Computer generated art

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Philosophically speaking, there is no such thing as computer generated art. Even in its most automated state, the process of creating art depends on human artistic judgments. Even if the art is created by running filters over a photograph, the original photo was composed and captured by humans and the artistic decisions about how to design and implement the filter were also made by humans. Simply running filters over photos may be “bad art,” but it is still not quite “computer generated” art.  At least until the advent of much better A.I., no computers will spontaneously make art – computers only assist human artists in making art. No one would speak of a statue as being “foundry generated” just because it was taken from a wax original and recreated using molds and bronze, even if the process had been fully automated. Similarly, artists who use computers as their tools and work in digital media would have every right to be offended at having their work referred to as having been “generated” by the computer. As one artist says, “There is also a perception…that the computer does all the work. This is why I think there is resistance to accepting digitally created art, as art…this is not true” (Seegmiller, 2004, p.33). This disclaimer is specifically necessary because computer-aided work appears to be an increasingly significant part of modern art movements, so much so that it is being heralded as similar to the introduction of photography or acrylic paint (Walker, 2006, 13). I believe that digital art is an important new field of artistic production because computers provide revolutionary new artistic techniques that are not only artistically innovative, but also more democratic than previous methods.

So-called “computer generated” art exists first and foremost in a digital limbo-state. Its original media is virtual, and all physical prints are essentially copies. In this it is entirely unique in the art world, because the original form is incapable of being actually possessed or physically encountered.  When a digital work is printed, it is by default converted into a different format, not only in terms of its physical state, but also in terms of its colors – computers “see” in a vibrant backlit RGB (Red-Green-Blue) scale, while printers are usually CMYK (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black). Every time the work is printed, the artist must make decisions regarding printer calibration, paper weight, glossiness, and so forth, which were not part of the original creation process (Herland, 2003). Additionally, as one painter-turned-digital-creator points out, “Its creation is a relatively sterile process” (Seegmiller, 2004, p. 36). Until it is printed, digital art is not affected by considerations such as the quality of paint, brush, or canvas. Unlike oils or ceramics, it is not affected by temperature or humidity. Digital art is self-contained in a way that no other art process can be, and it is also infinitely reproducible in a way that no other art can be. (Sculptures cast from molds, and photographs reproduced from the negatives, both come close — but neither is reproduced with the same microscopic level of precision as copying a digital image from one hard drive to another.)

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Fundamentally, then, digital work is an extremely different medium than those preceding it.  Being different is precisely what opens digital art up to critique (much as photography was originally critiqued as being anti-art) and also what makes it vital to embrace digital media as the wave of the future. Painter James Walker, in his book about coming to terms with digital means of production, explains how throughout time the development of new types of paint have radically changed the way in which artists work: “When a new paint appears and artists take to it, then painting does seem to turn a corner” (2006, 13). For example, in the 1960s acrylic paint became available. Unlike oil pants, which can take days to months to dry, acrylics are dry within the hour, which radically changes the way in which paintings can be constructed. This revolutionized painting and paved the way for Andy Warhol.  Many modern painters, such as Walker and Seegmiller, frequently choose to paint digitally instead of with actual paints because the process is so much faster, cleaner, and more cost effective. As Walker says, “paint software is the ultimate step in fabricating ‘convenience’ paint” (2006, 13).  Seegmiller agrees: “What I like about digital art is the speed, the ability to correct mistakes, and the courage it gives me to take risks and try new things” (2004, 36). So it is possible in some cases for digital media to simply replace tactile media when used for comparable outcomes. However, other digital artists (such as those doing composite photo-manipulation or 3D modeling) may use digital means to create something that is in an entirely different genre from traditional art. For these artists, the advent of digital media is more like the invention of photography than like the creation of a new paint – it creates an entirely new field for artistic exploration. Walker explains that “photography did not replace painting wholesale like a universal upgrade – [but] its impact was irreversible…. it is useful to bear some of these parallels in mind” (2006, 31).

The advent of affordable personal computers and easy access to programs like Corel Painter™ and Adobe Photoshop™ may have popularized digital art and made it far more accessible to many artists who had previously used traditional media (and members of the younger generation who have never used traditional media), but digital creations predate most current software applications used for art.  “Artists have been employing computers to generate and manipulate images since the early 1980s” (Herland, 2003, 8). Many early pieces, dependent on the less developed software of the era, may not have been as sophisticated as the best digital art today. However, since amateurs could not afford the computer labs necessary to create such art, digital art still had a certain elite aura. Today, with sites such as DeviantArt ( showcasing digital attempts from thousands of amateurs, computer-aided art has a far more populist bent. Of course, some artistic pursuits have always been open to the enterprising hobbyist; enough of us have played with watercolors and acrylics as children to know that painting is not strictly for the rich. However, high quality painting and sculpture supplies are extremely expensive. While the original output for art programs and hardware may be several thousand dollars, once the technology has been purchased (or illegally downloaded) there is a minimal cost involved in artistic creation, and the struggling artist is able to access the same quality of digital tools as a well-paid artist. In and of itself, this pricing issue would tend to create a more democratic playing field in the creation of digital art.  However, digital art additionally has an inherently equalizing feature: its reproducibility.

As far back as 1900, technological changes in reproducibility in art were causing a stir in the art world. In a now famous 1936 essay, Walter Benjamin wrote that by 1900, technical reproduction “not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes” (I). He went on to explain that with such mechanical reproduction, via photography and film, “the aura of the work of art” (II) withers away, and to some degree he mourns this process, but in its place there is a new “emancipation” (IV) in which art becomes in mass media. Benjamin’s view on this is somewhat dim, and he does not seem optimistic about the ability of film to be art. Now, over 70 years later, it seems obvious that film can be art (even if it is not always), and that while Benjamin’s fear that art would be destroyed by reproduction does not seem to have entirely materialized, his argument that art would become more available to the masses is certainly true. A hundred years ago, very few people were able to go to the symphony or theater every night – now, very few people do not spend a few hours a day listening to music or watching television and/or movies. While one may not approve of popular taste, one can be certain that “the arts” as a whole flourish in our society because of their easy reproduction. Digital media is a large part of this.

While this paper has focused mostly on digital painting and visual art, the field of music has been equally impacted by digital creation, as most music heard now is distributed in computer generated forms (e.g., CDs or other digital files) and many of the instruments and voices in popular music are digitally created, enhanced, or altered. Similarly, most movies now include digitally-created elements or (at a minimum) digital color correction and editing. Throughout the art world, computers are actively involved in the generation, alteration, and distribution of art. Computers will radically change art, and this is nothing new. Technology has always changed art, from the invention of the printing press to the invention of moving pictures. Rather than attempt to deny this fact, I believe we should celebrate it, as our artistic ancestors have always celebrated past world-changing artistic innovations; which is to say, with equal parts trepidation and pure excitement.


Art of Don Seegmiller: The transformer. (2004, December). Art Scene International, 58, 28-37.

Benjamin, W. (1998). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.  (A. Blunden, Transcribed). Los Angeles: UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. (Original work published 1936).

Herland, M. B. (2003 February 3). The impact of Giclée: A shift towards digital print in future art. (Dissertation, 2003).

Walker, J. F. (2006). Painting the digital river: How an artist learned to love the computer. New York: Prentice Hall.


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Computer generated art. (2016, Aug 30). Retrieved from

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