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Distinguishing ‘art’ from ‘graphics’ p2


To keep this thesis at a reasonable length, I must necessarily disregard certain uses of the computer that are not primarily art-based, though they may produce images that will be elevated to art status in the future. The following areas lie outside the scope of this study:

1)      Digital special effects in films and television. Though this area has contributed crucial technology to computer graphics and provided the impetus for developing various important pieces of software such as the Quantel Paintbox, it is not “art” in any but the broadest sense. In this capacity, computer graphics are a production tool and nothing more. They enable certain aspects of TV production and extend it visually, though not necessarily conceptually.

2)     Desktop publishing and straightforward photo manipulation, two areas where the computer as production tool has taken over from earlier more specialised systems based on chemical rather digital manipulation. In this respect, the computer is tailored to produce similar end results to typesetting machines and darkrooms respectively.  Although its methods are beginning to transform the design process, the metaphors used are inherited from its conceptual forebears. I will, however, be looking at the role of these analogues and their meaning for digital art.

3)     Fractal sets and other forms of digital visualisation, except as they relate directly to artists. In spite of their ephemeral popularity in the late 80s and early 90s, fractal “art” was rarely more than the straightforward display of visual results to mathematical equations. Although equation-solving computer graphics have been assiduously promoted as “art”, especially by Clifford Pickover,[1] I cannot see this as an artistic process per se. Far more interesting has been the application of fractal graphics in 3D software packages, where it forms one of the most organic rendering techniques.

Another factor, raised by Peter van Emde Boas in his review of a Dutch Computer Art show in the Galerie van Rijsbergen, 1993, is the issue of repetition and intricacy in computer graphics versus the intuitive and inherently interesting expression of an artist’s work. Considering computer-generated pictures, he asks:

The final question is whether this art is boring or not. How should we compare the collection of computer-generated pictures with the œuvre of a standard artist? For this purpose I propose the number of instances till boredom measure […] how many pictures of an enlarged fragment of the Mandelbrot set are required to give the human observer the impression that he has seen all of it?[2]

In the endless variations of the Mandelbrot set, one quickly recognises its points of self-similarity even if there is no literal repetition. This factor affects computer graphics in other ways: the stereotyped images produced by particular graphics programs (e.g. the traces of obvious filters in Photoshop) or the hackneyed subject matter of 3D rendering programs. In short, there is a sense of technical proficiency in computer graphics, coupled with a recycling of subject material; the best Computer Art, by contrast, is fresh and raises new questions. This again is another subjective division.

4)     Internet-based art, except as it relates to earlier digital artforms. I exclude this fascinating area only because it is so recent, compared with other forms of digital art, but the growth and development of specific Net-based artforms have already begun to be treated separately from “Computer Art”.

5)     Computer games. There are certain computer games innovative enough to make a claim as forms of art, not merely for their graphical quality but also for intriguing qualities of gameplay. However, this area deserves its own study and it would be hard to bring specific computer games into this thesis. Computer games are gradually being recognised in their own right: for instance, last autumn the Barbican hosted “Game On”, an exhibition of computer games.

Along with several recent books on the history of computer games, this suggests that games are establishing themselves as a recognised form; not wholly artistic, and maybe never to be recognised as “art”, but one with recognised qualities, standards and categories. This much is obvious from reading any computer games magazine.

6)     Computer-generated animated films, except those produced in a purely artistic context. Some of the best-known of these were made as demonstrations of new computer techniques (e.g. Pixar’s famous Luxo Junior) and as such are not of artistic intent. Also, they tend to fall into the “computer as production tool” category, where the computer’s abilities are there to realise the film rather than be its raison d’etre. But the same could be said of many pieces of Computer Art. In the end, computer animation derives so strongly from more traditional animated films that, as with computer games, I must defer this category to a separate study.

7)     Art installations where the computer acts as a controlling device, such as triggering the start of the artwork’s performance. Here the computer is employed as a governor for controlling input or functions, and this to my mind does not qualify as Computer Art; rather as a form of physical kinetic art. If the computer had a more integral task, such as generating part of the display, then I would consider it more closely. However, the importance of kinetic art to the development Computer Art is examined in the “History” section.

In delimiting this area, I am conscious that the boundaries are fuzzy with respect both to the artistic content of certain works, and to the degree of computer involvement. To set a hard definition of “Art” – even if it were possible – would exclude certain boundary works of great interest, especially from the pioneering days of computer graphics.

Plate III shows how a variety of fields impinge upon Computer Art. These include traditional fine art (in all its varied manifestations), design, photography, cinema, animation and computer simulations (including computer games). The amorphous area of “Computer Art” is towards the centre, and most computer artists can be assigned a place within this scheme. The closer toward the centre they are, the more they make use of the computer’s entirely new features; the further towards the rim, the more they fall into one of the existing categories.

It is harder to make a distinction in terms of the product or outcome of graphics and Computer Art. For instance, although computer games are located in virtual media and possess interactivity, they are functionally distinct from Computer Art. By their very nature, computer graphics partake of the same non-material qualities as Computer Art and are constructed in similar ways.

