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There Should Be No Computer Art (1971) [pdf] (bbk.ac.uk)
79 points by computerlab 31 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 86 comments

From the article: "Questions like 'is a computer creative' or 'is a computer an artist' or the like should not be considered serious questions, period."

Interesting that the concept that the computer is somehow doing the art itself, missing the point that a computer is a tool just like a paintbrush, was even around in '71.

One wonders when the paintbrush was invented if people argued people should still finger paint, and that the paintbrush alienated artists from their work. There's a tendency to see all technology from before you were born as natural, and anything newer as unnatural.

Professional art is whatever you can sell as such.

What i find boring with western art is that it is completely dependent on the critic and the discourse statement, in text, that must accompany any "serious" work of art.

Zen and objects created under that philosophy makes no distinction between "high" and "low" art. There are multiple other approaches outside of the western paradigm.

The writer of the article is selling a monetary-driven agenda, as they are dependent on getting paid for their strong-worded texts, while refusing to address that particular elephant in the room, connecting western art and discourse. How tedious.

I feel that if you reject or ignore the critics and the elaborate descriptions, you can appreciate art as you like. (And by extension consider whatever you like as art.)

There is much art being done outside of "erudite" circles. But still, all art is dependant on the appreciation of others.

I drew nude self portraits as part of therapy to help me recover from childhood sexual abuse.

Some of them made me cry in relief and help me put down terrible, terrible baggage.

I think some of those images were shared with one or two people. It's been a lot of years and I really can't remember (how many/if all were shared and other details) because sharing them or not sharing them apparently didn't make much impression on me, but I do still remember breaking down and crying as the shackles of the chains in my soul broke and fell away and turned to dust because of the act of making the drawing.

I'm pretty sure you can make art purely for yourself and never show it to anyone else.

You can make something, but what, then, makes it art?

Or, to put that another way: if there is only one animal alive in a forest, and that animal produces noise intentionally, but has no organ for sensing noise, have they made a “sound”?

Some words are only meaningful in the context of interpersonal communication. “Art” is, IMHO, one of them. Without an observer secondary to the artist, the question “is this art” has a NULL answer. Not an arbitrary one — a lack of one. Because encoded in the meaning of the word “art” is the assumption that you’re asking someone else that question.

My working definition of "art": that which is created for the sufficient purpose of being perceived.

This definition does not require the audience be not the artist. If one creates an instance for the sole purpose of being perceived by one's self alone, that is still art.

My thought process here was that that is not a useful definition, because all the extra stuff this definition lets in, is not stuff people would usually agree to call “art” / understand your meaning if you referred to it as “art.”

Let me try my analogy again: if you’re the last human alive, and you invent a bunch of words used for thinking to yourself, are those a “language”? Or are they merely a verbal shorthand or formalism or mnemonic for your thought processes?

IMHO, the word “language” only has a meaning/application in the context of two or more agents speaking. It is a protocol to allow agents without exactly the same mind to share thoughts, by putting those thoughts into a standardized schema separate from one’s own internal mental schema. If only you (or you and emulated copies of yourself) are communicating, then you won’t need such a separate model—you can just transmit the internal schema data structures directly.

As counter-argument, I reference the Voynich Manuscript: clearly a language is used to share thoughts, even though only the author (presumably) understood it.

I come to this definition of "art" precisely because so much of what is deemed "art" today "is not stuff people would usually agree to call 'art'", such as the "artist" shuffling around a pile of salt whilst on his knees for hours each day. Current art has done a great deal to eviscerate any sense of meaning (despite the pages of explanation accompanying every piece thereof), leaving me with my working definition: that which is made for the sufficient purpose of being perceived. I don't like the definition, being devoid of any aspect regarding improving the human condition, but that's what I'm left with.

> The Voynich Manuscript: clearly a language used to share thoughts, even though only the author (presumably) understood it.

The Voynich Manuscript has been referred to as a "personal shorthand" rather than a "language" quite often. "Language" is a specific term, and "being used to exchange ideas between people" seems to be part of the definition as people care to use it.

