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Is It Art?

Lissajous Vase Algorithmic Art
Lissajous Vase – an example of Algorithmic Art

Whether the above illustration is art or not can be debated. There are some who argue that any image that is produced by an algorithm is not art. On the other hand there is a group of artists known as algorists who produce what is referred to as algorithmic art. No matter which side of the “Is It Art” debate you are on, I can say that I had fun creating this illustration.

A while back I wrote about my Doomed Diskettes and the task of deciding what files to keep. When I began my adventure with Processing and wrote about that beginning in Processing: Finding Beauty in Math, I made reference to a Basic program I had written some 15 years ago that produced Lissajous curves. Going back and searching through the files I had copied to my hard drive from all those diskettes that I had tossed, I found the source code for that program. Though my Basic programming skills have seriously atrophied over the years, I was able to figure out what exactly I was doing in that program and recreate the graphic drawing component in the Processing environment.

I say I had fun creating the program and the “art” it produces. Perhaps this is a result of a sense of nostalgia on my part. Prior to the advent of paint programs, like Photoshop, digital imagery was produced programmatically – primarily with a program directing a plotter. That is, the artist/author/programmer (or is that programmer/author/artist) implemented an algorithm in program code and then ran the program to produce the visual output. While the artist was not physically involved in the application of ink to paper, that application was only possible as a consequence of the artist’s mental conception of the final image and the translation of that concept into program code.

In one sense algorithmic art is conceptual in that the artist/programmer has an idea in mind of what it is they want to accomplish or say. The artist then sets about creating the instructions to produce that image in order to bring it to physical life.

Artist Sol Le Witt, who was one of the originators of conceptual art, would make large scale drawings on gallery walls. However these drawings were not actually done by him but were rather produced by others who were carrying out instructions Sol had written down. In a sense the instructions were a program and those who actually carried out the physical drawing function were nothing more than human computers – following instructions and generating output. On the subject of conceptual art, Sol Le Witt had this to say:

“When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.”

So, is it art? I suspect that art, like beauty, is most likely to be found in the eye of the beholder.

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