We now come to the heart of these pages. In which extent are these fractal pictures a matter of Art? Does any Fractal Art exist?

To defend oneself by one's own

First one can wonder whether the question is really important. There is undoubtly an audience for these pictures, for which these pictures are beautiful and the felt emotion is necessarily an artistic one. Some connoisseurs then turn up their nose; for them it is easy to mislead the layman. Other people answer that some trendsetting artists are more likely to trick the layman. Nevertheless the question is important for authors, since to be recognized as an artist is an enjoyable social status.

As an anecdote, I once had the opportunity to show my own Markus-Lyapunov pictures to a first-rank personality in numerical arts. I got this one comment "Yes... pretty...". However, other people not so well-known but honestly versed in modern art asked for my pictures and recommended them to their friends. So, is it art or is it not?

One can answer with a joke. Modern Art has kicked in so many diverging directions that anybody now may proclaim himself an artist, and then anything he will do will be stamped "art" automatically. But as well, one may keep serious and attempt to look at the different aspects of the question.

Only if enough cultivated people would agree about this could the matter be closed, but this might take a long time, if only to make these pictures known. We are still far from there; for instance, in the special issue of the Création Numérique survey of the last 25 years of Numerical Art (January 1999), there is not a single word about any kind of algorithmic pictures, fractal or not. Either this kind of picture simply is not known, or it is not perceived as worthy of interest, or it is left to amateurs –which amounts to the same thing.

We may compare this with what happened with photography, which had to wait for a good century before it was fully recognized as a true artistic practice. Things could go faster now, but photography had invaded our life to an extent that undoubtly fractals will never reach. Incidentally, it occurs that I claimed that fractal pictures can be considered a special kind of photography, but this does not entitle me to suggest that fractals could be art because photography now is.

As a conclusion, I am afraid that the fractal picture makers will have to speak for themselves.

mandelbrot A 1987 picture, with a first version of MandelTour on the Amiga (704 x 440 x 14 colours).

What could be Fractal Art?

Without bothering yet to justify the "art" word, we may try to delimit the field, to look at what could belong to such a Fractal Art. As we shall see, this field could be somewhat different from what we expect.

My first idea was to include any kind of art based upon fractal objects and emphasizing their fractal nature. This careful phrasing aimed at discarding the results of landscape generators where fractal tools are used to make mountains, clouds and trees. Similarly, texture generators exist which are designed to pleasantly dress various surfaces with no emphasis upon the fractal features of the texture. As far as I know, most of the Bryce users (a well-known landscape generator) know nothing of the algorithms at work in the program and they do not claim any fractal art label.

An object is identified as fractal when the same patterns appear in it at different scales. However, these patterns are not necessarily visible throughout the object. The Mandelbrot Set contains empty areas which remain empty whatever the magnification. In my own work with the Markus-Lyapunov fractals, the self-similarity is not always obvious but there would not be any doubt left on seeing the whole of pictures. In the same way, the self-similarity is not always obvious among my sampling through the best fractal pictures available on the Web. The fractal nature is then authentified by the authors.

Anyway, there is the particular case of Kenton Musgrave. He is mainly a landscape creator, but with a special stature since he worked on the landscape generation with Mandelbrot himself, who sees him as "the first true fractal-based artist". Surely, Mandelbrot is not qualified in art as well as in science, but this obviously gives something to think about.

Lastly, the coming of the fractalist painters must be taken into account. They are producing quite different pictures but they strongly insist on their use of fractals to make these and they already have an artist status in authorized circles of Modern Art. Clearly, their works are rather in the line of some Jakson Pollock paints and have little to do with Fractint-like pictures or mines. In order to avoid confusion, we could speak of algorithmic fractal pictures for the latter.

mandelbrot Another 1987
14-colour picture

Is this Algorithmic Fractal Art really Art?

After this short survey, we must face the initial question: are our fractal pictures true Art? It could be difficult to give any well-founded answer as long as one does not have clear ideas on the nature of Art, and this is a really difficult matter.

By 1986, at the end of the book The Beauty of Fractals, Herbert W. Franke decided that yes, this was true Art, because (i) this was beautiful, and (ii) this was new. These two points can be disputed!

Everybody agrees that beauty is a matter of subjectivity, but it is a fact that our fractal pictures are spontaneously enjoyed by many people, who find them "beautiful", probably for the complexity and the elegance of their lines as well as for the fortunate choice of colours. Now, according to philosophers, the aesthetic and the artistic qualities of a work are separate things. For instance, the fractalist paintings, which are true art for art professionals, are interesting but not really pretty. Nevertheless, the fact for a work to arouse a real aesthetic emotion was long regarded an artistic criterion.

However, one may have great aesthetic emotions in front of natural events or natural objects such as landscapes, butterflies, flowers, crystals... and yet they are not art. A sunset, as gorgeous as it could be, turns into an artwork only after the interpretation of a talented painter or photographer. This interpretation must be sufficiently strong. What can be the interpretation of the user in the case of a Mandelbrot picture? All he has to do is framing and choosing the colours. Is that enough? There is no easy answer.

