American Culture

ArtSunday: do electric sheep dream of digital art?

A few weeks ago we showed you a painting by Miro and posed the question: is this art? The consensus opinion seemed to be that sure, I guess it’s art, although I wouldn’t pay a penny for it.

Today we look at digitally generated images and ask the same question. Specifically, have a look at Electric Sheep, my cool new screen saver program. According to the Web site:

Electric Sheep is a free, open source screen saver created by Scott Draves. It’s run by thousands of people all over the world, and can be installed on any ordinary PC or Mac. When these computers “sleep”, the screen saver comes on and the computers communicate with each other by the internet to share the work of creating morphing abstract animations known as “sheep”. The result is a collective “android dream”, an homage to Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Here’s a nice sequence to consider:

Obviously this isn’t art in any traditional sense. It’s about as much math as art, arguably, and the creator doesn’t seem to be making any claims to artistic merit. Still, it’s hard to view the output of Electric Sheep – either the moving sequences or static shots – without the art question asserting itself. We’d need to consider the images against abstract art, of course, and I can’t personally fathom a critical standard that would allow Miro or Pollack while excluding Electric Sheep. For instance, how could we argue for this:

Or this:

But against this:

You can’t do so on grounds of form since abstraction rejects form.

You can’t do so on grounds of requisite human agency for a couple reasons. First, Electric Sheep is the result of human agents, albeit ones working with computers rather than physical media. Think of their tools as really, really complex brushes. And second, doesn’t every major critical theory since Structuralism already reject the very existence of the subject, period? If you’re what Susan Sontag refers to as “pre-theoretical,” I guess you might be able to mount an argument, but that group doesn’t include a lot of “serious” critics, does it?

Could you argue that it isn’t art since it doesn’t intend to be art? Well, in a world where there’s no subject there’s likewise no intent, right? Even if you, like me, reject the whole “death of the subject” canard, which would allow you to privilege the creator’s intent, there remains a fact that all good artists know about firsthand: sometimes we create more than we intend.

The old “is it art?” debate has always been a trap, I suppose. And if it hasn’t always been so, it’s certainly been that way since the onset of Modernism. But if I’m offering you a sucker play here, it’s only to make a point, and one that’s probably obvious enough to those of you who have read this far. To wit: as technology has expanded what it is possible to do and how it is possible to do, as we have evolved not only productive capabilities but also consumptive capabilities, the boundaries of the artistic have expanded dramatically.

There’s a purist in me that still enjoys bitching about boundaries and criteria, but the observer of public life in me, living here in our capitalist consumerist culture gone mad, is keenly aware of how little we seem to care about the arts and humanistic education anymore.

In this context, perhaps I’m willing to revel in the innovative, the compelling, and the simply beautiful wherever I can find it. Which is why I have my screen saver set to launch after a mere five minutes of inactivity.

Happy Sunday…

Electric Sheep image by Scott Draves and the Electric Sheep. All rights reserved.

5 replies »

  1. electric sheep is DEFINITELY art.

    art is in the eye of the beholder, whether the creator intended it as art or not.

    that 50-yr-old toaster i’ve got is most definitely art.

  2. meh. never-mind. i re-read your post. i am still not convinvced that it is art, but this stems directly from my general dis-interest in most computerized art – music, animation, etc. – as static and stiff. so. i can;t make a good argument other than i don;t find it compelling in the way i generally find pieces of art that i do like.

    so, yeah.

    -k

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