A New Renaissance
The new sensibility/noology that I am feeling . . . is based on my observation that art and science, after centuries of separation, are becoming entangled again through the discreditation of the concept – one might say presumption – of objectivity . . . I am maintaining that we are leaving the age of sterile reductive analysis and entering into one of fecund synthesis; much like the poetic-mythic-scientific age of the early Renaissance. (Nechvatal and Perret 2006).
Thus does artist and critic Joseph Nechvatal suggest what many of us in the artistic community may be feeling, namely, that while perhaps ill-prepared to face both the immense challenges and opportunities presented to us by our exploding technological capabilities, we are perhaps also at the threshold of a new renaissance , in which art and science are gaining a renewed appreciation for one another; and if we understand the discredited “objectivity” to which he refers as including a new humility on the part of science as it stands before the wonders of the universe , it is interesting to note, first, that one of the vanguards of the new sciences – neural net-based artificial intelligence – represents an analogy to the operation of living nervous systems as opposed to a model based on the rigid, rule-based approaches of the 1950s and 60s; and second, that whereas the artificial intelligence community has been traditionally focused on board games like chess and checkers as the subject of its research, that role is being increasingly filled by the graphic arts (Smith and Fol Leymarie 2017).
As to the immediate agent of this looming renaissance, it is of course that electronic machine which we know as the computer, and which we will insist on so identifying – as a machine – because no matter how skilled it becomes at emulating human behavior, and no matter how much it can teach us about our own mental and artistic processes , we must keep in mind that the computer executing an algorithm is nonetheless a deterministic device which we ourselves have created and set in motion, and which we therefore have some responsibility for attempting to send off in a favorable direction. That having been said, however, we must also acknowledge that the computer is truly unique among our inventions – and with no foreseeable limits to the growth of its powers.
Indeed, the presence of the computer in our lives should make even more real for us, by analogy with the book and printing press, the possibility of a new renaissance: it is no accident that the printed book, which automated for the first time in human history the distribution of information, appeared during the original Renaissance; and now, for the first time in human history, we have a technology that has automated the collecting and processing of information. Furthermore – and as has been amply demonstrated by computer science (Mazzone and Elgammal 2019) – that “information” encompasses all of the data required to make aesthetic judgements very nearly indistinguishable from our own. Or in short, the circa 1950 appearance of the electronic computer was a pivotal moment (Smith 2015), and one which might serve as the starting gun for a new cultural fluorescence.
But hence also the need for patience with ourselves and with art – here our central thesis – as we contemplate the many decades of confusion and experimentation in the visual arts between Giotto’s birth circa 1270 and the triumph of the High Renaissance style circa 1500. Awed by the glories of the latter, we tend to gloss over awkward passages like the confused perspective in Melchior Broederlam’s Annunciation and Visitation (1393–1399), the uncertain anatomy of Masaccio’s Crucifixion (1426), the charming but flattened landscape in Andrea Mantegna’s Arrival of Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (1465-1474, Figure 2), or the uneven portraiture of Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation (probably 1468–1470).
Such passages can be assessed as attempts by these artists to assimilate, in a balanced manner, all of the influences they were absorbing at the time, and all of the options that were open to them – and why should we expect our own era to be any different? Let us therefore not condemn ourselves for failing to instantly assimilate all that the contemporary world of computation has thrown at us – but let us also acknowledge that artists are still searching and experimenting with widely varying intentions and results.
We note, in particular, that contemporary audiences have been seduced by the usefulness of the computer in implementing dramatic public art works of a conceptual nature, as, for example, a) a space in which rain falls everywhere except the exact spot where a visitor to the exhibition is standing (Figure 3), or b) a computer-generated, room-filling projection of a dandelion seedhead whose florets burst into flight based on the strength and direction with which a visitor to the exhibition has blown upon a centrally-mounted microphone; or c) a huge panel whose changing pattern of illumination reflects the tenor of the discourse circulating at that moment on the internet.
