The Nature of Creativity in Fractal Art, Part 4: A Separate Artistry

Cover art from: A Separate Reality, by Carlos Castaneda, 1971

Desert lightning bolt summaries:
Pt. 1: Fractal art is automatism
Pt. 2: Fractal art works by mutation
Pt. 3: Editing usually just supplements the automatic creativity of fractal art
Pt. 4: Fractal art is automatic artistry not human artistry

Nevada Testing Range summary:
Pts 1-4: Fractal imagery has a mind of its own

Artistry, the engine of art

There’s something different about fractal art. Something that sets it apart from the art of artists working with their hands to form paintings out of paint and sculptures out of clay. Artists working with their hands do a lot of things you don’t see in fractal art. Even photographers selecting and “saving” images of the world around them produce work that is much different than fractal art.

I’ve been reading a great book on the history of computer art, When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art (Grant D. Taylor, 2014, Bloomsbury Academic). I often found myself sympathizing with the critics of computer art because I thought I understood what they’re primary objection was: Computer art, and especially the automatic kind, doesn’t seem to have an artist. How can one speak of “artistry” when there’s no artist? It’s a non-starter for them.

But while I sympathized with the frowning critics of computer art, I also felt I understood what their problem was: they’re only interested in human expression. To them the essence of art is human expression. Mechanical expression is not only lacking those essential qualities, it’s actually the exact opposite of what they look for in art. Mechanical things are lifeless. They like abstract expressionism when someone like Jackson Pollock is behind it, but not when no one is behind it. I would describe their perspective this way: “art as human expression”. Art as “any sort of expression” is what my view of art is. But we shouldn’t look down on people who define art exclusively in terms of human creativity, we should just see the human arts (plastic arts) as a separate artistry even if they see it as the only artistry.

The lack of this human factor I think explains why fractal art and computer art in general is not accepted, appreciated or, more to the point: not taken seriously by many people in the world of art. It’s missing something. Cut off from something. Something they think is important to art: the human mind.

This makes sense because the earliest attempts to use automatism in art were by the surrealists (eg. Max Ernst) and they were intent on creating an art form whose creativity was entirely separated from the human mind. Their goal was not exactly mechanical expression, it was non-conscious expression but mechanical methods (ie. automatic) achieved this goal as well as they presented imagery that sparked what they thought was the subconscious mind when viewing it, even if the subconscious mind wasn’t involved in the actual creating of it. Automatic methods produced surreal imagery that provoked reactions and interpretations that seemed categorically different from those that conscious, or hand-painted, imagery provoked. It was “art as Rorschact test”. From it’s earliest days, automatism was valued for this separate artistry by the founders and pioneers of what became one of the greatest artistic movements of the 20th century. Even the great Salvador Dali experimented with automatic techniques which included decalcomania (squished paint). Automatism is not artistically weak. Nor does it only attract artistically weak artists.

Ghost Planet

Artificial Imagination

Well, if you accept my position that fractal art, even when edited (touched-up and photomontaged) is still primarily the product of automatic processes (autonomous graphical mechanisms), then what it clearly “is not” is an expression of the human mind. Is it then the expression of a mechanical mind?

Can machines have “minds”? How do we compare and relate what a machine does to what artists do? Brothers and sisters, I want to shine upon you a revelation I had during my sojourn in the desert… algorithms have imaginations!

I don’t think there’s any such thing as artificial intelligence. I don’t think intelligence is something that can be replicated mechanically. But what about some of the more limited aspects of intelligence? Instead of complicated things like “self-awareness” how about creativity or imagination? Can something mechanical, that is, non-living, non-biological, have the capacity or ability to produce new things or conceive of new things? It’s not as intelligent as you may think. Some extremely talented human artists are not so intelligent either. Creativity and imagination in a visual art context can be very simple. With music and writing it’s a different matter. But can a fractal formula be said to be imaginative? I don’t mean the formula writer, I mean the actual formula.

First, we really need to nail down exactly what “imagination” and “creativity” is. Words are often surprising when you go look them up in dictionary. I used the term, “per se” incorrectly for 30 years.

Imagination (noun)

  1. the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.
  2. the action or process of forming such images or concepts.
  3. the faculty of producing ideal creations consistent with reality, as in literature, as distinct from the power of creating illustrative or decorative imagery. Compare fancy.
  4. the product of imagining; a conception or mental creation, often a baseless or fanciful one.
  5. ability to face and resolve difficulties; resourcefulness: a job that requires imagination.
  6. Psychology. the power of reproducing images stored in the memory under the suggestion of associated images (reproductive imagination) or of recombining former experiences in the creation of new images directed at a specific goal or aiding in the solution of problems (creative imagination)


Remember, we’re talking about imagination in the context of a machine: a mechanical process; a construction; a computer program. How could the concept of imagination exist in a mechanical medium?

