The Soulless Usurper
Reception and Criticism of Early Computer Art
I sincerely hope that machines will never replace the creative artist, but in good conscience, I cannot say that they never could.
Dennis Gabor, scientist and Nobel Prize winner in physics, 1958
Mechanistic muses are expanding their domain to encompass every facet of creative activity.
J.R. Pierce, "Portrait of the Machine as a Young Artist," Playboy, 1965
To my good friends the Burroughs B5500 and the CalComp 565.
Artist Lloyd Sumner's book dedication, Computer Art and Human Response, 1968
In 1958, as Dennis Gabor fretted over the future role of artists in the new digital age, a computer was generating the very first images identified as "computer art."1 As if to confirm Gabor's fear, the first article published on the subject of computer art was provocatively entitled "The Electronic Computer as an Artist."2This landmark 1964 article included the very first example of award-winning computer-generated art, but did not identify any of the artists responsible for its production. In fact, those responsible for this new visual art form were not artists at all, but technologists-and, even more discordantly, these creators were employed by the United States military. This was not exactly an ideal birthplace for the newest of visual art media.
Only a year later, in 1965, the engineer and author John R. Pierce-using the well-known male magazine Playboy as his vehicle-nudged computerized art into the realm of popular culture. By alluding to James Joyce's novel in his reworked title, "Portrait of the Machine as a Young Artist," Pierce portrayed the computer as an artist who was growing toward a possible artistic maturity. After outlining the significant achievements already made by science and technology in the areas of computerized music, literature, film, and visual art, Pierce issued an open invitation to artists to explore and then develop the computer and its vast "potentialities."3 A number of years passed before artists were sufficiently drawn to this mysterious new machine to brave the complex world of mainframe computers and its various peripheries. One such was the American artist Lloyd Sumner, who published a sentimental account of his growing connection to his novel "machines." However, even as he dedicated his landmark book to those computers with which he worked tirelessly, Sumner was acutely aware of the suspicion with which the orthodox art world regarded what was at the time a foreign and extraneous device. Sumner opened his book with a plea to the reader not to prejudge his art because of its mode of construction.4 His appeal would go unheard for over a decade.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, computer art aroused the kind of extreme resentment that has characterized many iconoclastic controversies in the history of art. The history of computer art is marked by a variety of aggressive behaviors that include the sabotaging of computers and physical attacks on artists.5 While these extreme reactions have been few, there is nevertheless a litany of lesser responses that range from casual critical dismissal to censorious negation. Considering the diversity and relentlessness of its negative critical reception, computer art was possibly the most maligned art form of the twentieth century.
The hostility to computer-generated visual art is surprising when one considers that the computer was emerging as the most compelling emblem of its time and perhaps as humanity's greatest technological achievement. What was it about early computer art that elicited such a hostile response? By examining the origins of the first award-winning computer art and the critical response to the inaugural computer art exhibition in New York City, we are able to locate the complex interplay of ideological and discursive forces surrounding the computer's difficult entrance into the creative field. While one of the key reasons for computer art's marginality was its emergence in a period when the perceived division between the humanistic and scientific cultures was reaching its apogee, it was the uneasy reaction to the computer as a new but yet undefined machine that deeply affected the criticism of its art in the United States and abroad. Although computer art shared significant aesthetic and theoretical similarities to critically celebrated art movements of the day, art critics and artists continually reproached computerized art for its mechanical sterility. As the idea of the computer transformed within the popular imagination, criticism was inspired by the romantic or humanist fear that a computerized surrogate could replace the artist. Such usurpation was seen to undermine some keystones of Western art, which include the revered and inimitable role of the creative artist.
