Artists and Craftsmen

Here’s another theory in the rough; something that I think is relevant to Fractal Art, and probably all artforms: There are “Artists” and there are “Craftsmen”.

An artist is… I don’t know what an artist is, exactly. They make “Art”. What is art? It’s more of a concept, somewhat subjective in nature, but not just anything at all. When we look through an art book, something general, like a history of art, then we know what art is. You can feel it, or sense it, maybe not while viewing every item, but I think we all sense something when viewing art that we don’t sense when we’re looking at an image that is merely nice to look at or colorful.

Nice to look at. That’s the other kind of work. People who make works that are only “nice-looking” are what I would call craftsmen. This isn’t supposed to be an insult; it’s just describing what takes place, describing the audience’s experience, or at least mine. Good craftsmanship takes talent, experience and dedication –technical ability. Think of “well-crafted furniture” as opposed to sculpture. They both have qualities of beauty but one of the items is the work of a craftsman and the other is the work of an artist.

Amsterdam Canal

It takes a great craftsman to produce a good copy of an artist’s work. But it takes an artist to design the original. There are probably artists with great ideas that never bring them to fruition because they lack the skills of the craftsman necessary to do that. Artists work with ideas; craftsmen work with media (paint, clay, computer code, tools).

Artists can also be craftsmen and vice versa. In fact, you could say that someone acts as an artist when they’re creating art and as a craftsman when they’re “crafting” something (manifesting the idea).

When something looks really ugly but captures our attention and causes us to feel something and think “deeply” about it, that, I think, is art and nothing more than art. When something looks really “cool” and causes us to feel good or happy, like sunshine, trees and a handful of balloons kind of happy, that’s craftmanship. Eyecandy is probably a better word; sweet, but only satisfying in a shallow, temporary way.

So you’ve got eyecandy at one extreme and at the other, stuff that may lack any sort of visual “attraction” yet is captivating and engaging to the mind in a deep, exhilarating way. Of course, art can be as colorful and sweet as a sugary piece of eyecandy. The essence of art being, I suppose, that it’s beautiful without “looking” good. Or rather, it’s beauty is of an inner kind, which stimulates the mind and it’s appearance is irrelevant.

You could say, I suppose, that there are two kinds of visual beauty: eyecandy, and art; surface and substance. Which is better? or more important? Well, they’re different, aren’t they? Like the proverbial apples and oranges, or like candy and “food”. We want them both, I think. Although I suspect we’d put greater importance on art, the nutritious stuff, because it’s serious and deep, but what I think most people prefer is a combination, some balanced amount of both.

Alright. How “balanced” is Fractal Art? Is it all just craftsmen?. Can an internet search bring up nothing except gallery upon gallery filled with superbly crafted toys for our little eyes and tiny minds to play with, to get bored with, grabbing up another, every few seconds, then going on to the the next brightly coloured Disney-thing in the toybox/website until we’re told it’s time to brush our teeth and go to bed?

The real challenge I see for Fractal Art is, how do you make the deep, thought-provoking, serious kind of art with something like fractals that are generally abstract and lack most of the rich meaning and symbolism that realistic imagery can contain. In other words, how does one move beyond the mere “cool graphics” and “awesome” eyecanding to anything else at all?

My strategy is to focus on the creativity of the algorithms and give the machine a free rein. (Let the computer become your brilliant assistant and steal everything it makes.) This means lots of experimentation, high volume, and picking out the stuff that looks good (if there is any). Of course, I like that sort of thing. It’s fun to play with parameters and anything random.

The other strategy I can see is much more traditional and doesn’t appeal to me at all. You use the fractal machine to produce images that you then assemble (layer) and tweak (mask, I think) and do other stuff, until the artist has actually created a piece of artwork pretty well by hand. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s the normal way to make art, or was, I suppose, but surprisingly it tends to turn people into craftsmen rather than artists which is quite the opposite of what you’d expect, isn’t it? You would think that human intervention –human expression– would be the essence of art, and the raw output of a machine, lacking any sort of intelligence or intent, ought to be limp and lifeless and artless (no pun intended).

It doesn’t have to be, but it’s been my experience that where you find the unexpected, you are more likely to find art. A very creative mind can produce an unexpected piece of fractal art through layering and masking, but it’s hard, and I might add, getting harder everyday. It requires craftsmanship of the highest order.

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Fractal Art isn’t Rocket Science

The Fractal Art world is an odd place. The strange combination of technical people (mathematicians, engineers, programmers) and artsy, creative people is curious and could almost be the setting for a mystery novel. My wife once told someone at work about my fractal hobby and said they were really impressed after visiting my website that I knew so much about chaos theory and fractal math. Hmmn… I wondered, why would they think I knew anything about math?

Recently, while looking into things, I came across an interesting association of attributes: science credentials and Fractal Art. I “hmmn-ed” again. What’s all this science stuff got to do with making fractal art? Would it help me if I had such a solid math and programming background as these super stars did? It doesn’t seem to be helping them out too much.

