artistIs computer art the same as human art? This piece argues that there is no real distinction; I don’t agree about that, but I sort of agree that in some respects the difference may not matter as much as it seems to. Oliver Roeder seems to end up by arguing that since humans write the programs, all computer art is ultimately human art too. Surely that isn’t quite right; you wouldn’t credit a team that wrote architectural design software with authorship of all the buildings it was used to create.

It is clearly true that we can design software tools that artists may use for their own creative purposes – who now, after all, creates graphic work with an airbrush? It’s also true that a lot of supposedly creative software is actually rather limited; it really only distorts or reshuffles standard elements or patterns within very limited parameters. I had to smile when I found that Roeder’s first example was a programme generating jazz improvisation; surely the most forgiving musical genre, or as someone ruder once put it, the form of music from which even the concept of a wrong note has been eliminated. But let’s not be nasty to jazz; there have also been successful programs that generated melodies like early Mozart by recombining typically Mozartian motifs; they worked quite well but at best they inevitably resembled the composer on a really bad day when he was ten years old.

Surely though, there are (or if not there soon will be, what with all the exciting progress we’re seeing) programs which do a much more sophisticated job of imitating human creativity, ones that generate from scratch genuinely interesting new forms in whatever medium they are designed for? What about those – are their products to be regarded as art? Myself I think not, for two reasons. First, art requires intentionality and computers don’t do intentionality. Art is essentially tied up with meanings and intentions, or with being about something. I should make it clear that I don’t by any means have in mind the naive idea that all art must have a meaning, in the sense of having some moral or message; but in a much looser sense art conveys, evokes or yes, represents. Even the most abstract forms of visual art or music flow from willed and significant acts by their creator.

Second, there is a creator; art is generated by a person. A person, as I’ve argued before, is a one-off real physical phenomenon in the world; a computer program, by contrast, is a sort of Platonic abstraction like a piece of maths; exactly specified and in some sense eternal. This phenomenon of particularity is reflected in the individual status of works of art, sometimes puzzling to rational folk; a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa is not valued as highly as La Gioconda herself, even though it provides exactly the same visual experience (actually a better one in the case of the copy, since you don’t have to fight the herds of tourists in the Louvre and peer through bullet-proof glass). You might argue that a work of computer art might be the product, not of a program in the abstract, but of a particular run of that program on a particular computer (itself necessarily only approximating the ideal of a Turing machine), and so the analogy with human creators can be preserved; but in my view simply being an instance of a program is not enough; the operation of the human brain is bound up in its detailed particularity in a way a program can never be.

Now those considerations, if you accept them, might make you question my initial optimism; perhaps these two objections mean that computers will never in fact produce anything better than shallow, sterile permutations? I don’t think that’s true. I draw an analogy here with Nature. The natural world produces a torrent of forms that are artistically interesting or inspiring, and it does so without needing intentionality or a creator (theists, my apologies, but work with me if you can). I don’t see why a computer program couldn’t generate products that were similarly worthy of our attention. They wouldn’t be art, but in a sense it doesn’t matter: we don’t despise a sunset because nobody made it, and we need not undervalue computer “art” either. (Interesting to reflect in passing that nature often seems to use the same kind of repetition we see in computer-generated fractal art to produce elegant complexity from essentially simple procedures.)

The relationship between art and nature is of course a long one. Artists have often borrowed natural forms, and different ages have seen whatever most suited their temperament in the natural world, whether a harmonious mathematical regularity or the tortured spirituality of the sublime and the terrible. I think it is quite conceivable that computer “art” (we need a new word – what about “creanda”?) might eventually come to play a similar role. Perhaps people will go out of their way to witness remarkable creanda in much the way they visit the Grand Canyon, and perhaps those inspiring and evocative items will play an inspiring and fertilising role for human creativity, without anyone ever mistaking the creanda for art.


  1. 1. Sci says:

    Great analogy with the aesthetics of Nature.

    Thanks for that Peter, very valuable insight.

  2. 2. Callan S. says:

    Seems like the problem is people basically just treating art as something that gives them a high/a buzz/an aesthetic rush. And that’s it.

    Then finding out a machine can provide that just as much.

