Why must art students learn coding?

I’m not opposed to it. I’m actively organising it for my particular barrel of monkeys. But the opinion seems to be much stronger than the reasoning and I would be glad to hear a well formed argument as to why Mary has to put down the paintbrush and start to type…

… what? That’s the other thing. This expert wants Processing. That one is all for Max. Is Max coding? There’s Python and Objective C and snapping blocks together Scratch style. Sometimes I hear that such and such is only scripting which isn’t coding and well that just won’t do!


Look, when I was a teen I bought one of the very first home computers (the Trash 80) and sat down and learned how to code. I exhibited my nasty machine code hacking of a C64 in public way back in the early 80’s and have tried very hard to keep up with developments since. So I’m not swayed by platitudes like ‘coding is just like sketching and artists need to sketch ideas’. Excuse me, it’s nothing like sketching and anyone who says that should write their own paint software from scratch as punishment (I did that once, it sucked).

I am grateful for any considered opinion from people who have actually coded. Please no philosophers. Why is coding something that art/design students should learn?

Also: http://workfunc.com/differences-between-programmers-and-coders/

47 thoughts on “Why must art students learn coding?

  1. Artists must code, since software is eating the world (and eating implies digestion and eventual excretion). We can argue that paint brushes will never be digital (though I’ll wager one day they will be even more so than they are now) or chisels never be replaced by something else (*cough* no, no nano-tech on that horizon), but we’ll never stop the technological ingenuity of mankind in any area, especially the arts.

    All art is some kind of process, and this is held in common with writing code to achieve some aim. You can hand code assembly to create some stunning visualisation never before seen, but the code itself might *also* to some eyes be beautiful in a context of some kind of technical prose, for example. Beauty in layers and contexts.

    Learning to code can allow you to create systems (alone or in collaboration with others) that can create or define new forms of artistic expression. The type of the language you use is ultimately irrelevant, but has some bearing on how quickly you might achieve your objective – some are more useful to use than others, some are more oriented towards artistic expression by dint of their design and supporting libraries and environments. But they are all tools, and they all direct some hardware to perform some task.

    Hell, if learning to code does nothing else for you, it should at least dispel the notion that these machines are some kind of magic, and that they are stunningly dumb boxes just manipulating numbers of some kind *amazingly* quickly.

    These are todays tools, and not learning them is doing yourself a great disservice, equivalent to declaring “I would prefer to be illiterate”.

    [Disclosure: I have programmed computers professionally & unprofessionally over the course of the last 34 years, to varying degrees of competence in a variety of languages and domains]

    • Damn, I didn’t say *what* to code in. There are so many choices. They depend on the domain, or you write your own (no joke).

      I’m prepared to sling ideas about but there are so many in so many different domains it actually makes it difficult right this second (due to real life needing some attention more than anything else). FFTTMTFO or use this as a yellow rubber duck area.

    • Devil: Why is cooking not as good as coding? If I am able to create a fantastic cake, isn’t that just as much a display of process? Why not have kitchens on campus?
      My students would gain more from learning how to code food.

      • Who says cooking is not as good as coding?

        Have we moved on to considering the end result (in isolation?) rather than the act(s) of creation? Tthey’re still there, right? “Hmm, cake looked like a fookin work of art. Tasted fab.. and wot? It was carrot cake? Well I never.. how’d ‘e manage that in the middle of a forest?”

        There can be appreciation of ‘art/artistry’ in anything.

        But, they may not be on an art uni campus, but you can learn the art (or has it been demoted to a craft these days?) of cooking at schools for the culinary arts, surely? And as for teaching students to cook/code-food.. well, yeah, it’s a basic life skill, isn’t it still? Better than coding? Most definitely, but that’s not going to stop code insinuating itself in the kitchen either.

        • Devil: I don’t often hear what the end result will be. Sometimes I hear it will be ‘interactive’.

          Interactive what?
          A cake is interactive.