Such spectacular works draw thousands to blockbuster exhibitions – and require meticulous thought and care – but we must question whether the spectacle has been assimilated on behalf of some larger artistic purpose, as with Raphael’s equally magnificent School of Athens (Figure 4). Are we perhaps not witnessing with these latter-day spectacles what tends to be more of a demonstration of advanced technology such as one might encounter at a big-city science museum, albeit with the admirable goal of helping us to visualize the vast quantities of data now being generated, or the incredible power of the computer systems available to us? What is left in the viewer’s mind after witnessing one of these installations, beyond a striking impression – and maybe some added knowledge about science ?
These remarks, moreover, should not be interpreted as suggesting that art and artificial intelligence projects like AICAN are in any better position, at present, to serve as a beacon for humankind. Computational art remains in an early state of development, and therefore at some remove from an engaged and educated public; but at the same time, we must be heartened by the possibility which such experiments suggest regarding a creative partnership between human and machine.
In further reference to having compassion on ourselves, it should also be noted that whereas the original Renaissance had as its launching pad a stable, fully-informed Byzantine/Medieval style, one of us (Smith 2015), taking a cue from an observation by Jack Burnham , has argued that the marriage between art and the classical machine has in fact never been consummated, i.e., despite the efforts of such 20th century figures as Vladimir Tatlin, Naum Gabo, and László Moholy-Nagy, there exists no celebrated work of machine art in which it appears as the “precise and splendid instrument of human aspiration”. This, in turn, is attributed to a failure by modern art to achieve a perhaps quite difficult breakthrough: learning how to treat the precise, repetitive nature of the machine – or in other words, its determinism – as a positive aesthetic element ; and if such is the case, it must surely represent an ongoing obstacle to the development of a mature art of the electronic machine, which is no less deterministic in its operation.
Fortunately, art history teaches us that – if we can accept its long-term perspective – a truly satisfactory art will emerge in response to such challenges. It also teaches us, as with the original Renaissance, that this will be a function of a school or schools emerging as a result of integrating new techniques and working towards shared artistic solutions. This process culminated, in the High Renaissance, with paintings of figures superbly modeled in dark/light gradations, these placed in a setting of spatial depth composed of both architectural elements and an exquisitely rendered landscape, and with the whole informed by an exact linear perspective (Figure 5). More critically, however – inasmuch as these artists could not have conceived of working totally outside of artistic tradition, as our conceptualists do today – their work has an almost universal visual appeal and comprehensibility.
Whether the same can be said for whatever forms and styles emerge in respect to techno-art is anybody’s guess; but in the opinion of the authors, the emergence of one or more movements of evident confidence and inspiration is nonetheless a development to be earnestly hoped for, by way of addressing the troubling fragmentation which currently besets the art world ; and while this could be interpreted as a longing for the reimposition of an elitist art establishment, that is not our intent, as we have elsewhere (Bessette et al. 2019, Mazzone and Elgammal 2019) celebrated the “vast expansion of the creative sphere” fostered by the new technologies, and the pluralism attendant upon it.
In any event, compassion and patience  will continue to be the watchwords – one would be hard pressed, for example, to name any work produced in the last half-century whose gravitas can be compared with that of, say, Giacometti’s 1960 Walking Man ; but there is much reason for hope if, as signaled in the following statement by Casey Reas (Figure 6), we look upon the work currently being produced as a series of studies and experiments:
I’ve had this long obsession – it’s been twenty years – with a certain kind of visual art. It started with the Suprematists, and it moved into De Stijl, and [next] the Constructivists, and then into Minimalism . . . I want to capture it all in my own way, through a software piece . . . just rapid fire . . . one pattern to another to another . . . just trying to get it out of my system . . . and I know when I’m done with that, the next thing will be really clear. 
The Era of the Electronic Machine
We conclude now with a few thoughts on co-existing with the computer, and there are two initial points to be made:
First, while we may think of the electronic machine and the classical machine as somewhat distinct from one another, there is in fact a strong symbiotic relationship between them. The computer brings in its wake a growing army of both normal and robotic machines; and although we’ve spoken of the role of the machine in helping humankind achieve its goals, it is also important to remember that the machine is the immediate agent of much of our environmental despoliation. Indeed, the machine itself could thrive on a planet from which all of our life-giving oxygen and water have been removed, and which substances it in fact tends to experience as corrosive and inimical. The art world, in consequence, must do what it has always done in these situations: as with Adolph Gottlieb’s “Blast” series  during the early stages of the Cold War (to take but one of innumerable examples), it must bear witness to the threat confronting humankind. So it is heartening to observe that many works of techno-art have an environmental focus; and how wonderful it would be to artistically re-purpose the machine as a possible ally in our quest to protect the planet.
