June 17, 2003

Harold Cohen on artist programmers

by Andrew Stern · , 2:46 pm

As we have been discussing artist programmers and meaning machines on grandtextauto, I sent an email to Harold Cohen, creator of AARON, asking if he’d like to share his thoughts on the topic. To my delight, he wrote back with the following comments.


Harold Cohen:

I wrote my first program early in 1969, at which point, I’m sure you must realize, the option of using an existing package as opposed to writing your own program didn’t exist — there weren’t any packages. If there had been I suspect I’d never have thought computing had anything to offer me.

That reflection leads me to one rather obvious comment; I don’t see anyone saying why they got involved in computing, what they wanted from it. And in the absence of any driving personal need, questions about whether one needs to program or not seem very arbitrary.

In my own case — to make my point more clearly — I came to computing after a reasonably successful twenty-year career as a painter, at a stage in which I was feeling increasingly frustrated by my own lack of understanding of how painting “works;” what exactly is happening when I make some marks and other people, whom I’ve never met and know nothing about, claim that they know what the marks mean, what I intended by them. My need wasn’t to make art — I knew very well how to do that — but to understand what art is. You might guess how strongly-felt that need was if you know anything about what computing was like thirty-five years ago and how lunatic is was for an artist to become involved.

Given why I became involved, it seems clear that using a package, if any had existed, wouldn’t have done it for me, any more than using a paintbox helps you to understand painting. I had to write my own programs, and I had deliberately to make them non-interactive; because if I had allowed myself to intervene in the process I would be doing essentially what I’d been doing all along, and could expect no more understanding as a result.

It is nonsense (left-brain, right-brain bla-bla) to say that programing is too difficult for artists to learn . Anyone can learn anything if they really need to be able to do it. And if the need is powerful enough it really doesn’t matter how long it takes. It’s a sight harder to learn programming when you’re forty, as I was, than when you’re twenty — and it was a sight harder thirty-five years ago than it is today.

If there is no very powerful need, on the other hand, how can you know whether you should learn or you shouldn’t? I’ve taught for long enough — both painting and programming — to know that the desire to be where the action is — or where it appears to be — all too frequently overwhelms the newly-emerging glimmer of personal need students might otherwise be better able to recognise and to nurture. If their teachers can’t or don’t program — and few of them can or do — how likely is any serious discourse leading to informed choices about how to proceed?

Why programming? It seems to me that the only unequivocal argument for programming comes up when you know there’s something you need to find out, but you don’t know just what it is or what it should look like. But isn’t that the normal condition of art? Isn’t that what distinguishes art from academic art?

And isn’t that what makes the most significant distinction between programming languages — Lisp, C, even Java — and the various packages cited in your discussion that claim to be programming languages? Photoshop is a quite remarkable package (I use it a good deal, though never for making art) but a language allows near-infinite expressivity. Photoshop doesn’t, though it’s complex enough to create the illusion that anything is possible. Anything? Try asking it to decide what colors to use.

Packages are written by programmers who are obliged to make assumptions about what their target audience wants. When the target field is pretty stable and it’s pretty clear what the audience wants — 3D modelling for industrial designers, animation for film-makers, rendering for the academic artist — those assumptions may be reasonably well-informed. When it isn’t clear, either because the programmers still believe what they were told (about art?) in high school or because the audience and what it wants are undetermined, they’re not likely to be well-informed.

Not that it matters, fundamentally. Well-informed or not, all tools tend to do what they were designed to do, and they were all designed to do something. (You could figure out how to use a pistol as a flower-pot if you really wanted to, but mostly pistols tend to be used for shooting people; which is what they were designed for.) That isn’t to say that there isn’t space at the edges, in a package as complex as Photoshop, to do some things its programmers never imagined anyone ever wanting to do. But the space is comparatively small and being able to explore it — a need that only arises if you’ve already signed on — still rests upon what’s already in the package. If it’s not in the package, you’re out of luck.

Aren’t true programming languages equally limiting? No: they are variously limiting, but not equally limiting. Thus, for example, I tried for a couple of years to figure out how to get my own program, written at that time in C, to do its own coloring. I concluded finally that C simply lacked the expressivity to allow an adequate representation of anything as abstract as color. And it was only after re-writing the entire program in Common Lisp — CLOS — that I was able finally to see how I might solve the problem. That variability in expressivity is something we find in human languages also — there are good reasons why Eskimo languages have more ways of describing snow than English has, for example, and equally good reasons, probably, why they haven’t generated an Eskimo Shakespeare — but we’re a very long way here from the narrow confines set by any programming package.

From these perspectives, then, I find myself wondering, inevitably, what those of your discussants who advocate programming for artists are actually doing with the discipline. It would be too silly, wouldn’t it, to try replicating a small part of what Photoshop does so well, just to prove you can? That would be like bowing to a new version of the tiresome old anti-modernist argument that it’s ok to do Picassos so long as you could do the real stuff first. In the final analysis the proof of the (programming) pudding is in the eating (hm…) of the output. How come I don’t see any output offered as existence proof for or against the discussant’s positions?

