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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.1 (2003) 13-31

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A Philosophical Inquiry into the Nature of Computer Art

Holle Humphries

Before the computer is accepted unquestioningly as a legitimate artistic medium, some of the challenging aesthetic and philosophical issues raised by [computer art] must be solved. The most haunting questions concern the impact of the technology on the artist, the creative process, and the nature of art. 1

How might we lead students in an exploration of the philosophical issues regarding art created with a computer? The most important step is first to guide them in exploring ontological concepts and questions asked about the nature of art and computer art, before investigating related issues of epistemology, value, and criticism. Students need to understand the nature of their art tool and medium of choice. Therefore, it becomes a matter of concern to discover that when discussing and writing about computer art, students sometimes use such terms interchangeably as "computer art" and "computer-generated art," when they are not synonymous, and talk about "virtual reality" as though engaging in any activity that involves a computer constitutes experiencing one. It is clear that this problem arises because many have not paused to examine the nature of computer art within the context of the process and product of art, and the subtle nuances regarding what might distinguish each from other human enterprise. To help clarify their thinking, we might use the foundation of art theory and the strategy of philosophical inquiry, implemented by adopting questioning strategies, to guide students through an exploration of the ontological nature of computer art. This can begin by launching the question: "What is the nature of art — or computer art?"

Philosophy of Art:
"What is the Nature of Art?"

Many philosophers have attempted to describe or define the nature of art formulated in a theory of art. A theory of art attempts to specify where the essence of art is thought to reside, or what exactly art's essence is. [End Page 13]

The imitation theory, initiated in the 5th century B.C. by Plato, held that to be a work of art, an object must mirror reality. 2 As this theory placed the essence of art in the objective properties of the art work itself, we consider the imitation theory to be object-centered or objective in nature. Similarly, with his formalist theory of art, Clive Bell claimed that the essence of art lies in the object — within the structural design properties of a work of art. To qualify as a work of art, an object must exhibit significant form. Significant form consists of certain formal properties such as the art elements of lines and color combined in a particular way according to art principles, all used to create certain forms and relations of forms. 3

The expression theories of art shifted attention to the artist and audience and thus are considered subject centered, or subjective, bound up in notions of the experience of creation by the artist and/or the response of the audience. Benedetto Croce asserted that a work of art resides in the mind of the artist. An artist must experience an intuition, and it is this mental process that constitutes art, not the object which the artist might create thereafter. 4 Robin Collingwood claimed that art is an exploration, clarification, and expression of an artist's emotion, made clear to an audience through a medium. 5 Leo Tolstoy believed that art should be a vehicle by which the emotion experienced by the artist at the time of creation is transmitted to an audience, so that the audience can experience that emotion as well. 6

Morris Weitz asserted that none of these theories capture an essence of art because they are either too broad, too narrow, or else are circular. He claimed that the concept of art cannot be limited to one essence delimited in a definition. Weitz suggested that we must instead look at what theories of art have to say is important about art so that we know what to...


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