Second, it is only now that the computer has entered a behaviorally eye-opening stage of evolution at the hands of a dedicated corps of computer scientists: the sudden maturation of the DNN (“deep neural net”) family of pattern recognition algorithms, and whose role in the visual arts remains largely unexplored territory. Computer systems used to have real difficulty with pattern recognition – for example, they were unable to perform visual tasks that would be simple for a two-year-old, such as distinguishing between images of dogs and cats – but they have now become extraordinarily good at it. In contrast to the elaborate (and successful) efforts to teach IBM’s “Deep Blue” the rules and strategies of chess, DNN-enabled computer systems are able to teach themselves to play – and at a super-human level – by reviewing thousands of archived games.
It is likely that humanity will continue to experience a series of psychic shocks – perhaps what computer art pioneer Frieder Nake is referring to with his “horrors of computability” (Smith 2019) – as it discovers how many of its vaunted intellectual skills are in fact instances of pattern recognition, and these now able to be performed in a far more accurate and comprehensive manner by computer. To take but a single example, we can anticipate, in the very near future, that cloud-based computer systems will be able to diagnose medical conditions with uncanny reliability by pattern-matching a patient’s visual data from CAT scans, EKGs, and DNA analysis against millions and millions of archived case histories.
These shocks, furthermore, will also be felt (and in truth are already being felt) within what has been thought of as humankind’s exclusive domain – the art world – and there are without doubt any number of contemporary artists who are responding by critiquing and questioning the role of computation in our world and in our lives. Given that there are currently unknowable limits to the growth of the computer’s power, it would seem to make more sense for us to aim for a long-term partnership with this electronic machine . Again, this is hardly an original observation; but as our contribution to a survey of a post-modern – or even post-human – world , we would like to return one last time to our Renaissance analogy, and focus on one of its key achievements, e.g., a progressive synthesis between past, present, and future:
If we ourselves, as students of art history, are now looking back to the original Renaissance for guidance, no less were the visionaries of that era looking back to ancient Greece and Rome; and if we take the further step of imaginatively joining them in their longing for the Greek sense of confidence regarding humanity’s place within the cosmos (Smith 2015), a singular image might arise before us (Figure 7). It is the sculpted head of one of the horses pulling Selene’s chariot, from the east pediment of the Parthenon (currently in the British Museum, but soon back in Athens?); and while the artists of the Parthenon endowed everything they touched with a certain dignity, can we not detect in this sculpted head an extraordinary effort to elevate the subject from mere beast of burden to a full participant in humankind’s noble enterprise? Or in short, were the artists of the Parthenon not expressing an enlightened attitude towards what was to remain a critical symbiotic relationship in the development of both human and animal?
And could not the artists of today, without blinding us to the several realities of the situation , do the same for the computer – here, perhaps, Reas’ “next thing” – that is, endow it with a presence that might let us imagine a positive, or even transcendental, future for the relationship between human and machine ?
- In invoking the Renaissance, the authors cheerfully acknowledge that we will not be breaking any new philosophical ground in this essay, but rather attempting to apply some “standard” art history to the situation in which we presently find ourselves; and while placing “standard” in quotes to indicate that said history remains in flux as it being purged of paternalism, colonialism, and racism, there is one such “ism” – humanism – which we are prepared to retain if it can be shorn of a discriminatory tendency towards our fellow creatures, both natural and cybernetic. Indeed, in subscribing to the following historical principles, we express our view that the concept of a humanistic impulse – a term which, like “humanism” itself, is not to be found in the main essay, but which is everywhere implicit – is something well worth holding on to: 1) it is essentially and hugely beneficent insofar as it represents an attempt by humankind to picture itself within a larger cosmos; 2) as such, it finds its purest and most obvious expression in the visual arts; and 3) while most closely associated with classical and Renaissance culture, it has been present during most, if not all, periods of cultural fluorescence – and we will even go so far as to identify the humanistic impulse with that same art-making behavior which appeared some 100,000 years ago in the evolutionary record, and which for anthropologists marks the emergence of humankind from a preoccupation with mere survival (Smith and Fol Leymarie 2017).