Almost any artistic endeavor associated with early computing elicited a negative, fearful, or indifferent response. As early as 1956, musicians and poets exploring the vistas of a new technology were ambivalent: thrilled at forging new artistic paths and yet subdued by an undercurrent of misgiving from their cultural peers. As computing impacted all the arts in the 1960s, such responses would intensify. While computer music was often greeted with interest as the latest "novelty,"6 the early computer experimentalist Lejaren Hiller felt emerging from "many quarters" a deepening "incredulity and indignation."7 Joel Chadabe, another pioneering computer composer, felt that critics and traditional musicians "feared" the machine and its potentially harmful influence on the entire field.8 In the early 1970s, Elliot Schwartz, in his listening guide to electronic music, best summed up the reaction: "The notion of music 'created' by a computer always seems to arouse a surprising degree of hostility, usually on the part of people who find twentieth-century art increasingly 'dehumanized' and 'mechanical.'"9
Computer poetry fared little better. As Christopher Funkhouser has written, the literary world was underwhelmed by computer poetry.10 Mirroring the critical responses of mainstream music, literary critics focused on the dehumanizing tendencies of the computer and the perceived ontological break between author and reader.11 John Morris, writing in the Michigan Quarterly Review in 1967, praised the importance of the written poem as an essential "communication from a particular human being," and noted that if the difficulty of working with the computer discouraged those currently interested, then poems would happily remain "one last refuge for human beings."12
In the world of dance, also, the computer received what Jeanne Beaman described as a "curious but cool response."13 Beaman, who in the early 1960s pioneered computer dance and choreography, explained in her introductory presentation to computer dance: "Most of us do not even want a machine of any kind to succeed in conceiving any art form at all. The arts are usually presented as our last refuge from the onslaughts of our whole machine civilization with its attendant pressures towards squeezing us into the straitjacket of the organized man."14
While the literary and music worlds were cool in their response to the computer, it was the world of fine art that generated the most severe and sustained attack on the emerging medium. Negative criticism permeated the discourse from computer art's beginnings in the 1960s until the early 1990s.15 The most constant criticism emerged in the 1960s, when mainstream art critics judged computer art to be tediously repetitious and were quick to make clear their belief that it had no claims to the status of art, especially on aesthetic grounds. In 1972, critic Robert E. Mueller wrote in Art in America that visual results from computers had been "exceedingly poor and uninspiring."According to Mueller, technologists lacked the necessary knowledge of art and its history, and their visual creations, which were mathematically inspired, bored the "sophisticated artistic mind to death."B17 /BEven when computer-generated art gained fashionable notoriety, critics spurned it as a "popular sideshow."18 Some saw it as just another example of the vulgarization of science, in which besotted artists, flirting with the latest scientific and technological media, produced what was tantamount to scientific kitsch.19 While many galleries showed computer art, these exhibitions were often "condescendingly reviewed," as though the medium were "without serious intent or noble aspiration."20
The Future Crashes: An Unorthodox Beginning
From its very beginnings, computer-generated visual art suffered from a questionable provenance.21 As awkward as it appeared to those first interested in computers and art, a military laboratory, as has been mentioned, produced the first recognized and indeed award-winning piece of computer art in the United States. The trade journal Computers and Automation (later to become Computers and People)22 facilitated the birth of computer art through its "Computer Art Contest" in 1963. Submissions were invited of "any interesting and artistic drawing, design or sketch made by a computer." The first and second prizes went to the United States Army Ballistic Research Laboratories (BRL) in Aberdeen, Maryland, the same laboratory that had started the computer industry in the United States during World War II.23 The army-sponsored revolution in computing at BRL had produced the famous ENIAC, which was followed by the ORDVAC, EDVAC, and the BRLESC 1, which in 1962-63 had a role in producing the first examples of computer art. The prize-winning art piece, Splatter Diagram, which was printed on an early printer called a dataplotter, was a design analogue of the radial and tangential distortions of a camera lens (figure 1.1).24 In 1964, the same laboratory won first prize for an image produced from the plotted trajectories of a ricocheting projectile.[Figure 1.1] The uncomfortable knowledge of computer art's military origins has prompted many commentators and proponents to situate the emergence of computer art a number of years after 1963, effectively bypassing its military birthplace.25
As mathematical visualizations of natural phenomena, these authorless images were not produced for aesthetic reasons. As the original captions accompanying the artwork communicate, these images were "merely an aesthetic by-product" of utilitarian pursuits.26 Notwithstanding, the images-deemed "beautiful" by Computers and Automation's editor Edmund C. Berkeley-were published as "computer art."27 Three years before, in 1960, William Fetter, a Boeing employee, had coined the term computer graphics to describe computer-generated imagery. Berkeley,through the journal Computers and Automation, contributed to the general currency of the term computer art and, in consequence, propelled these new creations toward the discourse of art.
