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The Last Stance of Abstract Art?

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Although abstract art bestowed “appropriate” forms on a medium whose linear qualities seemed to demand them, in a sense such strong identification with these conventions served to limit nascent Computer Art. That Jasia Reichardt was able to characterise 1960s Computer Art as the “last stance” of abstract art shows how closely they connected. For an artform with such potential for new techniques and styles, this was a significant constraint. Roy Ascott certainly considered this duplication of Modernism’s concerns by early Computer Art was counterproductive:

Instead of being seen as an alternative environment in which the redescription and reconstruction of art and culture could be undertaken, the computer was crudely employed to rehearse and reiterate the strategies of modernism and formalism.[1]

Such similarities often begged the question “why use the computer?” especially when images were printed out and their computational origins became more distant Since computers are used in such a variety of graphical roles, are attempts to identify inherent “qualities” of the computer image doomed to failure? Ruth Leavitt considered that:

Works produced on the computer do not have a unique style. It is difficult, at best, to identify a piece of art as having been created with the aid of a computer. Many of these styles existed independently of the computer[2]

That the computer was being used, in many cases, to emulate existing styles troubled the artist Gary William Smith. Writing in the journal of the British Computer Arts Society, PAGE, he considered a work by the artist Frieder Nake, possibly Rectangular Hatchings exhibited at Cybernetic Serendipity, or Grafika, shown here, from the Bit International exhibitions of the late 1960s.

Nake - Grafika

Since it was composed of straight lines, Smith wondered whether the computer was necessary to its execution, as it could have been drawn with pen and ruler. Why was the computer being used to merely reconstruct existing art styles and if so, what did it impart to the art?

Of what value, if any, is computer assistance in art?” Of what value is a linear composition produced with computer assistance if an equal or superior rendition could have been done by hand? […] The point is here that some “computer artists” are using the computer to imitate “real” art rather than to explore new dimensions.[3]

Smith’s question is, in one sense, fundamental to the existence of the area called “Computer Art”. If computer assistance has no demonstrable artistic value, why employ the machine? This question was particularly relevant to graphically simple works such as Nake’s but becomes less meaningful as Computer Artforms display greater sophistication. As their departure from traditional techniques becomes more marked, it is harder to question the validity of employing this technology, which would be hard to emulate by hand. Moreover, since “Computer Art” is difficult to define through a set of shared practices or ideologies, how can one dictate the validity of deploying the computer in a certain way? This is why Gary William Smith opposed Frieder Nake’s prescriptive conception of Computer Art as an extension of Constructivist goals; indeed, why he questioned the computer’s usage for images that might as well have been drawn with pen and ruler.

Rudolf Arnheim also noted in 1986 that contemporary Computer Art seemed remarkably simplistic if viewed in terms of the effort expended in producing it:

[On Computer Art c.1985] In such works there is frequently a pathetic discrepancy between the sophistication of the program fed into the computer and the simplism of the visual results.

Such comments should be weighed against the understandable complexity of programs such as AARON; or, by contrast, the elegant and economic coding of artist-programmers such as Jean-Pierre Hébert. The results of both approaches are far from simplistic, and neither is Cohen’s motivation or understanding.[4] However, as a more general complaint, Arnheim’s view is understandable, especially if seen in the context of early Computer Art. After all, the considerable computing resources of the 1960s were utilised for remarkably straightforward graphical ends. Ultimately, it was the very predictability of the mathematical aesthetic that Ann H. Murray considers responsible for causing disinterest in the Computer Art of that period.[5]

On the other hand, had the computer not appeared at a time when the spare linear styles of art were at their zenith, its art-making potentials may never have engaged those computer engineers, such as Noll, who noticed the similarities with vector graphics and plotter printouts. Also, the linear strategy had strongly encouraged the previous generation of mechanical experimenters, using their analogue computers to make images, and the abstract animators who drew on similar stylistic roots. It was natural that the computer was incorporated into this milieu and that its first usage was that for which it seemed fit: the generation of mechanistic and linear art.

[1] Roy Ascott, Prix Ars Electronica Hannes Leopoldseder (Linz, 1991), p29

[2] Ruth Leavitt Artist and Computer (New York, 1976), Introduction p VIII.

[3] Gary William Smith PAGE 22, April 1972

[4] Rudolf Arnheim, “The Tools of Art – Old and New” New Essays on the Psychology of Art (1986, Los Angeles)

[5] Ruth Leavitt, Artist and Computer 1976, Interview with Ann H. Murray, pp1-3