Authenticity and Computer Art

“A very common reaction to computer art is to withhold acceptance in principle, to refuse to regard it as authoritative under any circumstances because, inevitably, it lacks authenticity.”

In this article, Margaret A. Boden asks whether the notion of authenticity can be applied to any/all types of computer art. Among other things, she describes some of the problems faced by David Cope when people refused to accept his Emmy-program’s compositions as “music”.

I: Introduction

One of the meanings of ‘authentic’ listed in my dictionary is ‘entitled to acceptance’. This sits alongside other meanings such as ‘genuine’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘authoritative’, and ‘of established credibility’. That’s hardly surprising: if something is indeed genuine, trustworthy, authoritative, and of established credibility then, for sure, it’s entitled to acceptance.

But if not, not– and there’s the rub. A very common reaction to computer art is to withhold acceptance in principle, to refuse to regard it as authoritative under any circumstances because, inevitably, it lacks authenticity. This paper considers some of the reasons given for that attitude – which so annoyed one computer artist, as we’ll see, that he has recently taken extreme action in an attempt to counter it.

As is usual for dictionary definitions, the terms listed together are closely linked. The concept of authenticity implies some originating agent, whose honesty (compare ‘genuineness’), and perhaps whose competence (compare ‘authoritative’), can be ‘trusted’ – and to trust someone is to ‘accept’ what they say or do. Nevertheless, the listed terms aren’t exact synonyms. In particular, ‘entitled to acceptance’ doesn’t mean the same – no more, and no less – as ‘authentic’. Lack of authenticity is only one possible ground for non-acceptability (see Section II). However, it’s the one that’s in focus here.

At this point, three terminological warnings are in order. First, I sometimes use the expression ‘computer artist’ to denote the computer itself, and sometimes to denote the human being who programmed it. The context should make clear which meaning is intended in each case. As we’ll see, both senses are philosophically problematic.

Second, my phrase (above) “the human being who programmed it” should more strictly have been “the human being who programmed it or inspired it”. For the person who actually did the programming is not always the person whose artistic vision is embodied in the system. One well-known example of this is the evolutionary artwork of Stephen Todd and William Latham (1992), where the IBM computer scientist Todd wrote the code (and doubtless offered some aesthetic insights along the way) but Latham, an RCA-trained sculptor, provided the artistic inspiration and guidance. Except for a brief reminder in Section V, I’ll ignore such complications. I’ll write as though the inspirer/artist is always the same person as the programmer. (With the spread of IT among young people, this is increasingly true.)

Third, and most important, I’ll mention ‘computer art’ and ‘artworks’ throughout the text. This is a shorthand way of denoting specific visual, auditory, or literary compositions in whose origin a computer had a hand. Like the word ‘hand’ in that sentence, my terms ‘art’ and ‘artwork’ don’t carry a heavy load of philosophical baggage. I’m not prejudging the question of whether it’s possible for a computer to generate anything that’s properly called a work of art. The answer to that question, as we’ll see, depends partly on what role authenticity plays in aesthetics.


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