The Rocket Scientists are the sword-makers of our artform. They adapt new fractal formulas and all that “chaos stuff”, molding it into forms that are practical and useful in our hands. All our tools come from them, and the tools of the future will come from them also, not from people like me.

Blah, blah, blah… I could go on. I propose a toast, in honor of all the…

Houston, I have a problem

Moving on. What confuses things is that the “tool-makers” can also perform the role of “tool-users”. But the skills and abilities that lead to good tool making are irrelevant when it comes to using those tools to make art. They might as well be two different people because when the “scientist” takes up the tool he made, he begins the same process of discovery as everyone else who takes up that tool.

Building the racing car vs. driving the racing car. Designing the airplane vs. piloting the airplane. Crafting nunchuks vs. swinging them like Bruce Lee. Making a guitar vs. playing that guitar.

Sure, the tool maker immediately knows how to operate the tool, and may know an awful lot about operating that tool, but being creative requires more skill than just being able to use the tools. Actually the tool maker may have a handicap: he may think he has an edge over the one who is merely a tool-user and come to think his tool-making experience gives extra weight and an enhanced quality to his artwork. Artistic activities, on the other hand, have psychological challenges (objectively evaluating your work; creative inspiration) that the quantitative sciences have less of. Furthermore, the precision and absoluteness of the quantitative sciences creates a mindset or approach to art that I think can be a stumbling block in the evolving, shifting, combinant and recombinant, alchemical world of art.

Fractal math is challenging and requires math skills that one can’t acquire quickly (I’m guessing). Programming is another thing that takes dedication and work to be able to do well, especially when complex operations have to be presented via an interface that is easy to use. But Fractal Art is Art; it’s got its own set of skills and talents, which in the same way, also count for nothing when applied to the world of mathematics.

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Orbit Trap’s Change of Format

Orbit Trap has abandoned the goal of becoming a group fractal blog due to lack of interest. Continuing to present Orbit Trap as a group blog is confusing to readers and misrepresents it’s actual content.

Despite the very serious attempt to build for the fractal community a venue to express themselves, the reaction has been primarily one of disinterest. Furthermore, when new ideas — particularly of a critical nature — have been expressed, the environment for writers has become one which silences them rather than supports them.

There are many opportunities for the status quo to express themselves, but Orbit Trap has always wanted to give voice to that which is new and different. We have decided to focus entirely on themes of a critical and innovative nature exclusively. Unfortunately, after a year of invitations and searching we haven’t found anyone else who shares this interest.

These changes are a logical step forward and would probably have been our original plan if it wasn’t for the fact that we really did expect others to join in our project of criticism and new ideas.

I guess the whole thing can best be summed up this way:

We invited the Fractal Community to speak for themselves and they didn’t want to. We spoke for them and they told us to shut up.

Placing the Blame


Soma (2001)

It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame.
Oscar Wilde

Why is it that people who question the improprieties of the BMFAC contest are repeatedly told they must “get over it.”

Yet, if Dzeni and other supporters are still able to comment, then why can’t I do the same?

Moreover, if any contributor posts here on Orbit Trap, our masthead makes it clear that his or her opinions can be “confronted and possibly disputed.” Dzeni confronted me. I can return the favor. Blogs, by definition, don’t have “get over it” clauses.

So, instead, let’s “get to it” by examining a few of her points:

I’d argue that “that” fractal contest can be seen as a win/win scenario.

It’s certainly that for the judges. They’ve set up the system, so they can never lose — plus they have the honor of both exhibiting and judging without being judged themselves. And their résumés get double the padding — one line for service as a judge, and another line for being in an exhibition. That’s what I call “win/win.”

A bunch of people put together an exhibition every year and invite submissions. They are clear on the criterion and the process.

Submissions are invited only after the judges have first gobbled up nearly half of the gallery space for themselves. Yes, they are clear — even brazen — about disclosing what they are doing. I’ve never argued otherwise. The question is whether their actions and guidelines are ethical and fair.

They don’t charge an entry fee.

I don’t like entry fees either. But part of what they are generally used for is to pay the judges for their services. Such compensation avoids the obvious conflicts of interest found in BMFAC. Of course, the organizers could probably make arrangements to have BMFAC’s judges paid rather than displayed, but they apparently find the current arrangement more cozy.

Even if I don’t win or get a special mention, I’m no worse off than I was before.

True, but the judges are certainly better off than you and the other participants. Without contestants, the judges have no show for themselves. Why do you think they handed out 55 ALTs and HMs (compare this to only 5 HMs at this year’s MOCA contest)? You (and 50+ others) almost made it. Try your luck again next year. The judges, of course, won’t need luck. All they need is people like you to enter.

Life’s not fair (get over it).

That cliché is sure true. But is a shrug the best response to life’s unjustness? One should be allowed to speak out against aspects of life that are not fair. I’d rather examine unfair things and the people who do them than just get over everything. And why do I think that getting over it (which you tell me to do four times in your post) really means drop it or shut up?

