Are programmers artists?

I have always considered photography as an art form. And it’s this view that makes me call myself an artist even though I am a full-time programmer. But I have always wondered whether I could call myself an artist even if I weren’t doing any photography at all.

Having juggled both of them for years now, I can sense my approach for both have had a lot of parallels, and my planning for programming and photography projects have become intertwined over time. These similarities beg the question, could I be called an artist if I were just a programmer?

Are programmers artists?

Art vs science

The general perception is that programming comes under the umbrella of science, or more specifically Computer Science. Naturally, in that view, programming is more science than it is art. A few reasons why this is the general perception.

  • Programming most often has a measurable end goal in place. Code will have to be locally arranged and systematised to achieve a specific goal or to solve a specific problem. Art, on the other hand, it not tightly governed by law or logic and is not often trying to achieve a measurable goal or solve a problem.
  • Art, by it’s definition, exists primarily for aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment, rather than to be put into functional use.
  • A partially completed artwork can still be an artwork on it’s own merit; some artists are deliberate on this as part of their individual vision and expression. However, a partially completed program is just a collection of notations that doesn’t mean or achieve anything.

Having said that, putting programming under the broad term of Computer Science is fundamentally flawed, as discussed by Paul Graham (founder of Y-Combinator) in his article Hackers and Painters.

Parallels

Interestingly, you can draw a log of parallels between the two when you consider art as a process.

Blank canvas

Artists and programmers start from a blank canvas.

Gradual refinement

Their ideas start out small and evolve over time. Pieces are added, removed and refined throughout the journey. Programmers almost always have to backtrack to a certain points in their work and make amends when they go down the wrong route just like a painter brushes over their mistakes.

Code is like clay

There are many ways of solving problems or arriving at a product using code. Each finished program bears the unique signature of the programmer’s ideas, creativity and the state of mind at the time of writing it, just like any artwork.

Aesthetics

Like painting, most software is intended for a human audience. And so hackers, like artists, must have empathy to do really great work. Good programmers aspire to create beautiful software. Not just the code, but also the design and aesthetics of the final product.

Time and Decay

Great work takes time, both true with art and software. And they both decay over time.

Inspiration

Artists and programmers both take inspiration from the work of others to perfect their own craft.

Conclusion

Today, a lot of programmers are already expected to have good knowledge in design and aesthetics as part of their jobs which in turn blurs the line between programming and art for most of us. From an outsider, programming can be seen as very scientific, analytical, and precise but in reality, it’s much more than that. It takes a lot of creativity, passion, empathy, and mindfulness.

I think programmers and artists are a lot more alike than we perceive and I would call myself an artist even if I weren’t a photographer.