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The Perception and Reception of Computer Art

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For over thirty years, the SIGGRAPH conference has provided a venue for the latest advances in computer graphics hardware and software. Digital artists also exhibit their work and the subject is occasionally discussed in the forums and panels running throughout the event. At SIGGRAPH’89, a panel of artists and critics considered the question: “Computer Art – An Oxymoron?” which was intended to bring members of the art establishment into contact with computer artists and discover their views on the new artform.

The fact that it was subtitled “Views from the Mainstream” highlighted this intention, and the speakers came from the Insitute of Contemporary Art, the National Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, amongst others. Dorothy Spencer, chairing the discussion, began by pointing out the mainstream art world’s reluctance to acknowledge the computer. She asked: “Like photography, is Computer Art going to take three-quarters of a century before it’s accepted into the mainstream?”[1]

Henry Rand of the National Museum of American responded by considering the time lag of integrating new technologies into art. Taking as his example the Parthenon, which was modelled after the wooden temples that preceded it; and the way that etching had to develop a vocabulary of line suitable to the technique, he made it clear that the process was by no means swift. Another factor he mentioned was the quality of artists. He thought that Computer Art would succeed when it produced “the towering figure of an artist who […] can move the spirit of the audience. That is to say, a Beethoven of the computer.”[2]

According to Rand, Computer Art might gain recognition through the efforts of a master who makes this medium his metier, and gives the wider public a reason to look at this otherwise fragmentary area. Of course, this is disingenuous towards the pioneers, making it seem that they alone are responsible for wider disinterest in Computer Art. However, Computer Art is also stigmatised because of its mechanistic associations, a situation which even a master of Computer Art would find hard to challenge.

A common experience for computer artists is to be sidelined on account of their chosen medium. This suspicion of the computer is, sadly, widespread and long-lived. Writing in PAGE, Paul Brown noted how it had affected Computer Art pioneer Manfred Mohr:

[…] Mohr […] told us he was no longer going to mention the computer in connection with his work. His reasons were straightforward enough and will not surprise artists working in the medium: all too often people think that the art is created by the machine and this predisposes them to view the work [unfavourably][3]

Similarly, Roman Verostko, another pioneer, complained to me that his work was regularly sidelined on account of its computer-based origins. The rejection of Computer Art results in a classic chicken-and-egg situation, exacerbated by the tendency (exemplified by the non-technical members of the SIGGRAPH panel) to see “Computer Art” as an identifiable group, not a collection of different practices. Martin Kemp believes this reaction must stem in part from the assumption that the computer does all the “work”, in terms of rendering and effects. With Photorealists like Estes and Morley, the intriguing quality was that their “photographic” work had been executed by hand. The opposite, however, is true of computers:

The down-side of this […] is that people assume that wonderful effects in Computer Art are somehow to be credited to the machine – as if it makes everything easy.[4]

Because the computer augments the artist’s range of possible techniques and realisations, it is therefore assumed to be easier and more tractable than traditional media. Skill is associated with hand-craft, and machines are supposed to grant anyone the power to become an “artist”. Yet this demonstrates the lack of appreciation of artistic technique on the computer, and the ways in which it can be manifested.

It’s difficult to see how this can be broken down without a much wider and deeper understanding outside a few specialist circles of the levels of skill needed to produce the kinds of things you do.[5]

In her comments on the SIGGRAPH panel session, the critic Delle Maxwell seemingly regarded “Computer Art” in the same terms as the panel: as a wholly new field of art whose existence will be validated by acceptance in the mainstream art world. However, she realised that this weight of expectation inevitably places the coming of “Computer Art” in the indefinite future.

The panel’s loose consensus seemed to be that theoretically, [Computer Art] could exist at some point, but in practice, now, there weren’t very many examples of interesting work to be found. The lack of involvement with idea and content was cited. [...][6]

This suggests that perhaps the organisers of the SIGGRAPH panel session were overly optimistic when they thought that the artistic mainstream could be reconciled with the demi-monde of Computer Art simply by inviting representatives from major art institutions to the world’s largest computer graphics conference. Perhaps they could have found better bridge-builders between the two worlds from other museums or galleries. Certainly, there was a sense that artists and curators were talking past each other.

Maxwell uncovers a current of suspicion in the SIGGRAPH discussion about the validity of computer-based work. A key factor in this problematic acceptance is the gap between the computer’s radical possibilities and its general lack of recognition in the art world. Maxwell identified the buzzwords used by the promoters of Computer Art:

“Radically different”, “revolutionary potential”, “unique requirements”, “transformation of space and time”, and “novel medium” are the types of descriptions found in articles on Computer Art. Are they just the hyperbole of the marketplace? [7]

All those overused phrases are redolent of the expectations surrounding this new artform which is always just over the horizon. In 1976, Robert Mallary attempted the sometimes weak manifestations of contemporary Computer Art with reference to its experimental value:

Computer Art has yet to make much of an impact but it will [although] the current level of performance [c. 1976] is simply not that impressive. At this point I am charitable in judging both my own work and that of others (the question I throw back is: “What good is a baby?”)[8]

Likewise, H W Franke saw “Computer Art” as the art of tomorrow, thirty years ago in 1971, and there it has remained. It is this gap between expectation and reality to which Maxwell draws the reader’s attention, and she suggests that Computer Art can only succeed when it is evaluated:

using standards as high as those by which the rest of the arts are judged […]

When the question How did you do it? is not the only appropriate question to ask […] When Computer Art stops imitating other art styles, and artists show a greater commitment to learning the language and concepts of computing. [9]

At first, these points seem to be a robust response to Computer Art hyperbole, yet they are also problematic. For instance, what are the high standards by which Maxwell believes “the rest of the arts” are judged? Not only does this presuppose a set of widely understood guidelines for judging these arts, but it makes it sound as though these rules can be applied across the board, and not only to visual art but also music and literature. Again, knowledge of the “concepts of computing” is no longer absolutely essential to producing Computer artwork.