Life is too short to moan about “that” contest.

Life is also too short not to point out iniquities — like the contest’s improprities. I care about the fractal community as much as anyone. I have to “live” here, too. I’d prefer the neighbors in my fractal neck of the woods act professionally.

Go and create some great art.

I can blog about the contest and make art at the same time. I see you did.

Art is subjective. What the contest panel chose may not be what you would choose.

Very true. I think the winners are all superb artists and deserving of recognition. I have no issues with the contest’s winners. My writings have been strictly focused on the behaviors of the contest’s director, organizers, and judges — and on the fairness of the rules.

…it gives us all a great opportunity to evaluate our work, to see what others are doing and hopefully to become better artists.

There’s plenty to see everyday if one belongs to an art community like Renderosity or DeviantArt. Moreover, unlike the contest, these places provide far more evaluative interaction (like tutorials and critical feedback) with other artists.

The panel get to exhibit their work.

Do they ever — in a contest they have judged. That’s the whole problem. If, instead, their work was being displayed in an invitational art show, no one would be questioning the appropiateness of their actions.

They are probably not going to change their mind because two people disagree.

Don’t let the comments on these posts mislead you. Tim and I are not the only people who feel this contest needs closer scrutiny. But, I agree with you. Judging how the BMFAC judges have behaved, they probably cannot be reasoned with or shamed into having any epiphanies.

At the end of a day, you can choose to find a way where everyone wins or you can gripe and moan so that everyone loses.

This is a false dichotomy. I prefer a third choice — one that isn’t centered around winning and losing. At the end of the day, you have to live with yourself — so you do what you think is right.


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Cowards of Us All

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I know it is sometimes difficult to speak out. There can be consequences. One might be embarrassed — attacked — even punished. So far, only one person has spoken out directly to us here at Orbit Trap about our remarks on the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest.

And he wrote to call us cowards.

He feels we are cowardly because “you don’t address any points made to your posts.”

So I think I’ll make the time to show him he’s wrong. I hope, in the process, the blog’s readers come to better understand why Tim and I have raised our voices against some of the practices of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest — and have questioned the motives of some of the people involved.

In my last post, I deliberately mentioned no names. But since Ken, a commenter who seems to want to play the role of our collective conscience, used names, then, for the sake of clarity, I will do the same.

Funny thing about a conscience, though. Sometimes, as Hamlet notes, it nags and aches and does cause one to fear and fall silent. But, other times, it sears then scorches until one feels compelled to speak out.

I have put this response up as a main post. I would not want to be accused of speaking while milling about in shadows. If Tim and I are cowards, we are not the kind who prefer to hide.



You’ve written to us so much lately that Tim and I are ready to promote you from heckler-in-residence to contributor emeritus.

Unfortunately, I seem to be in a bit of a bind here, though.

First: Damien says, in a post earlier in the summer on Orbit Trap, that I “killed” OT “by driving off everyone” who had an opinion different from mine.

Then: you claim, in the comments for this OT post, that “you’re cowards because you…ignore direct questions.”

I think this is called a Catch-22. If I do respond, then I am a tyrant who quashes free speech. But if I do not respond, then I am a coward who hides from his critics.

So which is it? And what should I do?

Wasn’t it Orwell who said a picture of the future could be imagined as “a boot stamping on a human face forever”? I guess I’d rather be the boot than the face.

First, can we get a few big concepts straight? Then we’ll get down to some specifics.

You’re right. Contest organizers and directors can establish any ground rules they like. They are free to dictate restrictions on programs and image sizes and colors and styles and whatever. They can limit a contest to just fractal artists of Burmese heritage who live in the Arctic Circle. Totally their call. I never argued otherwise.

Countries can do the same. They can make their own rules. Rules like we’ll throw you in a gulag if you protest or we’ll bind your feet if you’re born a girl or we’ll torture you and call it “enhanced interrogation techniques” or whatever.

Here’s the catch. Just because contests and countries have the power to make rules, it does not follow that those rules will be inherently ethical or fair. If they are, in fact, unethical and unfair, then people (at least in free societies) have the right to say so. You agree?

Being informed of rules is not usually a problem either. Nearly every contest spells out its requirements and guidelines in very specific detail — ranging from deadlines to restrictions to oh-by-the-way-we’re-going-to-include-the-work-of-the-judges-who-judge-you to whatever. I never argued that the BMFAC contest was not clear or open in stating its rules.

Countries usually make their rules known, too. I recall seeing a photograph last year of two Alabama water fountains in the 1950s that said WHITES ONLY and COLOREDS ONLY. See? The rules were plain to everyone. Nothing was hidden.

But, again, just because a contest’s regulations are posted and public, it does not inherently follow that they are ethical and fair. Are you with me so far?

The contest’s origin and history were also explained — even outlined. True. But having a history doesn’t mean everything is above board. Enron had a history — but it was not above board. Bosnia has a history — part of which included ethnic cleansing. Maybe everything is and always will be shipshape. Or maybe a contest was set up well but has become corrupt over time. Or maybe it was rigged from the get go and now everyone just shrugs and glumly accepts the terms. But, again, having a history doesn’t give contests or countries an ethical pass. In fact, sometimes when digging into a contest’s history, one uncovers questions.

