Dominic McIver Lopes
A Philosophy of Computer Art was conceived of a hunch that thinking about computer art might allow us to come at large and familiar problems in aesthetics and art theory from a new angle. Berys Gaut, Derek Matravers, and Grant Tavinor touch upon some of these large and familiar problems in earlier issues of this Newsletter. One of these is Richard Wollheim’s “bricoleur problem.”
Wollheim asked what makes some stuffs or processes – or “media” – suitable vehicles of art, and he proposed that a solution to this “bricoleur problem” will be largely determined by “analogies and disanalogies that we can construct between the existing arts and the art in question” (1980: 43). In seeking these analogies and disanalogies, we may draw from the “comparatively rich context” of critical and historical discussions, as we did when photography and the movies were new arts (1980: 152).
Critical, historical, and theoretical discussions of digital art typically do root it in precursor art practices and do draw analogies to traditional art while identifying disanalogies that represent reactions against tradition. Going a step further, some theorists hold that this process is itself, by necessity, part of digital art practice. A work of digital art is nothing but digitally rendered literature, depiction, film, performance, or music, and so its significance must lie in how it “remediates” these traditional art media by rendering them digitally (Bolter and Grusin 2000). Through remediation, digital art is the art of bricolage.
Running against this grain, A Philosophy of Computer Art distinguishes digital art from computer art, whose medium is computer-based interactivity. As Matravers points out, this means that computer art faces a seriously exacerbated bricoleur problem. If interactivity is not a medium in traditional art, then what is the basis for an analogy to computer art?
Every work of computer art has an interface or display made up of text, images, or sound; and perhaps these provide a basis for constructing the comparisons needed to solve the bricoleur problem. Remediation to the rescue after all? Not so fast. The argument in A Philosophy of Computer Art assumes that to appreciate a work of computer art for what it is, one must appreciate it, at least in part, for its computer-based interactivity. So we cannot understand why computer-based interactivity is a suitable vehicle for appreciation by seeking analogies between the computer-based interactivity of computer art and the computer-based interactivity of traditional art. There is no computer-based interactivity in traditional art.
Some readers will have noticed a sneaky reformulation of the bricoleur problem as concerning what is a suitable medium for appreciation instead of art. This reformulation is harmless as long as what makes something art is at least in part features of its medium that make it apt for appreciation. Institutional theories of art deny that what makes something art has anything to do with features of its medium that make it apt for appreciation, but institutional theories of art are inconsistent with the bricoleur problem. They say that any medium is in principle a suitable vehicle for art.
One way to solve the bricoleur problem relies on interactive precursors to computer art to furnish suitable analogies. Happenings, for example, are interactive though not computer-based (Lopes 2009a: 49 – 51), and some writers on digital art trace its roots to Happenings and Dada performances. Alas, this proposal is ultimately unsatisfactory. Truly interactive precursors to computer art are few and far between, and their interactivity is typically a mere means to other artistic purposes, such as unscriptedness. For these two reasons, one might wonder whether interactivity is a medium in these works.
Tavinor suggests another solution to the bricoleur problem, in discussing why the artistic aspects of video games involve interactivity. Some games (e.g. checkers) have no representational elements, some games (e.g. chess) have interactive and representational elements that are completely independent of each other, but in most video games (e.g., The Sims) representation and interactive game-play are inseparable. One appreciates The Sims for how its little dramas are realized through interaction: the interaction is what it is only given the representational elements and the representation is what it is only given the interaction. So, in trying to understand why video games are suitable vehicles for appreciation, why not draw analogies between drama-realized-interactively and drama-realized-by-actors-following-a-script? And if video games are the popular end of computer art, then this proposal solves the bricoleur problem for computer art.
The proposal can be generalized in a way that makes it clear that remediation has not snuck in the back door. We appreciate works for such formal, expressive, and cognitive properties as having balance, being sad, and bringing out how none of us are free of gender bias. In different arts, these are realized in different ways, by acting, narrative, depiction, tone-meter-timbre structures, and the like. Why should a solution to the bricoleur problem send us in search of analogies at the level of realizers and not at the level of the formal, expressive, and cognitive properties that they realize? Perhaps the analogies we need to solve computer art’s acute case of the bricoleur problem are not to be found by comparing interactivity to media like acting, narrative, depiction, and tone-meter-timbre structures, but rather by comparing the formal, expressive, and cognitive achievements of interactivity alongside those of acting, narrative, depiction, and tone-meter-timbre structures. Simply put, interactivity is a suitable medium for appreciation if interactive works can realize features worth appreciating.
This suggestion must fall flat if a solution to the bricoleur problem must tell us how a medium can be a suitable vehicle for art when it is not a suitable vehicle for appreciation. However, as already noted, only institutional theories try to understand what makes for art without appeal to appreciation, and the bricoleur problem does not arise for these theories.
If this thinking is sound, it is possible to solve the bricoleur problem without appeal to remediation. To the extent that the problem pushes theorists to emphasize that digital art is an art of remediation, we now have room to downplay digital art as a theoretical concept and to counterbalance it with the concept of computer art. However, all of this is wheel spinning if computer art is not an art form in the first place.