To those who first traced the origins of computer art, its emergence out of technologies of fire control at a military ballistics laboratory would have been incongruent with traditional art historiography. Art historians commonly analyze artistic lineage, stylistic change, and a variety of economic and social conditions that inform and impact various creative groups and individuals. Computer art's pedigree had no recourse to normative art histories or modes of development. Rather, computer art emerged from various cultures of engineering that-even prior to the invention of the computer-had explored feedback mechanisms, control systems, and communication theory.28 While remote from the world of art, these various interdisciplinary enterprises generated a considerable amount of innovation and creative energy among a generation of scientists. The spirit of research and innovation was embodied in the father of information theory, Claude Shannon, who would influence John R. Pierce, a key figure in promoting computer art. Under the leadership of Pierce, director of the research division at Bell Laboratories, a raft of pioneering experimental computer research was undertaken in the areas of graphics, music, choreography, and animation. As A. Michael Noll says, the energetic environment promoted by Pierce encouraged researchers to "take chances and explore uncharted avenues of discovery."29
It was Noll and a fellow researcher, Bela Julesz, who produced the first collection of computer art to be exhibited in the United States. In 1964, Howard Wise, art patron and director of the Howard Wise Gallery in New York City, approached Julesz and Noll to exhibit their computer-generated images. It was not until April 1965 that this first organized public exhibition took place. With computer-generated music as an ambient backdrop, the Wise Gallery displayed the first examples of what were called "computer-generated pictures." Instead of exploring interesting designs produced from practical pursuits, as was the case at BRL, Julesz was enthusiastic when he discovered that the IBM 7094 computer could "produce patterns of some originality and interest."30 Likewise, Noll, his fellow exhibitor, came to computer-generated imagery by chance when a fellow intern created "abstract computer art," as Noll gladly put it, when a microfilm plotter erred and produced an unusual linear design. Reminded of Picasso's Ma Jolie, Noll was convinced that the image could "perhaps be considered a combination of abstraction and cubism."31 With the director of a research laboratory environment fostering relatively free exploration-encouraging researchers to explore every avenue of unexpected error-it is easy to see why the interest in chance processes encouraged scientists to acknowledge the potential for creative acts.
Although Julesz and Noll enthusiastically approached the invitation to exhibit their images, problems besieged the exhibition. Julesz was uneasy about using the term art in the title of the exhibition because the images began as stimuli for psychological investigations of visual perception.32 Noll, by contrast, was quite comfortable in identifying his works as "art" because the images were made "solely for their aesthetic or artistic effects."33 A compromise was reached by titling the exhibition Computer-Generated Pictures. Much of the ambivalence about whether to call the images "art" was associated with the initial response from the legal and public relations department at ATT (which owned Bell Labs at the time). As Noll reflected some years later:
Although the research management staff at Bell Labs was very supportive of the Howard Wise Gallery exhibit, the legal and public relations folks at ATT became worried that the Bell Telephone companies that supported Bell Labs would not view computer art as serious scientific research. Hence an effort was made by ATT to halt the exhibit, but it was too late, since financial commitments had already been made by Wise. Accordingly, Bela and I were told to restrict publicity, and, in an attempt to foster such restriction, Bell Labs gave Bela and me permission to copyright all the pictures in our own names.34
When Noll attempted to register the copyright for his piece Gaussian Quadratic (1962) with the copyright office at the Library of Congress, he was refused on the grounds that a "machine had generated the work."35 Noll patiently explained that a human being had written the program, which incorporated randomness and order. Again the office declined to register the work, stating that randomness was not an acceptable criterion. Copyright was finally granted when Noll explained that although the numbers generated by the program "appeared 'random' to humans, the algorithm generating them was perfectly mathematical and not random at all."36