Sponsors of contests can, once again, dictate absolutely anything — especially since they hold the purse strings. They are, in truth, demi-gods of absolute power. All fractal artists must show up at the exhibition wearing thongs decrees one. All images must be created with an Etch-A-Sketch while submerged in tequila shouts another. As a contest director, you have to decide if you are willing to agree to the sponsor’s terms. If you agree, then you are bound to carry them out — even if they are absurd — or troubling — or patently unfair.

I hope this prologue deletes a few items from our mutual Inbox before we begin.

Now, Ken, you seem to really want some point by point rebutting. I’ll try to suppress my timidity and start:

You want the entries of the selection panel hidden.

No. I want them completed excluded. Banished totally. Outta there. No entries — period. They are the judges. They are not the contestants. Most people agree there is a big difference between the two.

BTW, where is this list of “universally accepted protocol[s]” that you like to mention?

Oh — just about everywhere. I’d argue no respectable, legitimate art contest mixes the judges’ work with the work of the judged. In the digital art field alone, there are contests by acronyms like MOCA, LACDA, ARTROM, MODA. The Art of Digital Show recently completed a major competition. None of these entities mix and match like BMFAC. Restrictions on conflicts of interest — like judging the works of students and friends — are also commonplace. I quoted one of these in my post, but I guess you missed it. But let’s throw the ball back in your court. Can you name any five art contests anywhere that do allow inclusion of the contest judges’ work. Well. Okay. You’re right. The Fractal Universe calendar. You can have a head start here. That one counts for your side — I suppose — adding a second sorry blot on the overall lack of professionalism in the fractal art community.

It is disingenuous to keep raising this as an ethical issue when it was clearly the decision of the sponsors.

Maybe last year. Maybe. But the sponsor this year (Fundación España Vodafone) must be telepathic, since the contest rules were announced many weeks before any sponsor was even named. No, I’m afraid the director and/or the judges are most likely responsible. Besides, even if past or present sponsors insisted on such guidelines, no one had an automatic weapon to the heads of the director and the “panel members” to insist they comply.

You want to force the organizers/sponsors of the contest to conform to the rules you want, rather than the rules they choose.

Nope. I’m just pointing out that the rules are highly unconventional, biased to help a specific program and its artists, and give the judges a one way free ticket to paradise. Ally ally in free.

Since you can’t affect the rules for this contest, you want to raise bogus ethical issues about it. That is why I say create your own contest or exhibition and run it by the rules you think an exhibition should be run.

Yes — to the second part of the first sentence — minus the “bogus” part. I explained why I shouldn’t have to make my own contest in a previous comment. Remember? I used an analogy to not wanting to write my own laws either. Apparently, you’ve forgotten. And I can certainly appreciate all the expense and effort involved. I really can. I just appreciate ethics and fairness more.

You see, back in that “written record” that you feel already explained everything, Damien said the following:

So I have a choice: I can either run a contest completely how I would like, and pay for it myself, or I can accept money from a sponsor that comes with conditions. What you’re saying is that you find the strings unacceptable. I’m saying that, given the choice between no exhibition and one with some preconditions, I’d prefer to have the exhibition. At least I’m doing *something* Years from now, when fractal art is more recognized and easier to get funding for, others will have the privilege of refusing money that has strings attached. At the moment, I don’t have that option.

Yes. He’s doing something, all right. Something ethically questionable. He argues he’s on the frontier, so he can bend the rules. There’s no law or justice out on fringes of civilization, so Damien is forced to become judge, jury, and exhibitioner. Later on, when fractal artists have their own cable channel, others can run things “without preconditions” (that is, fairly). Well, that’s swell. Or maybe what happens instead is that a “history” is put in motion, and the contest is never again run using customary ethical safeguards. Damien says he didn’t have “that option.” But he did have a choice and he made it — and he now enjoys its benefits — like having his own unjuried art worked into the contest he oversees every year. Some of his friends/panel members made choices, too, and soon hopped aboard without giving much thought to the “preconditions” either. They, presumably, also didn’t have “that option” but do receive similar compensation.

Even the director knows the rules are being bent. He’s fine with that. So are you, Ken. But I’m not.

You don’t like Ultra Fractal.

I’ve never said any such thing. It’s a great tool and capable of producing amazing work in the right hands. What I don’t like is making submission size restrictions that favor UF over other programs — and loading up the judging panel with nearly all UF artists — and then winding up with the majority of the contest’s exhibited images being rendered in UF. Could it all just be a coincidence? I’m just asking…

You think images are excluded because have not been generated by Ultra Fractal.

I think that’s a real possibility, yes. UF can go huge. That’s one of its advantages. Not every generator can easily render images to the mammoth size required by the contest. The director knows this, too — otherwise he wouldn’t have made a joke in the contest announcements that Apo users should Start now if they are planning to enter. More than just fractal programs are affected by the size mandate. People who post-process to a considerable extent are also going to be less likely to enter.

