A year or so ago I was invited to an exhibition of computer art and went
along expecting to see something new and interesting. Unfortunately it consisted of
numerous fractal generated patterns which, from an artist's point of view, can only be
described as fruit and veg without the meat. I inadvertently upset a few people by
describing the show as gorgeous wrapping paper framed and presented with clinical
The problem with a lot of computer art is that it has yet to transcend
its adolescent astonishment with its own very impressive technology. Until it does it
will continue to refer only to itself - a parochial oddity of interest only to computer
enthusiasts. Not enough fine artists have yet seriously explored the medium. It has an
engine under the bonnet, petrol in the tank lots of knobs and switches but only a few
drivers with vision.
The fine artist learns the rules and then bends them sometimes
breaking all the laws and re-inventing them. The process involves years
of experimentation searching for the unexpected - the Eldorado of a
new idea. Paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt or any accomplished artist
reveal forms in relation to character. They inspire, in the viewer,
an emotional as well as an intellectual response. In reality they are
a combination of canvas, pigment and various oils, nothing more. However,
as we all know a work of art is more than the sum of it's total parts.
A Picasso painting also contains the spirit of the man himself and is
not merely a collection of clever special effects. The great artists
show us new ways of seeing and then these insights are incorporated
into our culture. Nearly all commercial graphic art owes a debt to the
fine artist. Commercial artists are always constrained by deadlines
and do not have time to experiment, so they are obliged to use the inventions
of the fine artist.
Oil paint and water colour have their own unique qualities which
facilitate an idea. This is also true of the computer and the fact that it is largely
unexplored territory should make it a stimulating challenge for any fine artist who can
over come the first technical hurdles. But in my research I have found a resistance to new
technology by the fine art establishment and many fine artists seem to have an
unreasonable fear of science in general. Which is a pity because nowadays the hardware and
software has become very powerful and affordable. It is cheaper for an artist to set
him/her self up with an I-Mac, a flatbed scanner, printer and a mass of
software than to purchase the equipment needed to make etchings.
Despite the opposition to the future there are a few fine
artists taking an interest in the potential of computers. Richard Hamalton
uses his Quantel Paint Box and Macintosh to make huge compositions.
He was the creator of 'Just What is it Makes Today's Homes So Different,
So Appealing?' which is considered to be the first true work of Pop
art (you youngsters who can't remember the 1960's may recall the BBC
QED program which celebrated his work a few years ago) Hamalton is probably
the most interesting and enthusiastic fine artist working in the medium.
He makes two meter 'life size' cibachrome prints of his computer generated
images, some of which are transferred onto canvas. He then combines
these compositions with the rich qualities of oil paint. He has been
at the cutting edge of new technology all his working life. I recently
asked him if he had experienced any resistance from the fine art establishment
and he said "It took many years for the screen prints of artists
like myself and David Hockney to be accepted as bona fide works of art."
Today his work is held in many major public collections around the world.
His latest works have been on show in an exhibition entitled 'Seven
Rooms' in the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art.
As the older generation of artists move on to that great studio in the
sky attitudes to new technology will change. Recently the BSI (British Standard
Institute), in collaboration with groups such as the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers
have, after many years of argument, included in its categories of prints "A.8. New
Technology Processes - . these involve the use of computers, computer screens, computer
printers, laser printers, fax machines and the like, in the creation of the matrix or the
It was also encouraging to see the 21st International Biennial, at
Ljubljana in Slovenia include some computer prints in the exhibition which were given
equal status with etchings, lithographs and other original prints. ArCade, the UK's first
open international exhibition of Electronic Art included original, limited-edition,
prints, which have involved the use of computers to generate and manipulate the imagery.
Artist William Latham is making tentative steps in using the intrinsic
qualities of the computer itself . His MUTATOR programme was developed with mathematician
Stephen Todd and uses genetic data to create 3D animated forms which change and evolve.
There has also been a proliferation of art sites on the Internet, mostly
showing reproductions of paintings, and sculptures. True to form the fine art
establishment have managed to misconstrue this medium also. In a recent interview on the
Big Byte (Radio 5 Live) art critic, Brian Sewell said "What you are doing when you
give access to a misleading image is cheating the wider public, you are deceiving them,
you are giving an impression of something that is grossly inaccurate. This is a lie. If
you want to lie then do disseminate your Rembrandt on the Internet. If you want to tell
the truth, then get them to go and look at the picture." But it seems to me that Mr
Sewell has completely missed the point. Is a reproduction of a painting less valid because
it's viewed on the net than when reproduced in a book? The Internet, like books, is
primarily a literary medium and not yet powerful enough to act as an effective canvas for
visual creation. Nevertheless, It is an excellent means for artists to transmit
information about their works. It is also possible to cut out exorbitant gallery
commissions by selling the originals direct to the public. Maybe this is what really
worries the 'Art Mafia'.
At the moment the computer is mostly used as a substitute
painting device but as the technology evolves and becomes more powerful
new possibilities will become apparent. Computer images are created
with light and have the intense colours of stained glass. Of course
this luminescent quality is lost when printed on paper. One approach
could be to use lots of very large monitors. In this way it would be
possible to create a moving interactive cathedral of light. Images that
are not constrained by the traditional confines of the picture plane,
which change with the seasons and the viewer walks into. As flat screen
technology develops it will be possible to have art on your walls which
you dial up to suit your mood. Artists could be creating whole environments
which you buy on a CD in much the same way you buy music. You could
actually experience the beautiful emptiness of the desert, the savage
jungle or the eye of a hurricane all within your living room. How about
inviting your friends around to your inner city flat for a dinner party
but the view out of the window is some landscape from the mind of Damon
There are times in history when a new technology galvanises artists into
activity - classical Greek sculptors discovering form in stone, the invention of the
mathematics of perspective in Renaissance Italy, the movies around the turn of the
century, television after the war and now computers in the 21st century.
Are we are at the boundaries of an undiscovered wilderness?
Untouched, virginal and waiting for the artist to explore its inner
Email Mark Millmore firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was written in the late 1990s.