          • Sure, but a cake can provide meaningful – if calorie rich – end results.

            I can’t help find myself ask again ‘what is the role of the artist’? Personally, I think of them along the lines of some kind of mentally-rectifying-mirror-of- where x is whatever.

            To bring this up to date – for this era – one must naturally be able to mirror the things going on about us, of which an increasing amount is mediated via computers. To me, this is a requirement in need of fulfilment by the artist needing to be able to code in the same way as they might previously have wielded a paintbrush or a plectrum.

            So again, being able to understand how to create or use computing tools is an essential skill. Illiteracy otherwise.

          • edit: the form scraped a partial word from the end of ‘mentally-rectifying-mirror-of- where x is whatever.’

            it should end as: ‘mirror-of-<x>’

  2. First, I think that the code language used should be as simple and straightforward as possible, regardless of the snobbery associated with “scripting languages.” Because in the end most artists and designers are not going to become proper programmers so what they should be trying to learn is the concepts behind programming in a way that shows them the process and considerations that go into making a computer do what you ask it to using human readable language.

    Aside from giving them a glimpse into the processes of how the digital world around them works (which is useful for anyone to know), learning programming will help them in many ways when they are journey(wo)men needing to collaborate to make their visions possible.

    If they go into digital art of any kind they will most likely have to collaborate with programmers and having some introductory knowledge of programming will make it easier for them to work and communicate more effectively with coders. It should also help to broaden their thought process about what is possible for them to make art out of. If they are less intimidated by or more indoctrinated into the world of code then they will not have to limit their imaginations once it crosses over into the more technical realms of the art spectrum.

    So in a sense learning coding has value like learning history in that it broadens the mind and makes clear the world that is already existing around you and can help foster wisdom. Good art often requires wisdom as much as it requires creativity, I think.

    Artists becoming more technically aware and confident can only be good for their freedom of thought and ability to collaborate as they mature as creatives.

    Your digital art experimentation has inspired me and many people over the years, and I bet your crossing into code made a lot of that possible.

    • Devil: Why is it not better to learn legal process? If the student learns the rules of law and applies them, they will be better placed to understand history and certainly how the world works.

      Any time I have collaborated with a technical person they have appreciated my impertinent suggestions, because knowing nothing I was free of rules and expectation. Is this not the artist’s role?

      • I always find it useful to know what something should be before considering what it should not, so we might at this point ask ‘What is the artists role?’

        • The crux. Often I hear that STEM needs artists to collaborate. But I know many STEM workers who are quite artistic. Besides – they can already code, so why do they need a mini-me?

          • I agree, there are many artistic people in many different professions. If the question had been what benefit is learning artistic concepts for STEM workers there would have been many to list.

            In fact those artistic STEM folk may not need an artist. But for those who are choosing artistic expression as their primary livelihood or life’s work, they may find at some point they need the help of someone with more technical expertise to make their own artistic visions a reality. In that case knowing some technical details will make the process easier. In fact having some technical background will make them more likely to go forward with ideas that may be beyond their own technical abilities – opening up the door for collaboration coming from the artist’s motivations. Also if they use their artistic skills in a team on a project this collaboration may be forced, so having the technical background will make what can be a sometimes difficult bridge between art and tech easier to handle.

            And I agree, learning law might have benefits for an artist as well. It is not better however, because programming is a form of creation, where as studying law is not.

            Following the argument about the artists role, I was advocating for the artist and their own growth, not the benefit our ignorance might have for other people. Children are great at asking questions that force us to rethink context but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to educate them.

          • Perhaps the STEM’s artist-mini-me has some artistic chops, but they aren’t fully realised or developed, and they need an artist with both vision and the technical skills[1] to assist in realising the collaborative end-result.

            Artist that can only carve stone + STEM researcher wanting to visualise <insert-complicated-concept-here> – probably not going to find many (and I hate myself to use the word, but) synergies.

