In aesthetics, the branch of philosophy related to beauty, it can be said that beauty arises as soon as we see or hear something that changes our view of the ‘norm’. Sunlight is normally not visible. When it’s foggy, however, sunlight becomes broken and visible in the form of sunbeams.
The beauty ideal changes over time. The Roman architectural theorist Vitruvius defined beauty 1,700 years ago as: firmitas, utilitas and venustas. Strong, practical and attractive. After the dark Middle Ages, this classical ideal of beauty re-emerged during the Renaissance. Strict geometric shapes and symmetry dominate architecture and the landscaped gardens that were constructed with a specific formula, ‘the golden ratio’, in mind. In the 19th century, a new concept emerged. Insignificant people become lost in overwhelming nature. Control over, or management of, nature is unthinkable. The ‘unspeakable’ – as a concept – also makes its debut.
When the first humans roamed the African savannah, they viewed it as their paradise – clear views, not too densely wooded, but with plenty of bushes and shrubs behind which to find shelter. The beauty ideal was tied to self-preservation. And while that ‘blueprint’ of paradise remained embedded in our brains for centuries, we have developed more complex perspectives. No longer searching for a bush to hide behind, we now search for other kinds of meaning in the beauty we behold.
In aesthetics, the branch of philosophy related to beauty, it can be said that beauty arises as soon as we see or hear something that changes our view of the ‘norm’. Keeping with the theme of nature: sunlight is normally not visible. When it’s foggy, however, sunlight becomes broken and visible in the form of sunbeams. Something photogenic. Mona Lisa’s subtle smile falls into the same category. Thanks to a technique called sfumato, magnificent smiles were first made visible. Sfumato is a technique whereby painters blur the outlines in a painting, and make them flow. As a result, images – in this case the corners of Mona Lisa’s mouth – come alive. In almost every travel guide, we find images of ‘infinity pools’. The pool blends seamlessly, without a single raised edge, often in a spectacular environment. We also desire mobile phones that have a screen that suggests it is infinite. We like to be enchanted. And the idea of infinite beauty enchants us.
Can we program and automate beauty? The observational psychologist Frans Boselie believes we can. In the last two decades of the previous century, he dedicated his research to the role of beauty in landscape design. The foundation of his concept is clear: when making an inventory of the wishes and needs of future users, we must also map their beauty needs. And since we know which forms satisfy which beauty needs, we can calculate the desired forms for the area in question. Boselie: “I try to make the beauty of the patterns calculable. And it works, at least somewhat, in the geometrical aspects of simple patterns. What currently works for simple geometric patterns will most probably work for more complex spatial forms in the landscape in the future. For now, there are many blank spots on the map of our nomological knowledge. Intuition and the artistry of the designers still lead the design process. Only when the blank spots have been filled in with reliable information about the relationships between the form and impression of beauty, can intuition and artistry be replaced with the rationality of the scientific problem-solution method. Then, a technologist can solve design problems. If it is possible to analyze these more complex and dynamic patterns in the landscape in a similar way, then we will no longer need artists, but programmers. Then it would become objectively beautiful in the Netherlands.”
In principle, then, form is a calculable quantity. The designer is no longer a sketch artist, but a mathematician. The introduction of the computer in design activities is a symptom of this scientification. Design becomes technical advice, and form itself becomes a function.
These are radical statements from about thirty years ago that now, in the era of the algorithm, suddenly resonate well. A critical interlude is, however, in place to slow down this overly enthusiastic and blind enthusiasm for automating beauty and the suggestion to replace design for mathematics.
Soon, we will no longer need artists but programmers.Frans Boselie
I am not my brain
In light of the idea of automating beauty, the German philosopher Markus Gabriel holds a less optimistic view. One of his bestsellers is entitled, I Am Not a Brain. He turns against the popular neurofetishism and defends the human spirit: “We are free because we are living beings with a spirit.” The study of the brain – and the simulation of it in a computer program – cannot give us answers to traditional philosophical questions such as those about ‘being aware’, the ‘self’, thinking or free will (2).
According to Gabriel, we are not identical to our biological nature. To explain this, he uses an analogy with its basis in Aristotle’s theories: “Think of the human spirit as if it’s cycling. You cycle to get somewhere. You cannot do that without a bike. The bike and your body are natural conditions for cycling, but the activity of cycling is not identical to the necessary criteria for cycling. To cycle, you must want to go somewhere, for example. My wish to get somewhere is not an object of the natural sciences, it is impossible to naturalize.”
About the possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI): “you cannot show me a robot that is aware. If we are talking about such robots, we are talking about a thought experiment,” Gabriel says. “There are many differences between you and the robot. The latter has no consciousness, feels nothing. Even when a robot behaves exactly like you, it still has no knees, no neurons.” If it’s up to Gabriel, then, there is no room for mathematics in art.
Yet another paradise
A second critical remark comes from the observational psychologist Boselie himself, more than fifteen years after his bold suggestion that we might be able to replace designers with mathematicians.
Nature has a hidden order; everything grows in a certain way. Rather chaotic, but in the end, still according to patterns. And that is precisely what we like: irregular regularity. We expect something new and unexpected, but our brain still needs to be able to process it and trace it back to familiar patterns.
