Thesis Info

The Machine that Made Science Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art 1963-1989
Grant David Taylor
2nd Author
3rd Author
Number of Pages
The University of Western Australia
Thesis Supervisor
Dr Ian McLean
Supervisor e-mail
Other Supervisor(s)
Language(s) of Thesis
Department / Discipline
Art History
Languages Familiar to Author
URL where full thesis can be found
Computer Art, Art History, Techno-science, Art Theory, New Media, Humanism, Anti-humanism, Postmodernism
Abstract: 200-400 words
This thesis represents an historical account of the reception and criticism of computer art from its emergence in 1963 to its crisis in 1989, when aesthetic and ideological differences polarise and eventually fragment the art form. Throughout its history, static-pictorial computer art has been extensively maligned. In fact, no other twentieth-century art form has elicited such a negative and often hostile response. In locating the destabilising forces that affect and shape computer art, this thesis identifies a complex interplay of ideological and discursive forces that influence the way computer art has been and is received by the mainstream artworld and the cultural community at large. One of the central factors that contributed to computer art’s marginality was its emergence in that precarious zone between science and art, at a time when the perceived division between the humanistic and scientific cultures was reaching its apogee. The polarising force inherent in the “two cultures” debate framed much of the prejudice towards early computer art. For many of its critics, computer art was the product of the same discursive assumptions, methodologies and vocabulary as science. Moreover, it invested heavily in the metaphors and mythologies of science, especially logic and mathematics. This close relationship with science continued as computer art looked to scientific disciplines and emergent techno-science paradigms for inspiration and insight. While recourse to science was a major impediment to computer art’s acceptance by the artworld orthodoxy, it was the sustained hostility towards the computer that persistently wore away at the computer art enterprise. The anti-computer response came from several sources, both humanist and anti-humanist. The first originated with mainstream critics whose strong humanist tendencies led them to reproach computerised art for its mechanical sterility. A comparison with aesthetically and theoretically similar art forms of the era reveals that the criticism of computer art is motivated by the romantic fear that a computerised surrogate had replaced the artist. Such usurpation undermined some of the keystones of modern Western art, such as notions of artistic “genius” and “creativity”. Any attempt to rationalise the human creative faculty, as many of the scientists and technologists were claiming to do, would for the humanist critics have transgressed what they considered the primordial mystique of art. Criticism of computer art also came from other quarters. Dystopianism gained popularity in the 1970s within the reactive counter-culture and avant-garde movements. Influenced by the pessimistic and cynical sentiment of anti-humanist writings, many within the arts viewed the computer as an emblem of rationalisation, a powerful instrument in the overall subordination of the individual to the emerging technocracy. Beyond the powerful anti-computer sentiment, other difficulties arose within the emerging criticality of mainstream visual arts. Computer art was aligned to traditions that were increasingly under question. Its heritage in science and technology meant that computer art possessed many of the ideological overtones of the Enlightenment, including the belief in progress, rationality and teleology. Likewise, computer art pioneers and writers, often praising the spirit of modernism, traced their lineage back to the early twentieth-century modernists. From the late 1960s onwards many in the arts employed various strategies to critique the assumptions of the Enlightenment, modernity and modernism. In particular, emerging postmodernist critical positions in the arts viewed computer art’s links to early modernism as hopelessly misguided and outdated. However, by the 1980s, postmodernism as the dominant critical approach began to influence the understanding of technology, and thus the computer. Some critics began to reconcile computer technology with the critical insights of postmodernism, viewing it as a possible democratic and pluralistic agent that provides a radical challenge to modernist conventions. However, while postmodernist criticism enabled the formation of new discourses, for instance within the “new media” art field that emerged in the 1990s, it left computer art in a state of crisis. With postmodernists demanding plurality and the techno-science paradigms searching for purity of method, computer art was torn between two divergent ideologies and thus was never able to achieve its quest for self-realisation or ultimate validation.