In the final analysis, also, the argument for or against programming has to go deeper than the personal needs of the individual. Personal needs develop within the cultural context and the context is changing today with astonishing — and escalating — rapidity. There is no law that says the individual artist is obliged to buy into a view of the future largely dominated by commercial-technological interests. I don’t see anything absurdly passe about painting and I don’t see anything particularly compelling about using cellphones as an art medium. But if the shape of the future figures at all as a determinant to your personal needs, then you have a choice to make. If all you want is to be current, then the latest package will do fine. Just remember that there are solid reasons why oil-painting technology has served the artist for half a millenium, while most new technologies don’t make it through a single New York season. The staying power of the most popular current packages has yet to be demonstrated; I still don’t know of a single major artist who has adopted Photoshop as his/her medium of choice, for example. So if you aren’t committed to chasing the latest package — and most individuals seem to think the package they first acquired is the one-and-only — there’s a better-than-even chance that you will soon be more passe than the guys who stuck with painting.

If, on the other hand, you see yourself as part of the effort to define the future, then I don’t see that you have any choice but to program your way, in the dark, through an unknown and unknowable landscape. For what it’s worth, that pretty much describes my own work over the past thrty-five years. I began with the notion that a program could do some part of what a human artist could do. My program still functions more as a highly intelligent and talented assistant than as an independent, fully-autonomous artist. I don’t know how far I can go beyond that point — the landscape is still dark and unknown — yet I have very little doubt that the future will include autonomous programs that function as artists.

Existence proof? The two attached images, both large prints made by my program, AARON, hung in a print show last summer in the San Diego Art Museum. In case isn’t clear, let me explain that my regular habit is to let the program run overnight and decide which of thirty or forty images to print the following morning. Most of them will be emminently useable, but it’s too expensive and too time consuming to print them all.

The labels in the exhibition said the usual: “Digital Print by Harold Cohen.” I called the curator and said, no, they are digital prints by AARON, a computer program written by Harold Cohen. The label was duly changed. But the bottom line still read: “Courtesy of the Artist.”

aaron1.jpg

aaron2.jpg

7 Responses to “Harold Cohen on artist programmers”


  1. nick Says:

    Harold, thanks so much for your reply, these very striking images from AARON, and for letting Andrew share these with us.

    I am really glad to read your comments about programming not being too hard for artists to learn, about the limitations of commercial packages, and about how software doesn’t stay as hip and current as traditional artistic media and technologies do. These are very important points.

    I did want to mention some reasons I haven’t been brandishing my artwork about in defense of the “need to program” (or the benefits of programming):

    How come I don’t see any output offered as existence proof for or against the discussant’s positions?

    For one thing, it may be that we don’t learn how to program in order to directly generate output, but in order to think more effectively. To take a different example, you might ask a computer scientist why she needed to learn calculus. In some cases (the computer scientist does statistical AI and uses calculus every day) she can point to something very directly and say “this is why,” but even then, that’s really only part of the story. In other cases, the computer scientist doesn’t actually do any continuous mathematics on a regular basis at all. However, being able to think in the way that you think when doing calculus was very helpful as part of a mathematical education, and the person would not be as good as thinker, in the context of computer science, without this background. It wasn’t the case for an artist learning to program when you did, but today a programming education is accessible for college students in any college or major. For anyone who is deeply interested in what computers can do and in what ways of thinking are developed by programming – whatever their field and interest or lack of interest in art – such an education is pretty sure to be worthwhile.

    That said, several of my works (such as Winchester’s Nightmare and Ad Verbum) are computer programs and couldn’t have been created without programming. Several others aren’t programs (and many of them aren’t even very structurally interesting as hypertexts) but they attempt different parts of my overall project. Among other things, I’m interested in simulating textual world and in providing (at least in some ways) an automated co-author for a writing and reading experience. My computer-program works are textual interactive experiences rather than visual images, so I can’t quote them as easily, and they wouldn’t be as impressive if I did. (In fact, I must admit that I seldom actually identify myself as an artist, except in the broad sense of the term that includes writers and other creative culture workers, or unless the museum is offering a discount. When I talk about “artists” and computers I don’t mean to restrict the discussion to visual artists.) Still, many people are doing new things in interactive fiction that, whatever their merits will look like over time, certainly require programming. I don’t see any indications (in terms of actual work) that a markup language or some non-programming development environment, rather than a programming language, could manage this sort of thing. So I do think there are some concrete practical reasons, in my case.

  2. andrew Says:

    Harold, I enjoyed your comments. I can tell your words are coming from someone who’s been at this a long time, both working and teaching.

    First I’m happy to hear you say that anyone can learn to program, particularly when driven by personal / artistic need. I’m hoping those will be words of encouragement for anyone not yet sure if they should undertake learning to program.

    I also like how you remind us of the trendiness of new technologies, and the staying power of traditional technologies.

    I don’t see anyone saying why they got involved in computing, what they wanted from it. And in the absence of any driving personal need, questions about whether one needs to program or not seem very arbitrary.

