While it may not be as well known today as it has been in the past, The Fractal Art Manifesto, written back in 1999 by Kerry Mitchell, is one of the very few attempts to formally define fractal art. If you visit the Wikipedia page for Fractal Art, you’ll see that quotations from The Fractal Art Manifesto make up half of the introductory section of the article. The point of view expressed in The Fractal Art Manifesto is something that needs to be addressed by anyone challenging the current state of Fractal Art since that current state today reflects much of the thinking in that singular document.
In a nutshell, my disagreement with the Fractal Art Manifesto (FAM) is that it over exaggerates the role of the “artist” and minimizes the role of the computer program in the creation of fractal art. Furthermore, it grossly generalizes what art is and subsequently blurs the boundary between simpler kinds of graphical work like design and ornamentation with that of the more complex, expressive works that engage the viewer on higher, more thought provoking levels. It’s just this kind of view of fractal art that leads so many fractal artists today to view fractals as just another artistic medium and themselves as just another kind of artist capable of producing work of similar status once they “master” their fractal art tools in the way other artists of the past whose own mastered their medium and tools to make their great art.
From the FAM:
Fractal Art is not:
Computer(ized) Art, in the sense that the computer does all the work. The work is executed on a computer, but only at the direction of the artist. Turn a computer on and leave it alone for an hour. When you come back, no art will have been generated.
“Executed…at the direction of the artist…leave it alone…no art” Well, that “direction” the artist gives is what? Choosing a formula, a rendering method, zooming in or out; it’s more like “placing an order”, like choosing menu options than directing the actions of a digitized paintbrush. The balance is off; the computer does more of the work, much more, not less of it. The fractal program draws the entire image, we just choose the options and chose only from the options. “Direction” is an overstatement. “Initiate”, “select” or “adjust” is more appropriate.
The fractal program is the major contributor while the operator’s role is trivial. Adjusting parameters is not a terribly difficult or demanding thing. The fact that the process can’t be automated and left for the computer to do on its own doesn’t mean it’s a difficult one. Parking lots have attendants and supermarket checkouts have cashiers to scan bar codes and take payments. Both of these functions need human supervision, but neither of them are hard to perform. Adjusting fractal parameters is actually a fun thing to do and all one has to do is pay attention to what works and save the results. I’m not sure such “work” qualifies one for the label (and role) of “artist”. The role of the fractal artist is minimal because the work the fractal artist does is minimal.
In keeping with the theme of The Artist, rather than the more humble computer term, “user”, the FAM goes on to speak of Mastery, that great and glorious status in the fractal art world that says, “You’ve Arrived”. It’s a common theme (and myth) in today’s fractal art world to talk about “prestigious” fractal artists. The concept was found in the FAM too.
(Fractal Art is not:)
Random, in the sense of unpredictable. Fractal Art, like any new pursuit, will have aspects unknown to the novice, but familiar to the master. Through experience and education, the techniques of FA can be learned. As in painting or chess, the essentials are quickly grasped, although they can take a lifetime to fully understand and control. Over time, the joy of serendipitous discovery is replaced by the joy of self-determined creation.
Techniques of fractal art? “As in painting or chess…” That’s a pretty lofty comparison, which again reinforces my opinion that what’s wrong here is not so much whether the term “artist” is appropriate or not, but that the contribution of the artist (or whatever) in fractal art has been exaggerated and that this overblown role once accepted leads onwards, logically, to the assumption that fractal artists can be classed into novices and masters because what they do is so complicated and challenging. And note the extension of the comparison between the two classes of novice and master into “serendipitous discovery” and “self-determined creation”. Novices, like prospectors go wandering around looking for gold, while The Masters make themselves it by transmuting lead using their advanced skills.
(Fractal Art is not:)
Something that anyone with a computer can do well. Anyone can pick up a camera and take a snapshot. However, not just anyone can be an Ansel Adams or an Annie Liebovitz. Anyone can take brush in hand and paint. However, not just anyone can be a Georgia O’Keeffe or a Pablo Picasso. Indeed, anyone with a computer can create fractal images, but not just anyone will excel at creating Fractal Art.
The FAM makes another reference to photography but again it simply takes everything too far. After all: just how much is fractal art like photography?
Fractal Art is a subclass of two dimensional visual art, and is in many respects similar to photography—another art form which was greeted by skepticism upon its arrival. Fractal images typically are manifested as prints, bringing Fractal Artists into the company of painters, photographers, and printmakers. Fractals exist natively as electronic images. This is a format that traditional visual artists are quickly embracing, bringing them into FA’s digital realm.
“Sub-class of two dimensional art…” Meaning what? It’s flat and you can look at it. There’s some very subtle reasoning going on here, Mitchell is trying to connect fractals to all of visual art. The categories are described in very general terms so that they will be broad enough to qualify fractals for membership. But what exactly do fractals and photographs have in common? Better still, what does fractal art and photographic art have in common?
This the core issue in understanding fractal art’s position in the larger art world. Fractals are a medium and that medium has limitations that mediums like photography don’t have. Yes, fractals are like photography in the sense that we “capture” imagery rather than create it by hand, but a camera is not much like a fractal program window. Photography deals with realistic imagery; people, objects, human drama; while fractal programs are limited to geometric constructions. Only in a broad, academic sense do fractals and photography have any connection. And fractal artists are only brought “into the company” of painters and printmakers because they all make prints if they happen to use the same printing store on the same day. I guess that would also bring them “into the company” of people getting passport photos and picking up baby and wedding photo enlargements too. “Mom! Dad! I stood in line with Da Vinci today!”
