Thursday, December 13, 2007

Readymades, Artificial Art, New Media, Remko Scha

Nature versus art
Immanuel Kant’s 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 Kant’s 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 Kant’s 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 determinate concept.
Manmade artworks have an inherently problematic status in Kant’s theory. Western highbrow art seems to agree with Kant’s 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 artwork’s 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 artist’s ideas, methods, goals and motives. The artists’s 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 Kant’s 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 don’t 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."

Kant’s 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.

The Readymade

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 course.

Carrier: "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 grinder, typewriter-cover.

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 taste."

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 Duchamp’s 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 readings.)

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 material.
N’importe quoi

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 d’après 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 what".
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 Duchamp’s 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.
Chance 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 n’importe 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 chance art.

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.

Artificial Art

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 pixels).

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 artists.

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 (

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 possibilities.

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, Bill Viola.)

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.

Interactive narrative

We may imagine a new art genre consisting of vVirtual 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 of assemblage."
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. [ ]
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 Verlag, 1974.]

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, 1987, p.108.

Remko Scha: "Artificiële Kunst." Informatie en Informatiebeleid 6, 4 (1988). [English translation: "Artificial Art." ]

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