Nature versus art
Immanuel Kants classic Kritik der
Urteilskraft analyses the esthetic experience as a cognitive
phenomenon: a feature of perception which is manifested when perception
becomes conscious of itself -- when the process of input interpretation
does not yield a definite final result, but nevertheless creates
a coherent experience.
For today's reader, it is striking that Kants discussion
is not primarily concerned with works of art, but with
natural phenomena -- his paradigm examples evoke flowers, crystals,
landscapes, stormy seas and starry skies. This is not a coincidence;
it is connected with essential properties of Kants theory.
In his view, the esthetic experience presupposes a disinterested attitude; it does not involve any practical purposes; it is distinguished
from ordinary, practically oriented perceptual processes
in that it is not oriented towards grasping the input under a
Manmade artworks have an inherently problematic
status in Kants theory. Western highbrow art seems to agree
with Kants point of view, in that it has become increasingly
emphatic about its practical uselessness. But this very uselessness
signals a purpose: the artwork is deliberately constructed to
be experienced in the esthetic mode, i.e., to be experienced as
if it does not have any purpose. The purposefulness of an artworks
purposelessness must therefore be ignored, if we are to experience
the artwork in an esthetic way. Kant accepted this conclusion: "Nature proved beautiful, when it looked at the same time as art;
art can only be called beautiful, when we are conscious of its
being art, and yet it looks to us as nature."
Perception is an abductive process.
To interpret any product of a human artist is to retrace the mental
processes behind it. These processes always involve the artists
ideas, methods, goals and motives. The artistss fellow-humans
cannot be expected to overlook that content, or to deal with it
in a disinterested fashion. Manmade art thus constitutes sub-optimal
input for the process of esthetic reflection. Twentieth-century
art-critics have not failed to notice this implication of Kants
theory; and some of them have pointed at contingent but ubiquitous
features of manmade artworks, which increase their discrepancy
with his esthetic ideal.
Lyotard: "Die großen Schauspiele
der sich in Unordnung befindlichen Natur sind ein beispiel dafür,
daß die menschliche Kunst niemals etwas derartiges hervorbringen
kann. Denn alle menschliche Kunst ist immer nur Mimesis und letztlich
suspekt, weil immer die möglichkeit besteht, daß sie
mit einer absicht konzipiert worden ist und von daher ein Begriff
und eine Zweckmäßigkeit mit Zweck auf ihr lastet.
Huge Harry: "Is
it possible to listen in a disinterested way to music which is
composed and performed by humans? Human composers and musicians
are not disinterested. They want money, fame, sex. They cannot
hide this, and often they dont even try. If we do not turn
off our microphones when we listen to their pieces, we hear greed,
jealousy, lust. Behind the apparent complexity and indefiniteness
of their compositions, there are all too clear-cut meanings."
Kants own formulations suggest
a second-order mimesis: whatever the artwork does or does not
portray, it must always fake its "natural" character: ". . . the finality in the product of fine art, although
it is intentional, must nevertheless not seem to be intentional."
Esthetically motivated art thus faces a
curious challenge: if it is created by humans, it will always
be inferior to nature! In the course of the twentieth century,
this challenge has been taken up by many artists. Some of them
have suggested that they are in fact natural forces, beyond
the ken of ordinary humans. Others have tried to withdraw from
their artworks, by developing objective art-generating processes
which they initiate without controlling the final result. Chance
art, écriture automatique, physical experiments,
mathematical calculations, biological processes.
When Marcel Duchamp assigned the status
of artwork to existing readymade objects, he drew a radical consequence
from Kant's point of view: that the input doesn't matter, as long
as the observer's process of esthetic reflection can take its
"Clement Greenberg was correct
to observe that the whole Duchampian position was essentially
anticipated by the eighteenth-century notion of the "aesthetic
attitude." Once it was recognized that anything whatsoever could
be a work of art if contemplated aesthetically, then presenting
such objects as Duchamp's Fountain in the museum merely
involved drawing the consequences of this Kantian position, though
admittedly with examples which would have bewildered Kant."
