses.1  This article maps and analyzes these narrative patterns through a focus group conversation held with students in May 2001.  As will become apparent through the narrative progression below, the focus group format lends itself incredibly well to observing how a particular art world collectively develops its thinking on a topic by slowly building upon and responding to peer articulations.  The passages that follow reveal this dialectical and discursive negotiation of meaning in the face of technological change.


Mutual Coexistence

             The narrative of mutual coexistence of modes of artistic production (traditional or technological) reflects students’ experiences at this particular high school.  Most instruction takes place in traditional studio classes, uses basic materials, and emphasizes skill and craft development as catalysts for creation, yet the school simultaneously boasts of multi-media labs, high-tech music production facilities, computerized animation classes, and digital choreography.  Without a doubt, the dominant pedagogy at this school is traditional, and technology is offered to students as something they can experiment with on the side if they so choose.  As some students related to me, the school uses technology as a marketing tool to appeal to parents who are concerned about their children’s chosen artistic path and want them to learn some computer skills to fall back on if careers in art fail to pan out.

             The theme of mutual coexistence emerged in immediate response to my initial prompt question: “How is the value of art changing with the use of information technologies?”  The range of student reactions are shown in the following quotes, each from different students. 

I think that [technology is] positive just because it’s like, maybe it advances, but it’s not necessarily like it’s going to be a back-track, you know, ‘cause we’ll still have the other ways of doing art.  You know what I’m saying?


And definitely, like, you know, there’s creativity, there’s going to be creativity.  Like you can go on some [computer] program and just mess around and all of this is fun, and I’m being creative, and do something that you wouldn’t have done [otherwise].  But you can also do that [with] a pencil, you know, a pencil a paper, and just whatever . . . so it’s not going to diminish creativity.  It’s going to be different.


I just wanted to say, like, when photography first came out, everyone was afraid that it would replace painting.  Portraits – you wouldn’t have anymore.  But, in fact, painting went through a rebirth when photography came out and went through different changes and people tried new things.  So I don’t think technology so much replaces; it just adds another choice to what you can do.  And also with digital video, everyone thinks that it’s going to replace film.  But when really, it’s probably going to do another rebirth with film – people will try new things with it.


And I’m saying that, like, there’re so many people who think differently and who are on all the sides of this issue that, like, it never – one side is never going to win.  It’s going to be like this mass.


             Rather than embracing technology, the first two quotes cautiously posture that technology will not hurt art or diminish creativity.  The third passage more optimistically predicts an artistic “rebirth” made possible through additional “choices,” and the final articulation breaks down the dichotomy between traditional and technological art altogether.  As artists, these students perceive a range of techniques that they can add to their repertoire and draw upon for any given creative circumstance.  They are consumers with freedom to choose technological tools that complement rather than replace more traditional methods of artistic creation, and there is no perceived risk in their minds because they perceive technology as neutral at worst and positively enabling at best.

             These first passes at the topic of technology and art artificially remove acts of creation from their wider context of external forces and demands, so that, consistent with ideal goals of a liberal high school education, students re-affirm that their artistic sensibilities can grow in a state of protective insulation.  At this moment in the discussion, students opt not to analyze how patterns of production get choreographed by art worlds in ways that do constrain the choices technologies appear to offer – or, in their economic terminology, how demand influences supply.  For example, when curricula are modified to include more technology in order to appeal to the perceived desires of parents, students, or the entertainment industry, then these decisions get embedded in educational practices and become normalized as tacit movements for the next generation of students.

             The distinction between traditional and technological may be a construct, but when students collapse this distinction into a “mass” of choices, as in the final quote, they imply equal symbolic and economic power in selection processes – anyone can choose any method he or she likes.  Notably, this artistic community quickly partners up with free market ideology, specifically free choice, to explain technological change.  As a result, cultural values associated with these students’ relative affluence within Los Angeles public schools2 (e.g., the capitalist free market creates equal opportunity for all), are both vocalized and re-produced through this open performance.  As the discussion proceeds, however, the students begin to exhibit a degree of critical self-reflexivity about their extended art world.


