The future of fractal art
Well, bluntly stated, there is no future in fractal art. At least not in the kind of fractal art that most artists are making today. That’s the stuff I called Parameter Art in my last posting, Part 4. What we’ve all seen is what we’re all going to see.
Of course there will still be a lot of activity and plenty of people making parameter art –it will still be as popular as it is; but that’s not what I’d call progress or development –a future. Progress is better art, innovative art –new things. All that popularity is simply people enjoying the interaction and exploration of fractals: fractalism. They’re the audience, not the artists.
I see an art form that reached it’s apex about the turn of the millennium when full color rendering had become common and fractal programs reached their current level of sophistication in rendering. It just wasn’t so obvious back then that fractal art had climbed as high as it could. In fact, I think most artists thought it was all just getting going. Even today, many people say fractal art is just beginning.
Great new software and techniques haven’t moved fractal art off the plateau it’s on either. What is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Mandelbulb/Mandelbox event this past few years is how quickly it has become just another formula despite adding another physical dimension. I was really excited about the 3D fractal thing and thought here, after so long, was something categorically different.
But now I see it as just an extension of the 2D fractal art scene with the same problem: no style, no depth; just a technical development. There’s been a steady stream of technical developments and even new software produced, but it’s become more a thrill of exploring new parameters and formulas (interactive) whose output is only technically different.
It’s become like bird watching: you have to be taxonomically obsessed to enjoy it. It’s an insider’s art form, if in fact it is an art form at all and not just a programming game.
What’s wrong with the BMFAC is what’s wrong with fractal art
Today’s fractal art world is an inbred place because the fractal artists that stick around like that sort of cliquish environment where who you know is what it’s all about. Some defend their little enclave on the grounds that it’s their preference to make art with one eye closed and one hand tied behind their back. The sad thing is that some really do believe that Ultra Fractal is an art form all itself, the ultimate fractal tool and the ultimate fractal art; “ultra-fractal art.”
Today’s fractal artist hungers for attention and status from their friends. Contests are the apex of their art form. It’s not about the art, it’s about who’s looking at it and what they’re saying. I know, because the moment I criticize any winning piece from a BMFAC the author immediately rushes in to defend not their art work, but the validity of their little prize and the reputations of the people who gave it. No one seems to think a lack of good enteries is a problem for an art exhibit.
Fractal artists like the technical restraints of their genre because it creates the illusion that fractal art is hard to make and therefore a worthy accomplishment. (There’s actually courses offered in how to use Ultra Fractal.) Open it up to processing and all of a sudden their ten-hour renders have to stand beside my ten-second “clickies”. What if one of those filter things actually looks appealing?
Don’t worry, it will never happen if of course one demands “real” fractal art to be scalable, high-resolution works which only a parameter file can generate; then I’m left eating UF’s dust. And that’s exactly what the BMFAC’s organizer, Damien Jones has done. He concocted the rules to give the appearance of allowing anything to be entered but then cut everything out except for parameter works by requiring image sizes that no preexisting image or even digital photograph could meet. He did this to keep digital art from actually entering and competing with UF art. And the UF artists call it a quality requirement. Good art is big art, right? That’s how dumb things are in the fractal art world.
A recent commenter pointed this out by saying that even if a fractal sculpture was submitted as a photograph, the artist would have to use a 48 megapixel camera to meet the image size requirements. It sounds ridiculous but not when you realize how vulnerable today’s fractal art is to outside competition, that is, to competition with unrestricted processing. Restrictions like this aren’t meant to keep fractal artists in, they’re meant to keep unauthorized artists out. Everyone’s free to leave. The average fractal artist sees this as “defining” fractal art and maintaining its mathematical purity, as if any image with fifty layers in it has any possibility of being a pure anything and hasn’t already entered into the artificial realm of photoshop constructions.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the fractal art world doesn’t interest the innovative and creative type of person. It’s not an innovative or creative thing anymore. It’s all been done before. Compare any of the BMFAC “winners” with artwork that was made ten years ago. There’s no place to go anymore. Ironically, the BMFAC came along after fractal art had already peaked. But they could have started their own renaissance if they’d allowed creative fractal art to be entered. But like I said, they weren’t interested in enlarging the fractal art world; they wanted to draw the limits around fractal art in such a way that they would be left standing in the center of it. In economics this is called protectionism. It props up the weak and inflates their wealth. And maintains the status quo a little longer.
…do fractals really need a special category?
I never seriously considered this before, but since writing this series I’ve begun to question the relevance of separating fractals from other types of computer art. I’m not sure that fractal algorithms produce art work that is sufficiently more exotic than any other form of algorithm or computer generated graphics. This is really the big question facing fractal art today, and the responses you get to it, more than anything else, tell you where that person’s interests lie and from what perspective they view fractal art.
From a science perspective the category makes perfect sense which probably explains why fractal art is such a well fenced off area today because so many involved emphasize the science and not the art aspects. In fact Benoit Mandelbrot is often described as the father of fractal art although he has never been described by anyone (particularly himself) as an artist. He’s the father of fractal geometry and a real genius, too, but fractal artists seem to think he’s the founder of something he only dabbled in way back when. Of course, having expired credentials is no barrier to becoming a judge of fractal art. At the BMFAC it seems to be something sought after. How many of them have given up making fractal art? Doesn’t that say something when “the most prestigious fractal artists” aren’t interested in fractal art any more?