Duchamp's gesture is sometimes interpreted
as a celebration of the sublime autonomous creative power of the
artist's Kunstwollen, but his statement "The
spectator makes the picture"
suggests a different interpretation. Duchamp chose his objects
very carefully, but one should not be mistaken about the nature
of his judiciousness. He has made quite explicit statements about
this, and one can also read it off the objects themselves. They
are very ordinary, 'neutral' objects: schoolbook, coat-rack, hat-rack,
bicycle-wheel, bottle-rack, snow-shovel, plastic bucket, coffee
Duchamp: "It is very difficult to choose an object, because
after a few weeks you start to like it or to hate it. You must
approach a thing with indifference, as if you have no esthetic
emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference
and, at the same time, on the complete absence of good or bad
Like the chairs and tables which always represent 'the object'
in philosophical discussions, Duchamp's readymades are 'free variables',
schemas that all other objects can substitute for, lacking specific
properties which would block unification. (The relatively many
racks and containers among Duchamps readymades do support
another level of interpretation: evoking their absent pendants
and fillers, they symbolize their
own status as "placeholders" in a self-referential way;
this is of course not incompatible with equally obvious Freudian
Duchamp asserts the esthetic interpretation of everything. Esthetic
perception is not tied to the art-context it has its origin
and its justification in the observer, and can be applied to arbitrary
De Duve: ".
. . le readymade, c'est n'importe quoi. Ou encore: le readymade
est absolument quelconque. C'est mon droit démocratique
de juger en profane qui m'autorise à dire que, malgré
leur qualités - ou leur absence de qualités - plastiques,
le sèche-bouteilles, l'urinoir ou la pelle à neige
sont des objets quelconques. Mais, direz-vous, rien ne m'autorise
à les juger absolument quelconques. En effet, rien ne m'y
autorise. Mais tout m'y oblige. Duchamp ayant anticipé
l'auteur du readymade dans la position du regardeur profane qui
juge que l'art moderne, au moins depuis le dadaïsme, c'est
n'importe quoi, oblige en retour ce regardeur, surtout s'il est
"expert", à se projeter rétrospectivement dans la
position même de cet auteur et à se soumettre à
la même loi que lui. C'est la loi de la modernité et elle ne dit qu'une chose: fais n'importe quoi.
La loi ne fait pas qu'interdire,
elle oblige. J' appelle donc moderne l'artiste dont le devoir
est (était, fut, a été?) de faire n'importe
quoi. C'est un devoir et non un droit. C'est un commendement que
l'artiste moderne reçoit et non une autorisation qu'il
se donne. Comme tel, ce n'est même pas une loi au sens ordinaire
ou juridique. La phrase "fais n'importe quoi" n'énonce
pas une règle à laquelle des cas peuvent être
soumis, elle prescrit au contraire d'agir sans règle."
To embrace the radically subjectivist
esthetics of Kant daprès Duchamp, is to loose
any reason to make one particular artwork rather than another,
or to make any artwork at all. The artist must do "no matter
For a long time, Duchamp seemed to be the
only artist taking this stance; an isolated singularity. But in
the early nineteensixties, after abstract expressionism, several
artistic schools emerged which in some sense followed Duchamps
paradigm: Fluxus, Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme, Nul, Chance
Art, Concept Art. Many artists started to employ readymade objects
and mass-media images. And many pieces were made to illustrate
or propound the esthetic viability of the real world and the superfluousness
of art in an explicit, sometimes humorous way: inverted socles,
empty socles, glass panes, mirrors, monochromes, tautologies,
paradoxes, silence, empty frames, empty rooms. Note that such
artworks in fact do not practise the esthetic interpretation
of everything -- rather, they represent the idea
of doing that. They are the opposite of a Kantian art: they are
statements with a literal meaning, curiously didactic and well-defined.
And sterile -- because, once the point has been made, there is
no reason to repeat it and no way to develop it. They are self-defeating
speech acts which close off the discourse that spawned them.
John Cage: "I
am here / , / and there is nothing to say / . / . . ."
The esthetic interpretation of everything
is a mindful way of life which does not need art.
