Generative art: a question of aesthetic, knowledge and interfaces


Umberto Roncoroni, BA

Communications Program,Universidad de Lima, Lima, Perú





Generative art is a concoction of algorithmic interactive processes, artists, users, and computers. This context generates new hybrid forms: art becomes a sort of an algorithm, and code evolves into autonomous poetic text. Artists should, due to the great social impact of this media, build new criteria to legitimate their work.

It is an aesthetic that can boost or inhibit the artistic potential of generative processes: we need art as an open, interactive and generative work, where the process itself is aesthetically significant. Thus, we should reconsider beauty in the context of knowledge and hermeneutics. But theoretic questions are pointless if we don’t analyze what happens to art in a digital environment: this means to be able to deal with the problem of interaction.

My goal is to study when we can speak of meaningful interactive art processes and under which conditions software improves cultural practice. I see three problems: what we seek in art, what is interaction, and what is the cultural identity of software. I will try to demonstrate that the key factor is knowledge, which can ultimately affect the meaning of generative art itself. This implies the redefinition of what software does (it must assume its responsibility as a communication and cultural system) and how software communicates with users. This questions the role of interfaces: these should be redefined by hermeneutics and artistic means, and should not be imprisoned inside hi tech gadgets and special effects.



It is probably a risk to speak of generative artistic processes as an interactive grouping made up of artists, an audience, systems capable of some form of self organization and computers. Philip Galanter[1] has justly pointed out that the aesthetic of generative art are somewhat diffused and that it does not necessarily need digital technology to be considered truly generative. However, computers do offer the development of generative art its most adequate medium, as they allow, for example, an efficient use of mathematical simulations of diverse natural processes. For this reason I will refer to generative art as essentially digital. If we accept this view point, generative art is a context which produces new media, creative and communicational processes. Still in its infancy, and relatively unknown, it will have great cultural and social impact, for example in education. This impact is due to the ubiquitous diffusion of computers, Internet, information highways and so on. For all these reasons, these new art forms need to lay down their foundations in a way that the social and cultural aspects, implicit in their processes and languages, are taken into consideration.

My personal experience has led me to conclude that this impact is particularly relevant in the countries of the third world, which act as fragile stages to the effects of cultural and technological globalization. In such environments the strengths of digital technologies are perceived as a new form of colonization, which becomes increasingly dangerous as it becomes more complex and sophisticated.

Something else we cannot ignore is the cultural context in which these new art and communications forms operate in. This context, let us call it postmodern, is characterized by the relativity of values and criteria, thus creating an unstable scenario from which to develop a constructive and responsible critique. Additionally, we must not forget that there still exists a significant fracture between the scientific and humanist cultures; the growing scientific know how in technological arts has made the traditional tools of criticism become rapidly obsolete. We can safely say that the new artistic and technological languages produce extreme reactions with self-defeating effects.

Simplifying matters, these attitudes can be synthesized in the digital enthusiasm of the Negroponte[2] school and in the apocalyptic visions of Baudrillard’s[3] mediatic criticism. A blind faith in technology does permit significant creative achievements, however when geared by economic strategies, it can also be limiting in developing effective social and cultural uses or it can risk falling prey of the technological funfair. Furthermore, Baudrillard’s "perfect crime theory" which alerts us about the dissolution of reality in simulations, does not offer the tools for constructive criticisms.

I would like to stress therefore that it is essential to raise the questions of sustaining and the ends of any generative work. This is both an aesthetic and philosophical dilemma and it consists of defining the relationships between aesthetic thought, scientific knowledge and technology.

In an underdeveloped context, full of cultural and social contradictions, the dynamics between art, science and technology present characteristics which are probably hidden or absent in more advanced cultural and economic situations. Between both worlds, the concept of knowledge becomes critically important.

Under this umbrella, I feel the priority is not so much being able to state what is a generative process, but when, and under which conditions, digital art constitutes a significant artistic experience.

Technological and aesthetic factors determine these conditions, especially those related to software and interfaces. I will try to demonstrate that both elements are structurally intertwined, and that the way this fusion is presented will determine the purpose of an artistic digital experience such as generative art.

