Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 1 / JANUARY 1983 / PAGE 136

When is computer art art? Robert E. Mueller.

When is Computer Art Art?

Art is a tricky subject. Everyone recognizes various kinds of objects they call art. Concentrating on the visual arts, what art is to most people usually limits itself to framed pictures hanging on walls. Obviously this may cover a very wide range of pictorial images, from pictures of flowers and landscapes, to abstract images and colorful designs.

The criterion for art most people apply is that a picture must be pleasing to them, and that it must be, at most, complex to the point that it does not quickly vanish in boredom. This means that when a person catches a picture in his eye, it should at least fascinate. But is it art?

Everyone realizes that there is a vast corpus of objects which some people call "art' that differs from what they call art. What is the difference--is it just a matter of snobbery? Are the serious art lovers, who embrace a dizzy succession of objects that sometimes seem to verge on the ridiculous, fooling themselves? To put it bluntly: is modern art and the avant-garde you read about skeptically, full of baloney?

To begin with, many art critics feel that there is no longer an authentic avantgarde. Take for example Hilton Kramer, who recently retired as critic for that most prestigious culture-setter, The New York Times. Kramer suggested in his swan song that our eager appetite for innovation, our readiness to accept the arcane, the outrageous and the unfamiliar, has killed the very idea of an avantgarde. Regardless how shocking or banal the art form, powerful galleries, museums, and collectors instantly embrace anything that comes along, competing for the honor of discovering something new in art. And to make matters worse, government agencies, businesses, and private foundations stand ready to back them with as much money as they need.

Critics and concerned artists have been watching the march of art fashions over the past 50 years with horror. Realism disappeared, expressionism came into being, cubism was born, abstractionism emerged, non-objective art splashed forth, followed by a stream of fads and fancies including Pop Art, minimalism, and field painting, only to return recently to realism.

We must conclude that anything goes in modern art, because the norm seems to be that there is no norm. And if the major critics or aestheticians are confused, what about the rest of us? We must ask ourselves the same question Aristotle, Tolstoy, Kant, Susanne Langer asked: What, after all, is art?

Back in 1976 I wrote a little article published in Art in America, and reprinted in Creative Computing (May/ June 1978), that attempted to apply my years of training as a visual artist to the efforts of computer specialists who dabble in pictorial graphics. I took a look at the images which computer people were creating back then, from the standpoint of an art specialist, and tried to come to some critical conclusions which might help future "computer artists' in their efforts.

Since then I have read many critiques of computer graphics; seen many shows; studied many books on the subject. I have discovered very little to change my views on the subject--which means either that I am stagnant, or that my critique still holds up. (See box.)

If It Is Visual Must It Be Art?

In general, most theorizing about computer graphics as art is upbeat and reassuring. Seldom is a question ever raised about the validity of computer art as art. The assumption is that since it is visual, it must perforce be art. This viewpoint is not only naive, it is sloppy thinking.

The word art is taken in its first level dictionary definition as a "skill acquired by experience, study or observation.' This definition neglects the conscious use of the creative human imagination for the fabrication of valuable, human aesthetic objects, and never thinks of art as being something with a long history and tradition.

Those with some knowledge of art history frequently put on blinders, rationalizing that their attitude will permit a fresh start in a confused, stagnant field--which admittedly it is. But there is no use reinventing the wheel.

I wish to suggest that traditional art training has something to teach us as computer artists. My reasons are probably selfish: I am a visual artist with a vested interest in many tired old media. I paint in oils (abstract and expressionistic), do traditional woodcuts and drawings, and sculpt occasionally in wood and clay. But I have also theorized about electric media for many years. See my article entitled "Electric Media,' in an early issue of Creative Computing, and my book The Science of Art: The Cybernetics of Creative Communication, (Day, NYC, 1967).

I have been trying to apply my M.I.T. science background, and N.Y.U. aesthetics/philosophy training to the problem. My conclusions have been hopeful, but the practice I observe is discouraging: Where is there an art using the computer and video media that even vaguely transcends its inherent mathematico-lissajou-feedback design qualities? Or where is one that uses it, and succeeds in fascinating me?

Perhaps I am too enmeshed in the old media. But there are, after all, art schools. People spend many years studying art, learning about art, trying to discover the techniques of picture making. The chances are that these people are not all kidding themselves. Out of the many academies of art must have come some expertise in the creation of visual images.

It may be true that this expertise is supplanted from time to time when another aesthetic comes along. This is what makes art evolve like an organic thing. But by any large, certain "rules' have emerged that seem to apply consistently to (most) art forms. I hedge because there are no absolutes in art (no more than in science, although admittedly less definitely so)--which is why people seem to be justified in saying that anything goes in art. The feeling is that art judgment reduces to what you like and don't like. But this is far from the truth.