If the scientists were expecting a positive reception after their initial difficulties, they were to be disappointed. The reaction to the Howard Wise exhibition was hostile from artists and critics alike. The New York Times art critic Stuart Preston opened his review with: "The wave of the future crashes significantly at the Howard Wise Gallery."37 Although the exhibition was a significant landmark, generating a certain amount of technical interest, the criticism ranged from "cool indifference to open derision."38 Preston described the imagery as "bleak."39 The art critic in Time magazine, with a tone that communicated the author's begrudging resignation that computerized art had finally arrived, proceeded to describe the pictures on display has having "about the same amount of aesthetic appeal" as the "the notch patterns found on IBM cards."40 The New York Herald Tribune denounced the works as "cold and soulless," a criticism that would continue to haunt computer art.41 While the Howard Wise Gallery was the premier commercial venue for presenting innovative art, and the exhibition received considerable press attention, none of the work sold.42 Noll admitted in retrospect that the public and media's response was "disappointing."43
Many commentators have suggested that the cool reception of computer art was the inevitable result of friction between the scientific and artistic communities-what Goodman called the "uneasy liaison."44 The antipathy between the two communities, which was first expressed in C.P. Snow's influential book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,45 pervaded early commentary on the emerging art form. These hostilities were played out in science-based publications that tended to depict the technologist as a zealous scientist forging new artistic paths, while the artist, characterized as defiant and lacking fortitude, languished in the doldrums of technological ignorance.46 While Herbert Franke, the first significant writer on computer art, recognized that the computer as art maker had raised and exposed many problems, he stated that only members of the scientific community had the language, awareness. and skill to approach the new form.B47/BThose who presented themselves as art pundits, according to Franke, needed to give way to "scientists, mathematicians and technicians who, becoming involved in the discussions ... injected new energy into the field."48 In response, the critic Robert Mueller averred that the scientist, who has "no detectable knowledge of the tradition of artistic visual work," was making "work entirely without artistic meaning and completely sterile visually."49 For both the artist and critic, the scientist's work was dull and lifeless, evidence of aesthetic ineptitude. Even as artists began to use the computer, the label of aesthetic ineptitude remained the most common censure of computer art. While the linear abstract designs of early computer-generated art were often simple in their design, the rejection of computer art on aesthetic grounds was more of an emotive response than a critical one.
The marked animosity between artist and scientist-presented as a deep cultural divide-informed much of the early reception of computer art, but a deeper, more universal response to the computer as the unfamiliar machine sustained the criticism. After all, the critical response was not confined to the United States, which was where the "Two Cultures" debate was most ardently contested. In West Germany, the artistic community responded with distrust, even "unrest," to the computer.50 Even in Japan, with its cultural embrace of technology, the artistic community was apprehensive. Haruki Tsuchiya observed that artists who were not computer professionals were extremely suspicious of computer art.51
Sterile and Cold: The Birth of Computer Aesthetics
In the 1960s, one of the most common charges computer artists made against the art establishment was that their artwork was initially accepted on its merits, only to be rejected once curators discovered that it was produced with the use of the computer.52 The computer itself-not any aesthetic deficiencies of the artist-appeared to stigmatize the art. In fact, criticism of the aesthetics of computer art can be assessed by comparing the significant commonalities between critically established art movements of the day and computer art. Although comparisons between computer art and parallel art forms of the 1960s can represent risky analysis, their aesthetic and process-related commonalities are too extensive to ignore.
The most prominent examples of characteristics shared by computer art and analogous art forms are two serial-based artworks, one by Sol LeWitt, the foremost exponent of conceptual art, and the other by Manfred Mohr, an equally important figure in computer art. In the early 1970s, both artists completed a series of works that focused on three themes: the cube, seriality, and incompleteness. Although Mohr's Cubic Limit series begins in 1973, effectively predating LeWitt's Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes (1974), both Mohr and LeWitt had long explored the construction or deconstruction of the geometric cube. For both artists, the cube was devoid of subjective overtones, the "least emotive" of geometric forms, as LeWitt observed.53 Central to each series was the desire to invent a generative system that would explore variations of the cube. For the next two decades, the spatial and permutational complexity of the cube would dominate the work of both artists.