Gaut argues that there is an art form – call it “computer-based art” – which conjoins computer art and digital art. Gaut’s argument proceeds first by objecting to the argument in A Philosophy of Computer Art that digital art is not an art form and then by proposing a feature, automated algorithmic processing, which is the medium for all computer-based art – for computer art and digital art alike.
Here is the argument in the book for the claim that digital art is not an art form. An art kind is an art form only if we normally appreciate any work in the kind by comparison with arbitrarily any other work in the kind. Digital art is an art kind but we do not appreciate any given work of digital art with arbitrarily any other work of digital art. Therefore, digital art is not an art form.
Gaut doubts whether the major premise of this argument can individuate art forms. Rembrandt self-portraits and paleolithic cave paintings are pictures but we do not normally compare Rembrandt self-portraits with cave paintings. Fair enough, there is some truth in that. Bear in mind two points, however.
First, the claim is not that we consciously or actively compare any given work in an art form with each and every other work in the art form. Rather, the claim is that the Ks are the works whose comparison class does not exclude any K. Appreciating a Rembrandt self-portrait as a Rembrandt self-portrait does exclude cave paintings, but appreciating a Rembrandt self-portrait as a picture does not exclude cave paintings. An appreciation of the self-portrait that would have gone differently were cave paintings included cannot be an appreciation of the self-portrait as a picture – it must be an appreciation of it as something narrower – a seventeenth century painting, perhaps. In the book, the same idea is expressed by saying that an art form is “a group of works that share a distinctive feature in common and that are normally appreciated partly for having that feature” (Lopes 2009a: 18).
Second, the “normally” requires a word of explanation. It is possible to appreciate a K as a K* (Lopes 2008). For example, it is possible to appreciate a building as a sculpture, though buildings are not sculptures, and it is also possible to appreciate a building as an antelope, though it would probably not come off very well (it depends on the building!). However, what makes architecture an art form is that buildings are works of art and there is a norm to appreciate them as buildings. Works made on Tuesdays are an art kind and it is possible to appreciate a work as a Tuesday work, but there is no norm to appreciate anything as a work made on a Tuesday, and that is why Tuesday works are not an art form.
There is no norm to appreciate digital art works as digital art because we do not in fact appreciate them as digital art, though we do appreciate them as digital songs, photographs, and the like. Have you ever appreciated a digital song in comparison to arbitrarily any digital photograph? If you do appreciate “1234” as a work of digital art, then you would have no more reason to exclude Jeff Wall’s A Sudden Gust of Wind from its comparison class as you would have to exclude any other digital song.
The examples of David Cope’s EMI and Harold Cohen’s AARON do double duty in Gaut’s argument. EMI and AARON output (non-interactive) works that we appreciate as products of automated algorithmic processing. As a result, they seem to counter the claim that we never appreciate any given work of digital art in a comparison class with arbitrarily any other work of digital art.
Gaut is right to say that we can and do appreciate the works output by EMI and AARON in comparison with one another. AARON’s drawings are more original but less impressive formally than EMI’s compositions, because of the algorithms and databases that each employs. However, this admission is consistent with the argument against the proposition that digital art is an art form so long as the case of AARON and EMI is not like that of “1234” and A Sudden Gust of Wind. The question is whether there is room to allow for the appreciation of AARON’s drawings alongside EMI’s songs without having to squeeze A Sudden Gust of Wind into the same art form as “1234.” There is if computer art has a sister art form, “generative art,” wherein algorithms are run on electronic computers to output new works of art (see also Andrews 2009). On this proposal, AARON and EMI output generative art. But A Sudden Gust of Wind and “1234” are not works of generative art; they belong instead to digital images and digital music, which are genres of the traditional arts of depiction and music.
This discussion is not, as it might seem, empty taxonomizing, for it brings us face to face with the bricoleur problem, whence it leads us into fundamental questions of value in the arts and the role of media in realizing that value. Gaut, Matravers, and Tavinor raise plenty of other issues besides these that merit study and dialogue. A Philosophy of Computer Art was never to be the last word on its topic, but rather the first.
Andrews, J. 2009. Review of A Philosophy of Computer Art, Netpoetic. .
Bolter, J. D. and R. Grusin. 2000. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Gaut, B. 2009. “Computer Art,” APA Newsletter on Philosophy and Computing 9.1 (2009) and American Society for Aesthetics Newsletter 29 (2009).
Lopes. D. M. 2008. “True Appreciation,” in Photography and Philosophy: New Essays on the Pencil of Nature, ed. Scott Walden. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
----- 2009a. A Philosophy of Computer Art. London: Routledge.
----- 2009b. “Précis of A Philosophy of Computer Art,” APA Newsletter on Philosophy and Computing 8.2 (2009) and American Society for Aesthetics Newsletter 29 (2009).
Matravers, D. 2009. “Sorting Out the Value of New Art Forms,” APA Newsletter on Philosophy and Computing 8.2 (2009) and American Society for Aesthetics Newsletter 29 (2009).
Tavinor, G. 2009. “Videogames, Interactivity, and Art,” APA Newsletter on Philosophy and Computing 9.1 (2009) and American Society for Aesthetics Newsletter 29 (2009).
Wollheim, R. 1980. Art and Its Objects, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2010 © Dominic McIver Lopes