You don’t like artists works who use Ultra Fractal.

Certainly not true. I have featured many UF artists and artworks in the guest galleries on my web site. Would I have done so if I didn’t like the artists and their work? I’d put up a link to show you these galleries, but, unfortunately, they are now offline because I had to unexpectedly move to a new web host and procure a new domain.

A better question to ask is how many people submitted images that were not made with Ultra Fractal. And, if the number is small, ask yourself why.

Hmmm. I never thought to do that. But it is a good question. Here’s a possibility. Maybe many non-UF artists’ programs couldn’t render large enough images to meet the near-mural size restrictions. Could that be why the number is likely smaller? Thanks for the insight.

You think Damien is a dictator.

I never said any such thing. Besides, everyone already knows what Damien actually is.

You don’t like having to produce a large image.

You’ve obviously never watched me make my art. I always work in large sizes. That’s how I’m able to sell prints. I had no trouble rendering entries for the contest — and two of my submissions were highly post-processed. But I’m fortunate to have plenty of RAM and lots of computer firepower. So, I don’t need UF to scale up. I’m guessing many fractal artists are not so fortunate in the equipment they have at their disposal. Thus, the immense image sizes are indeed a hindrance for some.

You don’t like artists taking classes from other artists and participating in a contest.

That doesn’t bother me at all. What I said was I think teachers judging the work of their students is a clear conflict of interest. I linked to two examples in my post. I also asked what safeguards were in effect to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

But, since you know the circumstances behind the exhibition (no matter how much you pretend to be ignorant), this really is just nonsense.

You lost me here. Are you saying it’s foolish to worry about students being judged by their instructors? I think it’s highly unprofessional. Or, are you telling me the contest guidelines addressed this issue? Where in the BMFAC rules did it say: Teachers judging the work of those they taught? Sweet. Well, if you already have judges exhibiting their own work with those they’ve judged, I guess anything goes.

You would like to have anyone who ever took a class from any of the judges to be excluded from entering because you think the judges are so shallow that the mere fact that a current, or former, student entered an image in the contest is going to sway their decision.

I guess you have more faith in human nature than I do. I’d prefer judges not to judge the work of their students — or their friends either. Why not simply remove such potential conflicts of interest? Again, it’s a basic question of professionalism — even if one believes the judges are fine people who would not be swayed in any way.

I suppose it is possible that one or more of the judges may have recognized an image and knew who created it. But, for this contest, do you really believe that this is significant, or an ethical concern?

Definitely. Always. Any judge who recognized the work of a friend or a student should have immediately recused him or herself from voting. Moreover, this action (that so-and-so was a friend/student of Judge X) should have been kept from the other judges. Adding to this problem was that the judging could not have been completely blind because the images of three of the fifteen winners contained signatures. Do you want an impartial contest or not, Ken?

You don’t like people show appreciation to someone else for writing a particular formula.

This is not what I said. Slap backs all day. I said I worried that since many of the winners are trading the same formulas, one runs an increased risk of presenting a show of similarly styled artworks.

You think there is a grand, universal conspiracy by Ultra Fractal and/or those who use it to take over the world and prevent any one who uses other tools or methods to create fractal…

No, I don’t. But I’m pretty sure Paul does. He calls this secret cabal The Fractali. I assume he took the name from the Illuminati. Personally, I think Paul is a smart guy. He could be right.

You continue to imply that there are ethical issues with Damien and the panel of judges by the questions you raise when you know how and why they were selected.

Exactly. You’re finally starting to get it. They basically selected themselves, set themselves apart from being juried, judged others, and then hung their work beside the winners.

How can the contest be a publicity stunt by Damien and the judges when they were approached by the organizers and asked to participate?

As I noted earlier, the rules this year were set long before the organizers had a sponsor. Here is how Damien explained several months ago in the “written record” (to your satisfaction) why the contest judges had to be included in the exhibition:

I am well aware that people were not happy about judges’ work appearing in the ICM exhibition alongside contest entries, but we made it clear from the outset that contest entries would not be the only art shown. This year is no different. The sponsors require this as a hedge against insufficient quality being submitted.

Glad to know I’m not the only unhappy camper. Again, if this is true, Damien signed on to the terms. But who held his feet to the fire? And why was “this year” (2007) no different — especially when a sponsor wasn’t listed until weeks after the rules had been made public? Sounds like everything just got carried over. However, at least in the current contest, there’s a whole battalion —55, count ’em –of exceptional “alternates” and “honorable mentions.” What good fortune — especially since most art contests only manage to scare up about 5 to 10 HMs. But Damien is now lucky to have excellence to burn — surely more than enough to take up the slack for all those sponsors’ fears of “insufficient quality.” So, it looks like next year the director and the judges can finally breathe a sigh of relief and not be coerced by preconditions into displaying their own work. Right?

