Rebooting Fractal Art: Part 5

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.

4 thoughts on “Rebooting Fractal Art: Part 5

  1. Hi Tim,

    I do love your opening sentence. Fortunately you go on to say a deal more and therein is the interest.

    Frankly given the limited commercial outlets for all forms of digital art it can hardly be expected for anyone of reputation to squander valuable time producing such work. I seem to remember David Hockney had a small exhibition of his early morning forays into creating images using fingers and thumb on tablet screen. It was a neat exhibition considering the limitations but he was quick to pronounce that progression was unlikely when there was a lack of commercial possibilities (my words, his meaning).

    So you are howling at the moon. Show someone the money and dedication will be productively focussed.

    As it is, the various online galleries are home to struggling amateurs, folks trying to find meaning within a slush of technological bewilderment, and where the more important limitations of art experience are insufficiently balanced.

    I found from working a way through various courses for beginners, or specialist subjects like portraiture or watercolour that from skill comes understanding. But it remains a mistake to assume the understanding is more than it really is. What I’m saying is that Art appreciation is a difficult thing and open to many alternatives. If doubtful, look back through art history. Each period has its characteristics, sometimes dominated by the doings of particular individuals, different ways of seeing, new materials, or the demands of patrons etc. Surreptitiously there is an urge to ascribe artistic value to whatever is the most expensive.

    Values are subjective and this was highlighted long ago in the court case Ruskin versus Whistler brought about when Whistler contested the judgment of his work by the most prominent art critic of his day.

    Two things I particularly like about the last article are the broadening of the discussion to take in all forms of digital or computer art. Fractal art as a subject is a subdivision enabling like-interested digital painters to view similar oriented work with least interference. The amount of work flowing through DA or Rendo is otherwise quite overwhelming.

    The other feature is your support for combining the use of two or more programmes in the construction of images, though I’m more than doubtful of the value of plug-ins for they are too often just another automotive feature.

    So and going back to Hockney: surely the key advancement for all forms of digital art is to find and exploit any commercial possibilities? Do this and all else should follow. In this many of your strictures seem counter-productive. Take your attitude to the use of fractal images in Calendar art. Why such harsh criticisms? Those calendars get fractals into the public domain and so give useful exposure. If one artist rather than another benefits it is hardly very material. That market now begins to develop as it prospers and other selection processes will come to the fore. Most important here is evidence of commercial success for the publishers. A natural development is for digital paintings to enter the field of large art prints and it is a source of disquiet that this route is undeveloped. A break-through there and limited edition prints are a natural progression, followed by a market for solitary images if sufficient trust is engendered. After that….. you have a good footing.

    The trust is key for digital paintings do have the obvious problem of easy repeatability due to the storage of master files. Museums already ponder this problem but from a quite opposite viewpoint when they wonder how
    digital archives can be made accessible over time when computers, operating systems, programmes etc become outdated and support of all kinds disappear. We live in a different world where dependence on computer files is fraught with danger, but the museum problem suggests our prints might acquire uniqueness through changes in technology – just an irreverent thought.

    Has the existence of negatives in photography been a commercial handicap? Certainly to a large extent in the fine arts, but this diminishes as individual collectors or galleries become acquisitive in increasing numbers We even have photographers who now intentionally categorise their work as fine art to a receptive clientele.

    The future essentially is unfathomable, but what might happen if fractal digital art begins to wither and die without attaining distinction? Does it not acquire value? It’s mere past existence should become sufficient to give it a place in art history. Museums, collectors, art aficionados love history, values go sky high, so what exists of known merit (here I’m assuming the non existence of destructive vandalism)? We have your much maligned BMFAC as the source of some of the likeliest candidates. Those winners are few in number, the individuals who formed the selection teams had a combination of expertise and reputation, and the selection process did more to accentuate the value for they each evaluated in isolation through separation by location. As Dave outlined, the differing opinions had to be brought together into a majority compromise but the one critical feature is the initial mindset. Further, the organiser(s) beautifully found a solution to the problems of bringing the selected works to a single venue from many different parts of the world without costs to the entrants by electing to have them printed and framed etc in the host city. Finance was obviously needed to bring the exhibitions to fruition (the costs of bringing the prints into existence, the possible printing of catalogues or leaflets, transportation, the hire of venue, the use of stewards etc). The imposition of entry fees upon “contestants” was one possibility but far better for value conservation purposes is the use of sponsors. They footed the not inconsiderable bills, so business considerations would be the counter-balance. More, those sponsors retained the original framed works for other uses, and if – if – they had the good sense to archive or to otherwise preserve them then they are the prime candidates to reap the benefits of value growth if demand emerges.

    Frankly, I consider Damien (if it was only Damien) was extremely careful to preserve the reputation of sponsors when the best known artists/selectors were specifically invited to include pictures of their own to form a substantial part of the first exhibitions. Quality was thus best assured in the face of uncertainty.

    That bias has now been naturally discontinued as the general quality of the entries is recognised as of sufficient standard. Even so the quality of the final exhibition is bounded by the richness of the works made available to the scrutiny of the selectors. Even here Damien has been careful to maximise openness by making all entries available to view. This enables anyone to criticize or compare if they so wish and is certainly a valuable source for understanding.

    Anyway, thank you for a thought-provoking series. It inveigled me to spend a few minutes in your archives. It is a rich treasure trove, and I actually printed out one article for further study ( Sol LeWitt is gone (Guido,15th April 2007).