  3. 3. Matthew P says:

    I’m biased because of my love of generative forms, like music and graphics. I’m reminded of Damien Hirst’s spin paintings where a spinning disk had paint dripped on it, to make starburst-like images. That was a machine, set up to do a thing by a human, but then the laws of physics take over and actually “create the art”. Compare that to Eno’s multiple overlapping tape loops – once set up and running, there’s no human interaction (apart from picking out the bit to record and release as an LP).

  4. 4. Jochen says:

    There’s also an element of uniquely human constraints in the art we create, and appreciate; and these constraints are an essential aspect of our humanity. There’s nothing that a priori says that three particular sounds harmonize with another, while just a slight difference can make them cacophonous. It’s not a fact of physics that this is so, but a fact of human biology and/or socialization. (Certainly, there are some mathematical relationships between notes we consider sound ‘good’ together; but that alone doesn’t explain why they sound good, since after all, there’s nothing inherently good about mathematical relationships, and notes that sound ‘bad’ together also obey certain relationships.) Similar remarks go for other aspects of what we find aesthetically pleasing (there is a marked lack of appreciation of paintings done in the most subtle shadings of ultraviolet, for example).

    Now, of course we can conceivably program a computer to respect these constraints. But that would be a different kind of thing: we are bound to these constraints because we are human; a computer would be bound to them because it was created by a human, to fulfill certain ends that ultimately only make sense in a human context.

  5. 5. Matthew P says:

    “There’s nothing that a priori says that three particular sounds harmonize with another, while just a slight difference can make them cacophonous. It’s not a fact of physics that this is so, but a fact of human biology and/or socialization.”

    Right, it’s not art unless a human recognises it as such, and how can a computer recognise it, unless we program it? Unless it was the necessary type of intelligent or conscious that allowed it to appreciate art on its own terms, in which case, there’s no telling what it would like.

    (I’m sure I’ve read SciFi where the AI ship pilot loves the UV and gamma displays in space)

  6. 6. Michael Murden says:

    You know the old saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For the purpose of determining whether an object is a work of art, which matters more, the intent of the artist or the perception of the beholder? Must an object be both intended to be a work of are by its creator and perceived as a work of art by its beholder to be classified as a work of art? If only the perception of the beholder matters then machines can, in principle, generate art. If the intent of the creator matters as well then machines, which can’t have intentions (I’m not taking a position on the question of intentionality in humans. My use of intentional language is only for the purposes of this blog response.) can’t create art.

    My own sense of the matter is that computer programs intended to generate “works of art” are themselves human-created works of art. I don’t think the “architectural design software” analogy is apt. CAD software is just electronic pencil and paper or modeling clay. It’s a tool the same way a violin or a paintbrush is a tool. Software that is said to itself generate art seems to me to be quite different.

  7. 7. Phil Lectrip says:

    An unintentional argument for theism?

    1 – Art is definitionally intentional
    2 – Minds cause rise to intentionality
    C1 From 1&2 – Therefore minds can create art
    3 – Nature cannot cause rise to intentionality
    C2 From 3 – Therefore nature cannot create minds because minds cause rise to intentionality
    4 – Minds are intentional
    C3 From 4 – Therefore minds are a form of art
    C4 from C1&C2&C3 – Therefore only a mind can create a human mind

  8. 8. Phil Lectrip says:

    C3 – From 4&1

  9. 9. Stonebuts says:

    I think it’s important to mention Aaron here

    I view Arron’s work as more of a collaboration between it and Cohen, but it did bring something vital to the table.

  10. 10. Sci says:

    Robert Kuhn, of Closer to Truth fame, wrote a somewhat critical piece about virtual immortality for Skeptic Magazine:

  11. 11. Peter says:

    A sunset isn’t art, but a human could take a picture of it. The result, most people would agree, could be art. But couldn’t we program a robot to take an identical photograph? We could teach it about framing, composition, when and where to get the best views, etc.

    It seems strange to me that you could have two identical photographs, but only one counts as art because of its history. It’s even stranger to think this fact holds even if the viewer is totally ignorant of how each photograph was created. Surely there’s an element of face value to art?

  12. 12. Peter says:

    That last comment was from Peter of Curious Mind Curious Brain, btw, not me…

  13. 13. Art in the age of digital production | OUPblog says:

    […] think of art as a distinctly human creation. One of the main reasons for this is the belief that creating art involves intentional actions and mental states: an artist is someone that creates art by virtue of intending to do so when composing the work. […]

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