Did they conspire to take over the contest and mold it to a form so that they could make an exhibition to flaunt their own art?

Looks like it. Absolutely. Down to the last detail. Give yourself a Gatorade shower. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Other complaints you raise are emotional and ill-reasoned. I would expect better of you and Tim.

And, well, if pressed, we pretty much feel the same way about your comments.

But, your complaints must be objective to have any merit.

I think we’ve tried to look at the contest and honestly report what we found. And are complaints the same as opinions? If so, then they are probably, like art, subjective.

If I’ve made any factual errors, anyone is more than welcome to correct me.

Well, I’ve tried my best. As for errors in logic, I admit there were more than I could get to.

It would also be interesting to see perspectives from other people, pro or con.

Finally — something we agree on. I, too, would enjoy hearing what others have to say about the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest.

I’d like to think Hamlet might have been wrong. Conscience only makes some of us cowards.


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Questions about the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest…

A New Way of Seeing

A New Way of Seeing (2007)

…you should be asking — asking now that Version.2006 has a year of dry paint and Version.2007 has just rolled its wet pixels off the assembly line– asking before you start your generators and begin revving your fractals for next year’s Version.2008:

~Why is the judges’ work exhibited with that of the winners? Isn’t this breach of universally accepted protocol in itself enough to invalidate the entire contest? Can viewers easily know which artists were self-selected and which were juried? In other words, are distinctions between judges (who this year are semantically disguised as “panel members”) and winners thoroughly and consistently made obvious — at the exhibition in Madrid, in every online gallery, and in all promotional materials? Who made the decision to allow the judges’ work to be shown with the winning art? Who selected the judges, and what criteria were used to make the choices? And what is one to make of the 60/40 ratio in this year’s exhibited work ( Winners: 15 / Judges: 10)? Is this whole thing really a competition at all — or is it more of an invited exhibition where the judges walk their own work in through the delivery door and hang their art (with apparently no shame) beside the winners? How can anyone then tell the winners from the choosers? Shouldn’t this competition be either a juried contest or a by-invitation-only exhibit — but certainly not both?

~What percentage of the exhibited images (including art from the judges) from both last year and this year were created using Ultra Fractal? Over 75%? Higher? Don’t these numbers suggest the competition is just a facelift of the old Fractalus art contests dressed up in formalwear to better glitter for the press, seem more cosmopolitan to the viewers, and appear more inclusive and broad-based to the artists? But, if this actually is a retread in new duds and on steroids primarily designed to pump up UF art and artists, shouldn’t all the contest’s promotional and advertising materials make that fact explicit?

~Why is the submission size for entries so large when the director surely understands that artists using programs other than UF, as well as artists who post-process heavily, would face obstacles that could easily exclude them from competing? Why, in fact, do all prints have to be made to the specifications of doors and picture windows, as clearly seen in this short video piece about last year’s contest found on YouTube? Is bigger always better to display fractal details? Do we need to blow up the Mona Lisa or The Scream to plasma TV dimensions to “improve” them? Wouldn’t an exhibition of prints of an assortment of sizes be just as elegant and even more aesthetically pleasing? Or are the titanic entry requirements intentionally mandated to insure a certain fractal program (guess which one) is emphatically privileged?

~How many of the winners, alternates, and honorable mentions are now taking or have taken classes from contest judges who teach art students at the Visual Arts Academy? Did one of the judge’s students report her two entries were recognized in the contest– one as an alternate and the other as an honorable mention? Did another student selected for the exhibition note her his winning entry was created as a masking exercise in one of the judge’s classes? Did these judges recuse themselves from passing judgment on entries they recognized as being from their own students? Moreover, were any safeguards put in effect to insure judges refrain from making a recommendation when they recognized a friend’s work? Aren’t such reasonable guidelines commonplace protocols in literary and art contests? Here is an excerpt from the entry requirements of the annual literary contest held by the Associated Writing Programs:

To avoid conflict of interest and to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, friends and former students of a judge (former students who studied with a judge in an academic degree-conferring program or its equivalent) are ineligible to enter the competition in the genre for which their former teacher is serving as judge.

How can the people responsible for the contest not see such an inherent conflict of interest? And doesn’t a situation where winners are thanking other winners for their formulas and where students are selected for inclusion by their teachers run an increased risk of presenting an exhibition showcasing a single, inbred, highly homogenized style?

~Isn’t Professor Mandelbrot generally considered to be the father of all fractals? Did he know that the work exhibited under the auspices of the “contest” that bears his name caters to the UFractalus school and is nowhere near a representational sampling of the current, multi-dimensional breadth of contemporary fractal art? Would he maybe prefer “his” contest to display more diversity in its range of fractal styles, programs, forms, and visions?

~And, in the end, isn’t the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest just a publicity stunt by the director and the judges to concoct a “prestigious” contest out of whole cloth and gild it with a veneer of juried rigor? Isn’t it both a sham and a scam that allows their own work never to risk the uncomfortable scrutiny of being judged itself — but to instead be safely grandfathered into an exhibition of their own creation?