We do call large systems of grammar+vocabulary invented by one person "con-langs", which suggests they are "languages" — but we only call them that when those languages have usage guides published, such that other people could theoretically attempt to speak them. Before that happens, we don't really have a term for them. They're private thoughts in the creator's head. Do you need a term for that?

(What do you call hypothetical semantics underlying the random runic scripts used to decorate buildings in sci-fi movies, that only the authors know the meaning of — if there ever was a meaning at all? Intuitively, "language" is not quite the right term there. Even if there is a fictional language in that fictional setting, the representative samples of writing aren't necessarily valid samples of it — especially if the authors never bothered to actually construct a language for those samples to be sampled from.)

> the "artist" shuffling around a pile of salt whilst on his knees for hours each day

My argument there is that a lot of people are conflating something being "bad art" with that thing being "not art." But they don't do it all the time. They still use "art" to mean "art", as well as using it to mean "good art." They'll use "artful" or "evocative" to talk about "good art", but they'll use "artistic" to talk about any "art", good or bad.

Art, like writing or music, is an act of communication. Art is seemingly described as "good" when it's powerful; that is, when it successfully communicates something, perhaps impactfully.

That has nothing to do with aesthetics, of course. Awful images can be good art, if they're powerfully awful images.

Bad art, then, is powerless: it fails to communicate. But this still doesn't mean it's not art.

Art isn't opacity; doing a really bad job of making art doesn't make the thing less art. It makes it lesser art — lesser according to some societal ranking function — but that's not the same thing as becoming less like what people mean when they say "art."

People who are speaking unintelligibly (perhaps because they're very drunk, say) are still speaking, rather than "making noises." They're still attempting to communicate an idea through the medium of sound to others, and that's what makes that noise they're producing "speech." Intelligibility doesn't come into the question of "is it speech." It only comes into the question of "is it a successful act of speech."

A human born in the wild, though, with no exposure to other sapient minds capable of engaging in exchange of ideas, isn't "speaking" when they make mouth noises. They don't even have the concept of "speech." They're not attempting to communicate any ideas to others. There are no others.

Art is, AFAICT, the same.

This is why i concentrate on "professional art". It's a commercial endeavor. Often, it excludes the creator.

Art sure is more valuable once the artist is dead, from a dealers perspective.

As for what is "art" in general? Whatever you want it to be!

If you have to buy a book or go to school to figure it out, you just engaged in commerical / professional art, as a buyer. Back to commercial art we go.

Why is any observer outside the artist required?

Do you not use language to describe the world to yourself and help you understand it? Can you not do the same thing with art?

Edit: After more consideration, these sorts of means of internal communication might something like internal monologues or visualization and function quite differently for different people.

This ignores a major point that the audience of that art does not need to be contemporary.

If a masterpiece painting is created by a blind artist, never seen by anyone including himself for 500 years. Then it is discovered after 500 years. What is the status of this art through this timeline?

Art and beauty remain what they are irrespective of an audience.

Now, whether something is really art or beautiful, and who decides that are entirely different questions..

> What i find boring with western art is that it is completely dependent on the critic and the discourse statement, in text, that must accompany any "serious" work of art.

I live near a large art museum that has, for each piece, a plaque with the name, artist, year, and at most a paragraph or two of usually-historical context (and sometimes not even that).

There is no professional art imo, the professionalism makes it design. Art and design are opposites. In its purest form the former is about expressing yourself, the latter about resonating with others. If you create "art" with the intention for it to resonate with others (e.g. to make money selling it) you're designing.

>The writer of the article is selling a monetary-driven agenda

Did we read entirely different articles? The one posted above is very much a creed against money-driven fads among artists.

The writer is writing on "what is art", while being a gallery represented professional artist (i.e. sold his art in the system) and a paid professor(again, professional system player).

It's brand awareness building, also known as self-promotion. "See, I'm in the racquet, but I'm not like the others!" He went on to publish a book on the subject, 3 years later. [ source : gallery statement, wikipedia ]

He is pushing art as politics and himself as the arbiter, all while preaching in the royal "We". Like I wrote, how tedious.

Any piece of work that does not speak for itself, i dont consider art.

The works of the great masters can be appreciated even by children. They speak for themselves.

