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Distinguishing ‘art’ from ‘graphics’ p1


The term “Computer Art” implies a distinction between the computer as a visual production tool – for creating illustrations, visualisations and cinematic effects – and its use in an artistic context. It is difficult to define Computer Art such that applied works of computer imagery are completely excluded, but this thesis aims to do so. This is not a value judgement on the creative merits of the applied arts, but it is necessary to highlight the different motives leading to the production of Computer Art. Just as one may distinguish between “Computer Art” and “the computer in art”, so one may judge that not all examples of computer graphic work are “art” per se.

Overall, this thesis uses pragmatic criteria to distinguish between “Computer Art” and computer “graphics”, such as artistic intention and the creator’s role. The artist is most often the sole locus of his artwork: creator, organiser, executor and (to an extent) arbiter. By contrast, the designer directs images as part of larger projects in advertising and industry, often intended to give products an aesthetic appeal. This functional element is another distinction between “fine art” and “design”.

Can  images be distinguished on the basis of their function or intentions? In spite of a subjective recognition of the divergences between art objects and the results of design, they are very hard to quantify. Moreover, the whole area of design has become recognised as a field in its own right, even as the application of the word “art” has become so much broader. And artists have regularly crossed these boundaries in the past, particularly in the context of William Morris’s workshops and later at the Bauhaus with Gropius, Moholy-Nagy and Klee:

In the past, artists produced both artworks and utilitarian objects […] Norman Bel Geddes said: ‘[…] steamships, airplanes and radios present the same organic problems of design as do architecture, sculpture and literature.’ These same artistic qualities can stimulate an aesthetic response in viewers, whether they are present in an artwork or in an industrial product.[1]

Such stimulation might partly explain why certain pieces of design are later judged “artistic”: posters, typography, furniture, even industrial design. Moreover, Richard Wollheim acknowledges that certain functions of art only occur through their recognition as art:

[…] some functions that works of art perform they perform only in virtue of having been recognized as works of art. Art trades on trust.[2]

Interestingly, the legal definitions of “art” are predicated along similar lines. Under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, “artistic works” are protected in a variety of contexts. They include: “graphic works”, i.e. paintings, diagrams, drawings, maps, charts and plans; photographs; sculptures; and collages; works of architecture; and other works of “artistic craftsmanship” [3] The latter are the subject of various approaches, many basing the idea of “artistic craftsmanship” on the combination of artistic appeal and functional utility espoused by the English aesthetic tradition and the Arts and Crafts Movement. The following expresses the scope of “artistic craftsmanship”:

(1) Is it the craftsman’s intention to create something artistic that counts or rather the perception by the public of artistic quality in the article? (2) What level of artistic aspiration or attainment must be shown?[4]

Whilst the Act treats graphic works and “craft” pieces separately, the above questions are very useful when considering divisions between “art” and “design”. The attitudes of various Law Lords show the currents of thought represented here:

Lord Reid [attached] first importance to the attitude of the public: a work of craftsmanship would be artistic if a substantial section of the public admired and valued it for its appearance. Lord Kilbrandon, on the other hand, laid emphasis on the conscious intention to produce a work of art, and Lord Simon took a similar starting point, though he also brought into account the result achieved.[5]

If intention and reception are taken into account, and if the boundary is recognised as permeable and culturally-defined, then maybe one can usefully delineate those pieces of computer-mediated “art”. Generally in this thesis I have accepted the products of recognised artists as “art”; though I include the views of graphics researchers and designers because their input on the technical side of computer graphics is invaluable.

In the case of images produced for contexts other than art, there is a further complicating factor. For me, it is exemplified by the graphic art in Typography Now, the book that provided the impetus behind my study of Computer Art because its images seemed to evince an entirely new graphical style. [6] In this book, significant examples of typography (mainly digital) from the mid-80s to early 90s were collated into categories and presented in an artistic format – in other words, as works in their own right rather than posters, flyers and other forms of advertising. [Plate II]

This graphics work was taken from its native environment, in which it had to compete for attention with a profusion of other images, especially adverts. It was placed in the sedate setting of an individual page, where it could be viewed on its own terms and appreciated as a free-standing image. This new presentation not only rescued it from an ephemeral origin and preserved it, but in some cases distributed it more widely and placed it amongst an appreciative audience. With a change of context and presentation, it could now be seen as an artform.

Just as importantly, Edward Booth-Clibborn’s selection, though not in itself capable of transforming adverts into art, did at least make a qualitative assessment of their merits and provided the means by which these images could enter an artistic context. The process is not discrete but forms a spectrum of incremental movement from purposeful imagery to fine art. Suffice to say, some of the work in Typography Now stands on the threshold of “art” in spite of its origins; whilst other works, intended as statements and much heralded in their time, might ultimately sink in retrospect. It would seem that, given the right conditions, some parts of a mass-produced visual culture can gain the element of special significance that Walter Benjamin termed the “aura”, especially if they are sifted over time from the background noise and appear artistic through recollection and rarity.

Certain examples of computer graphics could be considered artistic even though they were intended as demonstrations of graphics technology. My suggestion is that “art” and “graphics” form a continuum of computer usage in the visual arts, ranging from scientific simulations at one end to digital photomontage at the other. These works can placed on a graphical-artistic axis; they can be relatively more or less “artistic”. In this sense, Computer Art not only owes its technological basis to the graphics industry, but also merges into it in the borderline areas of computer animation and graphics demonstration pieces.

[1] Carter, Curtis L. “Industrial Design: On Its Characteristics and Relationship to the Visual Fine Arts,” Leonardo, pp. 283-89, 1981.

[2] Art and its Objects, Richard Wollheim, Essay III: A note on the physical object hypothesis, p183

[3] W.R. Cornish ibid pp388-89.

[4] W.R. Cornish Intellectual Property: Patents, Copyrights, Trade Marks and Allied Rights (Sweet and Maxwell, 1999, Fourth Ed.), p391

[5] W.R. Cornish, ibid, p391.

[6] Poynor, Rick and Booth-Clibborn, Edward Typography Now: the next wave (London, 1991), p7