Both LeWitt's and Mohr's serial projects relied on the application of organizational schemes, or systems, that engendered a number of possible visual sequences (figures 1.2 and 1.3). Key to the algorithmic procedure of producing different visual sequences or structures was simple mathematics. LeWitt, like Mohr, viewed mathematics as a technique to both configure the object and self-consciously exclude subjective control. LeWitt's conceptualist strategy, in which the artist selected the "basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem,"54 described perfectly the algorithmic procedure central to all computer art. A prearranged sequence with a strict set of parameters provided both conceptual and computer art with particular self-propelling mechanisms for visual production. Producing a system that was prefigured, yet visually unpredictable and autonomous, was consistent with the aims of both LeWitt and Mohr.[Fig. 1.2][Fig. 1.3]
The analogous methodologies of each series created strikingly similar aesthetic results. Mohr's series exhibited an "emotionally dry" and "hard and industrial" aesthetic, terms that LeWitt used to describe his own work.55 Although LeWitt realized his series of systemic variations of the cube in various two- and three-dimensional media and Mohr employed ideographic characters in rotation, LeWitt's schematic drawings and photographic components share an undeniable equivalence to Mohr's series.
Seriality and system-based procedures were key strategies in the practice of many artists of the 1960s, such as Donald Judd, Mel Bochner, and Dan Flavin. As one of the "central artistic concerns of the period,"56 LeWitt's Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes came to embody seriality like no other artwork. After being exhibited in Paris and New York in 1974, Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes generated keen debate among prominent critics, including Rosalind Krauss, Donald Kuspit, Lucy Lippard, and Joseph Masheck. The critical debate surrounding LeWitt's series established it as one of the key works of the decade. By contrast, when Mohr developed his Cubic Limit series in Paris in the early 1970s, he endured taunts for employing the computer in what was viewed as a corruption of art.
Even beyond the austere and reductive aesthetic similarities of Mohr's and LeWitt's series artwork, there were widespread similarities between computer art and 1960s geometric abstraction. Computer art displayed the impersonal order, reductive logic, regularities, repetitions, and rigorous standardization that defined minimalism and hard-edge abstraction. Writing in 1970, critic and historian Don Denny celebrated geometric abstraction's "alliance with, or comparability to, the appearances of scientific technology."57 Commenting on the pictorial construction and aesthetics, Denny lauded the "spirit of planning," the "rational contrivance" and "fine calibration" of recent abstract paintings.58 While computer-generated art shared the same preoccupations in theme and composition, it was dismissed as cold and soulless and not having the "physical look and feel" of fine art.59 In judging the aesthetic merit of computer-generated art, critics were unable to overcome the conscious or unconscious estrangement they felt from the computer itself.
Disembodied Creativity: Computer as Usurper
Whether in the form of motif, rhetoric, or metaphor, the machine was a central feature throughout twentieth-century art. In 1963, the same year that computer art was first published in Computers and Automation, Andy Warhol famously stated that he wanted to model his artistic practice on the machine.60 Sharing Warhol's desire to work against the humanist and romantic grain of abstract expressionism, LeWitt announced later in the decade that the "idea becomes a machine that makes the art."61 Earlier in the century, modernist movements such as Soviet constructivism and the Bauhaus had embraced the machine when new forms of labor, organization, and mass production promised an ideal future. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Frederick Winslow Taylor, through his new management strategies, synthesized the body and the machine so that the movement of each matched, and Henry Ford redesigned the factory to be a continuous line of workers functioning in unison with the machine. The modern age came to redefine or even erase the boundaries between human and machine.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the human-machine relationship was increasingly defined by different levels of automation. From autopilot in aviation to fire control in weaponry, machine technologies became, through feedback and control systems, more self-directed. In the 1950s, as Norbert Wiener's cybernetic worldview emerged, it became more difficult for the nonexpert to discern who was the actual "steersman"-man or machine? With the advent of the computer, the most autonomous machine to date, there was a further dissolution of that sense of human control.