Be careful here, because even those that seem to speak for themselves require (cultural) context to appreciate fully. Take Rembrandt's portrait of St. Bartholomew. It's unquestionably a skilled production, and aesthetically pleasing. But it's also, on its face, just an old guy holding a knife.

If you learn the guy's name from the plaque next to the frame, and you know the word "saint" and are familiar with the reasons that title is applied, that probably gives you some impression that the knife is not going to be used to eat supper. (It's interesting to imagine viewing the and not knowing these things, in my opinion.) But only if you actually know St. Bart's (horrific) story do you understand the look on his face and really grasp the depth of Rembrandt's depiction.

This same problem applies to modern->contemporary art. In some cases the cultural context is, ironically, "people thought art should be produced for its own sake", which is harder to engage with if you happen to also not like the surface aesthetic. But it doesn't stop the artifacts from being art.

Well, I'm not an art collector or have any deep interest in art. Partly because I'm ignorant, with a dash of stupid and very broke.

That being said I can appreciate workmanship, artisanal detail and peserverance of craftsmanship - whether a person builds a table, lays bricks, sculpts statues, or paints like Rembrandt. Where lifelong sweat and blood drips on a piece of work, it leaves an indellible mark of both talent and absurb obsession.

It's hard to get that feeling in abstract art. It feels like a my toddler niece lashed out on a canvas and some pompus grey beard is telling me about emotional turmoil being expressed on a canvas. That turns my stomach. It's elitist and my eyes are too poor or it's just crap.

The argument ofcourse becomes photorealism isn't art. My very ignorant view says art should capture the moment. While imagery/photography should capture a moment.

By that definition seeking snake oil is also anything snake oil is because you are selling it as “not snake oil”.

Plenty of art is sold on the basis of the work it’s self. But, that doesn’t qualify as high art. The difference between what you’re paying 5k vs 500k is almost completely about the story around the art not the actual art on it’s own merits.

You just repeated what I said

Seems to me that the author of the article is very aware that the computer is not doing the art itself. His point is more subtle than might be apparent from the headline. My reading of it is kindof that at the time (and I'm sure since) "art dealers" were pushing a new fad every few years and the 1970s fuss about computer art was very faddy. Questions like 'is a computer an artist' are relevent now, but likely weren't very relevant in 1970, and so were what we would now call hype.

The author is still around - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frieder_Nake

And still has lots to say - https://twitter.com/carlcanary

The same argument also played out over the course of the 20th century around the status of photography as an art form and how it changes the relationship between the artist and their subject--Sontag's _On Photography_ is probably the best known collection of writing on the topic, but you could probably find a decent overview in any modern art history text.

My issue forever is where do you draw the line?

Automated computer generated art is as beautiful as the greatest paintings.

Do we end up calling the team of programmers whom coded the program——Artists, or is it just the user of the powerful program? Artist in the traditional sense?

I remember working out at Muir Woods years in the 90’s. A new guy was telling me what he wanted to do with his life. He told me he wanted to become a computer Artist.

I remember both of us debating at what point is the tool more powerful than the person. He was dead set on computer art is just art. Their was no line to cross.

I’m still unsure. I don’t want to get into a debate either.

(If the guy I had the conversation with happens to read this, I hope you are doing well. I hope you are in this industry, and happy. I always felt you were going to make it big.)

> Automated computer generated art is as beautiful as the greatest paintings.

As someone who paints daily and has made a lifetime study of painting, including visiting museums locally and worldwide, as well as trying to stay abreast of the "state of the art" of the use of computers in art (as well as writing software as a day job for decades), I am puzzled by this statement.

The greatest paintings, "in the flesh," simply have a punch and an impact that, to my eyes, has not been rivaled by the "state of the art" in digital renderings of any kind, or indeed in any works where a mechanical process is anything but a small factor in the completed work.

I would be fascinated to see what you consider to be examples of "automated computer-generated art" that rivals the works of Rembrandt, Titian, Velazquez, or anyone in the top tier of art history. Those artists are world-famous (not just now, but for centuries) for a reason, but you often have to get in the same room with the works to see why.

One wonders if the impact is imparted not by the piece, then, but by the room. There are elements of physical texture and contrast present in physical works, but is the difference between the Mona Lisa and a high-quality print of the Mona Lisa the brushstrokes, or that one is in the Louvre?