The same art-historical moment, however,
also contained a new beginning. Because the esthetic interpretation
of everything can be more than the esthetic interpretation
of all we happen to encounter in the world as it is: everything
we can imagine, all possible images. One way to turn the "esthetics
of everything" into concrete artworks is therefore, to devise
mathematical or computational systems for generating art works
which are not determined by the artist -- arbitrary artworks,
random samples from a large space of possibilities. This literal-minded
approach to the idea of faire nimporte quoi is
known as chance art -- a genre that was widely practised
in the sixties. (Cf. George Brecht, John Cage, Elsworth Kelly,
François Morellet, Frieder Nake, Peter Struycken, Zdenek
Sykora, Herman de Vries.)
The idea of mathematical randomness addresses Kant's problem
in a very direct way. If the esthetic insufficiency of human art
is caused by the unesthestic, practical considerations which determine
people's subjective decisions, then we can try to avoid that problem
by making random artworks, which have not been subjectively constructed
or chosen by a human person.
Is it possible to define the
set of all possible art objects? Not in a very general way. But
once we have specified a particular medium sufficiently explicitly,
we have in fact specified a particular set of possible pieces. This
is especially clear when we employ a digital medium. In this case,
there is a mathematical enumeration of the set of possible outputs.
Look, for instance, at a black-and-white screen with a particular
resolution, say m x n pixels;
the set of all possible images is then defined as the set generated
by all combinations of choices of black vs. white for every pixel.
A computer program that in principle generates all these possible
images one by one, can be constructed rather easily on the basis
of this idea. Lars Eijssen and Boele Klopman have actually done
this, for a grid of 171 x 171 pixels. For this program to
run through all its possible outputs would take longer than the
estimated lifetime of the universe; but an ingeneous interface makes
it possible to "scroll ahead" very effectively.
The method of chance art is to draw random samples from the set
of possibilities, rather than enumerating it. In this way one quickly
gets an impression of the range of possible outcomes. To sample
from the set of black & white pixel grids, for instance, one
makes for every pixel a random choice about its colour, independently
of all the other pixels. Many artists have constructed random samples
of "the m x n grid", for very
small values of m and n; this results in the familiar "randomized checker boards" which were the icons of early
Now the thing about these randomized checkerboards is, that to the
human observer they all look alike. If we define the set of paintings
or screen-images as the set of m x n
pixel-grids, then virtually all of these will look the same. If
the resolution is high enough, they will look like evenly grey planes.
This kind of chance art thus gets very close to the monochrome.
Chance art comes into its own when the artists vary the specification
of the set of possibilities which are considered by the sampling
procedure. For different series of works they tend to employ different "image grammars", which typically define a small repertoire of shapes
with a small number of variable properties. The random choices must
then be made within the set of possibilities specified by the image
grammar. For instance: a random number of dots with randomly chosen
sizes is placed on randomly chosen positions; or, a random number
of lines with randomly chosen lengths and directions is placed on
randomly chosen positions; or, one line is drawn through a randomly
chosen sequence of points. In work like
this, the promise of surprise and diversity, which is implicit in
the idea of an "arbitrary image", does not pan out. The decisions
of the artist (which elements, which variable parameters, what range
of variation) largely determine the character of the resulting image;
the random choice which is made within the constraints of the image
grammar does in fact not make that much of a difference.
Chance artists were nevertheless content with
such simple systems, since these were sufficient to put forward
the very idea of chance. But to really take on the project
of the arbitrary painting, we need more; we need a formal language
which allows us to assign distinct codes to perceptually different
paintings, but also to assign the same code to perceptually equivalent
paintings whose details may nevertheless differ considerably (as
in the case of the different instantiations of Morellet's random
Algebras like this have been developed already for characterising
specific styles. Harold Cohen, for instance, embued his drawing
program AARON with an original style reminiscent of the COBRA painters.
Programs which try to mimic existing artists have also been developed,
for instance for Miró and Diebenkorn. The 'arbitrary painting'
project, however, requires a system with a much richer repertoire
of stylistic possibilities, and with the capability to exploit those
possibilities in a very flexible way -- so that the degree of stylistic
coherence within a painting (or within an exhibition) is itself
a parameter whose value can be chosen at random.
