Algorithmic Art Appreciation

Creativity, Education, MSU MAET

Could algorithms aid in critiquing art? The Feldman method taught in many undergrad art classes suggests that following pre-determined steps could at least aid the novice. I chose to analyze what I felt to be a visual representation of order and disorder with Jack-in-the-Box by American painter Gene Davis. Davis described his work of colored “intervals” by stating “‘There’s a system there – an order – which I discover after the fact.’” (Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein, 1999, p. 117). Simply visually perceiving the work provides some clues about this order, as you can see in this recreation:

This was created by writing an algorithm within Processing to create a similar visual pattern to the original work. This processes of writing the algorithm allowed me to further perceive some of the order that Davis may have had in mind as he created the work, similar to how the Root-Bernsteins were able to break down his Citadel work.

If you look at (or even modify) the source code at Sketchpad, you will notice that this was done using the for loops described in my previous post on patterns in algorithms. In fact, using nested loops (a loop within a loop) made it much easier, since much of the painting is repetitive. Eight colors, repeated in a pattern eight times, to create 64 out of 80 total rectangles in the painting. Some of the order is now apparent.

This process of creating an algorithmic way of creating this work allowed me to realize Davis created a visual jack-in-the-box. The DBROWN, PURPLE, DBLUE, PURPLE, DBROWN, LBLUE, DBLUE, LBLUE pattern that dominates the painting is akin to the cranking of the handle as a tune plays.When humming the traditional jack-in-the-box tune, I could see parallels to the color pattern. Then when the figure pops out, brighter colors suggest this surprise, and the quick alternating of colors is almost as if the jack is bobbing back and forth.

Through this process, and discussions with my wife, I realized this visual pattern could be used to perceive patterns elsewhere. By taking Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and assigning the notes used for the famous Ode to Joy refrain to colors similar to Jack in the Box, we can again change our perception of the patterns found in the music.

It became easier for me to notice the ABACDAC pattern when creating the algorithm to visualize it this way. Would the resulting image also be considered art since it’s based on such a well-revered song? I would not say so, but I certainly think it aids in appreciation.


Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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