When The Machine Made Art The Troubled History Of Computer Art

by Grant D. Taylor

Author Grant D Taylor Isbn 1623568846 File size 2 6 MB Year 2014 Pages 353 Language English File format PDF Category Information Technologies Considering how culturally indispensable digital technology is today it is ironic that computer generated art was attacked when it burst onto the scene in the early 1960s In fact no other twentieth century art form has elicited such a negative and hostile response When the Machine Made Art examines the cultural and critical response to computer art

Publisher :

Author : Grant D. Taylor

ISBN : 1623568846

Year : 2014

Language: English

File Size : 2.6 MB

Category : Information Technologies

When the
Machine Made

Founding Editor
Francisco J. Ricardo

Series Editor
Jörgen Schäfer

Editorial Board
Rita Raley
John Cayley
George Fifield
Tony Richards
Teri Rueb

When the
Machine Made
The Troubled History of
Computer Art
International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics


Bloomsbury Academic
An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc
1385 Broadway
New York
NY 10018

50 Bedford Square

Bloomsbury is a registered trade mark of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
First published 2014
© Grant D. Taylor 2014
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval
system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers.
No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or
refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be
accepted by Bloomsbury or the author.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Taylor, Grant D.
When the machine made art : the troubled history of computer art / Grant D. Taylor.
pages cm – (International texts in critical media aesthetics)
Summary: “Examines the cultural and critical response to computer art,
by identifying the destabilizing forces that affect, shape, and eventually
fragment the computer art movement”– Provided by publisher.
ISBN 978-1-62356-795-8 (hardback) – ISBN 978-1-62356-884-9 (paperback)
1. Computer art. I. Title.
N7433.8.T39 2014
776 – dc23
ISBN: HB: 978-1-6235-6795-8
PB: 978-1-6235-6884-9
ePub: 978-1-6235-6272-4
ePDF: 978-1-6235-6561-9
Typeset by Integra Software Services Pvt. Ltd.

To Victoria and Vivienne


Acknowledgments  viii


Introduction: Unorthodox  1
Future crashes  25
Coded aesthetics  65
Virtual renaissance  103
Frontier exploration  157
Critical impact  201
Epilogue: Aftermath  249

Notes  268
Bibliography  305
Index  321


The research that provided the backbone to this book was
conducted at two institutions on two continents. While pursuing
scholarship in Australia and doing the same in the United States
often differed in significant ways, the generous support of my
colleagues remained the same. At the University of Western Australia
in Perth, scholars such as Clarissa Ball, Patrick Beale, Richard
Read, Nicole Sully, and Ian McLean provided helpful suggestions
and challenged my thinking at every moment. At Lebanon Valley
College in Annville, Pennsylvania, I received the same type of
assistance—individuals with a critical focus willing to assist a
colleague in completing a large research project. The members of
the art and art history department—Karen Beall, Barbara McNulty,
Dan Massad, and Michael Pittari—continually provided me with
positive reinforcement. To Jeff Robbins, I owe special thanks. An
ever-generous colleague, Jeff always gave sound professional and
publishing advice. Other peers, including Marc Harris, Rebecca
McCoy, Matthew Sayers, and Robert Valgenti, have provided
various forms of aid: from language translations to best practices.
Mike Green and the office of academic affairs also supported my
endeavors with multiple research and travel grants. Becky Fullmer’s
editorial work was instrumental in refining my manuscript. My LVC
student assistants Diana Jo Hoffman and Lindsay Snowden were
eager seekers of the most obscure and difficult reference materials. I
would like to say Diana’s service dog Emmy helped, but the truth is
she slept on my office floor while we toiled away. The librarian staff
at the Bishop Library also deserve recognition for their remarkable
attention to detail.
Within the global field of digital arts, I have numerous people to
thank. Many of these individuals I first met at the inaugural Media
Art Histories Conference in Banff, Canada, in 2005, and since
then they have provided me with much-needed guidance and vital