From a completely different perspective, the psychology of Gestalt
perception has also developed some coding languages which are relevant
for our purpose -- for instance, in the work by Leeuwenberg and
Buffart in Nijmegen on the mental representation of drawings built
up out of straight line segments, and in the work by Lerdahl and
Jackendoff in Boston on the perception of music.
Mathematically formulated image-generation processes
can easily be combined and generalized. This makes it possible to
put large numbers of chance-art ideas together into one super-chance-art-machine
which reaches a complexity that cannot be surveyed any more by individual
To take a simple example: In the chance art of the sixties one often
encounters programs which repeat a particular shape (usually a square
or a circle) in an arbitrary, unorderly manner on different positions
on the plane. Other, similar algorithms create arbitrary closed
shapes by combining line segments. These two algorithms can be combined
in an obvious way, so that both the shape and the position of the
image elements are determined at random. Other algorithms generate
a multitude of different regular patterns or regular shapes; these
can also be integrated. We may thus gradually abolish choice, by
avoiding the exclusion of any choice -- by affirming every choice,
and by putting every choice on a par with all other choices inside
an all-encompassing probabilistic system. Art generation systems
based on this approach are being developed in the project "Artificial"
at the Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam (http://iaaa.nl).
The constructivist tradition was concerned with harmony and purity.
Today, that seems a somewhat arbitrary and limited ideal. Expressionism
taught us the esthetics of ugliness. Duchamp demonstrated the esthetics
of indifference. The current challenge is an esthetics that encompasses
everything: beautiful, ugly, and indifferent.
Summary of the above
Art is not a means of communication. It is meaningless raw material,
interpreted in an absolutely arbitrary way by a culturally heterogeneous
audience. There are no serious reasons for wanting to make certain
artworks rather than other ones. An artistic project that wants
to face this issue, must avoid choices, transcend styles, show
everything: generate arbitrary examples from the set of all
An individual, spontaneous artist cannot live up to this challenge.
What is needed, is a deliberate technological/scientific project,
with a sensible division of labor between man and machine. Human
artists/programmers should develop an algebraic definition of
the space of all possibilities; the computer can then choose and
display random examples from this space.
The ultimate consequence of this approach is a computer program
generating all possible images, with probability distributions
that yield maximal diversity.
Art Generation as Process
Automatic art generation processes are indeed
computational processes. To understand and appreciate them,
it is profitable to not just see the end results, but to watch
the development of the image. Even if we start out with a research
agenda concerning static images only, computer-generated art has
a natural tendency to turn into multimedia art.
But let us not forget the qualities of the stillness of old-fashioned
paintings. (Cf. Pablo Picasso about kinetic art: "The least
you can ask from a painting is that it hangs still." )
Artificial art does not have to
be abstract art. It can be integrated with photography to yield
images based on the visual appearance of the actual world. And
it can be integrated with download software, CD-ROM-players and
scanners, to yield images based on the available mass-media imagery.
Artificial art does not have to be oriented
towards static output. Chance processes
may directly address the dynamics of image-generation and image-manipulation,
and can also be involved with accompanying sound. Readymade material
to be used may thus involve film clips of various sorts.
Artificial art shows its vast superiority
above human art when we look at the films in today's movie-houses,
the serials on today's television-networks, and the video-installations
in today's galleries and museums. These tend to be made by human
persons, and they tend to be too banal and embarrassing for words.
The presentations and installations in the high-brow art context,
though certainly very different from the productions coming out
of Hollywood, just demonstrate how many different kinds of pretentious
Kitsch there are. (Cf. Matthew Barney, Peter Greenaway, Gary Hill,
Abstaining from narrative is not enough. Plotless, repetitive
image sequences may very well employ an esthetics that would make
Hollywood producers drool. Humans insult each other's intelligence
in a way that no algorithm could.
We may imagine a new art genre consisting
environments that allow for interaction and for a multiplicity
of processes and outcomes. But let's
not call this interactive narrative, because it cannot
be a matter of an author designing a branching plot of some sort.