Rooms with a View
Blog with a View

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Why The Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest Makes Fractal Art Look Amateurish

I apologize for not keeping a closer eye on the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest 2006. If I had, these comments of mine wouldn’t have come a whole year late, but it’s just recently that I was able to view the entire exhibition (PDF Catalog here) which includes the works by the judges which wasn’t displayed on the contest site, which is where most of the online attention has been focused. The artist’s notes that are displayed with the exhibition artwork make for interesting reading, for those of us who have a critical disposition. They alone, ought to raise a few eyebrows and cause some to blush.

Yes, it’s embarrassing for me to say I’m a fractal artist and think that I am in some, even very remote way, part of what this contest claims to represent. I’m a naturally trusting sort of person, as I suspect most fractal artists are. I just naturally assumed that such a prodigious-sounding event as The Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest, would be good for the whole genre even if it didn’t cater to my own particular artistic tastes and methods. If the Ultra Fractalists wanted to lead a parade down main street then surely I could take some pride in it also, even if I wasn’t part of it?

A few words about criticism I think are needed here, since criticism seems to be something new to the Fractal Art world. I should add that the word, “reasonable”, which I use often, can be defined as: “Not excessive or immoderate; within due limits; proper; as, a reasonable demand, amount, price.” [1913 Webster] I mention this because I’ve met a lot of people who incorrectly think, “reasonable”, means, “Anything I can think of”.

Some of my thoughts:

-it is reasonable for the selection panel of a public contest, who are performing the role of critics themselves, to receive criticism regarding their selections

-when all of the submissions for a contest are posted in a single place on the internet, it is reasonable for other people to form opinions regarding the judges’ choices since they are now in a position to judge for themselves

-fair and impartial judging, or at the very least, the reasonable attempt to provide it, is a reasonable expectation when submitting work to any contest

-it is reasonable for a publicly held contest to receive publicity which includes public criticism

The connections that the judges have with each other, the contest organizers, and the artists submitting work to the contest speaks for itself regarding the level of impartiality that other artists can expect from this contest. I’ll let readers connect the dots themselves because they’re so close together it hardly needs to be done for them. But one comment anyhow: the clear association that some of the judges have with the selected works (contest works) in the form of either software, formulas or other algorithms used to create them, make an impartial judgement of these works appear extremely unlikely. I’m aware of these connections because a number of the judges are noted for their contribution, by name, right in the notes that accompany the selected artwork!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, at least one of the judges’ own works is of such doubtful artistic merit, and so out of place with all the rest of the contest winners, that the only reasonable explanation that I can see for it’s inclusion in the exhibit, is the privilege that all the judges have been given to self-select one of their own works for the exhibit. Compare it with the contest entries and ask yourself, “Would that have been selected if it was subjected to the same selection process as all the rest?”

Which raises another point: Why, after an entire year has passed and a second contest with almost identical rules (some are verbatim) has been concluded, have so few people said anything about this insult to Fractal Art? Fractal Art as a genre, can hardly be taken seriously or receive any respect if it’s most prominent and visible members operate public contests with little regard for fairness or principle. This makes Fractal Art look amateurish. And if you don’t have a problem with that, then you’re an amateur too.

It reminds me of an incident that occurred over at Renderosity. Groups of friends in the fractal “community” routinely voted for each others’ work as a team in order to boost their ratings and hopefully make it into the Top 20. The way it worked is they posted a comment under each of their friend’s work and marked it with a “V” to indicate they’d voted for it so their friends would do the same for them.

Well, in addition to distorting the results of the Top 20, a selection of work whose intended purpose was to showcase the better Fractal works at Renderosity (which usually get ignored because they’re buried in the enormous quantity of work that gets posted there), they went on to give the whole community a bad name by playing the same game in the Terragen Community.

A few of these fractal “artists” decided to start posting their Terragen images in the Terragen Community on Renderosity and then do the same “team-voting” thing. The Terragen folks got rather upset when their Top 20 started to fill up with second-rate works by a small group of newcomers, and started asking where these folks were coming from and what was going on with the voting. I guess the Terragen folks aren’t afraid to speak up and do some investigating when they see things are not quite right.

I think Fractal Art’s reputation and development ought to be just as important as getting in the public spotlight and promoting your own personal artwork. I think “Art” is more important than individual “artists”. In addition to being a maker of fractal art I’m also a viewer and fan of it. I like fractal art. I like to see new talent encouraged and new styles given the attention they deserve when they have artistic merit — that’s how an artform develops and becomes refined. Otherwise, it becomes the domain of a few oldtimers who’d rather replicate themselves and their tired styles while any new ideas or fresh talent that arises is sidelined to smoulder away in obscurity.

Tim Hodkinson

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Contests and other Circuses

Before I start to comment on this year’s Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest, I should tell you something: I don’t like contests. I think they trivialize art by turning it into a sports competition. The only redeeming features these self-inflicted events have is they create a compilation of artwork whose average level of quality is usually higher than normal, and they also allow those selections to gain more attention than they would otherwise have had, particulary for Fractal Art which is a genre that is primarily online and as a result, scattered far and wide all over the internet. Contests also cause people to reflect on art in a thoughtful, critical way, which usually leads to its development and refinement.

