Thursday, February 3, 2011

What’s in a name? (What is computer art?)

(Long post)

On my website I have called myself a “digital media artist”. I don’t like that name very much; I would like to call myself a “generative artist”, but that would require an explanation. What I have not done is call myself a “computer artist”.

This is on my mind because I have been reading a short book called A Philosophy of Computer Art, by Dominic McIver Lopes (Routledge, 2010). I agree with much of what is in this book: there are interesting discussions of various topics, including “What is an artwork?”, and a vigorous defence of computer art against various attacks; the discussion extends to computer games. My biggest problem with the book is with the title: it should be called A Philosophy of Interactive Computer Art.

Lopes makes two central definitions, of “digital art” and of “computer art” (more precisely of the “computer art form”).

Digital art: An item is a work of digital art just in case (1) it’s art (2) made by computer or (3) made for display by computer (4) in a common, digital code. (Lopes p. 3)

(Here “display” has a broad meaning, so it includes sound and other forms of output.)

Computer art form: An item is a computer art work just in case (1) it’s art (2) it’s run on a computer (3) it’s interactive, and (4) it’s interactive because it’s run on a computer. (Lopes p. 27)

If Lopes had called this the “interactive computer art form” I would have little quarrel with it. As it is, I have two main problems with this definition. Firstly, it is too late. For most people, “computer art” brings to mind works made using programs like Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop; indeed this is why I don’t call myself a computer artist. Lopes’s book will not change this.

Secondly Lopes’s use rules out works that are computer art under any reasonable definition. Black Shoals by Lisa Autogena and Joshua Portway (, which is not discussed by Lopes, is a work that has virtual creatures breeding and evolving, feeding on real-time stock-market data. The work would be inconceivable without a computer, it changes in real time, and it is unpredictable, but according to Lopes’s discussion of the term “interactive” Black Shoals is not computer art, so by implication is lumped in with Photoshop collages and the like under “digital art”.

The difficulty arises because Lopes wishes to identify computer art as a new art form, as different from (for example) photography and painting as they are from each other. For Lopes, an art form is an appreciative art kind, defined as follows:

Appreciative art kind: A kind [of artwork] is an appreciative art kind just in case we normally appreciate a work in the kind by comparison with arbitrarily any other works in that kind. (Lopes p. 17)

Lopes goes on to argue that digital art is too broad a category to be considered an art form in this sense, which is surely true, and that (interactive) digital art is an art form in his sense; here I think he has drawn his boundaries too narrowly. Black Shoals can surely be appreciated by comparing it with a work like A-Volve by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau (, which also involves virtual creatures breeding and evolving, but where visitors can specify “DNA” for the creatures and interact with them once they are “born”. Yet for Lopes, A-Volve would count as belonging to the computer art form and Black Shoals would not.

If there is an art form that Black Shoals and A-Volve both belong to, what is it? I approach this via two more questions:
  1. What is the most important characteristic of the computer? My answer: the computer autonomously carries out complex calculations and data manipulations. Interactivity is certainly not the most important characteristic; interactive computing only became widely available at least 20 years after electronic computers were introduced.
  2. Is there an art form that has complex processes carried out autonomously as a defining characteristic? Yes: it is generative art.
Philip Galanter has given the following widely quoted definition:
Generative art refers to any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is then set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art. (Philip Galanter “What is generative art? Complexity theory as a context for art theory”, available at
Two generative artworks, then, can be compared via a discussion of the rules or “procedural inventions” involved in the work. Black Shoals and A-Volve use very similar rules: they both make use of evolutionary ideas concerning breeding, mutation and survival of the fittest; altogether clearly they are similar works and are appreciated as such. The fact that one is interactive and the other isn’t is a relatively minor consideration in this case, and surely does not make the works so radically different as to force them to belong to different art forms.

Not all generative art is computer-based: for example Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings made according to systems of rules are generative art under Galanter’s definition. But the ready availability of computers has lifted generative art to a new level and, in my view, has made it visible as a distinct art form. (I also note that Lopes concedes that theoretically a work of computer art in his sense could run on a human brain rather than a silicon machine.)

Most unfortunately, Lopes does not discuss the concept of generative art at all. If one is looking for an art form that makes essential use of the characteristics of the computer, and that has been given both an enormous expansion of possibilities and recognition as a distinct kind of art by the availability of the computer, generative art is a strong candidate.