My intention is not to present an academic lecture, but to share my experiences and philosophical journeys through the fields of art and teaching. These reflections pretend to be totally flexible, as the new territories we are exploring are completely open. Finally, the limitations presented by space force me to be synthetic when explaining problems and I want to apologize for eventual difficulties and confusions. I hope these arise from the complexity of the situation and not from my inability to explain them.


The aesthetic problem

Generative art, and in general all art which relies on software for its construction, is mainly perceived as a technological innovation because of its links to scientific concepts and procedures. For this reason, the aesthetic question is not addressed in most cases and is left to the freedom of individual tastes. This omission, however, ends up sapping the innovative strength of digital artistic processes, as a contradiction is generated between the possibilities of digital media and the weaknesses of its aesthetics. In other words, the risk is to confine the digital arts inside artistic mechanisms which are openly in crisis as regards their theoretical and institutional realities.

This risk exists because the freedom of "taste" is only apparent as the aesthetic issue reappears dogmatically at an individual level in open contradiction with the pluralist ideals of postmodernism.

There are two reasons which I believe make this happen: the first has to do with technology as we will see later on, the second has to do with the difficulty of managing the relationship between personal issues and the inherent postmodern nihilism. Artistic practice then, endures an internal conflict between the acceptance of a "no rules" situation and individual need of a strong artistic paradigm.

The absence of well defined aesthetic thinking does create a vacuum, a kind of black hole which engulfs mass cultural stereotypes or the cultural inheritance of common sense or of the education one received. If we do not question these, fundamentally romantic and modernist aesthetic inheritances, if we do not identify and confront them, they will annul the innovative possibilities present in technological, digital or generative art.

In Latin America, these inheritances are still present at the root of all educational systems, so new curricula which is opening up to new technologies is limited by obsolete concepts.

The initial proposal therefore consists of identifying obsolete theoretical preconceptions which are still found in postmodern art and which, in many instances, prevent it from evolving out of the endemic crisis which characterizes it. Such preconceptions continue to circulate freely because the postmodern system is incapable or does not want to change them. The phenomenon is not new; art systems have traditionally generated resistance to structural changes. Photography for example, had to divorce itself from its links with painting in order to find expressive and linguistic autonomy. Similarly, I believe that the digital arts must become independent and that implies the questioning of the reality which still makes up their operative scope. In order to achieve this we have at our disposal abundant philosophical tools; so what I will do is present a short review of some of the aesthetic issues, so that I can share with you this attempt to see things from a different perspective.


Arthur Danto and the death of art

The crisis of contemporary art, which is the crisis of modernist art or the phenomenon of the death of art, coincides with the appearance of the concept of liberty in art and with the philosophic roots of postmodernism. Danto[4] tackles the issue from a philosophical and artistic perspective; we can agree or disagree with his analysis, but it does offer useful indications to identify subsequent analytic elements.

For Danto, the phenomenon of the death of art has ancient origins. Plato’s mistrust of the Hegelian esthetic could be a starting point. However, the key theoretical concept of this process is the idea of art for art’s sake, product of the Kantian ideal of esthetics of genius: in the first place art is given an autonomous value and it is proposed as a privileged sphere among human intellectual activity; secondly, the utopia of liberty in art ends up generating a self referential mechanism which in turn transforms art in an object of itself. The culminating historical moment of this process coincides with two specific events: the invention of photography, which sums up the history of representational function in art and Duchamp’s “Ready Made”. Danto tells us that with the “Ready Made”, art becomes aesthetics, thinking of itself as philosophy. In this sense we see modernism as the belief that allows us to understand the essence of art: that is why modernism covers the period of the avant garde. The modernist hypothesis which states that art progresses, enters in crisis with the arrival of nihilist postmodern thinking: among the chaos of what is possible, the questioning of the concept of progress, the debate of  ‘new’ as an absolute value, the avant garde loses any authority as a revolutionary artistic theory and a whole system enters into crisis. Within the mechanism of art for art’s sakes however, artist remain protected from any criticism and art begins to play with anything and tackle any subject without consequences. But Danto concludes that these phenomena can be reduced to survival strategies and to systems generated by the market place.