Maxwell’s desire to submit Computer Art to aesthetic tests developed for traditional media, in order to gain wider acceptance, makes for some unlikely scenarios. Should the merits of each work of Computer Art be assessed according to the criteria of the corresponding non-digital artform? Two-dimensional imaging might be assessed alongside photographs and prints; three-dimensional images beside sculpture; and animation by reference to film. Such testing seems absurd and indeed it is, even if we allow for the possibility that each different type of Computer Art had an aesthetic that developed from the corresponding analogue medium. Perhaps Maxwell was calling for a raising of standards in the Computer Art community rather than an application of anachronistic rules to the new art form, but it appears from her reasoning that you cannot have one without the other.

Since each work of Computer Art can be compared to other examples in a similar vein, these broadly-defined classes of “Computer Art” might develop their own standards, regardless of the prevailing fashions of the mainstream art world (though these already permeate Computer Art to a degree). Only when these have developed should these works present themselves as a fully-fledged artform. Yet the danger with this, as Maxwell notes, is the creation of a ghetto, which she compares with the relation of science fiction to literary fiction. The “lower” literary form, spurned by the high-brow critics, has developed a parallel world of institutions, conferences, awards and reviews. Of this, Maxwell writes:

Out of this frustration, separate institutions and means of sharing information are developed. Consequently, people in their own in-groups tend to evaluate and promote one another’s work. Criticism is sometimes more of a public-relations affair than an objective evaluation.

Maxwell makes the Computer Art world seem extremely incestuous, with little outside criticism beyond the wholly negative input of the art world, and much mutual praise from the computer artists within their own circle. In this respect, she compares it to science-fiction books and their relation to literary circles. In the case of sci-fi, however there are a number of authors who have crossed from “low-brow” sci-fi to “high-brow” literature: J.G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. Of course, this is due to the experimental nature of their later books; in general, they built their reputations in the area of Sci-Fi.

Once again, what appeared to be a strong argument is less than convincing because the science-fiction analogy breaks down, as do most analogies when misapplied to digital media. All those overplayed comparisons to Gutenberg and photography obscure the reality of computers in the arts, and one cannot help but think that Maxwell is responding to these clichés (as is made obvious by her introduction) than to actual problems or challenges stemming from Computer Art itself.

The critic Lev Manovich calls the computer world and the contemporary art world “Turing-land” and “Duchamp-land” respectively, after “Disneyland”. Manovich believes the convergence of computers and art will not occur in any meaningful form because of attitudes in what he terms “Duchamp-land” and “Turing-land”. Contemporary art is portrayed as being [predictably!] about “the evocation of a multitude of cultural codes”, and being “ironic, self-referential and often literally destructive” towards its material and technology.” [10]

Meanwhile, the more thoughtful researchers of “Turing-land” are considered to prefer “simple” (or non-ironic) art and take their technology far too seriously. Manovich seemingly comes out in favour of “Duchamp-land” all the time, as though it represents the dominant strain of art rather than just one possibility.[11] Although he notes possible connections between the computer artists and 1960s Art and Technology movements, he evidently values post-modern irreverence over serious exploration, without pausing to consider how the former often paves the way for the latter. On the other hand, the promotion of uninspired pattern-making as “Computer Art” shows the drawbacks of researchers assuming the mantle of artists too quickly.

[1] “Computer Art – An Oxymoron? Views from the Mainstream” Dorothy Spencer chair, SIGGRAPH 89 Panel Proceedings (New York 1989)

[2] “Computer Art – An Oxymoron?” ibid

[3] PAGE Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society No.40, 1978 (?), Paul Brown pp1-2.

[4] Correspondence with Catherine McIntyre?

[5] Email to Catherine Macintyre, November 2001

[6] Maxwell, Delle “The Emperor’s New Art”, from Kerlow, Isaac Victor ed. Computers in Art and Design (New York, 1991), p95

[7] Maxwell, Delle “The Emperor’s New Art”, from Kerlow, Isaac Victor ed. Computers in Art and Design (New York, 1991), p96

[8] Robert Mallary, interviewed by Ruth Leavitt in Artist and Computer, 1976, p8

[9] Maxwell, Delle “The Emperor’s New Art”, from Kerlow, Isaac Victor ed. Computers in Art and Design (New York, 1991), p105

[10] “The Death of Computer Art” by Lev Manovich, “Web Schmeb” – find ref.

[11] “The Death of Computer Art” by Lev Manovich, “Web Schmeb” – find ref.