Online collaboration: the peculiar division of creativity that occurs when artists write software for 'visiting artists' to use

Let's begin with some shocking art historical revisionism.

I remember seeing a tabloid newspaper in the early 1990s that asked if Julian Schnabel was the next Picasso. I knew then that there was something anachronistic about the question, but I never imagined there would come a day when I would be saying that Bob Ross is a significant 21st century painter.

Usually that kind of acclaim would be reserved for someone who has actually lived in the 21st century, and Bob Ross didn't quite make it. But his TV program "The Joy of Painting" is so widely shown today that I think we can make an exception. It's even on the air in Old Europe. Business is so good that the Wall Street Journal printed a front page article about Bob Ross last week titled "Bob Ross is Dead, But He Still Paints Happy Little Clouds." [1]

Now, it is not his wet-on-wet method that interests me. The images he painted were not, in and of themselves, all that brilliant. They are a by-product of a larger project. It apparently sells a lot of books and painting products, too. That part doesn't interest me much either. What does interest me is the way Ross has come to symbolize the painter-artist in American popular culture while pursuing a non-elitist agenda, convincing others that they can be artists, too. The man who now runs the Bob Ross empire says that "the vast majority of people have this craving to be creative -- they just don't know where to start." He also says that "Bob reversed the idea that you need talent to paint." If you've ever watched the Joy of Painting, you know that Bob Ross demystifies the painting process and encourages people to believe that they can paint. Since most viewers just stare at the tube while Ross talks about squirrels and happy trees, it's easy to dismiss his achievements. Even so, there is little doubt that his work helps a lot of people to stop worrying about their lack of talent and start painting.
These comments on software - mediated creativity were adapted from remarks delivered April 7, 2004, at Location 1 in New York City.

Maybe some of you are wondering what real good there is in unleashing legions of Sunday painters, not to mention the regiments of Bob-Ross-certified instructors. This leads us to some interesting questions about creativity. Is the kind of creativity he enables valuable creativity? When is creativity good?

In an essay on art and entertainment, Gene Youngblood once wrote that "Commercial entertainment not only isn't creative, it actually destroys the audience's ability to appreciate and participate in the creative process." [2]  In the United States, where commercial entertainment even dominates the news, it is probably unwise to invoke this kind of anti-entertainment rhetoric. But if you believe (as I do) that media-induced passivity is a serious problem in this age of government by and for the corporation, then it makes sense to think about reinventing the media so that it has a different tendency.

Consumeristic culture constantly reinforces the idea that people should buy professionally produced music, movies, texts, games, and images. I am hardly the first to suggest that this stifles certain kinds of personal and intellectual development that could be the fruits of increased leisure time. Welcoming amateurs into the circle of artists may undermine traditional conceptions of art, but the benefits to a democratic society of engaging citizens in creative intellectual pursuits should not be discounted. Creative thought processes, combined with public critique, evaluation and revision, can lead to changes in perspective. A heightened understanding of subjectivity, representation, and narrative can profoundly affect one's sense of being and purpose in the world.

What does the popularity of Bob Ross's upbeat painting show mean for the future of art? It is unclear how much one should generalize about this, since Ross's warm and quirky personality is undoubtedly part of the appeal. But among other things, his success does seem to reflect a widespread interest in art and painting.

Are the costly paints and brushes really necessary? The desire to be creative can be engaged more directly with software than is possible with television. But let's not get carried away. Producing tools that sustain meaningful creativity with electronic media is challenging. Just as it is not very creative to watch The Joy of Painting without actually trying to paint, it is not very creative to use software that leads to thoroughly predictable results. Software that mimics paint-by-numbers simplicity can foster a passive experience. Constructive creativity may not require a lot of talent, but with too much predestination and too little imagination, creativity runs the risk of being pointless.

With software as an intermediary, creativity is distributed between the programmer and the computer users. With this unusual shared form of authorship, the decisions of the software author are deceptively important. Intuitive metaphors for tools, like brushes, may cause people to feel that they control the software. But this can be an illusion. Forcing software to do something it is not designed to do seldom works. If hackneyed effects are emphasized in the source code, trivial forms of creativity are an almost inevitable result.

Whereas painters who learn from Bob Ross are free to change the way they use their tools, software has a way of locking people into a more rigid set of options. The parameters of experimentation and procedural invention can be limited by the imagination and goals of the programmers. Whereas painters are confronted by the physical limitations of paint, canvas, and brushes, users of software are sooner faced with the conceptual constraints established by the software's author. These limits can be carefully invested with meaning. More often than not, however, they are consequences of a commitment to efficiency or to marketing imperatives.

Robotross satirizes the canned software culture that subordinates the inspiration of image makers to the inclinations of their tool makers. Echoing the encouragement that Bob Ross conveyed with television, this online attraction probes the boundaries between genuine creativity and oversimplification. Bob Ross served as a cheerleader for painting and a guide for creativity, leading people into a world of utopian landscapes. Robotross is your autopilot on a different, more dystopian journey, into the escapist terrain of software-assisted creativity.


© Andy Deck 2004



1. "Bob Ross is Dead, But He Still Paints Happy Little Clouds" Wall Street Journal Page 1, April 2, 2004.
2. Youngblood, Gene. "Art, Entertainment, Entropy" Video Culture: A Critical Investigation. John G. Hanhardt, Ed., Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986.