But really, what fractal programs produce is just another kind of photoshop filter anyhow. In fact, there are some fairly nice photoshop filters that create algorithmic imagery exclusively. Fractals belong in the larger category of computer art. It’s a natural thing in the photoshop world.
I don’t mean alongside digital photography and it’s derivatives. I mean along with other kinds of imagery that is generated exclusively with computer programs. (Am I getting restrictive and exclusive now too?) All computer art forms are close enough to each other in terms of what they produce regardless of how they work. Shouldn’t such “fractal cousins” be exhibited together instead of apart? But good luck trying to convince the fractal “experts” that their glorious art form ought to mix and mingle with the rest of the computer art village folk. It’s ironic since the trend in fractal art is to make imagery that doesn’t look fractal and utilizes the layering and masking techniques that used to be the hallmark of graphical processing and the antithesis of fractal (i.e. generated) art.
Graphical experimentation is the frontier for all computer art
I’ve dubbed it “Digital Expressionism” after the Abstract Expressionism of the hand made art world. Interestingly, interactive installations, like what I suggested fractals were best at, are a common type of digital or electronic art form. They like to play up and expose the strange, electronic nature of their art form. Only the fractal art world seems bent on moving backwards into the offline world of picture frames and canvases to produce an unplugged electronic art form.
Maybe what’s needed is just a whole new generation of artists who don’t have the old attitudes and baggage of today’s fractal artists, artists who seem to want the status and image of traditional artists and are attempting to get it by promoting fractal art as the Picassos of our time and them even as the pioneers of it.
People love fractals!
Fractals have a strong scientific allure but that wears off fast once you see how orderly and homogenized they are at a closer inspection. Many fractal folks have stated how enthusiastic the average guy at the flea market is when he sees fractal art for the first time. Or when students discover fractals in a multimedia classroom. They click immediately and the artistic connection is electric!
Fractals, like most algorithms produce patterns or what could be described as highly organized imagery. Like I said before, it’s the achilles heel of fractal art but it’s also what wows people when they (first) see it. Complex patterns are a gold mine of decorative and design type imagery but that repetitive, iterative process doesn’t do the Picasso thing very well. In fact, I believe that the popularity of UF’s layering and masking features are because fractal artists have felt frustrated with fractals creatively and need layering to shuffle the deck, so to speak.
Today’s fractal artist considers fractal art to be the greatest things that a fractal program can make. When instead they out to be pursuing the greatest things that can be made with fractals. This program-centric mentality is what keeps fractal art so boring. Imagine if music was only whatever could be played on a piano? Or even just a violin? What would those soloists say when they heard an orchestra? They’d probably say it sounds nice but it’s not music. Too many sounds competing with each other and confusing the music.
Which reminds me of an interesting story…
I had an opportunity to talk with a modern music composer back in 2005. Somehow fractals came up and he told me of his experience discussing fractal music with a few younger composers who were excited about the creative possibilities of fractal music. After giving him a rather long and involved explanation of the wonderful way these mathematical formulas could be used to write music, he responded with the blunt question, “Yes, but is it any good?”
Despite having a distinct fondness for criticism, the old guy was reminding the fractal music composers of a simple but practical observation that regardless of whatever method they use, their music will be judged by whether it sounds any good or not and not by the fascinating science story that from their perspective makes the music new and different.
If the old composer was a visual artist I think he’d respond to a similar introduction to making art with fractals by asking, “Yes, but is it any good?” In the final analysis that’s what fractal art, or any art form, is all about: making good art.
But, woe to anyone who offers an opinion on good or even “better” art. The mere fact you have an opinion in the fractal art world makes you suspect. Someone trying to ruin things. Etc…
In a nutshell
Fractal programs are a fun and interactive form of digital art made possible through the discovery of fractal geometry and realized by the processing power of computers. Much of what we see on the internet are the snapshot souvenirs and test renders of a group best described as “fractalists” or fractal enthusiasts. Those who deliberately pursue the aesthetic qualities of fractals will ultimately discover that fractals make good designs and amazingly decorative, ornamental kinds of works. Fine art however, like the stuff in art books, is just beyond the scope of fractals or any other kind of algorithmic art source. It’s like trying to reach the moon in an airplane; it looks pretty straightforward until you actually attempt it.
But if you want your fractal art to go beyond the ornamental (or just maximize the fun) then working with it in pixel-form in a graphics program will both greatly extend your creative reach and at the same time give your fractal art real style and individuality because processing options are so much more diverse and unpredictable. There’s no personal style in the kind of images that can be stored as a parameter file and modified entirely within a fractal program. Those kinds of images are more a product of the program and its programming because the users who make them are limited to just those options. It’s this that has resulted in artwork and an art form that is limited because it’s defined and composed of limits.
The future of your fractal art is up to you.