Imagination (noun)

-the ability to form pictures in the mind:
-something that you think exists or is true, although in fact it is not real or true:
-the ability to think of new ideas

(From Cambridge Dictionary)

It’s pretty clear from those two sets of definitions that “imagination” implies a “mind” which immediately suggests a human being or, if you include “imaginative” animals, at least an advanced living organism. It’s common to think of imagination solely in the context of the human mind and so it’s equally common to think of art solely in the context of human activity, expression.

But, getting back to my desert illumination, what if something could produce the results of imagination without having a mind? (Yeah, real nuts, eh?) Couldn’t we then say that that “thing” was “imaginative”? Forget, for the moment about how the imagining happens and where it all comes from. A machine that produces images “of what is not actually present to the senses” is an imaginative thing, isn’t it? When you change the settings for parameters in a fractal program and the results surprise you, is not the fractal program more imaginative than you? It’s a creative act, isn’t it? This is the kind of creativity that all fractal program users are very familiar with. Isn’t it that kind of creativity that draws us and keeps us exploring fractal imagery? It’s not what we imagine, it’s what the program imagines. But it has no “mind”.

“Imagination: 2. the action or process of forming such images or concepts.” Could the process of fractal rendering fulfill that second definition of “imagination”? It’s implied that “imagination” takes place in the medium of the human mind and so it’s assumed that imagination is a uniquely human activity, but if you’ve ever “created” fractal imagery that looks better than a lot of hand-made, human artwork then surely you must have considered that you’re working with “something” that is imaginative. Nobody ever says they “drew the fractal themselves”. So… where is that “talent” coming from? And the “artist” and the “artistry”?

“Imagination: 4. the product of imagining; a conception or mental creation, often a baseless or fanciful one.” There it is! (according to Baseless? Fanciful for sure. Almost everything in a fractal program is fanciful. I’m treating definitions like they were something very precise and serious like a formula or equation. Fractal imagery is the most extreme form of determinism and order. It has a very solid and immovable base. But when a human draws something “fractal” by hand, then we call it imaginative because there’s no base for something like that. Nobody ever said Pollock’s drip paintings weren’t imaginative; but people often question whether they’re art because they don’t look “thoughtful” or appear to have intention. An artist is imaginative but not thoughtful? You see the Twilight Zone we’ve stumbled into? Artists appearing to imitate machines.

What a gold mine dictionary definitions can be when it comes to thinking “creatively”. Whatever that means. From Cambridge Dictionary’s third definition for imagination: -the ability to think of new ideas. Isn’t that what creative means? the ability to produce new things? This is where fractal artists get the idea that they’re creative: they produce new things. But who produces fractal imagery? Or rather, “what” produces fractal imagery. It all comes back to “The Nature of Creativity in Fractal Art”. Which is why I chose that title for the series. I hope by now you’re at least seeing why I think fractal artists aren’t the creative agents in fractal art but that it’s the machines, the algorithms and computer programming. You may not agree with it, but by now you ought to at least see the possibility of such a view.

In the off chance that someone might actually agree with me, consider Cambridge Dictionary’s first definition: the ability to form pictures in the mind. This describes the aspect of fractal algorithms that is their most “imaginative”: conceived but not yet rendered imagery. Here’s why the process of creating art in a fractal program is best described as exploratory or discoverative (is that a word?). Every possible combination and permutation of all the parameters already exist conceptually in the program and forms the full rendering potential of the program. All possible images are but permutations of the parameters and preexist in principle and conceptually. Cambridge Dictionary lists this aspect of imagination as it’s first or most common sense of the word. But, of course we can’t speak of a fractal program as having a mind even though it seems to have the ability to conceive of more possibilities than most fractal artists can imagine. Does a fractal program have something greater than “a mind”?

Mount of Transfiguration

The missing ingredient, the great divide

What could be “greater” with respect to creativity, talent and imagination than the human mind? I guess that would be something that is perfect in creativity, talent and imagination. And what could be a more perfect expression of imagination than the ability to express all possible combinations and permutations of say, ten parameters? But wait. That wouldn’t be imagination, or creativity, that would only be a talent for calculation, a mere mechanical act! You could say that fractal programs are actually completely unimaginative because “they can only” render permutations of parameters –highly deterministic and highly ordered images– and are actually incapable of doing anything else with them such as something… new! But I would say that its the users who are “completely unimaginative because “they can only” render permutations of parameters –highly deterministic and highly ordered images– and are actually incapable of doing anything else with them such as something… new!”

