New technologies give artists more formats to work with and enable previously excluded populations to participate in art. For everyone else, we have more art forms to enjoy like digital art, immersive art and more!

What is art in the 21st century?

There are many ways to define art. The Oxford dictionary defines art as ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination…producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’. Others rework the words of great thinkers to define art more concisely: Art is Expression. Art is Imitation. Art is Imagination. I like these abridged versions of the words of Hegel, Plato and Shaw (Adajian, 2007; Shaw, 1921). These definitions are much more open to interpretation than detailed ones. And they apply to the 21st century as much as they did in ancient times. But even if we do not agree on definitions, we can agree that art is important to us. Humans have been making art with whatever medium was on hand since the dawn of time. We create art, appreciate it, argue about it and more.

The digital artwork above is called Deep Purple. It brings together my favourite art definitions: It is an expression of the artist’s talent, made possible by the technologies of today. It builds on existing inspirations (an imitation, one could say) and helps imagine possibilities for art in the future. It has a lot to say about the state of 21st century art and society.


Name: Digital Art

3D Model

Creator: Nana Villarica

Date: 24-01-2022

Place: Maastricht, The Netherlands

Themes: Entertainment, Inclusivity

Captured with Apple iPhone 12, coded targets

Processed with Agisoft Metashape Professional Software run on MacOS Catalina


Physical Object

Size: 20 x 20 x 7 cm

Weight: 100 g

Material: Plastic

Art is Expression: Opportunities for participation and creativity

This artwork symbolises how advancements in the 21st century enable previously excluded groups to participate in art. It is made by Dutch artist Elmer Kouwenberg, who lost most of his mobility after an accident. He makes art using Photoshop and accessible technologies (a rollerball mouse and a keyboard he controls with glasses).

This object reminds me of all the strides made in art inclusivity in the 21st century.  People with limited vision, mobility issues and other disabilities used to be excluded from art creation. Nowadays, blind artists can use tactile materials to express themselves creatively (Kuell, 2009). Immobile artists use eye-tracking devices to draw (Eyewriter, 2009). Laser pointers attached to an artist’s head can help with selection and direct others where paint should be applied (Stiles, 2006). Sure, some of these were invented before this century. But the drive to include disabled people in art is a 21st century concept. Many museums adopted inclusive practices in the last two decades (Mesquita & Carneiro, 2016). This is why many museums now have paths for wheelchair users. Some even conduct touch-based tours for the blind, or special tours for people with learning differences (Fletcher, 2013; de Prado & Gago, 2020; Dupere, 2016; Stringer, 2014). It began with increasing access to arts and culture. Now, we are increasing opportunities for participation in art. Innovations such as 2009’s EyeWriter (Video 1) and 2020’s Enayball wheelchair painting tool, on top of older technologies like lasers, keyboards and mice adapted to help disabled people create, are a cause for celebration.

Video 1: Inventions like the Eyewriter enable people with limited mobility to express themselves through art. Here, LA graffiti artist Tony Quan (Tempt One) draws again with his eyes after years of immobility due to ALS | Not Impossible via Youtube

It is not just specific groups who benefit from technological advancements. In general, there are more options for creative expression simply because there are more materials and tools available to us. Creating art using whatever was available is a pattern throughout human history. Early humans painted on cave walls using earth pigments (Barnett et al., 2006) and other art forms developed as materials and processes were discovered (Waelkens et al., 1988). Similarly, new innovations in the 21st century have led to new possibilities. Tablets like the iPad (released 2007) as well as software like Adobe Photoshop and CorelDRAW (invented in the 1980s but found wide adoption this century), enable us to make digital illustrations. We can even create immersive experiences by playing with light and sound (Figure 1). Computer-based tools even provide shortcuts (copy-paste, duplicate, access to stock photos). These shortcuts mean that creating art no longer requires long periods of training. In the 21st century, most people can be an artist given the right tools.

Figure 1: teamLab’s digital installations include shifting light projections and soundscapes that immerse audiences into particular environments | via the teamLab’s site

Art is Imitation: Art in an era of self-obsession

The artwork also opens conversations about originality in the social media age. According to Plato, all art is imitation since artists take inspiration from objects and daily life (Adajian, 2007). Elmer’s Deep Purple – and the rest of his Amsterdam Psychedelia collection – was inspired by daily scenes in Amsterdam. However, Elmer puts his unique spin on every piece. His use of colours and psychedelic patterns elevates his art to more than just imitation.