research leads. These individuals include Darko Fritz, Charlie Gere,
Douglas Kahn, Frieder Nake, Margit Rosen, and Eddie Shanken.
Paul Brown, Hannah Higgins, and Nick Lambert have also
supported my research at salient moments. I thank Jörgen Schäfer,
along with the editorial board of the International Texts in Critical
Media Aesthetics series, for bringing my narrative to light. Without
the endorsement of Francisco Ricardo, founding editor of the series,
this publication would not have been possible. I am grateful to the
staff at Bloomsbury Publishing, especially my editors Katie Gallof
and Laura Murray. I would also like to thank the Regents of the
University of California and the University of California Press for
allowing me to publish portions of my 2012 essay, “The Soulless
Usurper: Reception and Criticism of Early Computer Art,” which
was published in Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Digital
Computing in the Experimental Arts (edited by Hannah Higgins
and Douglas Kahn).
I am particularly indebted to two individuals, Anne and Michael
Spalter, who have provided unwavering support since the first
moment I arrived in the United States. Anne has been an advocate of
my research as far back as graduate school, and Michael introduced
me to Hannah Higgins and Francisco Ricardo—individuals who
opened up new scholarship paths for me. My correspondence with
Laurens Schwartz became invaluable for both its counsel and its
sense of friendship. One could say we formed a bond through layers
of analogical expression. I am also appreciative of the countless
artists who have invited me into their studios and homes. Viewing
their artworks and searching their archives have provided continual
sustenance for my intellect and imagination. Finally, I would like
to thank my family in the United States and Australia, for without
their emotional support and devotion a project of this magnitude
would not have been possible.


The term “computer art” is rarely used in today’s cultural discourse.
To use the term is to impart a sense of nostalgia, to reminisce about
a bygone era of pioneers and antiquated machines. For most, the
term appears thoroughly unsuited if applied to contemporary forms
of art. Art employing the latest digital technologies no longer relies
on stand-alone computers, but is embedded in multiple devices,
interacting globally with mobile and Web-based technologies.
For this generation of art students, computer art is thoroughly
passé, more a curious preform to the dynamic world of digital art.
Students are seldom interested in the computer as a singular type
of technology—a medium defined by a physical machine—but are
absorbed in digital modalities across diverse social and geographical
Young contemporary artists who employ digital technologies
in their practice rarely make reference to computers. For example,
Wade Guyton, an abstractionist who uses Microsoft Word and
inkjet printers, does not call himself a computer artist. Moreover,
New York Times critics, who admire his work, are little concerned
about his extensive use of computers in the art-making process.1
This is a marked contrast from three decades ago when artists who
utilized computers were labeled by critics—often pejoratively—as
computer artists. For the present generation of artists, the computer,
or more appropriately, the laptop, is one in an array of integrated,
portable digital technologies that link their social and working
life. With tablets and cell phones surpassing personal computers in
Internet usage, and as slim digital devices resemble nothing like the


When the Machine Made Art

room-sized mainframes and bulky desktop computers of previous
decades, it now appears that the computer artist is finally extinct.
However, computer art is not yet that historical artifact, a fossil
from which a new species of technologies can be said to have
evolved. The term “computer art” can still be found in academia.
The occasional conference, university graduate program, or
college course still carries the term “computer art,” which means
some educators have resisted current trends of replacing it with
the up-to-date descriptors, such as “digital art” or “media art.”2
The Computer Arts Society, formed in 1968 in the UK, remains
steadfast, believing that the term has a historical significance that
others designations lack. There remain defenders of the term too.
Dominic McIver Lopes, one of those rare aestheticians who still
employ the term, favors its use and asks audiences to “set aside
the negative associations that cling to the name,” those common
misgivings that he says propel us toward preferring the term
“digital art.”3 On the whole, however, “digital art” has become the
term of choice, both in the art world and the academy. As influential
theorist and curator Peter Weibel recently wrote, computer art is
now “finally implemented as ‘digital art.’”4
While the term “computer art” appears redundant in the face of
rapid technological change, there are other reasons for its absence
from our current lexicon. The negative associations that “cling”—
to use Lopes’ description—to computer art give us some clue to
the deeper undercurrent of misgiving. As Douglas Kahn, a leading
theorist of early digital music, rightly points out, when we speak
of early computer art, it is often branded as “bad art.”5 For many
artists of the period, the term both embodies a sense of rejection
and reveals the essential contradiction in the art form itself. Pairing
the noun “computer” with “art” has in effect built a label with an
unending fission, a precarious reaction from joining two seemingly
incompatible and oppositional worlds. This discomfort concerning
the incongruous combination has in fact permeated all writing on
the subject. For many of its detractors, computer art was simply
a contradiction in terms; for even its most ardent exponents, the
classifier was simply insufficient to describe the immense diversities
within digital practice. In fact, ever since the birth of this neologism
in 1963, to the decline of its use in the early 1990s, the oxymoronic
overtones of the term “computer art” have troubled all who have
used it. The term, unlike those within the narratives of modern art