Evolution and Adaptation

             The theme of evolution and adaptation emerged next, becoming the strongest and most colorful thread woven throughout the focus group conversation.  It included motifs of natural selection, selective adaptation, and breeding, complete with eerie eugenics overtones.  This evolutionary theme builds upon the last section’s emphasis of mutual coexistence and free choice (of creation methods) but adds tension in the form of threats to the status quo or to artistic survival.  In this next step, creation becomes situated within its extended art world, in Becker’s sense, such that the consumer model of free choice mutates into a producer model of the free market: a place where one lives or dies.  Note this theme in these student quotes:     

I definitely think we should embrace the technology that’s coming, because I don’t, I don’t see any other way to continue to produce art except to change with the time and keep flowing with the art, it’s constantly, you know, it should reflect the society in some way, and so in that way we need to have to embrace it.


It’s so weird, like it’s a completely different demand than it might have been before, so maybe it’s calling on a whole new set of people . . . It’s just [sad] to think of like that breed of person dying, you know?


The short-beaked woodpecker and the long-beaked woodpecker, and they’re both pecking at the tree, right?  And they’re both looking for the seeds or whatever they’re looking for, and they’re both going to get there, you know?  But one just has this long beak, which is probably harder, and sharper, and quicker.  It’s the product that’s going to be the same.  No one’s going to know if the short-beaked woodpecker hit a hundred times, and the other one only hit five, you know.  And how I’m relating that back to what I’m saying is that, it’s just the way nature works, and eventually just through evolution, it’s going to be, just like, there’s more woodpeckers and that they keep producing, you know, it’s just us, you know.  And they’re still- [Other students interject:: “The others die!”] going to be the short-beaked woodpeckers trying to survive, you know.  And they’re going to keep to their, you know, steadfast ways and their ideology that their woodpecker’s the best, you know, but the more long-beaked ones, the more competition there is, and the harder it is to really, you know?


But that’s like, even in radio, you don’t see what the process is really about.  Yet the process is a real important part of the total thing, and technology kind of speeds up everything and doesn’t let the process evolve by itself.


             A remarkable spectrum of opinions about the mutating ecology of art worlds is expressed here.  The first passage paints a dark hue of technological determinism, where technology modifies creation in a uni-directional and entirely unavoidable way, yet then recovers a glimmer of hope in the next breath by heralding art’s higher purpose of reflecting and recording social tensions.  The implication of this assertion is that through both the means and results of artistic expression, the technological challenges and contradictions faced by the world acquire flesh in art so that individuals can scrutinize the direction of the world through it.  This move delegates responsibility for questioning and guiding technological change to others existing outside the realm of art, and thus maintains a protective layer around art producers – they adapt and express technological change but don’t challenge or alter it.  Perhaps as another indicator of social position and limited cultural exposure, this particular thesis of artistic reflection further perpetuates a view of cultural homogeneity on a world scale, implying that all people face the same challenges that these young Los Angeles artists not only can but must document.

             The next two segments quoted above spread onto the discursive frame more of a melancholic rainbow of natural cycles and continuity, of death and re-birth.  In a fascinating combination of long-term evolutionary processes and fast-paced technological innovations, these students effectively naturalize, in the term’s truest sense, a free market system of supply-and-demand as the necessary context for all artistic practices.  Consistent with the last explanation of technological determinism, the catalyzing factors for technological change lie completely outside the range of students’ control or influence.  Technology and economic systems are natural and autonomous, and art and artists must adapt to their pressures or – like the short-beaked woodpecker – face total extinction.

             While each of these evolutionary arguments so far assume that the value of art works remains the same regardless of how they are produced, the student in the final quote raises a red flag about the potential dangers of altering creative processes.  Specifically, he reflects that technology damages something essential about the act of creating by precluding the slow evolutionary processes required to birth mature art.  Meaning is altered and possibly reduced for the artist, and the quality of the works produced are likely deficient in some important way for others.  This cautionary streak on the art world canvas of Los Angeles students smudges and continues into the next section, manifested as a fear of sterile and meaningless art.


