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Sorting Out the Value of New Art Forms
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Derek Matravers

The APA Newsletter on Philosophy and Computers and the ASA Newsletter have worked together to publish a series of joint special issues on the influence of computers on art, a project started by Ewa Bogusz-Boltuc. This issue, and the Winter 2010 issue, of both Newsletters will be based in part around Dom Lopes’ upcoming book, A Philosophy of Computer Art, and reflects the recent interest in computer art more generally.

In his forthcoming book on computer art, Dominic Lopes writes that ‘few generations in all of human history have been lucky enough to witness the birth of a new art form’. We are that lucky, of course, and that form is computer art. Lopes defines computer art works (Computer Art Forms) as follows:

CAF: an item is a computer art work just in case (1) it’s art, (2) it’s made by computer, (3) it’s interactive, and (4) it’s interactive because it’s made by computer.
In an illuminating journey, he then explores various ramifications of this definition, including what he calls ‘the value question’: What is the value of computer art works? This is intriguing ground because there is a view, among many, that computer art forms are not valuable. This could, of course, be simply a conservative resistance to change, or it could be grounded in solid argument. Lopes gallantly grants his opponents the more respectable position, and considers four arguments to the effect that computer art is not of value. He finds all of these wanting, and thus concludes that computer art is not in principle valueless, but rather – like all art – needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Lopes’ argument focuses on the whether computer art, as he defines it, is such as to block works in the medium being of value. In this short paper I would like to take a slightly broader view than those represented in the four arguments he considers. There are two reasons for doing so. The first is that I have a hunch that this broader view is, in part, what underlies the intuition (if one has that intuition) that computer art cannot be valuable. The second is that it throws some light on the question (also considered by Lopes) as to whether computer art is genuinely a new art form, or merely a vehicle for presenting works in traditional art forms. The problem is not to do with the computer aspect of computer art, but simply to do with it being a new art form.

The argument is this. Objects that consist of paint smeared over stretched canvas can, in our tradition, be vehicles for meaning. Is there something about this type of object that made it inevitable that it should play this role, or is it a matter of historical contingency? Richard Wollheim calls this ‘the bricoleur problem’ (Wollheim 1980: sec. 22, 23, 63). There are certainly some qualities of the matter of paintings that make it suitable for the task: it is fairly stable, it endures, it is not consumed during appreciation and so forth. However, more is needed if we are to throw light on the fact that paintings are vehicles for meaning: namely, that we are able to place this painting in the context of other, previous, paintings.

There are both more specific and less specific versions of this argument. The more specific is famously associated with Ernst Gombrich. Our understanding of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie is informed by it being the case that ‘the name Mondrian conjures up the expectation of severity, of an art of straight lines and a few primary colours in carefully balanced rectangles’. This being so, ‘the boogie-woogie picture gives indeed the impression of gay abandon’. However, were we to believe the picture were by Severini – ‘who is known for his futuristic paintings that try to capture the rhythm of dance music in works of brilliant chaos’ – our understanding would be very different (Gombrich 1977: 313). Thus the question of which oeuvre we should use as a background is going to arise for any individual work of computer art.

The question itself does not seem unanswerable. If the work is one in a number by the same artist, we can use that artist’s oeuvre as a background for comparison. The oeuvre might be limited, which might detract from the content of the work, but some oeuvre (not matter how limited) will help. Alternatively, one might look to the genre of computer art as a background. Within this background, some works will be relatively dynamic, some relatively static and so on.

The more interesting issue is why computer art (considered as computer art – I will from henceforth take this qualification as given) is meaningful. Which of Lopes’ clauses allows meaningfulness in? The two places are either (1), or (2) and (3). I shall take the last of these first as it is clearly the more interesting. Why should our interactivity with a computer, which is grounded in the work being made by a computer, make that interactivity meaningful (as opposed to simply being interactivity)? The broader argument is that what makes an interactive sequence meaningful is its historical context.