It’s this critical influence, intended or not, that contests have that prompts me to respond to them. I don’t think contests like this change the public’s image of Fractal Art as much as they change the image that Fractal artists have of it — particularly ones who take their direction from what they think is popular or presented as “the best” (like in a contest). Contests establish standards and make statements about art, even if the judges and organizers don’t want them to. Contests put artwork on trial and become a very strong, and very public type of artistic criticism. Contests promote values by selecting from the submissions artwork which best exemplifies the characteristics that the judges think are best. Contests are anything but neutral or non-judgemental and need to be carefully examined so that the values they suggest or imply can be given more deliberate and deeper consideration. Contests are criticism of the sharpest sort.

First off, it ought to be perfectly obvious to anyone who reads the rules that the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest is ultimately going to result in an exhibition made up of highly polished work made in Ultra Fractal. It’s there. It may not be intentional, but if you ask the question, “Why?” (and you should always ask that), the answer is plain: those are the attributes that they think makes good Fractal Art.

The required image sizes alone immediately narrow down the possibilities. Check out the names of the judges and see the sort of work they produce online and you’ll get an even clearer view of where this contest is leading. Check out last year’s results. That’s the sort of artwork this contest is all about and was directed, by design, to be. Unless the rules were made by accident, or a committee, which is often a special type of accident.

It all about Ultra Fractal. But that’s Okay, in my opinion. Sure, it might be a little dull, at least for people like me, but I don’t blame the Ultra Fractalists, or any other group, for cultivating and promoting their own style of Fractal Art. Perhaps Ultra Fractal really is a distinct, unique genre, or sub-genre, and should be presented separately. Of course it’s not exactly labelled, The Benoit Mandelbrot Ultra Fractal Art Contest. But that’s Okay too, it doesn’t have to be in the title. Many events have generic names and don’t necessarily represent everything in their field. The World Series, for example.

If you read carefully you’ll also realize that the “exhibit” is not the same as the contest results. The “exhibit” is made up of two groups of work: the contest winners and the judges own, self-selected work that is not judged, but is included with the contest winners for reasons I still can’t understand, although it may have been a half-baked idea — the first year. Why have a “contest” and then add unjudged work to it? Why is it considered a conflict of interest for the judges to submit their own work to the selection committee, but not when they select it themselves and have it automatically included in the exhibit? (Rules 2.1) Why not simply have the judges submit their work like everyone else, but abstain from voting on it? Or just not submit anything at all? Of course that last one is easy to answer: the exhibit won’t be the best of Ultra Fractal if you exclude the best Ultra Fractal artists. It’s also a “plum” given out to the judges to reward them for being involved. Apparently it happens in other contests, although the judges’ (unjudged) work is then presented separately to distinguish it from the contest.

Why do that? Why separate such work from the contest? As I mentioned, contests set standards and make statements about what is good (selected) and what isn’t (unselected). Conflicts of interest regarding selection undermines that standard and in the extreme case, invalidates it on the grounds that motives other than artistic quality influenced the selections. Pretty simple reasoning, don’t you think?

This is the achilles heel of the contest and it ought to be eliminated because it’s insulting to the judges as ultimately it makes them look like they’re cheating and using the exhibit to present their own artwork under the guise of having received critical acclaim (ie. selected by the judges -more than one) when in fact it only reflects their personal choice (one judge). They’re all respected fractal artists. They don’t need this private, back door to the exhibit. Their work is more than capable of standing on its own merits. Of course, you never can tell what the final result of any committee’s selection will be. There’s a gambling factor to contests that one always has to keep in mind, just like job interviews or academic marks or jury trials.

So what’s the bottom line in all this? It’s advertised as a Fractal Art contest but it’s really an Ultra Fractal Art contest. There’s no reason to apologize for this, as I’ve said. In my opinion people ought to read the rules closer, check out the judges and look at last year’s winners and they’ll realize that soon enough. Will the world come away thinking that Ultra Fractal is all there is to fractal art and the rest of us don’t count? Well, it’s an offline exhibition, and even though Madrid is a big city and everything (Barcelona might have been better), and all of this is part of an international gathering (of math people), I don’t think it even represents anything near the audience that visits my own personal website in the course of a single year, despite whatever long line-up there may have been. Oh, I’m forgetting, Dr. Mandelbrot. Sorry, but with all due respect to our dear mathematical genius and theoretical founder, he’s just a celebrity endorsement (but definitely the best, I might add). To put it simply: offline art doesn’t count for much anymore. Not even the Louvre can compete with the internet. Times have changed.

Anyhow, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest 2008. Most artists love contests and art galleries, even if they never win one or see their art displayed there. I believe there were many more submissions this time than last year, which is a clear sign of growing interest — and influence.

Tim Hodkinson

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