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I'm looking for a word to distinguish digital artwork from non-digital artwork. I've already looked at various suggestions for the opposite of the word digital, but none seem to fit the concept.

"Analog art" doesn't seem accurate: would you call Monet "analog art?"

"Traditional art" seems really snobby and also dumb, since digital art has its own traditions.

"Paper art" is too specific since it only applies to paper.

"Hand art" also implies certain specific types of artwork.

Thank you!

  • Welcome to EL&U. Have a look at this example. The two sentences in the highlighted box there contain blanks for their requested word. Please provide your own sentence for the ELU community to fill in the blanks. – Lawrence Jan 18 '16 at 3:47
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    What's the word for non-sculpture art? For non-photography art? For non-ceramic art? For non-glass art? Why is digital art different from any other art medium in needing a word for its opposite? – Peter Shor Jan 18 '16 at 5:14
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    Why not "non-digital art"? – ermanen Jan 18 '16 at 5:17
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    If digital refers to a discrete representation then analog is indeed the opposite. If digital is used (inaccurately) to mean electronic then non-electronic is a possibility. – Drew Jan 18 '16 at 6:19
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    Ummm, analog crap, word-for-word?! :P Sorry, just a jest....This Quora thread might be of your interest though! – BiscuitBoy Jan 18 '16 at 11:44

10 Answers 10

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In your comment you added that...

I'm constrained by the crowd definition of "digital artwork" usually meaning mages made and stored on computer in digital format.

With that definition of "digital artwork", I recommend "physical art" as the opposite.

However, my answer is not applicable in the broader sense. For example, "digital music" could be used to describe "synthesized music". The opposite of that wouldn't be called "physical music".

  • Also a problem is that digital creations are often experienced physically. Is the physical manifestation of a digital artwork still considered 'digital'? – Dan Jan 23 '16 at 12:23
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The word for non-digital art is art.

Just like the word for non-virtual reality is reality.

Oh, and the word for non-experimental theatre is theatre.

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    Nice! Not exactly the 'opposite', but definitely an important reminder that digital is a subset of a wider and deeper ocean. – Dan Jan 18 '16 at 9:37
  • chivalrous, modest and a defender of the old ways... ;-) – Dan Jan 18 '16 at 9:48
  • @Dan: Nah. Solid methods only, neither old nor new. From 8 to 60 hours per painting. I'm not above using acrylic paint, either. – Ricky Jan 18 '16 at 11:03
  • is 'solid' a visual artist's opposite for 'digital'? – Dan Jan 18 '16 at 11:13
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    @Dan: No. "Solid" means more work, less play. The computer is one's friend and assistant, not partner. "Solid" means sketch what you see with charcoal, pencil, or a Sharpie, evaluate, fix, put in the first layer, very little oil, more pigment, only the basic colors, no white. Make sure it looks like a finished work of art before starting on the second layer. Repeat. Now it's time for the third layer. Make sure you have a client lined up. Don't fix any mistakes: cover them up completely. Etc. – Ricky Jan 18 '16 at 11:38
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Assuming you are primarily talking about visual arts (drawings/paintings), the most commonly used word is still 'Traditional Art'.

In fact, you can see this on sites like deviantArt and Artstation, prominent art websites, that this is the word they use to distinguish between digital and non-digital art.

If your demographic is artists who are familiar with the term digital art, I would suggest that this is the term most likely to make sense to them.

  • What you say is accurate for DA but at Artstation, when browsing art the drop-down is labelled "all media", and it lists traditional and digital within, but the generic is media in that case i.e. traditional/digital media. So you'd have something like traditional media art. Ever heard something like that? Thank you. – user98955 Jan 20 '16 at 4:02
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    No, because it would either be "traditional media" or "traditional art" (art made with "traditional medium") – Cat'r'pillar Jan 20 '16 at 15:49
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We also speak of the plastic arts, i.e. those involving some physical, tangible medium (painting, sculpture, ceramic, etc).

  • In some contexts this might be the opposite, but writing a novel is neither digital nor really plastic as the medium is not essential to the art. – Pete Kirkham Jan 19 '16 at 11:37
  • I happen to agree with your definition that the digital medium must be essential to the art if we're going to call it digital art. But who is to decide what is essential? Is a movie shot on digital "film" considered "digital art" if there's no CGI involved but all the editing was done on the computer without scissors and glue? What if only certain aspects or certain scenes of a film involve CGI? 300 or Jurassic Park? Is a sketch drawn on the computer but printed on paper digital? – TRomano Jan 19 '16 at 12:12
  • Some vinyl purists might consider a recording on CD of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing Beethoven's Symphony #9 to be "digital art". – TRomano Jan 19 '16 at 12:50
  • Re: creation and presentation process/ new media art / traditional media art. I note it does not make Beethoven a digital artist! But were the orchestra recording in studio only and only distributing online; would that make the performance digital art, or just the reproduction/format digital... ? – user98955 Jan 19 '16 at 13:21
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    I hope we never see the day when artists themselves are digital. – TRomano Jan 19 '16 at 13:56
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Your question presents an interesting problem, in that 'digital art' is difficult to define. That difficulty is not surprising: 'art' is difficult to define, never mind the 'digital' part of it. The definition of 'art' I favor is a dagger definition offered by James Joyce:

Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end.

[From The Critical Writings of James Joyce, R. Ellsworth and E. Mason (eds.), 1959. I seem to have loaned away my copy, so I can't provide a page number, but my often-errant memory insists this definition was in the Paris Notebooks.]

