Automatic Art: or, How to Take the Human out of the Humanities

art, Humanities, teaching, Technology

By Evan Thomas

I often teach a general education Humanities course (HUM 200, officially titled Connections: Humanities and Technology) on the topic of “Automatic Art.” As a Humanities class, we study representative elements from the entire range of arts and letters:

Those are representative examples of the coursework – but what is “Automatic Art”? The term doesn’t actually have much reality outside of my course. (Frustrated students will often turn to the surrealist technique of Automatic Writing, which does exist, but has little bearing on the collection of objects we study.) I like to tell students that “automatic art” is equivalent to “taking the human out of art,” but what does that actually mean?

The Seminar Approach

As a 200-level general education class, most sessions are organized around student-led seminars: it is much more valuable that students work through deliberating conjectures, rather than being spoon-fed any particular answer. So I ask my students to define what, if any, meaningful description of Automatic Art can emerge from this class of objects? What kind of “automation” is present in each category? Students have explained to me that some forms of automation involve the use of machines, like the optical camera, the printing press, cinema, or generative software. But some other forms of automation involve people renouncing their own creativity and working procedurally, like Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, or Jorge Luis Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Automatic Art and Philosophy

I think I can best explain the reading list for HUM 200 by inverting one particular philosophy of art. The German idealist philosopher GWF Hegel outlines three definitional characteristics that he considered necessary for something to be considered art: Hegel says a work of art (a) should be brought into being by humans; (b) should be created from a medium that can be sensed (i.e., seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled) by, and for, humans; and (c) should have purpose. So the reverse of Hegel’s ideal (¬a) would be brought into being without humans; (¬b) would be created without a sensuous medium; and (¬c) would be purposeless. Or, in other words, everything that is not-art for Hegel would be characterized as (¬a) automated creation; (¬b) insensible; and (¬c) unintentional: such things are what we study in HUM 200.

In HUM 200, we study many attempts to automatically create art. To use an earlier example, we study Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system for generating music from chance. Arnold Schoenberg took the classical European system of rules for generating counterpoint, or harmonic inter-dependency, and subsumed it into a new system of rules for generating music without any thematic, melodic, or tonal center. We also study Henry Cohen’s AARON system – a 1980s computer program that generates visual images.

An early example of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone composition.

In HUM 200, we also study conceptual art, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Ready-Mades. Marcel Duchamp often took everyday objects and attributed new properties to them that would be otherwise unobservable. One Ready-Made, for example, is a snow shovel titled “Broken Arm,” for which Duchamp provides an extensive story about a childhood memory. Duchamp’s concept and story, however, has no bearing on the actual shovel, which was of a type that did not exist when Duchamp was a child. Duchamp’s ready-mades exhibit one form of automaticity – the expedient generation of objects or qualities – when he conjures up “art” out of pre-existing materials. In other words, Duchamp takes the artistry out of art.

Lastly, in HUM 200 we also study purposeless creations – things that weren’t even created to be aesthetic objects. For example, we study the New Aesthetic, which is a fine art movement based around the appreciation of artifacts from machine vision. Bruce Sterling describes these artifacts as

Satellite views. Parametric architecture. Surveillance cameras. Digital image processing. Data-mashed video frames. Glitches and corruption artifacts. Voxelated 3D pixels in real-world geometries. Dazzle camou. Augments. Render ghosts. And, last and least, nostalgic retro 8bit graphics from the 1980s.

The aesthetic qualities of the New Aesthetic were never generated on purpose, and they weren’t generated by humans: they are byproducts of automated systems.

Hugh Manon, “Glitch Art: I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble” (via Flickr)

What’s Left

After showing students a wide array of arts and letters that were created automatically, insensibly, and unintentionally, I like to ask my students: what did we miss? Or in other words, did any of these projects succeed at “taking the human out of art”? If they did, then what was lost? And if they did not, what part of humanity endures despite past efforts to remove it from the arts?

I specifically ask students to share their reactions to these artworks in typical college essays as well as in the form of a student-led art exhibition. Students at the end of HUM 200 create and display original works of art, music, and poetry in the Apex Gallery. In recent semesters, I’ve asked students to write their final essays about the artworks created by their classmates. In the end, therefore, this becomes a class that appreciates, challenges, generates, and self-critiques the arts.

What’s Next

In the near future, I expect I’m going to retire “Automatic Art” as a topic for a while. I’m thinking of generating a new collection of arts and letters on the theme of The New World – something expansive enough to stretch from Moore’s Utopia and Shakespeare’s Tempest to Andy Weir’s The Martian and Alex Garland’s Annihilation. I want to ask students about how hopes for a New World have changed over the past five centuries. I want to ask them about the ways that artists have envisioned humans changing in the New World. And, most of all, I want to ask students about why artists and writers keep imagining a New World somewhere beyond our reach – what is it about this world that inspires hopes for a new one?

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