On the confused uses of fractals by artists, and some mathematicians' sense of art: on productive misunderstandings.

Mark Tansey's paintings in the early 1990s sometimes engaged fractal geometry directly. Here Zeno (tiny white-haired figure, at the right) and Mandelbrot (to his right) preside over the planting of a tree (Feigenbaum, a pun on another mathematician's name).

Cheesiness is a persistent problem in fractal "art," even in 2009. In 1989, when I was working on the essay, images like these took a lot of computing power; shortly afterward, in the mid-1990s, they were available as shareware programs. Now the palettes and atmospheric effects are often built in.

The Mandelbrot Set actually has no color; all its "beautiful" colors are the products of assigning hues to iterations., in accord with clichés of landscape, fire, sunset., and so forth. The mathematics is often very simple: a sign that in this case, the conversation between science and art takes place at a very general level.

The Drunken Conversation Between Chaos and Painting

Essay (1992).

An essay about the mutual misunderstandings between chaos theory, fractal dynamics, and painting in the 1990s. That was a "drunken conversation" because the artists usually misunderstood chaos theory, and the mathematicians (such as Mandelbrot and Peitgen) had very odd ideas about the place of their mathematics in art history. 



The general theme, the mutual misunderstanding of art and science, remains pertinent in visual art, and someone should write a non-polemical piece about it: misunderstandings like the ones chronicled here can be productive, and so they are not like the mistakes that Sokol and Bricmont chronicle. The differences point to different discourses. Such an analysis might go some distance to relieving the reductive pressure that the "Sokal affair" put on interdisciplinary conversations.

(These themes are also pursued in the introduction to Visual Practices Across the University, elsewhere on this site.)

This version is unillustrated, but it can be followed without the illustrations.

Published in Meaning 12 (1992): 55–60.