Probably the most fascinating concept I’ve seen in the contemporary art scene, ARTSY is facilitating the auctioning of algorithms as art. While algorithms have certainly been sold, previously, for utilitarian purposes, this is the first auction, in my knowledge, for algorithms to be possessed simply for their aesthetic or conceptual quality. What does this mean for the field of aesthetics? What implications does this have for our understanding of fine art? I would spell all of this out, but I don’t know all of the implications. I think, though, that I could suggest a few things.
A bit of code from my website looks, visually, a bit like Anthony Ferraro’s ‘Hypothetical Beats.’
First, algorithm art challenges the distinction between utilitarian and fine art.
While craft already does a fine job of blurring the distinction between useful and merely beautiful art, algorithm art adds a whole new layer to this puzzle. For example, while Gerald Sussman’s, ‘Scheme’, is simply a visual commemoration to an algorithm, sold for a bit of history and for viewing pleasure, Anthony Ferraro’s, ‘Hypothetical Beats’, is sold mainly for its usefulness in producing sound. Further, Chris Maury’s, ‘Progression: Triptych’, is being sold as a piece meant to help, “Build better digital tools for those with poor vision.” The latter of the pieces is clearly the most utilitarian, fairly fascinating conceptually, and the least interesting visually. In what sense is ‘Progression: Triptych’ actually a work of fine art? While a useful piece, it has almost no aesthetic value. We’ll see why this can be lumped into the fine art category by looking at our next points.
Second, algorithm art demotes the aesthetic aspect of fine art.
This, undoubtedly, is the weakest part of algorithm art. But, honestly, what other contemporary art tries to promote aesthetics? Okay, really, there are lots of people invested in visual beauty, but we have to admit that minimalism and conceptualism have really grabbed a hold of the contemporary art scene. Of course, both of those things can be visually beautiful, but a great deal of the stuff is just ugly. Yes, I said it, ugly. But who says that ugly art can’t be decent art? Some people say that, I’m aware, but they’re wrong. Anyway, there is a broad spectrum of aesthetics in the algorithm art that’s being promoted. Some of it is plain, simple, minimalistic composition. Some of the work is a bit more complex visually, though not much. Some of it is never going to be seen, ever, and only used to accomplish a task. Whatever end of the spectrum–visually complex or basically not visual–all algorithm art demotes the aesthetic aspect of fine art. I’m not making a value judgment about whether that is good or bad, but I’m just making note of it.
Third, algorithm art promotes the conceptual aspect of fine art.
While the work of conceptual artists like Tim Hawkinson blurs the line between visual art that is useful, and useful things that are also visual, algorithm art seems to operate on another level. Both craft and conceptual art are at least tangible in products, but algorithm art’s tangibility is limited to the computer. Basically, algorithm art faces the same issues as that of internet art or Bitcoin art, or any form of art relegated to the machine, but even more so. Most internet art is at least visual (for example: here and here), and even Bitcoin art is dedicated to exploring the conceptual framework of Bitcoin through representation, but algorithm art like Chris Maury’s work is only visual to the extent that it is necessary to be visual. Algorithm art of that sort is basically like an engine. It’s visual form is typically not crafted for the sake of its beauty, but it is built for the sake of power. You can talk about the aesthetics of the engine, but the engine was certainly not built for its aesthetics. Further, the engine is really meant to be kept out of sight. It isn’t supposed to be looked at, and is supposed to function behind-the-scenes. Some forms of algorithm art are like that. Their aesthetic quality exists only because they have a form, but their form really isn’t meant to be seen in the first place. But, because of this, not in spite of it, one could consider algorithm art, art. Since it is skill devoted to a form, upon which we ought to engage our intellects, it falls into the realm of conceptual art. While the visual beauty of it (whatever beauty it has) is hidden away on a computer somewhere in lines of code, that code expresses itself, and translates into either music or software or something else. It’s like DNA. While we don’t (or shouldn’t) craft our own DNA, we can craft and shape algorithms in the hope that they express something useful or beautiful. This idea, this concept of expressing something hidden away, is really worth some contemplation. While a lot of algorithm art is primarily just useful, the artistic, the art aspect of the algorithm lies in its ability to provoke thought.