Ambivalent Potentialities

             Where Becker describes art worlds as spiraling out from works of art and connecting them to an extended social fabric, these students began with their own practices as a starting point (coexisting traditional and technological methods), then transitioned into how those changing methods reside in larger political-economic realities (evolutionary explanations of change), and next they move to how artistic experiences, both of processes and products, face radical and uncertain change.  Rather than being absent, the work of art has been silently present, half-glimpsed and felt throughout the conversation.  The analytic trajectory has not been one of increasing spheres of influence networked to art, as in Becker’s account, but of increasing spheres of meaning embedded in artistic creation.  We witness an expanded sense of what Clifford Geertz (1983) calls a matrix of sensibility, or the layered relations of meaning that art embodies and performs.  

             When students’ scope of meaning expands beyond their individual experiences, they suddenly become markedly less accepting and complacent; instead they are curious and concerned about the technological trajectory that they find themselves caught-up within.  In the quotes that follow, we see this critical awareness manifested along two discursive paths: one anxiously explores the democratizing and enabling possibilities for art, while the other circumspectly probes the individualizing and sterilizing tendencies of technologically produced and re-produced creations.

The more advances that there are, the more things there are to hear . . .I mean the more advances there are in film, the more we can create in life, but there’ll always be spirals, and there’ll always be shapes, and they’re all very primitive.  And the more technology created, I think the further away you get from that primitive thing to so much more toward accepting every strand of our life.


[T]hey’ve made it possible for pretty much anyone to go get a video camera and editing machine and make a film, but I’m afraid it’s produced a lot more quantity and not quality, because it used to be, you know, the artist studied for years, and it was about a mastery of a craft, and now it’s so much more of a thing to do, made popular by the Internet and by just its availability, and, I mean, I don’t know if my upbringing made me– I appreciate art for its warmth, and its tactile, and it was like a labor of love, and it seems to me, I mean especially with the use of like digital editing processes, it seems so much more colder that it used to be.  And I do – I think art imitates life and life imitates art, and maybe if it’s true, I worry about the direction of us, because everything’s become so much more sharper and clearer and mass-produced, easier to get a hold of, but it’s not any more value than it used to be, and people don’t appreciate it as they used to . . . I think art is an aesthetic object that provokes thought and discussion and a reaction in its audience, but of any sort, and now it seems it’s been made so palatable that you don’t even need to taste it anymore, you don’t even have to think about it.  It’s like microwaved food, you don’t, it’s not fine dining anymore.  There’s not, like, a complex taste; it’s been made really easy to digest.  Sad.


What I mean is, is that all these people who are established in their art forms are scared of us, because we can self-generate . . . there’s so many people who are going to be able to do it.  The digital camera prices will drop, and everything will become the price of a pencil, and some kid in the trailer parks is going to make a movie and, you know, Coppala’s going to shit his pants, because this guy can do things better than he can . . . It should be accessible to everyone, cheap, and dirty, and the more accessible it is, the more crap there’s going to be . . . Art is going to suck.  Yeah, it should be overkill.  It’s going to be overkill now, and later it’s going to slow down.  We shouldn’t restrict it because, because, ‘oh, I think people should have to go to film school’ or ‘I think people should have high budgets before they’re allowed to get their hands on a camera.’                       


             [Another student responds:] Yeah but accessibility and then like having it forced on you

             [is something else] . . . Being able to go and get something is totally different than not

             being able to hide from it.


             The initial quote above subtly and problematically harmonizes primitive practices with traditional modes of Western art production and then plays a nostalgic tune for both of them.  This movement signals the loss of collective creations and ritual experiences but also a diversification that is simultaneously more inclusive and isolating.  By locating the primitive Other within their own recent past and by acknowledging that they still retain, or can select from, traditional methods, these art students decipher themselves as unique evolutionary beings, as future missing-links that embody the tensions of their time (as much their art works do) and act as harbingers of a more representative future. 