that were coined by a disparaging critic and later accepted by the
art establishment (“Impressionist” and “Cubist” come to mind),
has remained problematized and contested throughout its entire
In many ways, computer art has become synonymous with
negative criticism itself. Yet the nature of computer art’s criticism is
complex and multileveled, often reflecting modes of traditional art
criticism and at the same time being entirely divorced from it. Like its
history, the criticism of computer art is unorthodox. For example, no
single computer artwork has sustained public controversy, the engine
that frequently drives criticism. There is no scandalous artwork like
Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862–3), a painting that
raised the ire of the French Academy and insulted public sensibilities,
in the computer art movement. Likewise, no computer artwork has
ever evoked the same sense of radical dislocation or bewilderment
that met Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Yet, if
we collect all the denigrating judgments of computer art, we find
that they rival those of, if not exceed, all previous art movements. If
we examine responses to computer art by professional critics, rarely
do they represent judicial appraisals, that detached and objective
perspective we believe formal criticism requires. Many critics were
simply uninformed, as will be revealed, which was particularly
troubling since a knowledgeable position was valued above all else.
Being conversant with the subject was crucial in placing the critic’s
words above mere opinion.
However, the first writers on computer art were not established
art critics. They were practitioners of computing—most commonly
scientists, technologists, and engineers who understood the
complexities of this new technology. In addition, many of those
who wrote on computer art were performing multiple functions:
the art historian who organized historical facts and brought clarity
to context, the critic who examined the value of the work, and the
advocate who generated popular excitement. Not to say that these
elements were in equal proportion: out of the three, judgment of
aesthetic value remained the scarcest. There was no independent,
disinterested perspective that we associate with art criticism.
The first writers on computer art were deeply fascinated by the
computer, becoming, as their writings show, emotionally invested.
These disciplinary outsiders had the necessary technical expertise,
yet lacked a deep understanding of art and modalities. In time,


When the Machine Made Art

however, computer art would gain the attention of the mainstream
critics. Art historians and art critics entered the fray, with some
critics having notable reputations, such as John Canaday, Stuart
Preston, Robert E. Mueller, and James Elkins. While these figures
were widely known in the mainstream art world, there were other
influential critics, including Jack Burnham, Jonathan Benthall, Gene
Youngblood, Herbert W. Franke, and Jasia Reichardt, who would
make their name in that difficult intersecting zone between art,
science, and technology.
Computer art criticism was not limited to known and newly
known writers either; its discursive space was much wider.
The criticism of minimalist and conceptual art, which was
contemporaneous with computer art, revolved around a small,
some say elite, avant-garde cluster of celebrated critics who
often employed esoteric language to describe the aesthetic or
intellectual value of artwork. Conversely, computer art, with its
interdisciplinary nature, had an even wider audience beyond that of
science and technology. Computer art was part of the greater social
sphere, driven in large part by the general public’s interest in the
future of this emergent technology. Computer art has never been
deprived of an audience. As much cultural as technological, the
computer was a unique historical artifact. While it was one of the
most tangible symbols of the late twentieth century, the computer
remained allusive and mysterious. The computer garnered wide
public interest, and because of its perceived impact on the world,
the reaction to it was often immediate and impassioned. Indeed,
where computer art lacked consideration from the mainstream
art world, it certainly made up for it with keen public interest.
Consequently, if we stratify computer art’s discursive space, we
find that its reception and criticism is multi layered, with responses
and reactions emanating from the mainstream art world; the fields
of science and technology; the new creative space that emerged
between art, science, and technology; and the larger public realm.
It is little wonder computer art’s critical response was so diverse; it
reflected the wide-ranging artistic and scientific disciplines in which
computer art first gained attention. While responses to computer
art can often be described as excitable, a celebratory and superficial
reaction to the newness and promise of an emerging art form, the
majority were negative. Almost any artistic endeavor associated with
early computing elicited a negative, fearful, or indifferent response.