Benjamin and the mechanical reproduction of art

The general presentation of the crisis in art that we have just seen provides us with a starting point to analyze the technological aspect with greater precision. For Danto it is technology, (in particular photography) and technical reproducibility, together with the “Ready Made” the two factors which trigger the process of the end of art.

Technical reproducibility and the concept of aura are at the centre of Benjamin’s[5] criticism of art for art’s sake. Benjamin believes that the aura houses the concept of creativity, the concept of genius and of art’s eternal value all typical of the aesthetic of art for art’s sake. The aura depends essentially on the historical and social contexts of the work of art. This context defines the creator and the conditions under which the work of art was executed, as well as the work’s physical dependence to a given space or geographical situation. Benjamin calls these contexts the “hic et nunc” of the work of art; it is the specifics of each “hic et nunc’s” which gives the work of art its authenticity, its unity or in conclusion, its aura.

Benjamin says that technical reproducibility has the positive effect of taking away the aura from the work of art. Taking into consideration Benjamin’s ideological background (a Marxist and an anti fascist), mass media can transform the work of art into a democratic and revolutionary instrument. However and contrary to Benjamin’s expectations, the aura (and the Kantian esthetic or art for art’s sake) has been recovered by the cultural industry as a new form of genius: “the star”. This simulated aura has been artificially generated by the “star system” for essentially commercial purposes. It has transformed mass media, like the cinema, into powerful instruments of ideological manipulation and of the organization of consensuses around consumerist economics. It is fascinating to see how this mechanism has come into being and due to which factors. We can find these factors in Gadamer’s[6] analysis which is built around the criticism of the Kantian concept of genius and the rescue of the epistemological value of art.


Gadamer and the critical approach to genius

Gadamer’s criticism of the Kantian concept of genius points to the boundaries of subjective autonomy in the creative act, typical of the idea of the artistic genius. This thesis implies, and this is where we find the criticism, the existing dislocation between art and reality as well as its irresponsible attitudes relating to ethics and epistemological questions. Gadamer believes that art must be recovered as a true process of knowledge. This aspect is particularly important as it is seen as the initial step towards a general recovery of human sciences, at a time when methodical scientific thought is regarded as the absolute triumph.

Comparing art with the phenomenon of play, Gadamer evidently presents the ontological process which the work of art brings to the artist as well as the spectator. This transformation is determined by the encounter with truth (in the hermeneutic and post metaphysical sense); the work of art therefore, manifests itself as a superior context which includes in its processes the artist and the spectator as participants. This idea strongly suggests two concepts which in a way bring us to the evaluation of digital works of art.

The first concept refers to the special relationship as regards ends and objectives generated in games and players (terms we can substitute with work of art, artist and spectator). In the first place, according to Gadamer, we must agree that the objective of a game is the game itself, as long as it is an ontological transformation and an encounter with truth. However if a player interferes with this process and introduces his personal interests, then the process becomes contaminated. The experience of the game becomes false and its content of truth is lost.

The second aspect refers to the concept of risk, which is inherent to the game and which implies recognizing the role of identity in whatever elements the players bring to discussion in the game. We can read this identity as the “hic et nunc” Benjamin talks about. We can say that, so that the game develops its “ontological increment” (the transformation of identity through the contact with the truth), the “hic et nuncs” are essential. Gadamer says that if a player does not want to risk his identity, he is then forced to wear a mask and introduce falseness and deceit to the game.

Finally, the problem of the aura is presented yet again, but if we see it in Gadamer’s terms, the aura does not only depend on the individual “hic et nuncs” (from the work of art, the artist or spectator), but on the process of ontological transformation which includes all. Contrary to art for art’s sake and the aesthetics of the genius, Gadamer considers the artistic phenomenon as a hermeneutic process of the interpretation of truth.


Heidegger: art and truth

We can clarify the mechanism which allows the work of art to fulfill its hermeneutical function looking at some aspects of Heidegger’s esthetic thought upon which Gadamer bases his theoretic structure.

