A. Michael Noll and the generative Mondrian

“Mondrian has been widely acclaimed as the ‘greatest Dutch painter of our time’ and as one of the ‘most influential masters of painting.’ However, a computer-generated random pattern was preferred over the pattern of one of Mondrians paintings.”

A. Michael Noll (1966)

In the 1960s, an engineer at Bell Labs by the name of A. Michael Noll wrote a computer program to generate an illustration in the style of Mondrian. Noll then asked human subjects to choose whether they preferred his interpretation to Mondrian’s original painting without sharing any authorship information. He subsequently published his findings in The Psychological Record (Vol 16 / No. 1, January 1966) as a research paper where he boldly concluded:

“Mondrian has been widely acclaimed as the ‘greatest Dutch painter of our time’ and as one of the ‘most influential masters of painting.’ However, a computer-generated random pattern was preferred over the pattern of one of Mondrians paintings.”

Although considered an outlandish and outlier idea during its times, fifty years later we read similar statements in the headlines of mainstream media almost daily. From computer programs defeating master Go players, to machine learning systems generating press articles that are undiscernable from human prose, and to AIs producing drawings that are auctioned at Sotheby’s it’s clear we’re living in an age where machine creativity is on the rise. Or is it?

Today it’s not a question of whether or not machines can beat creatives at their craft. It should be more a question of how well can creatives best leverage computing machinery in service of their craft. In order to do so, every future-minded creative needs a hands-on perspective for what David Bowie described in 1999 as the “exhilarating and terrifying” nature of what digital media would bring. That requires having some ability to speak the language of the machine, or at least to master some degree of computational thinking today.

“The computer functioned only as a medium performing its operations under the complete control of the computer program written by the programmer-artist.”

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