Which brings us to the second aspect of creativity in fractal art: some artsy folks say it isn’t creative or artistic at all. It isn’t art because art is all about the mind: ideas; social commentary; reflection; portraits -of people, of life around us; real things or at least the expression of real things in abstract form (modern art, abstraction). Art is all about these things which only human expression can produce because only a human mind can conceive of them, imagine them.

It’s not so stupid when you start to think about it. Look at how many fractal artworks are posted with titles and commentary that make allusions to things that are essentially meaningless and unknowable or inexpressible by a machine: love; fear; turmoil; anger; mystery; etc… (go check Deviant Art’s recent upload page). But here’s where the Great Conundrum arises: if fractal art is so mechanical, cold, lifeless and inhuman, then why does it suggest so many human emotions and themes? I mean, at least to fractal artists.

The other kind of art, the other kind of artisty is that of human expression. And as I said, that’s the one thing we know fractal art isn’t. Human artistry, the plastic arts, hand-made, hand-formed art objects; takes a very human perspective and is conceived in the human mind, not in the perfection of algorithmic machinery. Human artistry is primarily social in its content. It doesn’t just speak, it speaks-to. Human artistry is conscious of its audience and actually attempts to communicate with it. Human artistry has intention. Automatic artistry has no intention. It’s all an accident.

Machines don’t understand (or even pretend to understand) the important social issues of our time

It makes sense that we should only expect to see real art where an artist has intentionally created it, but it is clear from observation that imagery that has the quality or characteristics of art can be found where there has been no intentionality, the product of processes that are not human or conscious. If it were not for the existence of such imagery then neither I nor anyone else would suggest such a wild thing as accidental art.

The Mona Lisa’s smile; you don’t find that kind of artistry, artistic theme, expression, commentary on human life in fractal art. Occasionally one might spot a face-like thing but that is nothing quite like a human portrait. Furthermore, imagery that comments on real world issues or life in general depicts its message in a group of interrelated elements like a smile on a face on a head on a neck on a set of shoulders (and don’t forget the coincidental presence of eyes, ears and hair –at the top of the head–). Picasso’s Guernica is a composition of graphical elements and not just a “sublime smudge” or vast organic vista of infinite details like most automatic works are. Artwork that portrays a message about human existence or contemporary issues is almost like a visual essay and just like such literary works is almost impossible to attempt using mechanical algorithms or even random assemblages. This is not the sort of thing that automatism does well and audiences that look for such artwork will be disappointed with it.

Art without human expression works by accidentally forming something that interests us. The art forms it compares to are abstract expressionism and landscape (ie. 3d fractals). Fractals make poor portraits or commentary on social issues, imagery that depends on the human form and a message formed and expressed by realistic or symbolic imagery in complex composition which is unlikely to happen accidentally or through geometric permutation and experimentation.

Pollock’s drip paintings is where the machine and the man got together. Imaginative results without thoughtful direction. Fractal art is also where the machine and the man get together. Imagination with intelligent control, a sort of symbiosis. This is something of a common area for automatism and “plasticism” (the plastic arts). Abstract expressionism conveys a message that is less deliberate and precise and so the mechanical imagination with it’s total lack of academic understanding is not handicapped here.

Fractal art is not about personal expression it’s about exploring and depicting fractal based creative programming. If the agent creating the artwork isn’t you then how can it convey your thoughts? How does the program know what they are? You’re the handmaid to the program and not the other way around. Furthermore, if there is no personal expression, then there’s really only one artist in fractal art and that’s the automaton. We’re all working in the same account, so to speak, under the same username: default. Fractal art is not a personal domain but a shared domain.

As a result, fractal art isn’t social because it isn’t personal. It’s alien, mechanical and feels cold and lifeless when a viewer is expecting something warm and communicative. Since fractal art isn’t an expression of the user, it rarely does what the user wants it to do except when it suddenly makes something the user can relate to and finds artistic.

Both automatism and plasticism produce an art object but they both produce art objects of very different kinds. It’s like comparing plants and animals; they’re both living things and have a few things in common, but they are clearly separate forms of life. Fractals and the Plastic Arts are separate in much the same way. In fact, the analogy is quite close as we’re really dealing with two things that could be described and compared as “Plant art” and “Animal art”. They are each derived from, and an expression of, a different form of consciousness. Isn’t that what “amazes” people when they look at fractal art? It’s the discovery of a new form of creativity. A “Close Encounter” of the Artistic kind; as corny as that might sound.

