If You Program a Computer to Create Art, Are You Then an Artist?

Everyday thousands of people take one of their typical bad photos and try to turn it into a masterpiece. They believe in a promise that technology will create a solution for their total lack of artistic talent. One of the many apps available get used to add a flashy technique to their image. Or maybe they just point-click an Instagram filter or a Photoshop filter. How convenient. You have created a unique image according to what the program’s algorithm has decided for you. But does this make you an artist? You feel like an artist. But let’s just say anybody can buy a box of watercolors and some brushes, and that does not make them an artist.

Everyday many people create clichéd pictures of flowers using paint and pastels. Hoping to use technology as an easy aid to create similar kinds of pictures, some use computer programs. The programs’ technology substitutes as their paint and brush. Mistakenly relying on the technology to do the work for them, less creative results do result. The lesson is: technology is only a tool to use, not a creative process in itself. Technology does not create art; people create art.

Understanding the impact of technology in our world, writer Malcom Gladwell in his essay Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted remains gleefully correct, “we are in the midst of a technology revolution” (Gladwell 424). But there are many doomsayers who think that advancing technology will wreck havoc on everything and we need be forewarned. Along those lines writer Nicholas Carr, expert on technological impact, declares: “There’s a tendency to glorify technological progress,” and likes to add “Expect the worst of every new tool or machine” (Carr 595). Of these two camps, I’m happy to be with Gladwell and his view that technology is not the enemy and should be embraced. OK, let’s all group hug with technology then. Not so fast. No matter if you are a follower or detractor, you find technology is changing everything we do. Including having a big impact on the creation of art. New technologies are allowing new directions in art that were never before possible. But as an artist, I say these new directions do not happen without talent, skill, and a new acceptance. Let us not applaud the computer, but the artist.

Would Leonardo DaVinci have used a computer if had one? Why wouldn’t he? Though he did pretty well without it, his mastery of the scientific and the artistic worlds could have benefited greatly with computer technology to assist him. Then, as customary of the times, he would have passed down his knowledge to his apprentices. Teaching the next generation to continue to explore and create aided by technology.

My apprenticeship in art school was long before today’s tech revolution. Have art curriculums kept up? What is being taught about using technology now to the next generation of artists? I interviewed Tom Barrett, art professor and instructor at the Art Institute of Boston. A successful old-style illustrator and painter, he now instructs creating art with the latest programs. Professor Barrett had to come to terms with technology and change his style to play by the new media rules as the art world changed. Tom stresses to his students the importance of getting past the flat chalky look often associated with novice Photoshop art. “No one likes looking at computer art” he begins and I nod in agreement. His reference is art that is obviously produced on a computer. His students are instructed that the success of creating art with a computer: “Is not to make it look like it was done on a computer” though today’s market calls for computer art. Simple as he may make it sound, that takes an understanding of how an original, real, tactile medium works.

Then why is anyone using computers? Let the machines do the work. Even car companies use computers in every stage of their process. Yet Gladwell informs us the design is still done by humans. Computers, or networks can’t think strategically. They are prone to conflict and error. “Computers cannot make difficult choices about tactics, strategy of philosophical direction” (Gladwell 429). They suck at the creative process.

Creativity takes thinking. And as Carr bemoans that “technology (the Net) seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” ( Carr 589), Barrett interjects with just the opposite: “Artists must stay focused,” and “look to the past to successfully apply new technology to their art.” Artists cannot let the ease of use or the flashy results of apps to cloud their thinking of creativity. The results will be more of the staid images that try to pass as creative art that I now see.

In traditional watercolor paintings there is a luminosity that makes them so desirable and pleasing to view. If an artist’s goal is to imitate watercolor, it takes one’s knowledge of how watercolor works on paper, then using a computer they need to manipulate Photoshop to imitate that watercolor process. Which is a lot different than brainlessly applying the watercolor filter on an image. Emulating the process is where the talent and skill are required most. It takes talent to understand how a brush puts watercolor on paper in the first place, and skill to be able to duplicate that process in Photoshop or any other program. This sophisticated and complex process allows creative expression and imagination to increase when an artist uses new technology. New directions are discovered, not by machines or programs, but by the artists.