(Note that the foregoing definition of 'art' is often liberally re-interpreted by the venal and unscrupulous to mean 'the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for a pecuniary, pedagogical or moral end'. None of those substitutions for esthetic are even approximately adequate for the goal, defining 'art'.)

For my purposes in this answer, the definition from Joyce must be supplemented to include 'artwork'. 'Art' (including 'artwork') is therefore

the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end; works realized by such disposition.

'Digital art', then, is the computer-assisted human disposition etc. Additionally, if 'digital art' is to be substantially differentiated from other kinds of art, the assistance of the computer must be non-trivial. Non-trivial computer assistance for the human disposition etc. must be in the production or presentation of the humanly disposed sensible or intelligible matter.

Further, because technology in some form has always been involved with the production or presentation of art, it is not enough for computer assistance to be simply non-trivial.

For example, the printing of a contemporary novel, or the production of an ebook, involves "non-trivial computer assistance", yet the novel so produced would not be aptly called 'digital art'.

So I'll recommend that instead of 'non-trivial' the computer assistance in the production or presentation of 'digital art' must be esthetically significant. And so I arrive at my working definition of 'digital art':

Art (and artwork, as already defined) produced or presented with esthetically significant computer assistance.

The 'opposite' of this category, that is, art produced or presented without esthetically significant computer assistance, may not be well served by just one name. However, a good effort toward finding 'just one name' will observe that the opposite of 'computer-assisted' is 'without computer assistance'. In turn, 'without computer assistance', or rather 'without esthetically significant computer assistance', means (in the vernacular) 'low-tech'.

The best I can come up with for a single word designating the opposite of what is called 'digital art', then, is

low-tech art.

This categorizes all art not produced or presented with esthetically significant computer assistance. Completely, the definition of 'low-tech art' is

the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end without esthetically significant computer assistance; works realized by such disposition.

One antonym of 'low-tech art' is 'digital art'. Another must be 'high-tech art', and perhaps that last is a more accurate term for 'digital art'.


One advantage of using 'low-tech' and 'high-tech' (as opposed to, for example, 'digital') is that the terms remain viable even as technology advances: what is understood to be 'high-tech' today may soon change, even radically, without obsoleting the term itself. The term 'digital', on the other hand, suffers from senescence in contemporary use, being that it is defined variously as

  1. Expressed in discrete numerical form, especially for use by a computer or other electronic device: digital information.
  2. Electronics
    a. Relating to or being a device that can generate, record, process, receive, transmit, or display information that is represented in discrete numerical form.
    b. Relating to or being a service that provides information expressed in discrete numerical form: We subscribe to digital cable.
  3. Relating to or being a profession or activity that is performed using digital devices: a digital librarian; digital photography.

[digital. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved January 18 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/digital . Emphasis mine.]

Underlying all of these senses is the sense of 'numerical'. It is readily observable, however, that the contemporary understanding of 'digital' does not draw on the sense of 'numerical'. If it did, the opposite of 'digital art' would be

alphabetical art.

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I would personally use tangible art or physical art, because they emphasize that the art is not in a virtual medium.

  • So what about spoken poetry? – Hot Licks Jan 19 '16 at 18:14
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Lately I've been using "actual" to distinguish from "virtual". You could use it here as well and speak of "actual art."

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The 'opposite' of digital art can only be not digital art.

Art is a huge sphere of human endeavour that covers many different philosophies, aesthetics and media. Whether the artistic vision is presented digitally or not is a small part of a much bigger whole.

  • @KristinaLopez - the OP asks for a "word for the opposite of digital art". My answer is 'not digital' art. This is the simplest possible answer to the question and, in my opinion, the most meaningful of those on offer. I realise it uses two words but then so do several other answers. – Dan Jan 23 '16 at 12:07
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    @KristinaLopez - Hi. Thanks for replying. And for the heads up. I didn't realise either. :-) – Dan Jan 23 '16 at 16:58
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What a unique time to walk the face of the earth; a pivot point, a hinge. Digital technology completely interwoven in our way of life and digital natives now coming to power; those born in "the good old days" of the previous century are forced to migrate to the digital realm and redefine, relearn actually, our world. We immigrants learned a photograph (old-school) to be a photograph; however, digital photography now being the common, we need to find a term, not slang, to define the pictures made the "old" way. Because of technology we have the privilege of being right in the middle of this massive change to the entire global culture, art included. I guess at some point we will determine the vernacular, we will all agree on a term; for now I use, non-digital.

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What you’re really describing is the media used, not necessarily the subject/style/meaning/skills etc. “Physical” doesn’t make sense because you can make a physical copy of a digital piece and it’s still considered digital. I use “traditional” because in terms of the history of art, digital technology is an extremely recent phenomenon. I don’t think digital has been around long enough to say it has tradition.

If you think about it, the words we use to describe something that is not digital (analog, acoustic, etc.) aren’t describing the lack of something, they’re describing how something works (acoustic is describing how the sound from the strings echos in the hollow part of a guitar). So to come up with a word for visual art you’d have to think about how non-digital art media are used differently than digital.

From an artist's point of view, the difference for me is degrees of separation between myself and the final media. If I’m sculpting clay, it’s literally hands on. If I’m painting, I’m likely using a brush, so it’s 1-2 degree of separation. If I drawing digitally, it’s likely 3-4 degrees of separation (hand to stylus, stylus to tablet, tablet to computer, computer to printer or website).

The problem with that is there are other media that use 3-4 degrees of separation that aren’t digital such as large sculptures that the artist hires others to construct.

So basically we don’t have a word for it. “Traditional” is what works best for now. I think it will be a couple hundred years before digital can be considered traditional (or whenever we have another technological revolution).

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