    For me, from an early age, the computer has been a (and was really my first) creative medium – at age 12 I taught myself programming in BASIC and assembly language on a Commodore 64, and promptly made a slew of puerile little interactive games and short-film-length multiple-sprite animations. In college I got really into video and filmmaking, culminating with making a feature length film at 24, but eventually abandoned that to return to the computer as my primary medium for making creative work.

    Why computing? In a nutshell, I see the computer as a medium to discover and invent new forms of art experience, particularly in its capabilities to listen to the user, behave autonomously, and potentially generate new content. For example, lifelike fictional interactive characters, and interactive drama. The computer as my first creative medium is a different starting point, and perhaps has certain ramifications for me, than if I had originally gotten into a different medium, such as drawing, painting, writing or music. I’m not quite sure what those ramifications are, but it probably does affect my outlook and creative process.

    Why programming? It seems to me that the only unequivocal argument for programming comes up when you know there’s something you need to find out, but you don’t know just what it is or what it should look like.

    I don’t quite agree with that… I think there are new forms of art experience to be discovered / invented that can only be achieved with the computer and programming. It think that’s a slightly different reason than what you’re saying.

    If, on the other hand, you see yourself as part of the effort to define the future, then I don’t see that you have any choice but to program your way, in the dark, through an unknown and unknowable landscape.

    I tend to agree with this. We should be careful to say that programming is not a requirement for making “important” new media work, nor does programming guarantee that your work will be any good. But I do believe programming will help artists achieve great new things, and therefore it behooves any new media artist to learn and use programming.

    My program still functions more as a highly intelligent and talented assistant than as an independent, fully-autonomous artist. I don’t know how far I can go beyond that point — the landscape is still dark and unknown — yet I have very little doubt that the future will include autonomous programs that function as artists.

    This is fascinating to me, and the thing that excites and intrigues me the most about AARON. I made a few cursory comments on the relationship of an AI to the human artist in a previous blog post; I’d love for this to be the topic of future blog posts / discussions on grandtextauto.

  3. Harold Says:

    Andrew and Nick,

    sorry for the delay. I’ve been stuck in a programming problem and couldn’t let go.

    Having myself come to programming after twenty years of painting, I always wondered what would happen when a new crop of young people got their first experience of art-making with the computer — more precisely, with one or another package running on a computer — and teachers in a similar condition. Inevitably, there’s a strong tendency for the individual to take on trust the (entirely questionable) assertion that package X is an art medium, just as in my own youth we tended to take on trust that what we learned in art school defined an art medium.

    The difference, of course, is that what we learned in art school had been under examination and continuous revision, by artists, for half a millenium. Package X has been defined by a bunch of hackers who are making relatively uninformed assumptions about what artists do. (Think about the fake brush textures in Photoshop…) Revisions then don’t follow from examination by artists, but from the need to put in more bells and whistles to justify a new release and to sell more copies. Can you think of a single package that was refined and reduced after the first release instead of

    expanded?

    What is lacking in computer art — one of the things! — is any sophisticated sense of what art IS. Americans — to limit the discussion to this country — never had any idea about history to begin with. (I once mentioned “art between the world wars” in one of my classes and discovered that most of my students didn’t know there had been two.) So it isn’t surprising if the first thing to get dropped from the curriculum when computers come in is art history.

    For me*, art is a cultural enterprise and a culture is a continuum through time. Most artists in history have been engaged in pushing back the boundaries of art-making, because the practices of art-making embodied the definition of art and the definitions of art needed revision from time to time. When history disappears, there are no definitions to revise and no boundaries to push back. The individual is in startup mode, guided, in this case, only by what equally uninformed teachers and the commercially motivated packages can tell him.

    I was going to ask what are the chances that art will result? But let me ask, rather, what are the chances that the result will have cultural value? (cf, for example, Titian, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Bonnard, Pollock…)

    *Apropos of which, I should repeat that art has been changing its definitions continuously: never as rapidly as this, but then nothing else has ever changed as rapidly as it is changing today. Perhaps my view that culture is a time-based enterprise is no longer appropriate and art will now be anything that anyone says it is. Problem, then: how come almost nobody outside the computer art community is remotely interested?

    Nick, I share your view that programming enlarges our mental capacities by providing enhanced modes for thinking. I remember feeling that I had (metaphorically) become able to juggle six balls without dropping any. I think I’d be prepared to argue that instruction in programming should be mandatory for all students, regardless of discipline. But that’s another question. I was asking for a more tightly-focussed reason for learning it, but of course you’re quite right is asserting that one’s intellectual development is reason enough.

  4. Week 1 Case Study « Kotat Blog Says:

    [...] ; References[1]        Cohen, Harold (2003).  Harold Cohen on artist programmers. (http://grandtextauto.org/2003/06/17/harold-cohen-on-artist-progr [...]

  5. Gittan Aronson Says:

    I have a drawing made by Aaron that I bought at the Tate in 1983. ” London/at the Tate” is written on it and it is signed Harold Cohen.
    Is it worth anything? As I remember it was not very expensive since we could afford to buy it.
    Gittan Aronson
    Sweden

  6. Tom Connelly Says:

    Has Harold Cohen ever taught Visual Design at Southern Illinois University 1955-1959?

  7. mark beachell Says:

    Me too
    did you ever find out?
    Mark

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