moca museum

January 27, 2015
Blog 07


Computer Art and the "Not Really Art" Stigma

Fred Rowley

Shouldn't we shout three cheers for the term "Computer Art"? To me, "Computer Art" is the satisfactory moniker. It clearly and precisely indicates art from a computer. That is all we really need to say about the category where we park our digital work.

However, it is perfectly clear that some potential clients and boosters of artists would prefer to steer clear of "computer art". Perhaps they support another paradigm, or maybe they are put-off by the obscure concepts and methods which we computer artists embrace. Perhaps our work would be better expressed in mystical and evasive terms. Perhaps too, it would be appropriate to leave an admiring potential customer with his own suspicion that our work has been surreptitiously manipulated and even faked by a programmed machine lacking all human qualities, operating from a dark cellar somewhere in Brooklyn.

To many art-savvy patrons, a "machine-made" label certainly indicates work of a lesser ilk than a handmade labor of art rendered in a conventional medium by a "real" artist dressed in a paint-dribbled smock, flittering amongst rows of unfinished canvases, then prancing into a brightly lit, sunny garden-studio. Pallets covered with sticky oils and soiled berets strewn about the place. A romantic setting conducive to serious artistic profundity, seductive bargaining and of course, with mint juleps served up by the fireplace.

We want to sell our art, too. Does a skeptical or prejudiced assessment truly hurt computer digital art prices and sales? Certainly, but with only one customer at a time.

False generalities can affect all of us computer artists. The "Not Really Art" Stigma suggests that computer artists themselves may be substandard. I personally might cede that some of us may be afflicted with rare limitations of smile or frown, perhaps even curly hair. Some of us may even hiccup. A Not Really an Artist handle doesn't fit on us. Through the computer we all have been able to artistically express ourselves, often magically if not beautifully. Isn't there something here to applaud, to envy and to appreciate?

The validity fuss, in my opinion is an already-decided-contest reminding me of an argument that raged years ago- a war between the upstart digital calculator and the long-admired, but much over-loved slide rule.

Slide rules, which were admittedly handsome computing devices, required a great deal of skill to operate: manual dexterity, precision eyesight, patience, a degree of guessing and some luck too. Nerves of steel, some would say and "talent" too were needed to operate this essentially analog computer. And many engineering students were actually rated by their slide ruling skills in tests conducted which were akin to auditioning for the lead pianist's position at the National Symphony Orchestra.

But the hand-held calculators rapidly vanquished the slide rule. Simple, smaller, replete with keys to type in data, cheap too, and because they directly computed an un-fudged optimized decimal number through digital means, not manual means, the calculators persevered over those beautifully crafted and wonderful slide rules.

Did the untimely death of the slide rule, as a few skeptical detractors had predicted, annihilate the logarithm, or destroy the art of architecture, or fatally wound the art of engineering?

When I started out long ago as an enthusiastic photographer still in my teens, hardly any authority was willing to accept Photography or Cinematography into the Great Circle of the Arts. Those electro-mechanical-chemical disciplines were then considered crafts and trades for producing manufactured images. Never! it was implied: would they ever be accepted as art.

Time has proven the Not Really Art Concept to be fatally flawed. But a similar, begrudging acceptance has almost certainly affected computer art. As with photography, cinematography, and computer music, I think all of our critics will soon need, for sake of their own reputations, to embrace computer art as the legitimate work of devoted artists, not as the conspiratorial work of machines and submen..but as true Art. Any decision otherwise will soon become plainly unsupportable.

And I strongly suggest: Three Cheers for Computer Art!

Fred Rowley is a former photographer, filmmaker, database applications developer and webmaster. He says, "In hopes of someday becoming a real computer artist, he, together with his computers, frequently probe the limits of reason."

Fred's website can be found at

He can be reached at


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The Donnie is the Web's most prestigious and influential digital art exhibit and contest.



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