Anyone can begin to guess where new art might be headed with this. As far back as 2002, ARTnews magazine posed the same question and many more. They asked: “As computer-based works are collected… are they losing their edge or gaining an audience?” (ARTnews 87). ARTnews recognized that there is a market and that art using technology has “arrived” mainstream. But they discovered this art to be creating conflict among practitioners in a medium that originally only had been part of an artistic fringe. What has proved to be naive thinking at the time was that only a “select bunch” is able to sell work or get commissions. On the contrary, this narrow view of the future sounds like they were not ready, or able to adapt to what might be coming. Just hanging a painting on your wall will continue, but make room for other possible constructs to view art.

Professor Barrett hypothesizes on one possible picture of the future:

“What if, as a collector you have a new, super thin flat screen that hangs on your wall, designed only to display art. The art is delivered on a one-of-a-kind disc that can’t be duplicated. Any attempt to duplicate will destroy the content. The art file on the disc is the only one. The disc is the “original art” you are buying. Plug in the disc and you have your art to look at.”

This concept seems to be very far off, but possible. It certainly will bring new thinking about new art.

With new art comes new ideas. Could the art market and readers of ARTnews ever adapt to such radical thinking? Belief in the future causes one to understand the old ways will no longer be able to satisfy the expanding forms of art. Many questions are raised when new art is objectified. Professor Barrett is correct that art produced with technology needs be treated differently: “The world needs to come to terms with it.” Acceptance is part of the cost.

Beyond the sale price of art, there is another price to be paid. The immediate results that technology provides in art causes efficiency and immediacy to be above all else the way is has with everything else. Weakening our capacity for deep thinking because of “efficiency” and “immediacy” is an issued raised by Carr. Rich mental connections may be lost.

When a person is using technology to create, they want one of the instant endless choices of the app or program. Many in the art world raise the concern that all this technology lowers the level of quality of art in an on-demand world. Evidence of apprehension is building. In a 2013 Pew Research Study, art organizations represented in the survey confirmed their worries with the lowering of quality across all the arts. They report technology has blurred the lines between commercial entertainment and noncommercial art. (Hint: Think Apps.) The consensus being technology has disrupted much of the traditional art world. That however might be described as technological phobia, but many, including myself view this disruption with technological enthusiasm.

“It’s a good thing” quickly quips Professor Barrett. New creativity takes deep thinking. But skill and talent must prevail over technology. Back in 1985, computer scientist and artist Hebert Franke rallied the same basic belief: “Art cannot really be mastered before the hurdle of technical and manual skills have been over come.” “Deep thinking results after the demands made by the computer are transformed from manual dexterity to the capabilities of the mind such as imagination, creativity, and self assessment” (Franke 4). In short, art making is in the hands and minds of the artist, not technology.

Taking into consideration the knowledge of other art mediums to create art on a computer, whether it is printed out, viewed from a disk or through the Internet, the title of “new art” becomes a paradox in itself. My conversation ends with Professor Barrett’s final words simplifying the paradox: “New art: It is and it isn’t.” It is new being created on a computer, but isn’t because the artist imitates old methods. “It is the synergy of everything,” talent, skill, technology. Let’s lose the fear Carr speaks of, and with eyes wide open accept new methods.

IRIS V.2 © tom barrett 2016 Detail Photoshop brush work

Works Cited

Tom Barrett, Personal interview. 28 March 2016.
Berwick, Carly. “Net Gains.” ARTnews December 2002: 86-89. Print
Carr, Nicholas. Is Google Making Us Stupid? McQuade and Atwan 588-597.
McQuade, Donald and Atwan, Robert, eds. The Writer’s Presence.
Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print
Gladwell, Malcom. Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.
McQuade and Atwan 422-431
Franke, Hebert. “The Influence of Computer Graphics on Art and Society.” DAM,
Digital Art Museum, N.p., Web. 2009.