- As representatives of the former term of the art-science equation, we feel it incumbent upon ourselves to reiterate that rationalism has it limits, and to thus speak up, by implication, for the intuitive aspect of the arts. We recall, for example, that it was a matter of certainty among the men of the Enlightenment that rocks – i.e., meteorites – did not fall from the sky (Eschner 2017); and we recall as well J. B. S. Haldane’s wonderful statement to the effect that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose” (Haldane 1927). See, in addition, the interview with Frieder Nake (Smith 2019) for some further thoughts on the limitations of science.
- In contrast to the tone of the previous footnote, it is also the case that the art-science rapprochement represents a tremendously fluid situation, with influences flowing in both directions; and in particular, the coming to prominence of the computer algorithm has clarified for us the fact that human artists also employ systematic techniques (Edmonds 2018, Smith 2019, Mazzone 2020). This is but a single example, moreover, and beyond which science of course continues to exert an enormous and beneficial influence on the arts; and without going into detail regarding the tremendous refinement of human thought thereby represented, one might mention, as a brilliant carrier of this influence, the beautifully-conceived LIGO/EGO observatories, and the detection of gravity waves which they have made possible. (See the next footnote, however, for a discussion of how the artistic tradition has likewise evolved; and in this connection, we happily note the contact between techno-artist Liliane Lijn (Lijn 2018) and the EGO installation in Italy.)
- We tend to forget that the visual arts have been consistently successful, over the centuries, in raining upon society an ever-evolving shower of optical creations which were not only highly valued in their own time – as able, apparently, to inject a certain degree of energy and coherence into day-to-day life – but which also conform to certain principles of design, and thereby allowing them to be appreciated (if the cave art at Chauvet has not been misdated) as much as 300 centuries later. Here, in other words, is a tradition – yes, the heart and soul of the humanistic impulse! – which we can hope and expect will continue, amidst the current chaos, as a source of both cultural stimulation and continuity – and it is the second of these which seems now in short supply. The School of Athens, for example, dazzled the Renaissance intelligentsia with its state-of-the-art, scientifically-minded linear perspective – but it also created a stylistic link to a former era of cultural enlightenment; and in truth, most great artists have been at pains to reference their predecessors: Picasso referenced Cezanne, just as Cezanne had referenced Poussin. Similarly, it is our expectation that the core formal properties of this tradition – which Duchamp, in his guise as the founder of Conceptualism, derogatively referred to as “retinal”, but which are in fact the foundation of the fine arts, i.e., line, form, color, and composition, and with the last of these now including actual, as well as implicit, motion – will continue to enjoy a triumphant reign in the era of the electronic machine. And finally, we would here like to pay tribute to the ability of the art-making tradition to evolve and normalize itself in parallel with science: as articulated by both T. S. Eliot (Eliot 1919) and Duchamp himself (Duchamp 1957), the skillfully-created art object is a dynamic vehicle whose meaning can grow along with the sophistication of its audience – and the current chaos in the art world is surely an attempt to create such a vehicle!
- In his visionary 1968 book Beyond Modern Sculpture, Jack Burnham observed that
Perhaps in years to come Calder’s stunning success with the mobile coupled with a dearth of research by younger artists into the possibilities of mechanical motion, will appear as some curious breach in the plastic evolution of this century . . . Calder’s early overwhelming success with quasi-random motion convinced almost all observers that an attempt to produce a machine driven deterministic art would be clumsy by comparison (Burnham 1967).
Burnham thus introduces the dilemma which we shall momentarily explore in greater detail: his assumption, with which we concur, is that a thorough exploration of machine art must involve kineticism; but his pejorative “deterministic” points to exactly that type of precise, repetitive motion which has made the machine of supreme value to humankind – and a type of motion, moreover, not to be found in the work of a Calder or Tinguely.
