The Computer Can't Make Art: Art and 'Technology'

© Donald Richardson, 1987


The term 'technology' is used very widely these days to mean the scientific and technological expertise that underlies the invention and development of electronic devices like the computer, the internet and the mobile telephone. Due to the hype that has been associated with the marketing of these devices, technology seems to be a magical word that is uniquely associated with electronics.

Thus, it is scarcely realised that such usage is a misappropriation, or - at least - a misconstruction approaching misusage, because the term has a history that antedates electronic science by many years. To give but two examples: archeologists speak of the technology of the Stone Age - the various ways the earliest humans worked stone to make tools; and historians refer to the industrial technology of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - which is largely about the way engineers harnessed steam power to machines made from iron.

A dictionary definition of technology will indicate that the term is derived from the Greek words tekhne (meaning art - in the sense of skill) and logia (meaning knowledge) - so it means 'know-how' in the broadest sense of that term. But the making of art (in the sense that we mean by that term in the modern West) involves much more than skill or, even, knowledge. As the South Australian Education Department's publication, Art, Craft and Design in Schools (1984) states: 'The essential characteristics of artare that its outcomes are unspecified in advancethat a high degree of thinking, feeling and generation of original ideas is involved' And the document goes on to differentiate between art and craft and design as follows: 'Craft is concerned with skill and technologyIts outcomes are specified in advance and its methodology is typically non-experimentalDesign has characteristics in common with both art and craft, butits outcomes in terms of function are specifiable in advance, while its outcomes in terms of form are not'.

The computer can be regarded as
* a tool (equivalent to a paint-brush, a chisel or a leather-punch), or
* a medium (equivalent to oil-paint, clay or screen-printing), or
* both tool and medium (in this aspect the computer is unique: there is no traditional equivalent)

Neither tools nor media can themselves produce art, craft of design: they can only do so if they are operated by artists, craftspersons or designers. And no computer has yet been devised that can rival the human mind in being creative. Indeed a computer programme to make art is a logically impossibility because the programme would have to be specified in advance.

Some of the advantages of the computer are
* its ability to generate a large number of alternative possibilities
* its ability to produce a random array of data
* its propensity for real-time, interactive work
all of which can be aids to human creative activity, but they cannot be taken for that creativity itself. However, the computer has legitimate role as a tool of craft activity.

The usefulness of the computer in art, craft and design must be considered in relation to other tools and media that are available. By comparison to them the computer is disadvantaged by
* the difficulty of its language
* the smallness and flatness of its visual format
* the absence of tactile values
* the impermanence of the image
The grossness of the pixel (which forces all images to tend to being rectilinear and inorganic) and the limitations of currently available software can be expected to be less disadvantageous as the technology develops. And we must not forget that the computer is only a two-dimensional graphic tool and the range art, craft and design activities is not limited to two-dimensional graphics.

And, finally - in answer to those technology aficionados who criticise artists who refuse to abandon paint in favour of the key-board - we should note that artists have always been in the forefront of those who have used new technologies when they serve their purpose as artists: the casting of bronze figures is almost as old as the invention of metallurgy itself; and the van Eycks used the (then) new oil-paint technology before it was appropriated by coach-painters. Also, the history of art informs us that every time a machine or system which purports to act as an artist appears, artists move away from it and discover hitherto un-thought of possibilities of using it. The camera and perspective theory are notable instances.

This paper is based on a paper that was presented to the conference of the Australian Institute of Art Education - 'Effecting Change in Art Education: Curriculum and Technology' - in Brisbane in July, 1987.