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Drawbacks of programming to create digital art

There are limits to the desirability of programming as a means of achieving an artistic outcome. Many artists, by the very nature of their art, prefer to draw and modify pictorial elements instead of scripting changes in a non-visual form. This was the thrust of Michael Thompson’s argument in PAGE in 1976. Whilst programming was still the only way for artists to utilise the computer, the necessity of learning a non-visually way of expressing art was very limiting. The advantage of working directly in a visual medium, according to Thompson, is the ability to continually monitor and change the colour and form through close observation. Through this the artist gains confidence, their control of the medium increases and they understand the visual consequences of their art. [1]

This continual modification of the image using visual feedback from the results of a physical tool simply cannot be replicated when the artist is specifying lines of code. In Thompson’s view, there is a link between artist and media which is not replicated through learning and designing programs; the nature of the work distances the artist from its visual outcomes.[2]

It is precisely because of this lack of direct feedback that the GUI became popular for artists in the first place. Aside from certain artistic approaches that benefit from the programmatic aspects of programming, most artists prefer a direct and visual correlation of their work with the image being produced on the screen. Its uptake was dependent upon (and coincided with) the great advances in low-end computers at the end of the 1970s; and seems to be a case of historical inevitability.

Of course, a knowledge of programming grants one very immediate access to the computer, and artists such as Latham and Kawaguchi are able to manipulate their work to a very fine degree because they can program; and in the end programming provides a very useful discipline of its own.

Yet commercial software is powerful, well-tested and provides standards of its own. It has become the gateway for many artists into the computer and is reaching a mature stage, especially with photo manipulation software. For instance, knowledge of Photoshop, along with the specialised ‘plug-ins’ that modify the program’s functionality, grants an artist a subtle and powerful tool for use on a digital canvas. Combined with a pressure-sensitive stylus and several years’ experience, an artist might express their artistic ideas in a more direct, though very different, way than if they had taken a course of programming. Also, proponents of the “programming” school often promote a particular style of Computer Art, whereas the modern reality points to a fragmentation of styles and profusion of individual methods. Those who pin their hopes on resurrecting a unified Computer Art movement will definitely be disappointed.

Craig Hickman points out that the category of computer graphics has gradually been subsumed into “graphic design”; that computer animation is becoming a class of animation and that high-resolution digital pictures are included under “photography”. This trend suggests that so long as the computer is used within the expectations of an existing form, it could be regarded as an extension of it. Thus the computer is contiguous with the analogue form it extends or supplants. Yet Hickman believes that so long as “the computer is accepted as a legitimate tool used within traditional media”, Computer Art will be a unique category. [3]

Hickman bases his defence of a unique form of ‘Computer Art’ on Alan Kay’s concept of the computer as a “metamedium” in which you can create media; in other words, programs that act as certain types of tools and environments. He contends that while the computer is regularly used to simulate older media, it rarely appears in a wholly new capacity.

Perhaps the computer’s very flexibility is in this sense a constraint. It might seem limitless from the outside, but once inside a particular computer environment, the artist is channelled in certain directions. Moreover, once inside such an environment, it is hard to move into another without exiting that program. In a sense, the artist inhabits a series of parallel universes, which connect with each other via the desktop and the conventions of the interface, but which otherwise remain entirely separate.

[1] PAGE 36, July 1976, letter from Michael Thompson

[2] PAGE 36, July 1976, letter from Michael Thompson

[3] “Why Artists should program” Craig Hickman