Since it is painted in oil by Leonardo, yes, it is the brush strokes.

"Mona Lisa, the precious legacy of Leonardo da Vinci, represents a zenith of methodological innovations in painting. How the painter managed to obtain such delicacy of the tonal transitions still occupies the mind of contemporary art researchers. Based on published results of scientific analyses performed on the painting and relying on historical sources, a copy of the painting was made using materials that were identical or at least equivalent to the ones Leonardo used. This paper is an effort to provide an idea of the built-up of the paint layers at various stages as the painting evolved. The author discusses the detailed and painstaking method used by the painter at each step of the creation of the painting to obtain sfumato effect."


Funny how Mona Lisa barely interested anybody before it was stolen and press widely reported on that. https://www.npr.org/2011/07/30/138800110/the-theft-that-made...

Today we'd say she went viral after that for no good reason.

The computer as a tool for an individual to use is a perspective that comes naturally to us now, but note that this article was written before even the Alto and the Apple II, and a decade before the IBM PC. Interactive computing was a fringe idea that only a relatively small set of people were thinking about. Computing meant batch computing.

> One wonders when the paintbrush was invented if people argued people should still finger paint, and that the paintbrush alienated artists from their work.

But how about tracing-paper? Or even a camera obscura? [1]

[1] https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/11/vermeer-secret-to...

A computer works with symbols.

A brush works with marks.

The latter is a larger infinity.

It's like the difference between digital and analog. Or raster and vector. Or map and territory.

Surely maps are a larger infinity than territories? I can easily draw maps of territories that do not, have not, and even cannot exist.

Likewise symbols and brushmarks. I can describe brushmarks that could never be physically realized.

But those map-artifacts are not real things. They are just symbols.

For those who want to compare this 1971 article with a 2018 talk by the very same person (and see that his arguments remain relevant): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-qAPvYdXgM

As a high school student in the mid-1980's, I was the first to submit "computer art" to a county art contest. There being no appropriate category, it was submitted as a "print" (via previously unheard-of use of a dot-matrix printer, metal impacting inked cloth ribbon). Apparently the submission caused a great deal of consternation among the judges, some thinking it a grand advancement of arts, and others appalled at the notion. Ultimately it was accepted and won (IIRC) an honorable mention (wasn't really that artistic, just explored the medium & tools).

Do you still have the "print" ? :)

Extrapolating the objection a la “this tool is too advanced!” to AI-generated art is a curious thought exercise.

Yes, that art might be created by a black box unconscious neural network, but there’re still minds who: developed algorithms, had a vision of an art project, put together training datasets, set up the software, filtered output, and finally published the resulting art in some context (or set up a publication pipeline).

This further prompts an exercise in how a single human artist in some ways can be described as a neural network—that takes external reality as input, runs it through some layers (the lens of one’s mind) and produces art as output—and, similarly, might not always deserve the entirety of the credit: there’s inevitably someone with good taste (a curator, a mentor, a community, etc.) who “set up” the artist, who first recognized artist’s work, who pestered the artist to publish (or dissuaded from publishing work that wasn’t so good), who helped artist get published and gain the confidence to produce more art, and so on.

There was a time I was deeply involved in procedural generated art. Everything has changed since I started working. But hey, I got come pretty cool experiments from that fase. Like this one:


Hey me too. I used to be deeply involved in a procedural art project.


Then the project sorta met its natural end, and then I sorta moved on

Seems really cool. As soon as I'm on my computer I'll take a look

Here's a nice example video


Your website is impressive! Couldn't follow how to interact with Qubes, any tips?

There's a virtual keypad below the game area, and you could use the arrow keys.




you can also play it in any of these links

I really like your site, especially Nightwave Radio. Are the names of the songs available somewhere? If not, I have no problem coming back to your website to listen!

Yeah, I dig this radio station too.

You can listen here: https://plaza.one/

Or you can get the streaming link and listen on your favorite audio player

If it weren't for computers, my hobby artistic endeavors would still be about acquiring a steady pulse so that the lines just look right...

Semantics I think. I do not see much difference for example between Pollock's artwork and some of computer generated stuff.