In the postwar years, the computer emerged as a compelling yet unstable symbol. Its unparalleled complexity as a machine and its rapid evolution meant that it would be defined more by the popular imagination than by concrete and rational analysis. As the public struggled to understand the protean character of this new machine, opinions on the computer underwent significant shifts in the public forum, most notably from the "awe-and-wonder" assessment of the 1950s to the more general "anti-computer spirit" in the following decade.62
Throughout the 1950s, the computer, "as no previous mechanism" before it, became the principal technological metaphor for the "versatility of the human mind."63 The cognitive revolution that emerged in the theoretical work of Alan Turing had precipitated a new conception of the human as a machine.64 The decade would see the first artificial intelligence conference and the extensive use of human-as-machine and computer-as-brain metaphors in advertising. This process meant a steady anthropomorphizing of the computer. Edmund C. Berkeley, the author of the popular book Giant Brains or Machines That Think (1949), who would later be a leading advocate of computer art as editor of the journal Computers and Automation, defined the computer as an "electronic" or "mechanical" brain.65 As the computer became a surrogate for human intelligence and the faculty of memory was metaphorically conceded to the machine,66 the computer appeared to be a "new species of technology." It appeared to flirt with the "mysteries of the mind itself."67
Developing in the 1960s was a "secondary undercurrent of uneasiness" that related to the notion that the computer was becoming an "autonomous thinking machine."68 The "spectre of machine intelligence"-and of machines someday enslaving their creators-haunted the public consciousness.69 Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a prime example of this fear.70 Ironically, the first recording of computer-generated music, Music from Mathematics (1962), created by J.R. Pierce and Max Mathews at Bell Labs, contained the computer song "Daisy Bell," which became the famous last utterance of the film's disobedient and murderous computer, HAL 9000. At the close of the 1960s, when the film appeared, the computer had become, as the sociologist Irene Tarviss suggested, a "symbol for all that is good and all that is evil in modern society."71 The computer's capacity to engage in operations approximate to "human reasoning" had "generated much popular agitation-ranging from awe and admiration to fear and resentment."72 This was motivated not only by anxiety that the computer would take the place of the worker, which was dramatized in the 1956 Hollywood movie Desk Set, but also by alarm that the computer could become the instrument of seamless governmental control. Although the computer was not yet ubiquitous in business and government, its indirect influence was increasingly felt.73 A high degree of emotional reaction to computers was the challenge that they seemed to present to humans. Commentators in the mass media often took great delight when a computer made an error. As one sociologist noted, no other machine's failure elicited the same reaction. When a computer "makes a mistake ... man is reassured that this machine is as fallible as he is."74 The public took great interest and pride when a chess champion beat the world's most advanced computer.75 Indeed, art critics covering the Howard Wise exhibition also appeared to take pleasure in vilifying the computer for its primitive results.