Is there any point to capturing the regularity in a formula such as the ‘golden ratio’ and designing with this as the basis? Boselie thinks not. The hidden order that people like cannot be captured in a golden ratio. Some shapes, such as a snail’s shell, fit in the ratio 1:1.62. But most shapes do not. Based on various tests, it seems that people had no specific preference for designs in which the golden ratio was applied. The idea may still be rather prevalent and have a lot of support among designers. But what we like cannot be expressed in formulas. It is primarily determined by time and culture. It seems that we actually continue to want a different paradise.
Our consciousness, and the fact that the experience of beauty cannot simply be summarized in formulas, throws a monkey wrench in the program when it comes to automating beauty.
Drawn wall algorithmic
So, where do designers turn for answers? Can beauty be calculated, or does it resonate from the spirit? The American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt may be a role model for a young generation of digital designers. What does the perfect marriage of design and AI look like?
In the visual arts, AI has been enthusiastically embraced lately. AI as a tool used to imitate, visualize or replicate reality. This process of ‘mimesis’ reaches an inconceivable peak as we create machines that can think and act autonomously. With unexpected twists, as in real life itself. Each scene is unique and will never occur again. But actually, the artist-as-designer stages the entire performance. The artist determines the frameworks and rules of the game. The artist delegates the generation of his work. Boselie can rest in peace. Beauty is entirely programmable. Through the eyes of the person creating the algorithm.
The modern marriage of beauty and AI originated in the 1970s, partially due to LeWitt’s works. For him, the concept is central and its implementation is secondary. LeWitt, who passed away in 2007, was a true conceptual artist. LeWitt believed the idea itself could be the work of art, and maintained that, like an architect who creates a blueprint for a building and then turns the project over to a construction crew, an artist should be able to conceive of a work and then either delegate its actual production to others, or perhaps even never make it at all. “The idea or the concept is the most important aspect of the work in conceptual art (...) all decisions about the design are made beforehand, and the execution is a side issue. The idea becomes the machine that creates the art."
LeWitt’s artwork exists as a series of what seems like formulas, instructions or manuals. Even the individual interpretations of the executors are part of the plan. The illustration on these pages is also based on a formula. From each point (9 per design), various lines are drawn in a random location on the canvas (although the canvas does contain a grid).
The idea becomes the machine that creates the art.Sol LeWitt
This work belongs to a series of drawings, first installed between 1973 and 1976, which are often referred to as ‘location’ drawings, because the artist’s instructions guide the draftsmen to execute the drawing based on points, or locations, on the wall. In other words, the instructions present a sort of drawing problem that the draftsmen must solve. Wall Drawing 289, one of the last works in the ‘location’ series, differs from its predecessors in that LeWitt’s instructions define the starting locations of the lines, but not where they end.
According to LeWitt’s instructions, each of the lines in Wall Drawing 289 must end at a point created by the six-inch graphite grid that the draftsmen first draw on the wall, but it is up to the draftsmen to determine the point at which each line should end. To do this, they use red string to stand in for the white lines. This allows them to step back, examine and alter the placement of a line before they draw it in crayon.
The human-machine connection
Can beauty be automated? In the end it seems that the question is more complicated than it appears. The golden ratio only goes so far in the concept of beauty. While it works sometimes, it often falls short. The beauty ideal is constantly changing, and is strongly tied to culture. So a singular ratio will never be enough to satisfy our ongoing desire for a different paradise. Moreover, we are not our brains. Our consciousness and imagination play a role in our creation of artifacts.
Still, the designer of today has indeed become a bit of a mathematician. If Sol LeWitt’s fascinating perspective is to be believed, then the contemporary artist is the designer of an algorithm. And “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” The craftsmanship and signature of the artist is thus shifted from the visible or material execution of the artifact to the algorithm that generates it.
Today, we are quite enthusiastic about automating everything that lives, thinks and designs. Autonomy and self-generativity have become new parameters in the design process. What we actually mean when we speak about automating beauty is programming the execution of the artwork or design. Not the generation of its beauty. The essence of beauty and the signature of the master is now in the algorithm, the machine that generates the artifact. Man and machine working together. And while the paradigm may be new, the resulting beauty is as old as time itself.
- Trommelen, J. (2003), “Steeds een ander paradijs”. Volkskrant. URL visited on 28 May 2018.
- Koningsveld, H. (1986), “Landschappelijk leven. Is verwetenschappelijking van de vormgeving mogelijk?”. In De Gids, jaargang 149.
- Gabriel, M. (2017), “I am Not a Brain”. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.
- O’Brien, N. (2018), “Ian Cheng. Love me, hate me, play with me”. In Metropolis M. Issue 2 April & May 2018.
- Marzona, D (2007), “Conceptuele kunst”. Taschen, Germany.
- “Wall Drawing 289”. MASS MoCA. URL visited on 28 May 2018.
- Hendrikx, B. (2018), “Een genealogie van generatieve kunst”. In Metropolis M. Issue 2 April & May 2018.
- Ligtenberg, K. (2017), “Wij zijn ons brein niet”. Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. URL visited on 29 May 2018.
About the author
Henk Haaima is digital designer and creative director at Mirabeau, a Cognizant Digital Business. He conducts research at the intersection of design and algorithms, into the automation of beauty.
Dynamic Design Magazine
This article is part of our Dynamic Design Magazine, Spring 2019. Download the complete magazine here. Do you want to continue the conversation about this article? Or are you interested in receiving a print edition of the magazine? Reach out to Mirabeau's Creative Director Henk Haaima.