Which of Pollock's works? Until I saw a drip paining in a museum, I always thought it was a dull, lifeless, messy Kindergarten style, but the actual work was quite impressive in its sheer physical presence. It was rather different from the usual pictures in books and magazines. Seeing Mondriaan (or: Mondrian, as he's known in the English speaking part of the world) was different: his paintings look great in books, but are small and quite imperfect in reality.

Here is the example: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/1e/b2/b9/1eb2b9a2d656762f8bed... I agree that when printed on very large canvas and under proper lighting it can evoke some impression but the same would go for some computer generated art under similar conditions.

No print has the same physical presence as being able to see the layering of the paint on canvas. It's not a fully 2D medium.

My friend once had gallery of CGI in Toronto. Some of his printed images simulated just that. To me, unless you rubbed your finger you would not guess. It had visually perfect shading and relief. Granted there were no parallax but to properly notice that one human needs to be constantly moving when watching the painting.

Also I have no idea if it exists but nothing prohibits one to hook up simple plotter type robot to computer and have it make that physical presence real by using real brushes / spray and paint.

I had the same experience until I saw a Pollock retrospective at MoMA. Not only is his best work gorgeous, it’s vastly superior to his own early experiments. The whole “anyone could do this” thing I had going in was wiped away completely by the time I left.

A lot of people seem to be missing the relevance of this critique to NFTs.

It's actually uncannily prescient, politically and economically.

The medium that is changing with NFT is one of credit and incentives, not aesthetics. NFT art isn't differently made art, it's differently positioned art. It's like jumping from movies to television. And it's similar in a nominal sense with respect to current platforms, but there's a definite sense of "we have not really done everything this medium can offer yet". The phase where it's a gimmick will pass.

> it's differently positioned art

Is it even that? Art is to baseball as NTF is to baseball cards. It's something loosely associated with the art.

My real gripe with NFT is that collectibles--art, baseball cards, whatever--can be put on display. There's something to be said for tangible things.

There is something to be said about tangible things, but that’s not an NFT problem, that’s a digital art problem.

I actually wrote a thing about it on my blog today https://www.jacquescorbytuech.com/writing/irl-problem-digita...

and similar to NFTs the artists involved in early computer art also faced harassment

"Indifferent as many critics and curators were, there were some responses to computer art that were considerably more severe. In fact, computer art has aroused the kind of extreme resentment that characterized many of the idolatry controversies scattered through the history of art. Beyond the sabotaging of computers, physical attacks have been made on artists for their involvement with such devices, and the careers of art curators have been significantly damaged by their participation in computer art exhibitions. Though it is commonly accepted that computer art was unpopular upon its arrival, many are unaware of the level of vitriol directed toward computer artists. In a case reaching the levels of harassment and personal attack, Grace Hertlein reported that she was called a “***” and “traitor” by a fellow artist, who saw her choice of medium as morally questionable and as a complete rejection of authentic artistic traditions"[1]

All sounds very similar to whats happening to a lot of artists thanks to Memo Akten's cryptoart.wtf name and shame site.

[1]: https://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/when-the-machine-...

> All sounds very similar to whats happening to a lot of artists thanks to Memo Akten's cryptoart.wtf name and shame site.

I don’t think that’s fair. Artists should be aware of the impact of their work and that site served to educate a great number of people on the ecological harm of NFT art.

That isn’t to say that those artists deserve to be harassed about it though.

He could have pointed out the impact hypothetically without creating a call out side to target artists and pinpoint their exact numbers. Also some are disputing if the figures on the site are even accurate.

He knew what he was doing and he knew how Twitter would react and people would be harassed for it.

I guess I don't see how that's the case. In principle you could have had NFTs as soon as the printing press was invented; just sell thousands of prints while also selling the right to own all of them by writing names in a book. The critique is of computer generated art, not art that happens to pop up in the same paragraph as "computer".

NFT = Non-Fungible Token

An artwork needs to engender emotion in others and it needs to be a focus for questioning, thinking and feeling.

The best way to get these properties is to make a physical object and to make it unique either through craftsmanship or artificial constraint (a limited edition print run, for example).

