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Tools · Type · March 17th, 2006 ·

Code, Culture, Imagination
by Florian Cramer

The idea that beauty materializes in numerical proportions according to mathematical laws continues to be popular in scientific and engineering cultures, too. Since the early 1970s, Donald Knuth, widely considered the founder of computer science as an independent academic discipline, published his textbooks under the title The Art of Computer Programming. He understands “art” as the formal beauty and logical elegance of the source code. The software TeX which he wrote to typeset his books correspondingly implements a classicist post-Renaissance typography whose notions of beauty are embedded in Knuth’s algorithms for line spacing and paragraph adjustment. At MIT, Knuth initiated a project God and computers whose results were an exhibition of Bible calligraphies and, in 2001, a book Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About. In this book, Knuth remembers how as a student he read a computer program code that he found “absolutely beautiful. Reading it was just like hearing a symphony.” This was how he “got into software,” teaching it as an art rather than a science. The hacker credo put down by Steven Levy in 1983 that “you can create art and beauty with computers” has its roots in Knuth’s teaching. It ultimately means that a program is not a transparent tool for creating beauty—like, for example, a graphics program—, but that it is beautiful by itself. Both schools, highbrow academic computer science and more underground hacker culture, perpetuate a Pythagorean, classicist understanding of art as formal beauty. This concept blatantly lags behind modern concepts of art. Since romanticism and 20th century art, aesthetic understandings of art were not just about beauty, but included the sublime, grotesque and ugly as well. The same is true, implicitly at least, for the Greek and Roman antiquity whose highest art form, tragedies, were about violence and despair.

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