Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Code == Art: One Tiny, Simple Supporting Argument

There's a sometime debate afoot:

of all the different types of people I've known, hackers and painters are among the most alike


hackers are nothing like painters

I think this discussion is far from settled.

I did come across one argument in favor of the "code == art" side recently. Creating a new code project requires two things: an idea, and technical skills. Creating a piece of art requires two things: an idea, and technical skills. The technical skills could be skills like Ruby, TDD, and sysadmin shit; they could be skills like representational drawing, perspective, shading, or color theory. In either case, they are matters of technique, and you need to spend a certain amount of time on the skills themselves in order to have any hope of seeing the idea to completion.

The similarity may end there, but it's a similarity for sure.

The interesting question: does the similarity end there? It's pretty easy to say yes if you're building .NET apps for the state of Georgia. What if you're building this?

For the sake of argument, let's compare it to making spaceships. You can make spaceships for the government. You can make them for the military. You can make them for eccentric billionaires, or in cutting-edge startups. You can even build them as art projects:

Maybe hacking is just a kind of making. The simplest answer to the debate is that hackers are artists when they hack to make art. But an answer like that is only useful for qualifying as a member of Tautology Club.

The problem with this idea is that it ignores the art of code itself. Programmers often describe this code as being more beautiful or elegant than that code. Talk to enough programmers and you'll hear some piece of code described as beautiful, sooner or later. But spend enough time among an isolated group of people who all work in the same field, and you can hear real estate sales techniques described as works of art. Is that meaningful?

The obvious answer is no, but consider answering with "yes" for the sake of argument. It might work. Listen with an open mind, and you can learn a lot about human nature from the real estate sales techniques which real estate salesmen describe as works of art. The real problem with this "code == art" idea is that it's impossible to resolve the question definitively without entering the greatest intellectual quicksand question in all Western civilization: "what is art?"

Al Held's painting The Big N, housed in the Museum of Modern Art