            [1] Be they experience with a stick with horse-hair or a wacom stylus, for one example.

    • As a technical aside its kind of the golden age of scripting languages.
      The pendulum is swinging further in the fat client direction again and more is being done with javascript and in particular in libraries that take javascript to places one wouldn’t have thought possible twenty years ago.
      As computational power increases the hit taken by interpreting scripting languages on the fly becomes less important.

  3. “These are todays tools, and not learning them is doing yourself a great disservice, equivalent to declaring “I would prefer to be illiterate”.”
    RFR nails the “Program or be Programmed” ideal without the need to publish a book on it.
    In my institution’s Music Tech degree we are introducing aspects of programming earlier. Max for Live in first year. In second year they build controllers with Arduino’s and code algorithmic works with web app Gibber (http://gibber.mat.ucsb.edu/).
    It’s all fairly high-level stuff where you setup some variables and functions and watch them do something over time.
    I think this level is fairly appropriate for artists. Processing doesn’t take long to get something happening and is incredibly well resourced. There is a decent MOOC run by Jon McCormack at Monash focusing on Processing that I thought worked very well as it combined theory and practice with some relevant artist interviews and installation viewings.
    I’ve seen some decent learning tools put together with Swift also.
    Some of these students might go on to learn a lower level language and program the AI that exterminates all humans!

    • I guess I should mention that I’m also asking the question “Why must music tech students learn coding?” The answer is almost always “technology moving forward.” Almost none of them seem interested in continuing a career in coding. Some might dabble but almost all of them pay allegiance to the DAW / plugins / some outboard / Producer model.

    • Devil: algorithmic music is a small aspect of music design, almost as small as the bassoon. Do we all need to know the bassoon?

      • Do we need to know it? No. Is it our brief to expose students to this and let them make up their own mind? I think so.
        Personally I prefer using matches on keys and setting S+H LFOs on filters but… I’m glad I know how to open the Max/MSP door.

    • I’m curious as to what the students want out of it?

      Do they know?

      • Exactly. They don’t see the benefit. until it’s made prosaic – e.g. learning python to script a 3D process.

  4. They should study coding because doing so may expand their minds — and it may even expand their abilities.

    (Personally, I think the best way to do that is with text-based programming environments like Processing or Supercollider. But I write firmware for a living, so I am probably biased.)

    • Devil: Coders should study religion because doing so may expand their minds — and it may even expand their abilities.

      (Serious – this is my problem – it can’t be an assumption of benefit).

  5. Meh. I’ve taught coding. I think basic HTML is probably more useful…what are they going to do with it? If it needs any maths most won’t be able to do much anyway. High level languages are probably the way to go. A language like Inform would be a good basis for understanding narrative and game structures and useful for prototyping or even for complete works. That’d be a good place to start, I think.

      • Uh, you’re confusing me. So, you think they need to learn the boring stuff or the fun stuff? Inform is programming, I’d think, without the need to do numbers whenever possible. Coding is the boring stuff, the cogs and gears (not that I don’t like that stuff myself, but I’m not normal). If you want coding, I’d go with something like Pixilang. I’ve taught similar courses at Swinburne for artists and at Holmesglen for writers and editors. First thing is, they won’t all have the same computers or be prepared to pay for software, so free is going to trump any commercial option. And smaller is better because all you’re going to manage is basic competence in a short time frame. Ideally, you’re going to want to set a goal, some project for them to finish by the end of the subject…I don’t think they learn anything important otherwise.

        I think that teaching artists to program degrades them; *real* artists know that they should keep away from any sort of skill that has an unhealthy association with usefulness or utility. When I used to work with artists a lot in the nineties I’d get wealthy art patrons ask me to come to their homes and fix their computers; having those skills made me no more than a tradesman in their eyes. But do you think anybody ever asked Howard Arkley to paint their bedroom walls?