Computer artists have benefited greatly from software and hardware developed for the commercial market; although here again they strive to avoid the stereotyped images they perceive in graphics. These result from typical tools and shortcuts in particular graphics packages, which imprint themselves on the final image. For instance, certain filters in Photoshop leave distinct visual traces and lead to an overall homogenisation of the resulting images. Overall, however, Computer Art exists in the same formats as general computer graphics; only occasionally does it achieve a unique form, such as with Hébert’s sand pieces.

Perhaps the subjective factors separating art and design are best articulated by a designer involved in a project to publish artists’ books, i.e. limited-edition books created by artists, which is another area where design and art can overlap:

An artist’s book doesn’t need a brief, a target audience or a key message. It won’t have to fit into any marketing strategy or follow corporate guidelines. It doesn’t have to be printed in the house colours and can be anything other than A4. It is not going to be judged by a corporate communications team […] It need not have a glossy laminated cover or be printed on coated paper, or even paper at all. Yet it must be original, single-minded, entertaining, revealing, intelligent, aesthetic, unique and challenging.[3]

These points illustrate the relative freedoms of artistic work compared with the commercial focus of most works of design. The designer directs images as part of much greater projects, usually aimed at giving products aesthetic appeal. This functional element remains the primary distinction between “fine art” and “design”, and is a pragmatic criterion adopted in this thesis to distinguish computer artworks from graphic designs. Panofsky seemingly followed this approach in his essay “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline”, contending that if a viewer is confronted with a natural object it is their decision whether to experience it on an aesthetic level. By contrast, a

“man-made object, however, either demands or does not demand to be so experienced, for it has what the scholastics call an ‘intention’ […] Where the sphere of practical objects ends, and that of ‘art’ begins, depends, then, on the ‘intention’ of the creators.”

Unfortunately, such intentions are dependent on the environment and period that produces the object.[4]

Perhaps the greatest difference between the computer artist and the graphic designer lies in the amount of time the former can devote to perfecting a technique. This is not to belittle the technical achievements of the designer, but their job involves continuously updating both their style and their computer hardware, if they are to remain current. They certainly develop distinctive styles – and gain recognition for their work – but technical excellence must operate under constraints of deadlines and clients’ requirements. The computer’s place in design is solely that of facilitator, enabling the designer to realise new concepts, but of necessity it cannot be developed on a timescale of months or years. Designs are redolent of their era, which makes them so attractive in retrospect since they encapsulate something of the wider culture, like all ephemera. The appeal of Typography Now is that what once was hailed as the cutting edge is now a compilation of period pieces, though no less effective for that.

The artist, by contrast, can allow more time to absorb a program or a technique and get properly acquainted with it. The length of time that Harold Cohen, Jean-Pierre Hébert, Roman Verostko and Larry Cuba have spent with their respective systems is reflected in the quality of their work. Indeed, the artistic usage of plotters in Hébert and Verostko’s work has actually outlived the entire product cycle of the equipment. Not merely one make of plotter, but the whole class of plotting devices, has practically ceased production. Yet in this time, both artists have become so well acquainted with their tools that they are considering building their own plotters to suit their requirements. Thus in a sense we find ourselves back at the point where John Whitney built his own computer from salvaged parts. Paul Brown remarked on this “obsession factor”, the need to concentrate on one small area, that divides the computer artist from the graphic designer.[5]

As Mark Millmore notes of the interchange between “art” and “illustration”, the important factor is the amount of time the artist has to experiment: “Nearly all commercial graphic art owes a debt to a fine artist. Commercial artists are always constrained by deadlines […] so they are obliged to use the inventions of the fine artist.”[6] The artist, by contrast, can allow more time to absorb a program or a technique and get properly acquainted with it.

Artists need not be discouraged by the rapidity of computer advancement and may actually benefit from the turnover of old systems. Equipped with a little knowledge of older computers, they may find the advanced graphics hardware of the mid-80s and early 90s at online auction houses. The artist benefits from the short product cycle and rapid replacement of current computers, so long as they can maintain these systems and make use of contemporary software (which will run on the hardware it was designed for).

The issue is less about the viability of older systems and more about artistic self-sufficiency and knowledge. It assumes that in making Computer Art as opposed to design, the artist is prepared to utilise appropriate resources and incorporate them, quirks and all, into the creation of the art no matter what format the final result takes. The striking feature of the most interesting artists is their determination to know their systems so intimately that they no longer present obstacles but creative opportunities for their art. Beyond that, they diverge along their own routes: their understanding is shaped by their approach to their own art and the computer can hardly be said to impose uniformity on the results. They have developed a feel for the system; so much so that they have been able to mould its very workings to their advantage.

[1] re Computers, Pattern, Chaos and Beauty. Jean-Pierre Hébert dislikes his work because it attempts to imitate, rather than emulate, natural forms.

[2] van Emde Boas, Peter “Mechanized Art and the Mad Mathematician” from Hein Eberson (ed.): Artificial, Amsterdam, 1993. Online at IAAA website:

[3] “This is Not a Book”, Jonathan Ward, Eye No.27, Vol.7 Spring 1998, p54.

[4] Meaning in the Visual Arts, Erwin Panofsky (London, 1993), pp34-36

[5] Conversation with Paul Brown, 15-01-03

[6] Mark Millmore, “From Paint to Pixels”,