Heidegger presents the work of art as the process which manifests or puts into gear the concept of truth in a conference about sculpture. As Vattimo[7] says in the introduction to this short text, Heidegger compares the manifestation of truth with “making space”. To understand the importance of this spatial metaphor, we must consider the radical difference with which the concept of truth is treated in Heidegger’s philosophy. It would be a mistake to think of this truth with old metaphysical, universality and eternity criteria. The truth as it is understood by Heidegger, post metaphysic, does not imply the exact relationship between the preconception and data according to the principles of empiric verification of scientific thought. It is proposed as an undetermined horizon, which involves individual truths: these are made up of personal criteria such as true and false. It also implies the relationship with the array of historical and social circumstances (in other words they are the “hic et nuncs”). These individual aspects are presented like openings, always different, inside and towards the horizons of truth. It is for this reason that the main significance of the work of art is the finding of new spaces and new manifestations of truth. This inauguration is the result of the work of art’s own space (as an individual truth which Heidegger calls “locality”) and the projection towards the back, as a free and open space (made up of the truth, which Heidegger calls region or “county”).

To conclude, the inauguration is the same hermeneutic process when, hermeneutic means the reading and the interpretation of the horizons of truth through individual means. The hermeneutical function of art is, to be the space, or the playing field, or the group of processes which makes possible and facilitates de construction of new manifestations of truth. 


Generative art as an "open work"

Coming to the end of this short and synthetic journey inside the concept of esthetics, it is possible to identify as a first conclusion, the need to manage some theoretical fundaments to form an esthetic base which will allow us to avoid self referential and contradictory mechanisms such as art for art’s sake.

These preconceptions are, on the other hand, recognizable strategies in many manifestations of contemporary art, especially in music and in literature. Umberto Eco[8] calls these factors “the undetermined character of contemporary art”. The concept of “open work of art” synthesizes the profile of work we are looking for.  The operative scope of the open work acquires a greater importance in the context of the new technologies. Generative art, software art and in a general sense digital art, present us with implicit links very much in the realm of the open work which we are about to present.

1. Art is presented essentially as a process and an event. This means that the work of art is not made up of a result or a finished piece in itself, much less that the artistic willingness is the condition which will determine, a priori, the artistic nature of an object.

2. Art, understood as a hermeneutic process, is of an emerging nature, always intrinsically destined to manifesting itself through different forms. These concrete results are phenomena which can be considered parallel to the creative endeavor of art as a process.

3. The staging of truthful contents in the execution of the work of art is essentially an interactive process which involves the artist, work and public (Gadamer) or the interactions of locality and county (Heidegger).

4. This interactive process demands the participant’s total compromise: they are the artist’s “hic et nunc” and of the spectator which as active part through the work of art, allow the contact with the truth. The hermeneutic process fulfilled by the work of art is possible if the process is transparent and if this process is not contaminated by self interests or deceit.

5. The work of art’s opening night as an opening to the horizon of truth (Heidegger), needs a common space and a context of shared knowledge, which is mediated by the work of art on the background made up of the truth. This shared space is also present in the game (the knowledge of the game’s rules and objectives), and in the concept of aura like “hic et nunc”.

Working along these parameters, generative art is made up of a complex and interactive hermeneutic system whose components are the artist, the spectator the know-how (mainly scientific but essentially multidisciplinary) the software and the computer. We must now ask ourselves if within the digital media so far described, we can find the hermeneutical concepts so far described. I will try and demonstrate, as a final step, that the critical factors and the elements which make up any interactive process are knowledge and the interface.


The game of interaction

To start off with, by interaction we understand a process which evidently cannot be reduced to its functional and operative functions. On the contrary, interaction is a complex intercultural process which must be developed in a free and democratic context, a context in which the components interact, share knowledge and different experiences in a balanced way. This exchange constitutes the profound quality of a work of art which is truly created through an open hermeneutic process.

In this sense, the problem of knowledge is of primary importance. In effect, I believe that a system can be called interactive only if there exists a minimum balance of knowledge among the parts. If one of these is at a disadvantage as regards know-how with the rest, then the interaction can transform itself into manipulation, and end up an exercise in power which will always be imposed on the weakest member.