        • I am saying that many of the supposed advantages of ‘coding’ are actually learned through programming. It’s not the cogs that matter.

          Actually Inform 7 is probably too woolly to teach programming.

          • Which is probably the first time anyone ever said something was too woolly for art students.

  6. I don’t think coding is essential, however the ability to write your own custom code opens up possibilities for custom solutions that otherwise are just not possible without getting someone else to make you this custom add on.

    It can extend the limits of software by offering hacky workarounds — making MIDI more powerful, or allowing logical operations to process the MIDI (or any type of protocol). It can make repetitive tasks easier, such as converting one file type to another. It can allow you to make custom interfaces, both software and hardware (electronics required). It allows one to create their own tools instead of using off the shelf ones. At its simplest, it allows one to even know that that’s a possibility.

    Expert math talents are not even necessary as most programming tasks require a grasp of logic, but not the knowledge complex algorithms.

  7. Artists who want to make computer art need to learn to program, just like painters need to learn how to paint.

    As a non-artist (but sometime art appreciating) computer lover, I mainly want to see computer-mediated art that doesn’t make me wince because the artist is doing something entirely obvious or ridiculous to anyone who knows a whit of things computery.

    Artists who live in caves and paint with their fingers (my favourite sort!!) need not even know what a computer is.

    Anyway, nothing special about artists. I believe in the program-or-be-programmed thesis. OTOH, one of my excuses for never learning to drive is that I haven’t got around to learn motor mechanicking yet.

    • Devil: they should also carve their own paint brushes? Or build the piano? I am not sure that level of bespoke is really needed… for example, Processing is not the basic code – it’s an interpreted language that ends up being Java. That’s still ‘low level’ for an artist.

  8. People from the “computer sector” (you can tell I think I’m arty and can’t code) are always trying to embed software in your salad spoon, dog or dildo to collect data for ads (or worse) because “it’s the future” and we should all just be cracking away at coding if we want to justify our existence. What painful rubbish and what possible expense to humanity. Real Nerds: please get back in your box, turn your attentions to curing cancer or some shit, not explaining why I should be able to read Facebook in my muffin and how this somehow translates to an environment that is not only completely necessarily pervasive but that I should be, if I have worth, contributing to. Ta.

    • Also, let’s leave some fucking jobs for the “dumb” kids who can’t do it if we want to keep this economic model running. I find it considerably less stressful to have a person to buy my groceries from. Cue picture of weedy coder in period costume and chariot drawn by naked serf girls. Don’t tell me it’s not what you’re all working towards. Yeah, too much caffeine today…

      • Let’s all of us who care not a whit how Logic/FL Studio/whatever works but that it simply does build pillowforts NOW.

      • I have to say one of my inspirations early in my programming/coding career was that the tedious stuff people did could be done by computers leaving people free to do less tedious stuff. I would contribute to the general decline of tedium .
        I hadn’t stopped to think of what these people might get paid to do.

    • Fiddled about with QuartzComposer a bit.. also PD. Same ball-park I suppose. I can see that being good for presenting ideas of data flow and processing. I vaguely class them as being ‘easier’ for non programmers, but that’s not really saying a whole lot really now is it?

      I think the most reasonable excuse to lay at the feet of the students is one of relevancy; “if you don’t know the tools better than the semi-artistic STEMmer, then why is the STEMmer asking for your assistance?” vs. “yes, people will still want oil paintings done by a human for investment purposes (and good luck with that)”.

      Do you have more STEM students with semi-artistic chops, or art-students with semi-technical chops, or (more likely) a mix? It’s difficult to work a useful answer without better understanding their backgrounds (in general).

    • Yes. Learning Signal Flow is useful for my music tech cohoots. Being able to visually map operations can seem like more fun but can often seem like building a “Rube Goldberg Machine” just to do something frivolous. I hear complaints about how visual programming makes it harder to do things you could just code. Learning how to design your own sequencer / FX unit / buffer scrubber can be satisfying but reinventing the wheel constantly isn’t.

  9. I think all artists should try coding, and all coders should try art-ing.

    We live in a world where there’s a lot of interplay between art and technology. Not understanding one of those sides is an avoidable handicap.

    From a purely mercenary perspective, most artists at some point these days end up doing plain old design, and these days that’s nearly 100% digitally-driven. Knowing what technological limitations there are and why those limitations exist can help make much more informed decisions. (I still get designers to this day asking me to write my code to redefine and override standard UI elements, and who don’t understand when I explain how much of a terrible and costly idea that can be, and maybe it’d be easier to not make the design hinge on that sort of thing…)

    And on the flip side, coders should know what is aesthetically pleasing and have some idea of how that is accomplished – you can always spot an app that had the UI designed by an engineer.

  10. They shouldn’t have to learn any manipulating skill on an academy. The things art academies should teach are head things; The concept, the inspiration, the research and the consequences of the choices in rendition.

    I might be a bit too much COBRA (There is no such thing) – but I believe that a child’s rendition of it’s concepts are as powerful as the rendition of a grown-up-master-in-whatever. It’s the concepts we should talk about. It should be effective in conveying – and in my experience – skillfulness often blurs the effectiveness.

    The skill of programming/coding shouldn’t be teaches as much as color theory shouldn’t be attached. If I want to know stuff about this shit, I will look it up.

    [a former art academy graduate and now game developer]

  11. As a graphic/multimedia designer, I used to switch back and forth from design to coding quite often during the day (depending upon the job obviously) but I found the switch between the whole left brain/right brain thing a big taxing.. not so much on the coding side of things but it definitely had what I considered to be a negative effect on my art… and I started to have bizarre looping code dreams too. I eventually moved solely over to design.

    • Tell me more about those dreams. I have never dreamed about coding while I have been coding a big part of my waking life.

  12. just got banned for getting in a fight at gamedev with people who wanted to take issue with writing a software rendering engine instead of using a GDI. i get five triangles, but they’re all mine, you hear?

    algorithmic music? modular environments? syntax? do i have any thoughts? well, frankly, any opportunity to speak segues into epistemological solipsism real fast.

    what’s wrong is people paying to go someplace special to know so they’re tiered to go forth into society and apply leverage. that’s totally fucked up. anyone who says coding is wrong for schools, you tell them everything about them and their whole world is wrong and then punch them in the face. we could have changed the world but oh no some fat pricks want to fuck everyone, everyone’s so polite hoping they can get in on that action you delapidated fucks. my triangles you bastards.

    • Not sure how that turned into a fight. Software did a lot of good things over the years = demo scene.

      Universities are changing fast. They’re turning into Lynda. Dunno if that’s what best, but that’s what people want.

      • Its hard to beat the joy/pain dichotomy that was learning to code music and animation on a TI 99/4a in 1983. No choice. In my day we ate gravel, etc…

        Agree with the Demo Scene sentiment for once pushing the boundaries.

        Should Art/Design students be required to learn coding? Probably no need now from a *programming language* perspective, but some may choose to get into a package’s scripting to achieve things outside the box, once shown how. Does scripting = coding…? No.

  13. I haven’t read all the replies.
    I’ve been doing a mix of coding and programming for years.
    I haven’t been doing coding in the sense that someone has told me what to do so much as there really wasn’t that much Programming to do. Pull something out of the database, screw around with it a tiny bit, put it back in.
    Every now and then I get a project that requires Programming and thankfully I’m in the middle of the best one in 20 years.
    I love programming, I detest coding.
    If I could make as much driving forklift as coding I’d go for the forklift.
    Programming… having an actually novel problem looking for an elegant solution… is an artistic endeavor.
    With artistic endeavor the problem is getting the revelation from the Muses to be manifest in the real world.
    Real programming I feel like I’m talking to the same ladies.

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