Fascinating The Critics

I do not believe that this non-criterion for creating interesting visual images takes you very far in the direction of originality. Let us then agree, at least partially, that we would like our computer art to be original to the extent that it would fascinate a critic like Hilton Kramer. Assume, that is, that we must make images at least as good as--as interesting as--the best in art which currently abounds in the non-computer world. How do we accomplish this? My answer is that we must apply the same criteria to computer products practicing artists use in their craft, regardless the medium.

We must be, first and foremost, critical. We must not accept something which the eye in its naivete thinks is fun, exciting, bizarre, beautiful. The eye, we all know, can be fooled very easily-- witness optical illusions. Is this art?

Also the mind can be fooled easily-- particularly when it comes to what is called "beautiful' in this world. People, especially children and young people, lovely women, and sometimes man, are beautiful; sunsets are beautiful; flowers, nature, landscapes, seascapes and clouds are beautiful. Are images of them all automatically artistic?

We suffer from what the philosopher William Barret calls "the illusion of technique.' It is easy to get carried away with technique because it can be so much fun, and so automatic. Especially if you have a powerful technical device like a computer or a holographic camera or a dye-laser to play with. These machines in and of themselves, entirely automatically, have an autonomous quality which, when made visually, causes great wonder.

We must therefore be highly critical of what we call art when it comes out of a computer, particularly if we advertise it as "fine art.' Otherwise the cultured world with knowledge of art will think, and rightly so, that we are kidding ourselves.

I am sorry to say that a program like Nova showing computer specialists turning out what they think is serious art, can appear ridiculous to a practicing artist-- at least it did to me. The same applies to much computer music--it makes good background music for movies like Star Wars, with added visuals made up of the video feedback or lissajou variations, but that's about as far as it goes for the trained artistic observer. You tend to forget it easily, and have absolutely no desire to hear it again.

Constructive Criticism

Don't get me wrong. I think that the computer and all other electronic transducers are important for art. In fact, it is because I think that serious, fine art and music can be created using computer techniques, that I am so critical. It is a shame that so many productions fall so short of the media they try to imitate or transcend.

My optimism about the future of computerizing art is the reason for this article. I hope to snag a mind here and there, and convince them to read Rudolph Arnheim (Art and Visual Perception), Ernst Gombrich (Art and Illusion or The Sense of Order), R. G. Collingwood (Principles of Art), or Susanne Langer (Feeling and Form).

There is much more to art than the fun of putting together images and being amazed at the serendipitous results displayed on a color monitor.

Art is more than twists and turns of simple, kaleidoscopic digitized harmonies. Restrict yourself to the technique and you restrict your potential. We are more than our techniques; the ghosts in the machines are what count--all the more so when we try to computerize them.

It is extremely easy for almost anyone to make computers do fun visual things. I have said elsewhere that the computer is like a kaleidoscope. Add color to the equation and you can really go bananas with eye-appealing dazzlings. If you apply some of the more powerful graphic abilities of large computers, you can do some far-out visual things. The recent Walt Disney movie Tron proved that computer graphics--especially unleashed in time--can be a successful visual accompaniment to a dramatic plot. To stand alone like music without an opera, however, is another matter.

Many groups are working to create wonderful tools and fabulous techniques for making images. Scientists at the New York Institute of Technology, for example, are at the forefront, taking out many patents on devices for improving our techniques for creating graphics and animation to control the color and contours of characters and scenes unendingly. I have a patent on a video graphic system myself.

The more the merrier--make them available to everyone. Color video pallets are the next thing we are going to see marching into our living rooms or capturing our hand-held calculators and other chip-emblazoned gadgets.

In general all of these devices are quite interesting, at least technically, even to an artist. But will they in themselves enable us to create valid, fine art? Since even the experts seem to be confused about the experts seem to be confused argue that they ought to be included in this most ambiguous category of human production.

I am not saying that computer graphics, when produced by extremely sophisticated software, is not art. I am saying, however, that most of it appears very boring to an eye trained to recognize interesting visual images.

I am further arguing that we should exert caution when calling computer graphics "art.' There is a vast world of simple reproduction or pure design which, is not art--although very interesting and original.

Realism is not enough. And design, unlike art, hinges on creating orders within orders; regularities that breed symmetries; proportions that are elegant and derived from magic squares, the perfect mean, and other natural progressions.

I am making a plea for anyone truly interested in turning computer graphics into a more serious art form, to study art history and theory, to go back to the simpler art forms and learn what makes them artistic. Why is a line drawing, made with a pencil, the most elemental of human media, capable of becoming art? This question is not easily answered, but in my opinion it requires considerable study and exposure to great works of art.

We cannot let ourselves be carried away with dazzling new scientific techniques, believing that they are automatically art just because they overwhelm our untrained artistic eyes. We must look at Leonardo before we can consider ourselves Leonardos.

Photo: About the Illustrations

The illustrations are by the author. They illustrate the creative variety possible using a simple linear form without any technical assistance except the human imagination. (All illustrations are copyright Robert E. Mueller.)