As the 1960s advanced, the idea of the computer as pervasive mechanism replaced the autonomous super-brain myth of the 1950s. The computer was now both the corrupter of human minds and the mechanism of central government organization. As Frederic Withington suggested in his sociological study of 1969, the computer symbolized "impersonality, conformity to pre-established patterns, reduction to a number, and impossibility of changing the status quo."76 The computer now became an agent of the stagnation and enormous inertia inherent in modern organization. From this perspective, it was not principally a useful tool or an important labor-saving device, but a machine that imposed its own logic on society. The popular image of the computer consisted of an immaculately clean room filled with streamlined computational machines and their various peripheral devices. Standing dutifully by was a collection of dark-suited human programmers and operators often called the "priesthood." In the popular imagination, the priesthood deified the computer as some kind of superhuman instrument, which led many to view these priests as slaves to the new system-based order. The priesthood appeared to reify machine "worship," as was increasingly feared by American social critic and humanist Lewis Mumford.77 "We have created a topsy-turvy world," Mumford mourned, in which machines were "autonomous" while men were "servile and mechanical."78 People, as Mumford described them, were so involved in the process of mechanization that "a large part of our fantasies are no longer self-begotten: they have no reality, no viability, until they are harnessed to the machine."79
The 1960s did see the embrace of, or what Anne Collins Goodyear described as the "technophilic" response to, emerging technologies.80 American artists, curators, and critics formed a variety of groups whose objective was to facilitate collaboration between industry and artists. These collaborative ventures, commonly referred to as the Art and Technology movement, resulted in a number of groundbreaking exhibitions. However, although artists did broaden the spectrum of media and materials, support for Art and Technology eroded in the face of the increasing social unrest of the period and the seemingly unending tragedy of the Vietnam War.81 As Goodyear suggests, changing attitudes and "technophobia" meant that collaborations between artists and those industries involved in the prosecution of the war were "untenable."82
The technophobia that emerged in the 1970s appears to have arisen against the rising technocracy and the military-industrial complex employed in prosecuting the Cold War. While technophobia often includes responses to the dehumanizing and rationalizing influence of computers, the computer, as distinct from other advanced technologies, had its own particular mythology. With its continually transforming and autonomous capabilities, and its exceeding complexity and soaring power, the computer seemed unfathomable and mercurial to most. Consequently, since its inception in the late 1950s, it has elicited reactions quite separate from reactions to other emergent technologies. The field of human creativity, in particular, was threatened by the computer more than by any other media.
In the 1960s, artists and critics were troubled over the promises technologists were making regarding artificial or mechanized creativity. In fact, the earliest article about computer art discussed artists' fears about the potential for mechanized creativity.83 Stuart Preston, the critic covering the Howard Wise exhibition for the New York Times, appeared forlorn at the prospect of science and technology controlling the future to the point that they could allow "any kind of painting" to be "computer-generated."84 Dennis Gabor, as quoted in the epigraphs to this chapter, wrote about his fears that machines could somehow usurp or replace the artist.85 Indeed, social anxiety about the machine taking over the human creative role manifested elsewhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s in a series of science-fiction books chiefly concerned with computers usurping man's creative faculty.86
Even before the industrial revolution, people within society reacted with both wonder and trepidation whenever a machine embodied those characteristics that were believed to be exclusively human. Mechanical automata, such as Jacques de Vaucanson's eighteenth-century robotic flute player, drummer, and duck, inspired a whole spectrum of emotions, from wonderment at the machine's lifelike motion to extreme indignation over the Promethean powers it seemed to engender. The strange self-directed autonomy and animation of the printer was a key factor in the public's mixed reaction of astonishment and apprehension to computerized art. As a cherished human attribute, creativity, many believed, should remain firmly under the control of the artist. As the art historian Rhys Carpenter wrote in the late 1960s, "The artist's greatest and most necessary illusion is the illusion he is creating. Rob him of that belief and you have shorn him of his power."87 The ideological power of art-especially within the late modernist period-derived from the "mystification of the process of making" and the "granting of special status to art making."88 With a Kantian understanding of "genius," modernism in the twentieth century recast this mythology by building on the belief that art is the "only properly autonomous and self-determining mode of production."89 The computer appeared to undermine the ontology of art and efface the identity of the artist by reducing him or her to a mere servant of the machine. The act of creation, until now the exclusive domain of the human, appeared to be undermined. The Howard Wise exhibition showed that the artist had become superfluous in the physical production of the work. The computer automaton, through the plotter, made the artist's hand absent and craftsmanship irrelevant. While the new machines had expanded the capacity of our minds, now the computer, with its superior precision and systematized dexterity, replaced the drawing body.