If interaction and multiplicity are allowed in a non-trivial way,
the multiplicity quickly becomes so complex that it cannot be
contained in a human mind any more. So the designers of interactive
virtual environments must give up the idea of plot. They should
construct complex simulated environments, and then let things
happen. Put in a lot of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial
Life. Give up control and manipulation.
Automatic art generating programs like "Artificial"
have a lot in common with interactive image editors and paint
programs like Photoshop, CorelDRAW, Painter and GIMP. The main
difference is, that Artificial runs by itself, whereas Photoshop
is interactive. Photoshop in fact doesn't do anything until you
tell it to. That is why people who make something by modern image
manipulation software really feel they are creating something
-- although they operate completely in terms of the esthetics
of the designers of the software tools, and usually they could
have gotten more interesting results by invoking some fully automatic
process. That is one of the important effects of interactivity
-- that if something nice occurs, people think it's their own
doing. Most people think too well of themselves already, and many
interactive systems reinforce this. "Artificial" tries not to
do that; it always emphasizes that it runs automatically, even
if you can set a few parameters here or there.
Media as Artworks
Remarkably often, one still encounters the idea that technological
media are only tools, used by the artist to communicate his message
with unprecedented efficiency. This is false.
A bare computer, for instance, can in principle do whatever one
wants, but in practice hardly anything at all. For a commercial
designer or a non-minimalist artist, the computer can only be
a useful tool if a software shell implements a suitable repertoire
of image- or sound-generating functions, and makes these accessible
through a convenient user interface. And the design of that repertoire
of functions is an artistic decision which shines through in all
the products made by means of the software.
Media technologies are super-artworks. They articulate the space
of artistic possibilities so explicitly that creation is reduced
to choice. A technology is like a score which prescribes the structure
of a piece for the greater part, but grants the performer some
licence. Media artists are performing artists. The composer
is the designer of the medium.
Duchamp: "Since the tubes of paint used by the artist are
manufactured and ready-made products, we must conclude that all
the paintings in the world are 'readymades aided' and also works
Within the art context, the characteristics that all art works
have in common are irrelevant. Art works are constituted by the
differences they display with respect to other art works. As long
as art uses only one medium, emphasizing the meaning of that medium
is a theoretical statement, of merely philosophical interest.
But in today's art, it is crucial to
pay attention to the inherent artistic content of the media, that
art works end up appropriating.
Edward Ball and Robert Knafo: "The
R. Mutt Dossier", Artforum, October 1988, p. 115.
Pierre Cabanne: Entretiens avec Marcel Duchamp. Paris:
Editions Pierre Belfond. 1967.
John Cage: "Lecture on Nothing" Incontri
Musicali, August 1959. [In: Silence. Lectures and Writings
by John Cage. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University
Press, 1973, pp. 109-126.]
David Carrier: "Danto as Systematic Philosopher or comme on
lit Danto en français." In: Mark Rollins (ed.): Danto
and his critics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, p. 26, note 10.
Marcel Duchamp: "Apropos of 'Readymades'."
Art and Artists, 1, 4 (July 1966). [Lecture at the
Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19, 1961.]
Thierry de Duve: Au nom
de l'art. Pour une archéologie de la modernité. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1989, p. 118-119.
Huge Harry: "A Computational Perspective on Twenty-First
Century Music." Contemporary Music Review, 14,
3 (1995), pp. 153-159. [http://iaaa.nl/hh/brettonh.html
Dalia Judovitz: "Rendez-vous
with Marcel Duchamp: Given ", Dada/Surrealism 16,
University of Iowa, 1987, p. 187.
Immanuel Kant: Kritik
der Urteilskraft, 1799, § 45. [Hamburg: Felix Meiner
Jean-François Lyotard: "Die Erhabenheit ist das Unkonsumierbare.
Ein Gespräch mit Christine Pries am 6.5.1988." Kunstforum
International, 100 (April/May 1989), pp. 355/356.
Mary A. McCloskey: Kant's Aesthetic. Albany: SUNY Press,
Remko Scha: "Artificiële Kunst."
Informatie en Informatiebeleid 6, 4 (1988). [English
translation: "Artificial Art." http://iaaa.nl/rs/artkunstE.html