- It almost goes without saying that techo-art – the intersection of art and technology – is an enormously complicated subject, and even more so for the transition from the era of the classic machine to the era of the electronic machine, with a multitude of exhibitions, books, and articles having been dedicated to these topics over the last century. In respect, therefore, to the assertion that 20th century art might have failed in its core mission of assimilating the machine – a possibility which is perhaps only now being recognized – there will of course be a number of critical strands to be unraveled, and one of which is political: the majority of the modern artists who did attempt to engage seriously with machines and machine-aesthetic in modern life were found either in the Constructivist groups within Soviet and East European countries, or in the Bauhaus with its emphasis on art and design for industrial production. Much of this work in the Soviet Union was rapidly subsumed if not stifled in bureaucratic and political organizations and decision-making by others. Artists such as Vladimir Tatlin and Aleksandr Rodchenko are exemplary of artists whose efforts were constrained and pushed into channels for overtly political ends. The Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis, and its artists and designers were scattered. Major figures in the educational structure of the Bauhaus, such as Gropius and Moholy-Nagy, ended up as teachers and administrators in the United States, having less time to continue their own creative work. In all cases the political, economic and social turmoil of the 1930s and 1940s truncated any number of experiments with art and machines that could have proved genuinely fruitful.
- The authors – and especially in light of the sometimes too cozy relationship between the modern art establishment and Western national security agencies during the Cold War (Saunders 2000) – appreciate the reluctance of contemporary artists to participate in that establishment’s eternal process of defining new “isms”, and in respect to which array of movements their own work will be categorized; however, we take the position that, if art is to continue to concern itself with both the stimulation and coherence of society, then it is inevitable that artists will once again find themselves happily forming like-minded associations – and the public will once again be able to follow their progress with interest and enthusiasm. (Or, as articulated in negative fashion by art historian Sidney Thomas (Thomas 1983, p. 101), “Only rarely has an artist who is cut off from others, by necessity or choice, been able to produce great work.”)
- In this same article, Thomas talks about the threats to artistic creativity that have emerged in modern societies, and, in particular,
. . . the early popularization by the mass media of new artistic movements before they have had time to mature their contributions. Once artistic movements become widely popular, they tend to drop what they have been doing, since the modern cult of originality discourages a continued exploration of what others have become familiar with. Hence, what a style is potentially capable of may never be developed. (Thomas 1983, p. 106)
- In the final paragraph of her 1976 survey of the contemporary art scene (Gottlieb 1976), Carla Gottlieb notes, somewhat hopefully, that “Apparently bottom has been touched in this decline of humanistic values, and art wishes to work its way up again.”
- As transcribed from this (https://vimeo.com/32314007 ) video.
- An enlargeable reproduction of Adolph Gottlieb’s Blast I can be seen at this ( https://www.moma.org/collection/works/78373 ) link.
- Amidst the enormous literature on the subject, techno-artist Leonel Moura has expressed a quite marvelous idea in respect to partnering with the computer, namely, that it must become artistic if the partnership is to be of ultimate benefit to us:
Art-making machines are also important beyond the creation of beauty or emotional stimulation, as is typically the case in human culture, and here I refer to the fundamental process of fabricating knowledge. No knowledge, be it biological or artificial, can evolve and be perfected without exploration, experimentation, and random creativity. In fact, natural evolution is generally based on such mechanisms. Trial and error evolution can therefore be seen as an equivalent to art, since art, as opposed to science, is non-objective and non-linear. Hence, I would say that the future of robots and artificial intelligence will be artistic, or we may otherwise find ourselves in serious trouble. (Moura 2018)
- As already noted, our “contribution” to this survey will be limited to an attempt to see how far a traditional art history might remain applicable – but this does not imply that we are insensitive to more adventurous analyses of our current and future status as humans and machines by, among others, Jean Baudrillard, Rosi Braidotti, and Donna Haraway.
- We are not the Greeks nor Renaissance humanists; rather, we are confronted with the challenge to create art in our machine-constructed world. Human beings will need to grapple with the mathematical determinism of machine systems, and the machine’s stunning ability to generate and replicate forms.
- “If, to use L. P. Jack’s phrase, we are to ‘end the divorce’ between our industry and our culture, we must assimilate the machine aesthetically as well as economically. Not only must we bind Frankenstein – but we must make him beautiful.” (Alfred H. Barr, from the catalog for the 1934 MoMA exhibition “Machine Art” (Johnson 1934), and as quoted in Andreas Broeckmann’s Machine Art in the 20th Century (Broeckmann 2016))
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