Following along these lines, true interaction involves the creation of balanced knowledge when this is absent beforehand. The need to democratize art is demanded creating the pedagogic space of shared knowledge.

The real problem consists now in determining if in the computer’s nature, the software’s and the interface’s the necessary conditions exist for the development of real interactivity. And finally of course, we must examine what kinds of problems these elements present to the open artistic practice.


Hardware, software and knowledge

Firstly when we talk about the computer, there seems to be some confusion regarding its nature, at least in the artistic and teaching environments in Latin America. In these contexts and probably due to the lack of technological culture, the nature of the computer is never questioned: it is simply accepted and used as a tool, from within consumerist habits which worsen the less people manage technological know how.

The first mistake consists in viewing computers as machines. This error limits the nature of computers implicitly to hardware, leaving in the background its true essence which lies with the software.

This seemingly lexical error leaves users exposed and unprotected to the software’s cultural mechanisms. Furthermore, this way we equivocally begin to view the computer as a stable entity, which can be regulated precisely (like a machine). I feel it is important to always remember that that a computer is a complex system which manifests itself in vastly different ways, as different as the surroundings of the software which conform it.

The intelligence of the computer is to be found in the software. Without wanting to delve in the issue of artificial intelligence too much, I think we should stress the fact that any software is a potpourri of cultural inputs, strategies and ideas, which make up the operational means with which this software has been designed to interact with its users.

As Inke Arns has recently pointed out: "Today, in a time when our environment gets increasingly mediatized and digitized and thus can be said to be based increasingly on software, it becomes more and more important to be aware that code or software directly affects the virtual and actual spaces in which we are moving, communicating and living. It has the capabilities to directly mobilize or immobilize its users".[9]

Software viewed this way, cannot be considered a tool because it becomes language, text, a communication process. It is now clear that we must recover from the interior of this communication process, the identity and the knowledge as these concepts have become the key to the hermeneutic interactive process (the work of art).

1. The Identity. When we interact with a piece of software, we are really establishing contact with an unknown (a “hic et nunc”) identity; but we could say, to a certain point, that our identity is known by the software: it knows what we are after and it is designed so that we can do things with it. Furthermore, we as users, do not know how the software does things nor why nor in what mode. It is in this manner that we adapt to its mechanisms, trying to optimize our productive capacity to its possibilities. To use software means to interact with a cultural and communications system which acts and operates autonomously on the user often before the user knows what to do with it.

2. The Knowledge. This aspect has become increasingly important due to the growing functional automation and operating capacity of applied programs. As it stands, this capacity feeds on a vast wealth of knowledge embedded in the algorithms and in the programs’ code. This knowledge is not accessible to the user, who can only make use of it operatively and such limited interactive experiences will never constitute a real exchange of knowledge. On the contrary, the use of alien knowledge drastically reduces personal capacity. The computer, more than being just a tool for cerebral expansion, becomes a tool for its debilitation.


Simulation and knowledge

These problems present themselves amplified when the communications process user/software has as a goal, artistic production, like in the case of generative art or software art. In many cases, these systems make abundant use of advanced scientific know how like it is the case with artificial life, genetics, the simulation of processes of evolution and others. However fascinating it might be, the introduction of this know how, makes for the imbalance in knowledge between software and its users to grow progressively. And so the necessary conditions for hermeneutic development become increasingly difficult to attain. In imbalanced conditions we cannot speak about a really open interactive process. This presents us with the risk of having the generative process reduced to a mere spectacle, to an aesthetic object for momentary enjoyment, but which does not leave its mark or an ontological increment in the artist or the spectator/user.

In other words, these systems can easily become self referential circuits which lack real compromise with the spectator. It is in this case that we can say that we still belong to the same aesthetic horizon of art for art’s sake.

This is the reason why serious digital artists generally write and create their own software tools, but this operation which solves the problem at author level, leaves pending problematically the aspect concerning the spectator and his interaction with the digital work of art.