Let me consider one of the pieces of work described in Lopes’ book:
Scott Snibbe, Boundary Functions, 1998. When you and your companion step onto a slightly raised platform, a line is projected onto the floor halfway between you. As more people join in, more lines are drawn, creating an irregular tiled pattern. Try as you might – and some children who have just stepped in are trying very hard – you cannot step outside your boundary. Someone remarks that Boundary Functions was the title of the doctoral thesis of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
Let us say that what the interaction consists in is trying (and failing) to step outside your boundary. What makes this meaningful in the way in which it is meaningful? In other words, what makes it different from (for example) trying to get out of a hole into which one has fallen? Put crudely, the argument is as follows. This is only one way of putting it; the point could be made in other ways (and let me apologise now for the crude art criticism). The work is trying to solve a problem: how to covey a sense of being hemmed in, in ways one cannot escape. It does this by making it the case that our moving has the effect of redrawing the boundary in a way where we are still hemmed in in our new position. The first move in explaining what makes this reflective and interesting, as opposed to merely irritating is that this ‘solution’ to the problem is seen in the context of other solutions to the same problem. However, this is not enough, as included in such solutions would be those which would enable one to get out of a hole where the rim collapses every time you get enough of a grip to haul yourself upward. Such comparisons are not going to invest Boundary Functions with meaning. We could try to specify the problem more precisely, such that the context of comparison includes only works of art. However, the specification would have to be precise enough to pick out precisely the way in which past works of art achieved this; in other words, it would have to talk about forms specific to art.

However, the problem with new media being meaningful then becomes apparent. If the properties that make the work in the new medium meaningful are the properties the new medium has in common with the art of the past, the meaningful properties of a new medium are not those which make it new, but rather those it takes over from older media. This would incline us to think the burden of meaning for computer art is borne by its traditional elements; the value of computer art lies in its being a vehicle for works in more traditional media. This argument seemed to underpin the point Roger Scruton was trying to make to Tracy Emin in the 1997 Turner Prize debate, and can be found explicitly in Richard Wollheim, writing in 1968, who makes the same point about a then current ‘new medium’ (he was writing in 1958):
In its secondary occurrence the question [why is this particular stuff or process and accredited vehicle for art?] is raised in a context in which certain arts are already going concerns. It will be apparent that, when the question is raised in this second way, the answer it receives will in very large part be determined by the analogies and disanalogies that we can construct between the existing arts and the art in question. In other words, the question will benefit from the comparatively rich context in which it is asked. It is, for instance, in this way that the question, Is the film an art? is currently discussed. (Wollheim 1980: 152)
However, that might be a bit too quick. What if, instead of trying to be describe the property in such a way that we pick out only those possessed by past works of art, we import clause (1) of CAF? That is, the context is ways in which works of art (and not, for example, holes) have solved the problem of exemplifying our being hopelessly trapped. Then one would be considering the way in which this work of art (Boundary Functions) exemplified the sense of being hopelessly trapped as compared to how other works of art have exemplified that sense. How it was done could exhibit a great deal more flexibility, as the description of the property is no longer being used to specify the relevant context. Hence, the way Boundary Functions does it could be compared (perhaps) to Berthe Morrisot’s and Mary Cassatt’s paintings, with their constricted pictorial space, convey a sense of women being trapped in the domesticity and mores of late eighteenth century bourgeois society (Pollock 1988); or to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman conveys a sense of hopeless entrapment in the ever decreasing circles of Willie Loman’s options and opportunities. In addition to the successes, we could also bring into the context some less successful attempts: perhaps Richard Serra’s Matter of Time installation at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, which was just too big to be clever. The moral here is that the value question and the art question are not distinct; we need an answer to the second to sort out an answer to the first. I am sure Lopes will have interesting things to say on this connection in his final chapter, ‘The Art Question’. Sadly for me, it remains unwritten in the draft from which I have been working which means, of course, that I will need to buy the book. Clever fellow, that Lopes.

1. The book is in its early stages, and quotations are from the typescript that Lopes was generous enough to show me. I hope any readers of my piece might be spurred into buying what looks to be an excellent treatment of the subject.

2. A debate memorable for the fact that Emin and Scruton had a fascinating (albeit short) exchange, before Emin wandered off the set, having clearly had a great deal to drink.

Gombrich, E. (1977). Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. London, Phaidon.

Pollock, G. (1988). ‘Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity’. Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts. F. Frascina and J. Harris. London, Phaidon, 1992: 121-135.

Wollheim, R. (1980). Art and Its Objects. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

2009 © Derek Matravers

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