I have some experience in the design of Mandelbrot explorers. I claim that a good program can make the colouring very easy, and even it can suggest quite decent automatic colours. For all that, this program should not be regarded as an artist! On the other hand, getting fine results from a program of difficult use should not be considered a bonus in the artistic evaluation of a picture. Finally, I am rather skeptical about the artistic value of the pictures of the Mandelbrot Set because I think you hunt for them more than you create them, i.e. you discover them much more than you make them. Their research then looks like the activity of a collector, exactly as some people collect minerals or cristals, i.e. objects that are beautiful by themselves but not artistic (one can go further in the comparison, by paralleling the colouring of images with the cleaning and highlighting of the mineral).

However, one cannot carry the comparison too far. Even if the colouring can be made easier technically, it is impossible to get pleasant images without a bit of talent for perceiving and handling colours. This talent is not uniformly shared but it is common enough and it can be trained. If one makes it a measurement of the artist, this would mean that, even if not everybody is an artist, there are many artists around and then, inevitably, one would look for the differences between "great" artists and "lesser" ones. I would be surprised if these differences could be perceived through a single Mandelbrot picture.

These doubts about the artistic value of the Mandelbrot pictures must not be extended to all other fractal pictures. The Mandelbrot Set is a kind of amusement park –virtual of course– more than well-known. A few other fractal recipes have been widely spread and have opened up as many parks to explore, less known but still of easy access, and I would be tempted to lump together all the pictures coming from them. On the opposite, when one becomes able to form one's own new fractal formulas in order to get new shapes, one opens new virtual universes and the whole process then takes a quite different depth.

As for the Mandelbrot pictures, even if they have a questionable artistic status, they can be used as a raw material to make more complex works. For instance, one may seek the artistic dimension through a simple collection of these pictures provided the watcher feels that it goes beyond a haphazard gathering of pretty pieces, that the choice of the images, their shapes and their colours is deliberate. A few years ago, I did a "diaporama" with such pictures (i.e. a 2-projector show with dissolving views and a recorded tape) which was successful enough. Such a show is more than a packaging for the collection, just because the writing rules for it ask for a rigorous sorting of the pictures, which leads to giving a style, a personality, to the collection. One thus recovers the notion of interpretation, which is an important part of the value of an artwork.

In the domain of the single picture, techniques of collage are often used as a way to mutiply the images on the same support. I have found several attempts more or less convincing, based on rather simple Mandelbrot pictures, but none with a really complex one. There is an old joke among photographers: you can always get art by putting a pretty girl in front of anything... Well, I tried that... and it may work! Sure enough, this no longer is abstract art but why should that be a weakness? The researches of Sharon Webb with her "fractalscapes" go along this way. Those who prefer to remain with abstract art and to handle complex images will take a look at the Ultrafractal program, which allows a kind of mixing of several fractals in the same picture and with which interesting works begin to appear.

As a conclusion: Fractal Art or Algorithmic Art?

As it could be seen, I lack knowledge to be entitled to give a definite doctoral conclusion about the relationship between fractal pictures and Art. I lack philosophical data about the status of today Art and I lack informations and personal experience about the operation of the more recent fractal software. So, I shall only propose a few intuitive ideas as a conclusion. Maybe they will be refuted later, we shall see.

One traditional mission of the artist –even though it was wrecked in the turmoil of Modern Art, something must still be left of it– is a mission of prophecy. The artist sees farther than other people and he shows what he sees. I believe that the creator of fractal pictures plays this part, even if his message is purely aesthetic, with nothing socially revolutionnary.

I think that the occurrence of institutional fractalist artists who are remote sons of Jackson Pollock and Mark Tobey is blurring the concept of Fractal Art. This could be accepted as an enrichment, but I would be surprised if most of the fractal image creators agreed. Then I would suggest that they recognize themselves as part of an Algorithmic Art. Other things already exist in this branch, but they should be identified as an important part of it.

Dear reader, it's now your turn. If you want to give me information, or to express ideas in agreement with mine or opposite to them, please write to me.

e-mail charles.rosemarie.vassallo@wanadoo.fr


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[ Return to home page ]    [ Art and Fractals Contents ]

Discovering the fractal world:
Introduction - Mandelbrot Exploration - Lyapounov Exploration - Von Koch Curves - IFS Fractals - Fractal Dimension - Mandelbrot Relatives - Finest Fractal Pictures - Software - Biblio and Links

Fractals and mysticism:
Introduction - The Mysticism of Infinite - Non-Euclidean Art?

A new Art?
Introduction - Fascination of Fractals - Fractals and Photography - Definitions of Art - The Colour Choice - Other Colour Choices - Fractalists Painters - Compositions with Mandelbrot - Put a pretty girl - Algorithmic Art - Beyond the "Fractal" Art