Anyhow, it goes on with the misconceived idea that fractals are just another visual art medium and thereby suitable for the same artistic endeavors (when fully mastered) that artists in any other medium attempt. I’ve bolded in red further examples of this from the rest of the FAM below to illustrate this:
Fractal Art is:
Expressive. Through a painter’s colors, a photographer’s use of light and shadow, or a dancer’s movements, artists learn to express and evoke all manner of ideas and emotions. Fractal Artists are no less capable of using their medium as a similarly expressive language, as they are equipped with all the essential tools of the traditional visual artist.
Creative. The final fractal image must be created, just as the photograph or the painting. It can be created as a representational work, and abstraction of the basic fractal form, or as a nonrepresentational piece. The Fractal Artist begins with a blank “canvas”, and creates an image, bringing together the same basic elements of color, composition, balance, etc., used by the traditional visual artist.
Requiring of input, effort, and intelligence. The Fractal Artist must direct the assembly of the calculation formulas, mappings, coloring schemes, palettes, and their requisite parameters. Each and every element can and will be tweaked, adjusted, aligned, and re-tweaked in the effort to find the right combination. The freedom to manipulate all these facets of a fractal image brings with it the obligation to understand their use and their effects. This understanding requires intelligence and thoughtfulness from the Artist.
The last paragraph, “Requiring of input…”, makes the act of creating fractal art out to be a process that is as much under the control of the artist as it is with a painter in his medium. If that were actually the case then fractal art would contain much more variety and personal style that it does because each artist would be literally sculpting the image remotely through the program’s controls with almost unlimited outcomes.
By “every element” I would assume Mitchell is referring to the list of items that goes into the “assembly” of the image in the previous sentence. But such elements are merely the parameters of a fractal image that we’re all familiar with and they don’t give anyone anything like what I would describe as the “freedom to manipulate”. What the artist can control in fractal art is limited and this is why so much of fractal art has the same style and appearance. In fact it is easier to spot the program a piece of fractal art was made with than it is to guess who made it. It’s the “style” of the program that characterizes fractal art, not the style of the artist. This is in huge contrast to what the FAM portrays as fractal artists working with in their medium like high tech painters. Whatever “thoughts” the artist might have in all this are largely irrelevant because there’s little opportunity to work them into the equation like there is when a painter imagines something and then takes up a brush to paint.
Most of all, Fractal Art is simply that which is created by Fractal Artists: ART.
Therein ends the majestic document called The Fractal Art Manifesto. Notice the emphasis given the word art at the ending –all caps. Why such an in-your-face kind of emphasis? Manifestos, especially art ones, tend to be emphatic proclamations, but I think it’s important to recognize another, perhaps historical reason for why Mitchell (typographically) shouts the last word of his manifesto. And that is the theme of defending the integrity of fractals as a bone fide art form before disapproving (and technophobic) art critics.
From the third paragraph of the FAM:
…similar to photography—another art form which was greeted by skepticism upon its arrival. (emphasis mine)
I don’t know what the situation is today, but ten years ago when the FAM was written, it was at least perceived by Mitchell and others that fractal art was being shrugged off by some artsy folks (curators, critics…) as not being art at all and trivialized by such statements as “that’s just Photoshop” or “anyone can do that”. Damien Jones, on a web page entitled, Of Fractals and Art, hosted alongside the FAM makes similar allusions to the weak reception fractal art has received by some in the art world:
Probably as long as there has been art, there have been people asking whether this or that qualifies as art. Fractal artists often catch a lot of flak concerning their art. We sometimes have difficulty being included in art shows or in selling our work; we’re not always taken seriously, so to speak. We are treated as dabblers, pretenders, rather than as artists expressing ourselves through a new (relatively unexplored) medium. Since I consider myself a fractal artist, I’m not exactly an unbiased party, but I do at least have reasons for why I consider fractal art a valid art form.
Our art is best received by those who know nothing about it. They simply look at what we create, and their reaction is one of surprise, awe, delight… a range of positive emotions. They don’t ask whether it’s art or not; we present it as art, they accept it as such. No, our problems often seem to come from those who know a little bit about how we do what we do.
“Those who know a little…” They’re the problem people. Or is it those who take the time to find out –a little more? And think about fractal art –a little more? That’s my problem; I started thinking about fractal art for myself. But this is another topic for some other time… If you’re interested, Jones goes on to say in his micro-festo much the same sort of things as Mitchell does in the FAM.
It’s a perennial topic in the fractal art world: we don’t get no respect. I don’t know if it’s such a big deal anymore because maybe fractal artists don’t care so much what “the world” thinks about them because online it matters much less. You only hear from people who like your work or want to buy prints. You don’t get to see the sneering and snickering of art critics and other members of the intelligentsia. You have to go offline perhaps for those delightful experiences (or start a blog…).
But I don’t think that fully explains Mitchell’s extreme reverential view of the fractal art medium and fractal art. I think that’s really the way he sees it. The extreme view of the mocking art critics is matched and countered by his own extreme view that seeks to defend fractals as being everything the sneering critics say it isn’t. My own view is something in between. I would describe fractal programs as more than tools and the users of them as something less than artists. The resulting medium is something categorically new, consisting of powerful tools for creating decorative patterns and designs but having a “creative ceiling” that can only be overcome if one enlarges their toolset and thereby multiplies the graphical options. Such advanced processing would then result in the sort of freedom to manipulate and tweak every element that Mitchell associates with traditional visual art.
[update 2011/08/26 7:30pm]
It seems Mitchell has sent out a call to all the Ultra Fractal Mailing List to come on over to Orbit Trap and defend the FAM: