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What is Generative Art?

By James Doehring
Updated May 16, 2024
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Generative art refers to works of art whose production involves some degree of randomness. Today, it is typically created using algorithmic computer programs, although any mechanical process with a certain level of autonomy can be used to produce generative art. An artist’s creative input in this type of art lies in establishing the framework that the randomized process can operate in; elements of both order and disorder are present. If a computer program is used, an essentially endless number of designs can be produced.

Perhaps the first example of generative art was a musical game published in Berlin in 1792. The game has been attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an influential composer in the Classical era of music. Dice were rolled in the game to randomly select already-composed fragments of music, which were then strung together to form a finished piece. It was claimed that even amateurs could form an infinite number of compositions. In this example, the dice serve as the mechanism of randomness, and the different musical fragments serve as the “rules.”

Algorithmic art is a subset of generative art that uses computer algorithms, or sets of well-defined instructions, to create designs. For this kind of process to be generative, however, a degree of autonomy must be present. A random number generator is one way algorithms can be made to behave in a non-deterministic fashion. An artist will typically set the limits of a design space using algorithmic functions and then incorporate the element of randomness within that framework. Algorithmic methods are popular today for creating a wide variety of visual artworks.

Some algorithms can build off of the designs of earlier steps, simulating an evolutionary optimization. Such algorithms that are inspired by evolutionary biology are called genetic algorithms. The rules of design success, which refer to reproductive success in the biological analogy, can be determined by an artist as the creative input to the model. A random factor in the model corresponds to the effects of mutation in a living organism.

Another example of generative art is the set of Italian Medieval town designs created by an architect named Celestino Soddu in 1987. Soddu created a set of conditions where a random computer process could be set in motion to create a model of a town. The conditions were such that the end result would always be a town identifiable in the Italian Medieval style. Even though there were enough constraints on the models to keep them in this style, an essentially infinite number of models could be created.

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Discussion Comments
By Illych — On May 01, 2011

I guess a popular example of computer generated art would be the visualizers that have been in most MP3 players since they were first made. The visualizer in the latest recent versions of iTunes are actually quite complex and can be quite beautiful at times.

By Engelbert — On Apr 29, 2011

If you're interested in generative music, look into the work of Brian Eno who's been using it in his music since 1975. He also helped create the iPhone app Bloom which generates music. Minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley are also quite popular for using generative music techniques.

By roser — On Apr 28, 2011

I had no idea Mozart created a musical game which could be considered one of the first examples of generative art. I've always thought there's an element of random chance to any creative act and have been interested in artists who consciously used this idea to their work, like William Burroughs' cut-ups or John Cage's music experiments.

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