Levels of Algorithmic Composition

The following email exchange addresses the issue of levels of working with algorithms in the arts. For those new or relatively inexperienced in the algorithmic world, algorithms that function as art production instruments or "creativity" systems tend to mislead many into believing that what is produced by their use of algorithms is their personal creative work even though they're not the creator of the algorithms. This is an aesthetic problem closely related to widespread appropriation, sampling, and outright plagiarism in late 20th century art made all the easier by the "copy and paste" functions built into late 20th century technology. This issue also goes beyond simple authorship; it brings to the fore the fundamental importance of discovering, priming, and maintaining one´s personal creative wellspring.

To: "Paul A. Fishwick"
From: Ron Pellegrino
Subject: Re: the nature of art
Date: Sat, 10 Oct 1998

>First, I really like your site, but found a comment of yours interesting.
>If algorithmic programs create an "illusion of a work of art"does this
>also mean that tools that allow "programming for the masses" produce
>"illusions of a program"? To put it succinctly, if I give you tools that
>make it easier for you to program, does this mean that you are less of a
>programmer? I believe that just as someone who programs part time is
>a programmer, that someone who does art part time is an artist. Your
>thoughts are welcome on this.


There are levels of originality, complexity, and sophistication in the algorithmic composition business. The most superficial level is using an algorithm that someone else created which does not allow for much of your input; it´s a bit like coloring in a coloring book. A deeper level would be working with algorithms that someone else created but are closer to open systems allowing for much greater personal input. A deeper level still would be combining algorithms that someone else created to fashion more complex algorithms of your own design. Deeper yet would be creating and playing your own algorithms. And deeper yet would be creating and playing your own set of modular algorithms that are used to create and play higher order algorithms.

"Creativity" software (canned algorithms) seduces users into believing they´re creative because they can produce an "art" product with it. With good reason children, beginners, and dilettantes love these tools. In most cases any number of people working with a particular canned algorithm will produce similar "art" products. Canned algorithms tend to funnel users into very narrow channels, the inherent limitations of the algorithms. It´s actually the "canned algorithm" which creates the work of art. The person playing or performing the "canned algorithm" has the "illusion" that he created the work of art.

The main value of canned algorithms is that they provide people with points of entry into the arts. If you´re talented but lazy you´ll never get beyond the entry point and you´ll be "less of an artist" than those who work to go beyond the entry point to create their original views. The idea that technology makes life (art) easier is hogwash; it actually makes both more complex and difficult but also more rewarding in every way if one accepts the idea of an ever emerging challenge (keep moving beyond the entry points).

To put it succinctly, you´re less of an artist if your work is based on someone else´s ideas (including algorithms). Originality is the foundation for the highest level in art - finding, cultivating, and using your own "voice" in ways that impact and move others to higher levels of being. It´s only in the academic and commercial worlds that craft and productivity count for more than originality. No argument: part-time artists are artists. But to reach and sustain the highest level in the arts (finding, cultivating, and using your own "voice" in ways that impact and move others to higher levels of being) is not only a full-time job, it´s a lifelong commitment.

Ron Pellegrino

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