I feel that it is at this point that we address the conclusive problem of interface, as it is the medium which makes possible the interaction between author, software as motor of the generative work of art and the spectator.


The interface

Let us examine the interface. Its main function consists of facilitating the operative interaction between user and software. This way, the interface seems an innocent, purely functional tool. It is for this reason it has often been said that the most effective interface design is that which is oriented around the user. Nobody wants to question from this point of view its usefulness; however this function implies a series of consequences which in effect constitute a real hermeneutical problem.

In the first place, as regards design, the interface becomes a language which links the user with the software code. But in reality, this design serves a dual purpose: the first must surely be the facilitation of the user’s task, but the second consists implicitly of hiding behind some kind of visual metaphor, the software’s know how and architecture.

Secondly and taking into consideration what has just been said, we could state that interface design reflects, to a certain extent, the software’s view point. This statement which might seem absurd, I believe is justified, as the interface relies on the software’s functional architecture to function. It reflects therefore the software’s capacity, not the users: the interface intervenes between the infinite operative possibilities that users demand and the limited functions of the software.

If we analyze the interface through the methodological context of the game, it appears as a mask, because it hides the software’s true identity. It is in this way that in the game of interaction, a subtle manipulative element is introduced, which induces the user to perceive software as a simple tool and to feel the he operates in a free and creative environment. This illusion is strongest the more the interface is presented as a technological apparatus and stage design: the visual metaphors (like 3D virtual reality) distract the user through the special effects show.

Following this philosophy, when dealing with artistically generative processes, the interface and software can weaken the hermeneutical potential of the artistic process. They can also weaken the specific cultural contributions of the multidisciplinary know how used inside their processes: theories and innovative principles like complex systems, self replicating systems or artificial life, transform themselves into a scientific visualization show leaving the generative work of art continually trapped in the logic of art for art’s sake.


An open conclusion

Through these writings I have attempted to reflect upon generative art, confronting aesthetic principles and the structures of interactive digital systems. We have seen the surfacing of methodological problems which difficult the development of the generative art process, a process which I have tried to view through the lens of postmodernity, specially in its hermeneutic aspects. Following these principles, the conclusions we can draw present themselves as simple proposals and open work hypothesis.

Initially we find ourselves having to think in a different way, having to redefine the objectives of software’s within generative processes. Software must assume its socially responsible role, recognizing and dealing with its identity of cultural system and system of communication.

We should then focus our attention on new ways to manage the problems brought forward by knowledge, of its balanced distribution and communication inside interactive systems.


I also believe that the concept of interface design should be redefined. It should strengthen the hermeneutic process like cultural and knowledge interchanges in generative systems and digital art in general. Interfaces should, in my opinion, abandon the logic of becoming techno gadgets as well as the use of special effects.

Finally, I think we can try and address the issue of isolating validation criteria, presented at the beginning as a crucial aspect of generative art regarding technological and interactive art. I believe these criteria cannot be based on the subjective artistic evaluation of the formal results of the generative process. The quality of the work of art (not only generative) could be interpreted by evaluating the efficiency of the hermeneutic process. In other words we should evaluate the work of art’s capacity to create a system which, through the distribution of knowledge and beauty, would cater for the development of individual and social creative potentials.



[1] Galanter, Philip. What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory, in: Generative Art Proceedings, Milano 2003

[2] Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital. New York: Knopf, 1995

[3] Baudrillard, Jean. Il delitto perfetto. La televisione ha ucciso la realtá?. Milano: Raffaello Cortina Editore, 1996

[4] Danto, Arthur C. Después del fin del Arte. Barcelona: Paidós, 1999

[5] Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Illusions, New York: Schoken, 1969

[6] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Veritá e metodo. A cura di Gianni Vattimo. Milano: Bompiani, 2000

[7] Heidegger, Martin. L'arte e lo spazio. Introduzione di Gianni Vattimo. Genova: il nuovo melagolo, 2000

[8] Eco, Umberto. Opera aperta. Milano: RCS Libri, 2000

[9] Arns, Inke. Read_me, run_me, execute_me: Some notes about software art. Lecture at kuda, Novi Sad, April 9, 2004.