As early as 1956, musicians and poets exploring the vistas of a new
technology were ambivalent: thrilled at forging new artistic paths
and yet subdued by an undercurrent of misgiving from their cultural
peers. While computer music was often greeted with interest as the
latest novelty, the early computer experimentalist Lejaren Hiller felt
that emerging from “many quarters” was a deepening “incredulity
and indignation.”6 Joel Chadabe, another pioneering computer
composer, felt that the critics and the traditional musicians “feared”
the machine and its potentially harmful influence on the entire
field.7 In the early 1970s, Elliot Schwartz, in his listening guide
to electronic music, best summed up the general reaction: “The
notion of music ‘created’ by a computer always seems to arouse a
surprising degree of hostility, usually on the part of people who find
20th century art increasingly ‘dehumanized’ and ‘mechanical.’”8
Computer poetry fared little better. As Christopher Funkhouser
has written, the literary world was underwhelmed by computer
poetry.9 Mirroring the critical responses of mainstream music,
literary critics focused on the dehumanizing tendencies of the
computer and the perceived ontological break between author and
reader.10 John Morris, writing in the Michigan Quarterly Review in
1967, praised the importance of the written poem as an essential
“communication from a particular human being,” and noted that
if the difficulty of working with the computer discouraged those
currently interested, then poems would happily remain “one last
refuge for human beings.”11
In the world of dance, also, the computer received what Jeanne
Beaman described as a “curious but cool response.”12 Beaman, who
in the early 1960s pioneered computer dance and choreography,
explained in her introductory presentation to computer dance:
Most of us do not even want a machine of any kind to succeed
in conceiving any art form at all. The arts are usually presented
as our last refuge from the onslaughts of our whole machine
civilization with its attendant pressures towards squeezing us
into the straitjacket of the organized man.13
The most scathing attacks were saved for the visual arts. The most
common critical position is one that merely dismisses computer art
as inconsequential. Viewing computer art as tediously repetitious,
the critics’ commentaries make clear their belief that it has no claims


When the Machine Made Art

to the status of art. Even when computer art gained fashionable
notoriety, the critics, such as John Canaday from the New York
Times, spurned computer art exhibitions as “popular sideshows.”14
Computer art was another example of the vulgarization of science,
where besotted artists, dallying with the latest scientific and
technological media, produced what was tantamount to science as
kitsch. Because it emerged from the abstract sciences, the computer
art form was viewed by many as an anachronistic project—akin to
the early modernist fascination with pure science. In general, artists
from the mainstream held a common disdain for computer art
shows, seeing them as “science fiction grotesqueries masquerading
as art.”15
Beyond the ontological debate over computer art’s claim to be
art, the other major response centered on the matter of aesthetics.
The first critics described computer art as bleak and soulless and
bemoaned the arrival of this strange and powerful machine in art.
Robert E. Mueller wrote in Art in America that the visual results
from computers had been “exceedingly poor and uninspiring.”16
According to Mueller, technologists lacked the necessary
knowledge of art and its history, and their visual creations, which
were mathematically inspired, bored the “sophisticated artistic
mind to death.”17 While many galleries showed computer art, these
exhibitions were often “condescendingly reviewed,” as though
the medium was “without serious intent or noble aspiration.”18
Nearly every computer artist tells a similar story, a tale in which
their computer art is accepted on its merits, only to be rejected once
the curators discovered it was generated on a computer. Computer
artists were regularly rebuked and insulted by gallery directors.
Such was the stigma attached to computers that artists, such as Paul
Brown, have used the expression “kiss of death” to describe the act
of using computers in art.19
Indifferent as many critics and curators were, there were some
responses to computer art that were considerably more severe. In
fact, computer art has aroused the kind of extreme resentment that
characterized many of the idolatry controversies scattered through
the history of art. Beyond the sabotaging of computers, physical
attacks have been made on artists for their involvement with such
devices, and the careers of art curators have been significantly
damaged by their participation in computer art exhibitions.
Though it is commonly accepted that computer art was unpopular



upon its arrival, many are unaware of the level of vitriol directed
toward computer artists. In a case reaching the levels of harassment
and personal attack, Grace Hertlein reported that she was called
a “whore” and “traitor” by a fellow artist, who saw her choice of
medium as morally questionable and as a complete rejection of
authentic artistic traditions.20
While it did not encounter the extreme reactions that modern
art received when it was first displayed (such as the American
public’s xenophobic reaction to the Armory Show of 1913 or the
Nazi regimes’ racial slogans and mockery at the Degenerate Art
exhibition of 1937), computer art’s negation was more enduring.
The negative criticism lasted the entire duration of the movement,
and computer art never found the widespread critical and cultural
acceptance that modern art received. Computer art was different
too in that it possessed an inordinate amount of self-deprecation, a
kind of lack of confidence that meant exponents were unsure how
to position the movement. Paradoxical as it sounds, supporters
have been some of the strongest critics. In fact, a strange kind of
defeatism or fatalism permeates much of the writing on computer
art, producing a sense of the lost and forsakenness that affects the
entire discourse.
Although exponents find the computer intriguing and significant,
they often judge it a “disappointing instrument of representation.”21
In the 1990s, commentators believed the computer art of the 1960s
and 1970s deserved little attention. As Michael Rush rightly points
out, the first large survey of the field, Frank Popper’s Art of the
Electronic Age (1993), gives scant attention to computer art before
the 1980s. Similarly, Rush, in his later survey, wrote that it was
only at the end of the 1990s that the “aesthetic bar” was raised
sufficiently enough for computer art to warrant attention.22 More
recently, scholars like Douglas Kahn assert that graphic arts in
the first decade were less interesting—especially as it pertains to
contemporary digital practice—than the work being completed in
the fields of literature and music.23
In the last decade, however, the perception of early computer
art has evolved. Writers no longer give a cursory treatment of the
pioneering phase, but offer more detailed and nuanced accounts.
Indeed, computer art, which was long considered “non-art” by
traditionalists well into the 1990s, is now generally accepted as art.
While traditional criteria for defining art have evolved, computer