Unless constrained by the artist, machine generated works do not have the property of uniqueness. They produce something more like poetry — infinitely reproducible art in the form of pure data sculpted at the human scale.

A photograph when presented as a computer image consists of pure data: but is it art? Was it taken at a moment in time in the real world? The uniqueness and craftsmanship is right there in the process of capture.

I've read this a couple times and can't really figure out what the argument is. Something about alienating artists from their art? And also the bourgeoisie is involved? I did notice that they narrowed their claim a couple times as the article went on.

The argument appears to be that using a computer to generate a piece of art is not a meaningful distinction from using e.g. a camera or a paintbrush, and so "computer art" is not a useful category. This appears to be couched in a more general political (and normative) theory of aesthetics which argues that art is (in the current political context) important insofar as it serves goals /beyond/ the production of "beautiful objects," e.g. highlighting inequity in the distribution of wealth, or other projects which serve the "needs of the people" contra "the rich and ruling."

I had the same reaction, that I couldn't figure out the argument. (For people who didn't read the article, it's not what you'd expect about why computer art isn't art.) It seems to be from the perspective of rejecting art entirely: "There is no need for the production of more works of art, particularly no need for 'computer art'."

After re-reading the article, I think it's best understood by considering each paragraph a completely unconnected topic. (I'm not being snarky here.)

My point of view is that "if a human touches anything and it changes things, it can be called art". Hardware, programs, languages and the all other things that computers are made of were created by humans. So, everything that computer generates is also a result of a group of human work which we come to the solution that even this comment can be called art and claimed. That doesn't change it is a "bad" art but it is art.

I wonder what GPT3 would have to say about this.

That sort of misses the point, which is common when people consider generative art.

Not only does the artist code the artwork into what they consider to be the finished piece, they then curate the output of that system to pick out items that are of particular appeal.

That seems to be a weird perspective when we know that artworks that are collaboratively made by humans exist among humans. Think of films, for example, where at the extreme ends you might look at hundreds or thousands of people collaborating on them.

Sure, many people may think that the director is the central figure, (often foolishly) even going so far as to almost completely discounting the impact others have, however I don’t think many people would be willing to completely discount the DoP, editor, screenwriter, etc. as artists in their own right, with their own contributions to the finished artwork.

As such your argument seems suspicious and weird. Sure, actual people were also involved in the creation of this hypothetical computer generated final artwork in different roles but can you be so quick to dismiss the contribution of the software?

I don’t think this is as easy to discount as you make it sound.

The software doesn’t contribute anything it wasn’t programmed to contribute, is my point.

Neither is the brush.

Correct, but no one tries to claim that the brush made an art work.

His argument is very time/context dependent. Our understanding of computer art is quite different now, in 2021, than it was in 1971 since the capabilities and ease of use of computers are very different. His point about art dealers is still interesting though.

I find the article quite compelling, honestly. If anything, reframing conversations about computer-generated products from "what were the methods of production" to "whom does the production serve" is even more relevant today than it was in 1971.

Yes - exactly. It's interesting that even though the argument is still at least as relevant today as it was in 1971, it's so far outside the usual narratives that it seems harder to follow it today than it was back then.

It's much safer to frame it as a question about tools - which it isn't - than about politics and power structures.

Yeah that's fair, although the methods of production are much more accessible today. Arguably more accessible than traditional art materials, so I think he would be less hostile today.

My tangentially related thoughts on the matter https://wndr.xyz/posts/9fjM1tOJO7MWX4fYw3AU2Q==/what-s-art-a...

The problem is that it's a slippery slope.

Analogy: telephone is like real-life conversation -> chat is like telephone -> social media is like chat -> now look where we are.

Computer art is not ok as much as paintbrush art is not ok.

I only support finger painting with natural pigments and sculpture from unprocessed materials with no tools...

Basically, someone needs to smear fruit on a rock or punch a tree if they want to reach me. Otherwise, it's not art, just graphic design...

I changed the url from https://compart.uni-bremen.de/download/publications/there-sh..., which does a forced download. If there's a better page to link to, we can change it again.

Well that aged like milk.

"Please don't post shallow dismissals, especially of other people's work. A good critical comment teaches us something."


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