             A passionate search for resolution amidst extreme dissonance emerges from the second narrative above.  The story line goes something like this: the accessibility of cheap technologies for artistic production democratizes creation, which sounds like a good idea on the surface, but it really waters down art, diminishes its value and importance, and leaves us with sterile experiences when we desperately need warmth and resonance to help us cope with and understand the emotional vicissitudes of modern life.  This is definitely a plea for conserving that which provides meaningful experiences in this person’s life, and it is also a verbal struggle to overcome overtones of elitism that arise from the intimated suggestion of access restrictions, but most importantly, it is a critical evaluation of a social condition that permeates beyond the individual and his art world.

             The last long quote and the response to it add the final tonal layer to this composition, which has moved from reflections on the primitive past, to troubled concern for the shifting present, to celebrations of self-generation and pointed distress about unavoidable technological saturation.  The call for self-generation dispenses with elitism altogether (by assuming an elitist position of decision-making power) but throws out apprehension for the loss of (traditional) meaning with the same motion.  The student response to this position, which expresses a concern for freedom from technological art and media in art education, completes the discussion (or at least this recounting of it) in a chromatically rich form.  What began as a restricted perspective that methods of artistic production could coexist without tension finally arrives at a politically savvy position that questions the degree of personal autonomy and collective participation in the shaping of curricula and practices.   

             By raising the issue of “having technology forced on you” and “not being able to hide from it,” students are able to critique technological determinism and thereby re-define their art world to recapture some agency in the face of change, if they so choose.  Recognizing that technology use in art education is an option that others have selected for them (in this case administrators at the school exercised control over this selection process), students obtain a parallax perspective that renders technology not an unavoidable fact of life but something that can be evaluated and integrated into art worlds with care.  Put differently, technology may dictate moral and political orders, but it is not an autonomous force with a life of its own (Winner 1977, 1986); it is, instead, something that can be selectively employed or rejected, designed or appropriated, based on perceived needs.

             This article’s progression through multiple discursive layers has followed the collective knowledge production of students as they engaged with me in a focus group conversation.  Where Becker highlights the many networks of individuals that art works are constructed by, these students have demonstrated the matrix of sensibility, or layers of meaning, that artistic production intones and calls into being.  Hennion’s (1995) observation that art draws instability from its social context and gives a sense of steadiness back to that context is shown to have relevance for art production as well.  The narrative category of mutual coexistence of traditional and technological methods is inscripted with contradictions of consumerist market ideologies that are simultaneously constrained by a technologically determined future.  Students respond to this perceived reality by adopting a cautious approach to technology use.  The narrative category of necessary artistic evolution and adaptation to technology adds an additional economic layer by normalizing technological inevitability under the rubric of the competitive free market; with this interpretation, students extend their focus beyond the classroom or school and obtain a broader, if partial, understanding of cycles of meaning in relation to artistic production.  Finally, the category of ambivalent potentialities absorbs tensions between the democratization of art and the loss of collective meaning or emotional resonance.  In return, this moment in the conversation propels students beyond the iron cage of technological determinism – as Max Weber (2000) might put it – and into an art world of freedom in the fullest democratic sense: the freedom to begin questioning (and structuring) the conditions of their own lives in sensitive relation to the needs of others.


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             1 For the purpose of this article, I take information technology to be any electronic device used to collect, store, control, search, display, transmit, or otherwise manipulate data within social contexts (such devices can include computers, music sequencers, sketching tablets, cell phones, personal digital assistants, video surveillance cameras, and so on).  I take it as a given that no technological artifact or system has a discrete existence or meaning separate from the social lifeworlds it is embedded within, and, therefore, all technologies must be analyzed and understood within their social contexts of design and use.  As a shorthand for this article, unless otherwise indicated, “technology” is used interchangeably with “information technology.”

             2 These students express sentiments of being poor, suffering artists because they go to public school and are willing to “starve for their art.”  Yet the audition process described above, plus students’ professional socialization (e.g., arranging their own transportation, taking responsibility for staying in classes on an “open” campus, etc.) preclude admission of all but the most talented minorities or economic disadvantaged students to this school.