Zealous technologists did little to allay fears that the machine would render the artist redundant. Mirroring 1950s discourses on artificial intelligence, many technologists explicitly promoted computer-generated art within the "man versus machine" paradigm, which effectively positioned the computer as a competitive force. In addition to touting the first renowned computer art piece as a successful simulacrum of a modern master's work, Noll completed a now famous experiment whose results showed that his computer-generated Computer Composition with Lines (1965) was preferred by an audience to Piet Mondrian's Composition with Lines (1917).90 Later, in the 1970s, computing conferences circulated provocative press releases, such as "Computers Are Creating Art Which Is Indistinguishable from the Man-Made Product," which ultimately raised the ire of the conservative New York Times art critic John Canaday.91
For most technologists and scientists, mechanized creativity was simply a natural progression in the computer's bid to automate all human functions, but on a more fundamental level, some scientists envisaged a machine that could wipe away what they saw as the fallacious mysteries of art. Fine art was no longer the domain of the "artistic genius" or, as Kant suggested, "a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given."92 Scientists debunked the notion of the "genius" by effectively claiming that talent is not innate but can be programmed into a machine. Scientists and technologists found in the computer the possibility of a fully mechanized art and the final "delegation of the aesthetic-creative processes to machines."93 For many exponents of computer art in West Germany, the computer could bring about a "mathematization of art," which would finally purge art of the taint of rhetoric and mystery.94 In contrast, most art critics felt that art made by an autonomous machine undermined the integrity, function, and meaning of art and its history. The computer threatened to invade the "territories of art"-to reuse Charles Baudelaire's reaction to photography.95 Like Baudelaire, critics and artists were fearful that the computer could ultimately usurp and corrupt human creativity. Just as critics saw the computer as "an interloper, as something alien to the creative process,"96 mainstream artists felt they were surrendering the privilege of creating art to a mere automaton. This sentiment was expressed most fully by Stuart Preston, the critic from the New York Times who despondently predicted that art would be "entrusted to the deus ex machina."97
Even while anticomputer sentiment reached its zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, computer-generated art was still able to develop. Aiding this was a significant change in praxis. Artists, once adverse to computers, started enthusiastically exploring the computer as an art-making device. Over time, the artist filled the space originally taken by the scientist and technologist and, in so doing, developed the esprit de corps of a relatively coherent group. With the influx of trained artists, new mythologies and narratives emerged, bringing new optimism and reassurance. National and international exhibitions grew exponentially. Yet, no matter how many exhibitions were staged or how many new artists moved into the field, computer art remained alienated and marginalized from the larger art world. So persistent was the criticism that a sense of loss appeared to hang over much of the early discourse. In the 1970s, Grace C. Hertlein, the art editor of Computers and People, glumly noted that according to one of its officials, the Museum of Modern Art did "not consider computer art 'art.'"98 This response, though common among major museums, appears to have been a personal one. Only a few years earlier, in 1968, Charles A. Csuri's computer-generated animation Hummingbird had been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art.
While there were many conciliatory gestures toward computer art as a landmark media, the orthodox art world assumed a steadily anthropocentric attitude and a general resistance to computer technology up until the rise of the personal computer in the late 1980s. Even with two decades of unrelenting disparagement, computer art would endure, and it outlasted many contemporary art forms. As the history of computer art illustrates, its pioneering artists were bold and persistent in their attempt to carve out an art practice with what was an exceedingly difficult technology to master. Equally remarkable was their ability to sustain an art practice amid the constant criticism and overall discontent that surrounded early computer art.
An examination of the reception and criticism of early computerized art is not just about a spurned art form's struggle to find legitimacy in face of persistent and prejudicial criticism. The history of computer-generated art reflects the larger paradoxes and irreconcilable differences of all art forms that operate on that uneasy ground between art and science. Even today, interdisciplinarity-or the symbiosis of multiple spheres of knowledge-is often met with reservation or quiet skepticism. More broadly, though, the history of computer art also reveals the anxieties and preconceptions we have about emergent media. Today computers are universally accepted as indispensable in both the art-making process and the overall organization of the global art world. Ironically, the technology that was once reviled by most is now vital. As such, we find that the turbulent and troubled history of computer art gives us valuable insight into the shifting conception of art and the various forces that shape it.
Add source code 14W0162 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.