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Is computer programming an art form? Let's get specifical.

The talk I gave at CUSEC last year, Blind Men and an Elephant, compares computer programming to a number of other types of work, with an eye towards finding both similarities and differences. In order, I compare writing code to: math, engineering, writing, law & politics, business, and … art.

I almost left that last one out. Whether or not computer programming is an art form is a subject that attracts a lot of attention among certain groups of people, and I see this more acutely than most since I know a lot of hackers and a lot of people in the new media arts field. But I find the resulting discussion can generate a lot more heat than light. And certainly for computer programmers I dare say that it’s not a very important question. There are plenty of other questions to ask yourself instead, such as “how can I get better at writing code?”, “how can I make sure the work I’m doing is worthwhile?”, and “should I be a programmer at all?”

Perhaps it is worth a discussion, but it would probably be most useful for us to speak from some specific experiences, and not steer ourselves into a morass of vague metaphors.

So let me start, with something I’d written in a comment to Tom earlier today: I don’t think computer programming is an art form. That doesn’t make programming better or worse than art, just different. And the specific experience that leads me to say this goes something like this: In all my years writing code, and in all my years making artistic work, I can’t think of a single time when it was useful to treat one like the other. Even when I was writing code to build net-art, during that the time that I was writing code I was putting on my software engineering hat, and really not thinking artistically at all. Because when I try to write code like I’m an artist, it ends up being buggy, mysterious, and unmaintainable. And when I try to make art like I’m a computer programmer, it ends up static and inorganic.

But maybe other people have had different experiences.

Programmers: If you believe computer programming is an art form, how has that made you a better programmer? What has art taught you about programming that you couldn’t have learned from anything else?

Artists: If you believe computer programming is an art form, how has that made you a better artist? What has programming taught you about art that you couldn’t have learned from anything else?

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Tagged: art, software

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