This page has been archived by the Computer Arts Society.

A functional difference between art and graphics


Recognition of a piece as “art” and the development of its intrinsic artistic function can be simultaneous. For instance, when I visited SIGGRAPH’99, I found that many of the graphics demonstrations seemed to have more intrinsic interest than much of the “Computer Art” in the show. In no small part, this was down to intelligent and experimental use of 3D graphics and effects. Yet these were the products of design teams as opposed to individual and identifiable artists. This would seem to contradict my stance on “computer graphics” being the product of design teams in the context of larger projects. These demos were intended to showcase a product – the software or techniques employed to create them – but in and of themselves they could be judged artistically.

A piece of animation from SIGGRAPH’99 serves to illustrate how a graphical work can hover on the boundary of art and design, as both graphical tour de force and aesthetic expression. Paul Debevec’s Fiat Lux was a demonstration of a new modelling and lighting technique, hence the name. Set in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, it used photographs captured from the building’s interior to create a fully-rendered 3D environment. Debevec placed lines of great black marble slabs arranged to topple like dominoes, and shiny metal spheres falling across the floor under the power of gravity. The symbolism was meant to evoke the clash between science and the Catholic Church, so there was some intent which went beyond the usual subjects of graphical demonstrations. Moreover, the title “Fiat Lux” – “Let there be light” – was a reference not only to the subject matter, of illumination versus obscurantism, but also to the technology underpinning the graphics. The luminance model of St Peter’s Basilica had been captured from the actual building, using a polished mirror (photo), and the result was interpolated with simulated images.[1]

[Plate IV Debevec et al, Fiat Lux, 1998}

The aesthetic effect of Fiat Lux was quite outstanding, combining sophisticated underlying technology with rich, compelling imagery and a deeper story. The monumental setting, the glorious effects of light and reflectance, and the tangible power of the monoliths crashing down combined with the conceptual simplicity of the piece. It engaged me simultaneously on several levels and held my interest as it unfolded. If I had seen it outside the context of the SIGGRAPH Animation show, I would have considered it a work of “art”.

It is certainly a work of considerable artistry and skill, both from the point of view of its execution and its subject matter. In this it exemplifies the best of the graphical demonstrations that impinge on “art”. These graphical demonstrations can be seen as virtuoso feats of computer imagery; they are driven by an agonistic impulse, similar to one identified by Huizinga, that makes them examples of supreme skill and craft.[2] In this, they resemble the masterpiece created by the medieval journeyman at the end of his apprenticeship to gain admittance into the guild.

Likewise, outstanding examples of computer graphics are often assessed in competitions like the SIGGRAPH Animation Festival and represent the best achievements of specific research groups or design teams. They combine graphical knowledge with new techniques and push the potentials of the medium; simultaneously they have a commercial function in demonstrating the possibilities of a particular software product. And because they are entered for animation competitions, which follow the conventions of short films, they also have to demonstrate a certain witty flair in a brief space of time. This combination of play, artistry and competition is remarked upon by Huizinga; he holds that examples of great skill, especially in competitions, are not works of art as conventionally understood, but rather feats of artistry. He refers to masterpieces of all kinds and the tour de force, the display of masterful skill, as manifestations of a play factor which he also discerns in great works of art.[3]

With respect to award-winning animations, separating “art” from “artistry” is often difficult. “Artistry” implies detailed labour, craftsmanship, ornamentation and finesse, but perhaps not the overall vision that can subjectively mark a piece out as a “work of art”. Of course, the meaning of the word “art” has changed significantly since the 16th century, when it could be used to indicate works of skill and knowledge. It might be argued that these demonstrations  and the graphics they engender – adverts, film SFX, animated logos – are works of “craft” because they have an applied rather than artistic function. There is also a corresponding suspicion of the graphical tour de force because it seems so wrapped up in its technological embellishments that the underlying content is lacking, as Mark Millmore notes.

The problem with a lot of Computer Art is that it has yet to transcend its adolesecent astonishment with its own very impressive technology.[4]

Nonetheless, such applied uses of computer graphics could be considered precursors to art. By demonstrating possibilities (even of a rather banal kind) they can provide artists with technical ideas and indicate solutions to artistic problems: in this sense they can establish pathways for Computer Art. In a field where the artist has a deep link with technology and depends upon the development of new hardware and software, the graphical demonstration plays a crucial role in breaking the ground for new visual avenues. In fact, the importance of widespread demonstrations leading to artistic interest, by showing that computers were more than mere number-crunching machines or games consoles, seems to have been grossly underrated. Yet the idea that non-artistic or applied graphics can inspire artists to use a new medium is somewhat disquieting to those who attribute a revolutionary role to artists alone.

To a large extent, demonstration of advanced techniques was a necessary part of early computer graphics – for instance, John Whitney’s 1961 film Catalog, which is often treated today as “art” was in fact a demonstration reel for potential clients. The explosion in computer animations from the late 1980s onwards is understandable considering how novel rendered 3D images were. At that time, computer graphics users had to prove their worth through realism and simulation. Also, because they were to some degree supplanting even more time-consuming methods of hand-drawn animation, they had to provide astounding images as evidence of their skills. One might even extend the term “art” to cover Jim Blinn’s Voyager animations, simply for the scale of imagination and execution which encompassed an entire solar system realised through computer graphics.

[Plate V: example of Voyager]

Blinn exemplifies the change in computer graphics during the 1970s, and was indeed directly responsible for his seminal papers on realism in computer graphics. After Blinn’s work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the graphics research at New York Institute of Technology in the mid-1970s, computer graphics moved towards complex, realistic graphics. Almost simultaneously, the power and availability of computers increased as workstations and desktops appeared.[5] In the speech he made at one awards ceremony, Blinn declared he could now term himself an “artist” because that term was effectively bestowed upon him through the artistic recognition of his work.

Most of Blinn’s work, however, could be classed as simulation, albeit for graphical purposes. An interesting paradox within computer graphics is that systems intended to simulate the appearance of reality are more usually employed for fictional & imaginative purposes. This would, however, seem to be inherent in the notion of simulation and representation. Paul Brown defined simulation as

a scientific experiment […] solved incrementally, each successive frame being dependent upon the calculation of the previous frame. Simulation is an empirical method used where it is necessary to evaluate the circumstances in order to determine the results, rather than simply to draw the result. [*Page ref]

However, simulation can be used more loosely to describe the effect of transferring the appearance of real objects and situations onto their digital reconstructions. Computer simulation includes non-visual factors such as the laws of physics and other factors, such as the behaviour of flocks and the distribution of particles after explosions. Yet “virtual reality” is a limited reality in the sense that its boundaries, though theoretically infinite and unaffected by real-world constraints, are both designed to be constrained and limited by the amount of resources and time available to their creators.

[1] See Paul Debevec,

[2] J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, (London, 1999)

[3] Huizinga, ibid

[4] “From Paint to Pixels”, Millmore, ibid

[5] Jim Blinn, “Realism In Computer Graphics”,