When the Machine Made Art

art’s acceptance is largely due to the art-historical context recently
provided by scholars. Interrelated with this new scholarship is a
new audience who seeks to celebrate the history of digital media
in the arts and honor those artists who were central in making it.
In addition, aestheticians, with accumulative success, have built
engaging theories of digital art that have assisted in deepening our
understanding of digital practice. A small but committed market for
digital art has also arisen, and collections, both private and public,
have formed. The largest and most extensive collections are held at
the V&A in London, the ZKM in Karlsruhe Germany, and the Anne
and Michael Spalter Digital Art Collection in the United States.
Offering much needed protection to these media-sensitive artworks,
these collections have emerged as important research repositories,
allowing future scholars access to rare digital artworks and their
related documents.
Thanks to a decade of work by scholars and cultural critics,
the summative accounts of the previous decades have given way
to in-depth histories. Margit Rosen has described the rush of a
new generation of scholars—Rosen being a prime example—who
have “set out to find the protagonists and works of the pioneering
era,” collecting and cataloging key documents as they went.24
These new narratives, which benefit from extensive research and
coherent critical paradigms, have particular national focus.25 While
the historical vacuum is beginning to be filled, there still remains
much research to be done, and, like all new research initiatives,
questions have emerged. The difficulty of generating an appropriate
methodology that encompasses the vastness and interdisciplinarity
of digital arts also remains. Edward Shanken, a key art historian in
the field, rightly points out that there is no clearly defined method for
“analyzing the role of science and technology in the history of art.”26
And Shanken believes that, without approaches that adequately
make sense of the interconnectedness of the fields, digital art will
remain misunderstood by traditionalists and marginalized from
the larger narrative of art. Charlie Gere, a cultural historian and
leading voice in the field, also believes that digital art and its history
have been “disregarded” and “woefully neglected by contemporary
art galleries and institutions.”27 Lamentably, nearly all surveys of
art since the 1960s fail to mention computer art. For many, it is
hard to reconcile the fact that the digital computer, perhaps the
greatest and most impactful invention of the twentieth century



and a technology that fundamentally changed the economic and
cultural fabric of the globe, is continually omitted from the history
of art. Digital technologies, as Bruce Wands asserts, are so “firmly
established” in “our daily lives” that their effect is profound at all
levels of contemporary society.28 In a ubiquitous digital culture—
one with a severe knowledge gap—Gere advocates for a more
forceful approach, believing that new research should elucidate,
through argument, the cultural significance of computer-based arts.
When the Machine Made Art heeds that call.
While recent scholarship has begun to uncover the rich history
of digital arts, it is yet to answer the fundamental question of
computer art’s rejection. Why was computer art so heavily maligned?
Every narrative mentions it, but none explores the reasons for it.
Importantly, computer art’s repudiation has meant that all critical
or historical endeavors have met with a similar fate: first posited
as insignificant and then relegated to the margins of art discourse.
I would argue that a close examination of computer art’s criticism
reveals a multiplicity of prejudices, all of which have affected the
field of digital art and added to the discontent and frustration that
Shanken, Gere, and others have expressed. However, exploring
the criticism of computer art is not a straightforward matter. For
computer art’s somewhat turbulent history is, like its criticism,
thoroughly unorthodox.
Computer art has a fragmented and often capricious history.
Previous historical accounts of computer art possess idiomatic
elements that separate it from traditional art history. They tend
to be aggrandizing in nature, seeking to justify and promote
computer art. Often simplistic, celebratory, and utopian, these
accounts neglect the basic precepts of art history research, such as
the artwork’s physical dimension and completion date. The scant
archival material available is fragmented and often difficult to
access, though recent research projects are remedying this. One of
the main problems, however, is that narratives of computer art give
priority to technical interests over historical context. Mirroring
the influence of science and engineering journals, computer art
discourse is filled with technical explanation. Consequently,
computer art requires a specialized technical knowledge of its
viewer. This is probably why the first histories of computer art
focus on technological change as a narrative structure. In this
deterministic model, the emergence of a new technology or

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