His art does make me reflect on the quality of the daily art that we create nowadays. The ‘art’ I am referring to are the visual user-generated content (UGC) that we post on media sharing sites. UGC is a major form of entertainment in the 21st century. We spend hours posting and consuming content, reflecting our status as prosumers (Toffler, 1980). People might not agree with me that UGC is art. However, if you think about it, users follow certain visual styles when creating them. Examples of ~aesthetics~ include Insta baddie, soft girl aesthetic, and even our own Virtual Capsule’s Y2K aesthetic (Figure 2). Users work hard on framing, photographing, selecting, filtering and editing. The perfect post takes time, and we proudly display it on our (digital) walls. In that sense, it is art to us. Unfortunately, if many people are following the same aesthetic or imitating successful creators, we end up with uninspiring imitations.

Figure 2: Examples of Instagram aesthetics include (clockwise from top): The Instagram Baddie, Soft Girl Aesthetic and Y2K Aesthetic

Furthermore, museums understand that we crave that perfect shot. More and more, we see in them exhibits made for Instagram. An example would be installations by contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama. When Kusama’s exhibit is in town, museum tickets sell out, long lines form because visitors spend time posing for the perfect picture (Martin, n.d.). The same picture in fact – a selfie in a sea of glittering lights (Figure 3). Her creation becomes the backdrop as we take centre stage. I wonder, would there be such excitement around her art if we were not allowed to photograph ourselves in it? Can we engage with art if we are preoccupied with getting the perfect selfie? On the latter, critics are divided (Budge & Burness, 2017; Suess & Budge, 2018). Now is the time to reflect on our relationship with art, with regards to the originality of our creations and how we interact with it.  

Figure 3: Artist Yayoi Kusama herself decided to limit the time people spent in her installations to 40 seconds as people took too much time trying to take the perfect Insta photo. Selfie-ready exhibits like these sell out quickly, bringing much-needed income to museums, but also begging us to reflect: What is the role of art and museums nowadays? Have they become nothing more than selfie backdrops? | David Urbanke for Flaunt

Art is Imagination: The future of art

Finally, Elmer’s art is a good segue into the future of art. It occupies the in-between space: Deep Purple was created using digital tools but still it exists in the physical world. Like many industries, however, art is moving towards a (purely?) digital future.

Art is being re-imagined for virtual worlds. This is made possible by blockchain technology and NFTs (Video 2). An NFT (Non-Fungible Token) is a unit of data on the Ethereum blockchain that is unique, authenticated and cannot be forged. Any type of data can be stored as an NFT: music, tweet, digital art and more. Now, anyone can buy NFT art and place it in their digital property in the Metaverse (Nadini et al., 2021) The first NFT art was created in 2014, but NFT art experienced a surge in popularity from 2020 onwards. As of April 2021, the NFT resale market is valued at $490 million (Bloomberg, 2021). Even established art dealers and museums are dealing NFT art. Art collectors are putting their money on NFTs, as they have in the past with valuable paintings.

Video 2: Did you know that Paris Hilton is the queen of the Metaverse and NFT art? | Paris Hilton via Youtube

I have looked at a couple of NFTs and I wonder: Is this really art now? Some of them (Figure 4) seem incredibly mundane – a collage, pixelated illustrations, memes…yet, they are valued at millions of dollars (CNBC, 2022; Ottesen, 2022; Rosenblatt, 2021). Aesthetic beauty, skill or emotional power seem to be less important in this space. NFT artworks get their value from their rarity. For when you buy an NFT, ownership is yours alone. The blockchain proves it. Personally, I do not see the hype. It is difficult for me to imagine memes to be as valuable as a Picasso painting. I would rather buy digital art prints like the one I have now. 

Figure 4: Among the most valuable NFT artworks are (clockwise from top) Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days ($69.3 million), XCopy’s A Coin for the Ferryman ($6.034 million), Pak’s The Merge ($91.8 million) and Atsuko Sato’s Doge Meme ($4 million)


I have discussed advancements and current debates surrounding art using an artwork. Elmer’s digital art helps us reflect on different art definitions, the state of 21st century art and society and creative possibilities for the future. As new art forms take root, definitions need to be adapted. But with new and emerging technologies, the future of art looks bright overall.

[socialpoll id=”2828915″]

Which definition of art resonates with you the most?

Art is Expression [The purpose of art is the creation of beautiful objects in which the true character of freedom is given sensuous expression – Friedrich Hegel]
Art is Imitation [All artistic creation is a form of imitation – Plato]
Art is Imagination [Imagination is the beginning of creation – George Bernard Shaw]


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