Artistic Symbiosis: Art the fractal way

Mechanical processes can be imaginative but they are blind and ignorant of the concept of art. They’re graphical idiot savants that can create a vast panorama of detailed and very interesting imagery but they can’t see it and they have no conception of what art is. Fractal art is a symbiotic relationship between automatism and intelligent control. The program creates the artwork and the user contributes artistic direction and selection. They work the machine and that in itself can be a real skill (ever seen any bad fractal art?) but the user cannot express themself the way a painter or sculptor can with their hands forming the artwork directly. The user is merely the eyes and the “artistic sensibility” for the machine.

The result is a different kind of artistry; the expression of a different kind of talent, fractal talent. That talent is entirely mechanical (algorithmic) and can’t be produced any other way. But with the user to work the program and operate it in an intelligent way; steering it in more profitable directions and spotting the art when it happens and saving it, I think fractal based automatism arrives at its current creative state, a special kind of uneven but complementary partnership: an artistic symbiosis.

The next part, Part 5, will explore that hybrid artistic relationship, a sort of cybernetic thing, to its logical conclusion.

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3 thoughts on “The Nature of Creativity in Fractal Art, Part 4: A Separate Artistry

  1. Until I see a fractal program (machine) consistently create interesting and unique images with no user intervention, I’ll have to disagree with your concept. You obviously do touch on some key parts of creating fractals, such as exploring, and ‘finding’ things. But with my user intervention (combining formulas and tweaking the variables), I’m the one that created the world I’m exploring. And when I ‘find’ something in that world, I further mold it to represent what I imagine I am seeing.

    Formulas are nothing more than primitive shapes similar to standard primitives in regular 3d modeling programs. Things like cubes and cones and spheres that the 3d artists combines and bends and stretches and shapes until they create what they want. The difference in fractal formulas is that they are much more complex shapes, and you have different tools to do your bending and shaping in the form of the variables, and also the influence other formulas have on each other.

    I freely admit, I do not know the math. I don’t know exactly what certain variables do. So I have to visually interpret what a variable does with a basic knowledge of how I think it’s going to perform. I don’t feel that that’s much different than a painter trying a certain color of paint, or a different stroke or use of different brushes to see if it gives them what they’re looking for. And if the color is wrong, they paint over it or scrape it off and try again.

    So what if I have an ‘undo’ button! I use the same basic process. I personally don’t just ‘explore’ until I find something I like, render it and post it. I create the world by making choices. (Choosing the primitives\formulas) I follow a path or valley or space between structures. I arrive at a place where I feel I can further enhance the image with my imagination, what I feel that place could be if I make my primitives do my bidding. I use the tools. No, not a paint brush, not a pallet knife or physical object I can hold in my hand. All medias have their own set of tools.

    I do realize that fractal artists will probably never be appreciated or given the respect like traditional artists are given, and I think that’s a shame. For whatever reason. Art is art, and it shouldn’t matter how it’s created. Many of us spend untold hours creating our work, and put just as much thought and creativity in it as other artists do in their own medium. Just because it CAN be a thoughtless process, doesn’t mean it is.

  2. “Until I see a fractal program (machine) consistently create interesting and unique images with no user intervention…”

    You’re already using one. That’s the way all fractal programs work. The “user intervention” you’re referring to is your guesswork, mutating this variable and then that. The machine creates –and has already created– what your “intervention” will discover. You feel like you’re in control but you’re only in control of the discovery, not the creation, of the artwork. You can choose where to go, but you can’t choose what you’ll find when you get there. That is essentially the nature of creativity in fractal art.

    As for art is art: the reason the method of creation is important is because the choice of medium can restrict what the content of the artwork will be. Fractal art only conveys “fractal things” while oil painting conveys “artist imagined things”.

  3. Well I had a lengthy rebuttal typed out and I deleted it, because it’s pointless. Some of the fractal art we see is generic and perhaps easily recreated, and some is not. The majority of the fractal art we see would never be seen, and has never been seen before. It is only through our user intervention that they come into existence.

    You make some valid points about the fact that the program provides the formulas and variables we work with, and that everything we make is a result of adjusting what is provided. But it is not automatic. Images are not created, and have never been created until we create them. And that doesn’t even address how color palettes can change an image, and lighting and fog and composition and shadows and DOF and transparency and reflections and even render engines.

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