Bruce Sterling on "generative art"

Here's a three-part video-lecture by Bruce Sterling on the subject of "generative art" -- art that is created by a process that is in turn created by an artist. These are the artistic progeny of the spirograph and the kaleidoscope, and Bruce has an acerbic, thoughtful and skeptical approach to the subject.

Designing Processes Rather Than Art (via Beyond the Beyond)


  1. Interesting. I think Mr. Sterling did gloss over some of the “process” that is really part of classic (or at least, not computer-age) art — be it the bristle patterns in a brush stroke, the grain of photographic negative, or the patterns in stone or wood or metal of a sculpture.

    All of these features are not necessarily controlled by the artist, but a “good” artist is one who can fit these features as part of the piece, and managing the details of process to get the desired result.

    An obvious example might be Jackson Pollock — I think it might be fair to call his splatter paintings generative art: He didn’t know the exact result he was going to get, but managed the process get what he wanted. Whether you like it or not is a matter of taste, but many would consider his work does have merit. Is adjusting the distance and speed of splattering paint that different than tweaking the variables of a design program? I think there’s a strong parallel there.

    I think process can be art. It already is, and has been, for longer than you think. But the challenge for the artist when using process is to realize that it’s dangerously easy to make bad and uninteresting art with it as it is good and interesting art. The good artist is the one who knows that, and can discover the real gems. The great artist knows the intricacies of the process well enough to make those gems occur more often.

  2. There are two levels at which this qualifies as art.

    One is design/tuning of the procedure which produces the image. Whether that’s algorithm design for computer graphics or just selecting the paint and how much hits the fan how quickly, it’s still an artistic decision.

    The other is selection of which pieces are “successful” by the artist’s definition of success.

    Both of these inject enough of the creator/composer into the mix that I think it’s clearly an art.

    Whether any particular instance is GOOD art is a separate debate.

  3. Remember the golden age of the web, when hypertext liberated us from linear “push” communications that require passive attention?

    In other words: I’d love to read what Bruce Sterling has to say about procedural art. Video files of him reading his own words is just bonus content for trufans. Transcript or alternate source anywhere?

    Slightly more text and a link to some images here:

  4. I subscribe to a very catholic view of art. I believe that the experience of art is more important than the specific object of art, so I don’t put the creator in the same exalted place as others might. The artistic creator is of course important but so is the context and what the audience/viewer brings to the experience.

    Sterling speaks from the perspective of fiction writers, who are very much on one extreme of a continuum, exercising very precise control of the audience/viewer experience, doing their best to make context irrelevant, that is, where/how you read a book shouldn’t impact the content to an appreciable degree.

    Very interactive art, music, events lie at the other extreme.

  5. art is whatever you want it to be – far too much blah on the subject.

    i did however find him to have a very superior attitude. i only got through the first vid as i found him a bit annoying – with his upward inflection at the end of every sentence : )

    a little while a go a guy posted an article on himself and his generative artwork on the CG society forums. The article detailed how his work was superior to traditional forms of art. The article included many uppity quotes from the artist about how clever and unique he was.

    well, that didn’t go down to well in the forums as you can imagine. he took a bit of a slagging to say the least.

    What surprises me about this subject is how divisive it is between artists and how smug egotistical opinions form – then again i also saw some artist forming self deprecating opinions of their chosen medium of art (“CG art will never equal that of oil & canvas etc”)

    What i love about CG art is the marriage between technical and creative. For example using sub surface skin shaders in CG. There are physical based shaders that simulate the way photons behave through the different layers of human skin – amazing!

    The fact someone realized this then went about simulating inside a computer amazes me. And when you see all these technical elements brought together to form a beautiful drawing/picture/animation, well i think that’s a great cross over between computers and human art.

    people regularly fail to see the beauty in the technical achievement of CG artwork. But hats off to anyone who does something original or interesting.

  6. Hmmm…yeah, I agree re: just reading this talk instead of listening to it.
    Part of what makes this unlistenable is Sterling either ignoring or being unaware of visual art + complex art theories of the past 50 years. He seems to be smugly inserting himself into dialogues of new media art without fully understanding all the aspects of both traditional and new media art processes. For example, his treatment of generative work as programming a computer to “…explore space you cannot imagine, and that you yourself could not do.” Well, that’s evidently false to anyone whose looked at traditional abstraction from that past 50 years. His perspective is one of a science fiction writer + futurologist, and not one of someone more invested, and working within, contemporary digital media art practices.

    I’m really suspect of Sterling’s delineation between information visualization and “artistic whimsy” (as he describes it.) By labeling it as such, it’s as if someone’s art making is somehow less-than-rigorous. I also wonder why he’s failing to cite the artists in a number of these examples. Sure, he mentions people like Smithson (whose Spiral Jetty is _not_ generative art, btw) but when he pulls images from a Flickr group, he fails to mention the artists that created those works. Even in “Web 2.0” you need to cite artists, even if just their screen name.

    He does gloss over a few important pieces and theories; I wonder if he even mentions Manovich. Even if Manovich is problematic on a number of things, he is sort of “the” new media theorist at the moment. While this talk is little more than descriptive in its treatment of generative work, his “Comic Book Guy” tone overlays the talk with a sense of derisiveness towards the subject. If people are interested in generative art, there are a lot better sources than this.

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