Creative Code as Art and Its Larger Implication

Using code in art marks a shift from the isolated artist genius to a networked one today.

More people, including artists, are turning to creative code — a type of computer programming used for expression, rather than pragmatic reasons. Some artists are using algorithms or processes to make something visual, thereby eliminating the need to create something manually, say by drawing, according to a PBS Digital Studios video titled “The Art of Creative Coding.” With this intent, visual artists and designers can turn to platforms such as “Processing” — an open source programming language for professionals, including artists, students and designers — to make prints, data visualizations, tangible items, clothes or to place information on a video wall, the video suggests. That said, Daniel Shiffman, Assistant Arts Professor at New York University, maintains that understanding how to write software “is really a way one can express themselves and sort of break the bounds and limitations of what larger institutions and corporations have made available to us to do on our own computers.”

Creative code is yet another outlet for artists, but it could have a larger impact. Creative code that uses open source software means the software’s source code is available for the public to use, to improve or alter; thus, it employs collaboration, openness and community. This is important because the practice of sharing that underpins open-sourced creative code differentiates itself from past art movements, as the video acknowledges. This attribute prompts the question: how has the once isolated artist genius been replaced with a networked one today?

Creative code’s distinguishing features are best understood by looking at America’s postwar artists. In reference to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, for example, art historian Caroline Jones states in her book, “Machine in the Studio,” that “[f]ar from discovering an artistic community, [American artists of the immediate postwar period] seemed to end their journey in a replication of past isolation. In this sense they were not pilgrims, but pioneers; they were not seeking tolerance and communal society, but space on a lonely frontier.” To this point, critic Harold Rosenberg also addresses this seclusion: “Attached neither to a community nor to one another, these painters experience a unique loneliness.”

Coupled with isolation is individuality — another prominent postwar theme. Artists invented their own style to promote widely, art historian David Joselit explains in his book, “American Art Since 1945.” Jackson Pollock’s “drips”, Mark Rothko’s rectangular fields of color and Barnett Newman’s “zips” are just a few of the distinctive artistic styles during this period.

The lone artist in postwar America gave way to the lone viewer during the mid-20th century. Joselit argues that American postwar art evolved from new experiences the public encountered created by the influx of mass media, starting in the 1940s with television through the 1990s Internet age. “In the postwar era, experiences of the ‘public’ took place more and more frequently either alone or in small groups in front of a television or before a computer screen. Paradoxically, while linking individuals to the world, these media also atomize and isolate viewers.” People in today’s society are still glued to their computers and smartphones. Arguably, through, the 21st century offers an alternative for artists: a sharing mentality for creating art.

The advent of social media and software code platforms help make society — and the realm of art — a shared, networked one. This is where creative code has an opportunity in art today. Take the Barbarian Group’s framework Cinder. In the “The Art of Creative Coding” video, Keith Butters, co-founder of Barbarian Group, describes Cinder as “a library of code written in C++” that allows people to focus on creating and making art. Since it is open source, Cinder is also free. But why? It boils down to the benefits of sharing. Butters says that the Barbarian Group benefits from other open source programs, so there is a desire and need to give back; it also benefits from other users that contribute code and grow the library. Tellingly, creative coder Alka Cappellazzo shares Butters’s point of view. “Making the source code public allows for study and collaboration between artists, programmers and enthusiasts,” Cappellazzo offers in an April 2015 The Creators Project article. “Art is knowledge, it is not good to build jealously, but to share so that it can live and spread.”

The internet, and the devices to access it, from smartphones to smartwatches, is making society more accessible to each other and to information. People already share their personal and professional lives on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Instagram and a host of other social media sites. In this vein, with so much information already made public, sharing code does not seem so foreign in today’s world. It does, however, mark a point of departure from the art movements of the past. We live in a networked world now; artists are just following suit.

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad

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