  2. One last note….

    Charging a fee for “contests” would most likely keep out some of the “every-day” type of fractals that get generated, but it would also eliminate some really fine examples of fractal graphics created by those with a limited income (which is probably 90 percent of the public under these extreme economic times).

    How many of the old “classic” painters (and other artists over the centuries) were ever well off enough to pay to have their creations exhibited?? How many ended up dying paupers before they were truly recognized as great artists??

    For those that could afford an entry fee, it might make them render better quality images. But I doubt that most of them actually would. Most will continue with the same layered spirals that we all have seen way too much of.

  3. Out of all the many articles that have been written and made available on Orbit Trap through the years, the “Rebooting Fractal Art” series is one of the best thought out when it comes to discussing “fractal art” (or “art” using fractals). And the “Part 5” section sums up everything I have noticed over the past twelve years.

    It is way too bad that those who really need to read this and understand what you are trying to express will either not read it, or choose to be so hardheaded (and stubborn in their own little cliquish ways), that nothing will change in the area of fractals and “art”.

    I saw what was happening to this genre back in 1998, and how it was being manipulated by a small group of individuals. I saw it basically reach its peak around the year 2000, with not much new or different since then (other than the 3-D Mandelbulb/box excitement). I saw the splintering of a handful large “fractal” groups into many smaller groups, which several ended up dying off after a few years. And sad to say, I seriously doubt that anything will ever change now that the damage has been done.

    But I do applaud your attempt to awaken people with these discussions. All we can do now is hope and pray others will eventually listen and take heed.

  4. This will be long, bear with me. I will *gasp* agree with you on some points so it might be worth reading. I’m glad these last two articles are way more balanced than the first three, because I was starting to think you were going to waste this discussion worthy topic with random incoherent accusations. The articles weren’t completely lacking in those departments, but at least there were some valid points to balance them out.

    First, as a personal disclaimer: Personally, I might call myself an artist at times out of convenience, but I’m a mere hobbyist both with photography and with fractals. I’m interested in art, its theory, its history, its philosophy, its potential to change people’s moods and ideas (especially since I’m into neuroscience) etc., but I have other priorities in life that prevent me from devoting the required time to it to enable me to be more innovative than what I can do from a home computer in small breaks from ‘real life’. I’m not offended when you say my art isn’t ‘art’ by your definition, or by any definition for that matter, because I don’t define myself as an artist to begin with. I might be disappointed it doesn’t have the effect I hoped it would on onlookers, but that’s about it. I am offended, however, when you claim I have and defend my point of view merely because some jury deemed one of my fractals as more worthy of displaying in an exhibition than some other fractals. Of course I’m happy that my fractal got exhibited in random places around the world, why on earth wouldn’t I be, but I’m also quite aware that this does not make me an acclaimed and accomplished artist.

    On that note, I think BMFAC is a decent contest considering it’s free with no entry fee and no monetary award, but that’s it – it’s free. The problem with fractal art is not BMFAC, the whole situation is the reason why BMFAC is the only and ‘most prestigious’ contest out there – that’s not the contest’s fault but merely a consequence of many factors. There aren’t enough fractal artists out there that make enough money off their art to afford entering a big contest with entry fees, monetary awards and overall monetary power to display art in acclaimed galleries (I can’t imagine how many blog entries it would take to calm you down if one day BMFAC decided to involve money in order to afford an exhibition that meets your standards). There aren’t enough fractal artists who go beyond 2d or pseudo-3d into a 4th (time/motion), even 5th (interaction) dimension* to merit an effort for a contest to call for and accommodate such installations. That is one thing I wholeheartedly agree with without any objections – there’s a huge untapped potential of fractals beyond the computer screen that could contribute to modern art today, and I don’t see anyone having a go for it. I would be thrilled to visit a gallery that features fractal installations by a true fractal artist. If these blogs can provide even a tiny push towards that, it’ll be worth every minute spent here in frustration on my part (as well as yours, I assume).

    I’m also with you all the way when you say that fractal art is not necessarily an individual category, medium-wise. I’m not at all comfortable with categorizing art in terms of medium anyway, but in those standards, fractal art does not have anything more or less than other digital art forms. At this point you would probably say that digital paintings are more fine-artsy and closer to artistic expression than the rest, and I would disagree, but that’s ok. At least we can agree that fractals are mere tools to make art (if used for that purpose) and are not masterpieces all on their own.

    When it comes to the distinction between pixel art and parameter art, I also agree with further fiddling with the output of fractal programs almost always gives the fractalists more creative and expressive power. One thing you forget, though, is that at least programs that provide layering and blending opportunities like UF give a lot of flexibility in that regard, so as you also point out, most UF fractals aren’t really ‘parameter art’ as in pure, calculated fractals. The fact that parameters also save the information on how to stack the layers does not make them ‘pure fractals’ since layer blending is not a ‘fractal process’. That said, I’m aware that colour manipulation and even stacking of fractals on top of each other is not the only way one could manipulate fractals. Beyond that, while you claim that “post processed art … has almost disappeared from the fractal world” (in the previous article), you seem to be unaware that deviantart that you hate so much (for reasons I often agree with) has an individual fractal manipulations category that hosts fractals post processed beyond colour editing, sharpening etc.. Granted, most are either ugly, bland or just boring, but so is the case with any other category in any medium on DA. The point is, the discussion over whether fractal purism makes any sense has ended, but in favor of post processing rather than its disappearance. BMFAC’s size criteria don’t stand in the way of manipulating large renders – I know this from experience as I colour-corrected and added texture to my winning entry post-render.

    *: I realize this is a non-existent terminology with dimensions, but I assume it gets the point across.

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