The big challenge
of metaart is posed by the doctrine of the esthetic viability
of everything – suggested by Duchamp's readymades,
and formulated literally by Richard of St. Victor, John Scottus
Eriugena, Lewis Carroll, Francis Picabia, Ludwig Wittgenstein,
Herman de Vries, Piero Manzoni, Ben Vautier, John Cage, La Monte
Young, Tony Conrad, George Maciunas, and probably many others.
To hint at this possibility (as Duchamp did), or to claim it
with so many words (as theoreticians and conceptual artists
have done), is not too difficult, but to articulate an artistic
program which takes it seriously is another matter. Because
no one knows what everything is.
. . . le readymade, c'est
n'importe quoi. Ou encore: le readymade est absolument quelconque.
C'est mon droit démocratique de juger en profane
qui m'autorise à dire que, malgré leur qualités
 ou leur absence de qualités  plastiques, le sèchebouteilles,
l'urinoir ou la pelle à neige sont des objets quelconques.
Mais, direzvous, rien ne m'autorise à les juger
absolument quelconques. En effet, rien ne m'y autorise.
Mais tout m'y oblige. Duchamp ayant anticipé l'auteur
du readymade dans la position du regardeur profane qui juge
que l'art moderne, au moins depuis le dadaïsme, c'est
n'importe quoi, oblige en retour ce regardeur, surtout s'il
est "expert", à se projeter rétrospectivement
dans la position même de cet auteur et à se
soumettre à la même loi que lui. C'est la loi
de la modernité et elle ne dit qu'une chose: fais
n'importe quoi.
La loi ne fait pas
qu'interdire, elle oblige. J'appelle donc moderne l'artiste
dont le devoir est (était, fut, a été?)
de faire n'importe quoi. C'est un devoir et non un droit.
C'est un commendement que l'artiste moderne reçoit
et non une autorisation qu'il se donne. Comme tel, ce n'est
même pas une loi au sens ordinaire ou juridique. La
phrase "fais n'importe quoi" n'énonce pas une règle
à laquelle des cas peuvent être soumis, elle
prescrit au contraire d'agir sans règle.
[De Duve, 1989, pp. 118119.]
The esthetic interpretation
of everything need not be limited to what we happen to encounter
in the world as it is; it may include everything imagineable,
all possible images. This observation creates an artistic
challenge which has a philosophical dimension (how to define "everything"?), and a technical one (how to show it?).
Is it possible to define the set of all possible art objects?
Not in a very general way. But once we have specified a particular
medium sufficiently explicitly, we have in fact specified a
particular set of possible pieces. This is especially clear
when we employ a digital medium. In this case, there is a mathematical
enumeration of the set of possible outputs. Look, for instance,
at a blackandwhite screen with a particular resolution, say
m x n pixels; the set of all possible images is
then defined as the set generated by all combinations of choices
of black vs. white for every pixel.
A computer program that in principle generates all these possible
images one by one, can be constructed
rather easily on the basis of this idea. Lars Eijssen and Boele
Klopman were the first to actually do this, in 1991. They used
a grid of 171 x 171 pixels. For their program to run
through all its possible outputs would take longer than the
estimated lifetime of the universe; but an ingeneous interface
makes it possible to "scroll ahead" very effectively.
The method of chance art can be effectively deployed
in this situation: draw random samples from the set of possibilities,
rather than enumerating it. In this way one quickly gets an
impression of the range of possible outcomes. To sample from
the set of black & white pixel grids, for instance, one
makes for every pixel a random choice about its colour, independently
of all the other pixels. Many artists have constructed random
samples of "the m x n grid",
for very small values of m and n; this results
in the "randomized checkerboards" which were the icons
of early chance art. (E.g.: Kelly, Morellet, De Vries, Winiarski.)
Now the thing about these randomized checkerboards is, that
to the human observer they all look alike. If we define the
set of paintings or screenimages as the set of m x n pixelgrids, then virtually all of these
will look the same. If the resolution is high enough, they will
look like evenly grey planes. This kind of chance art thus gets
very close to the monochrome.
Chance art comes into its own when the artists vary the specification
of the set of possibilities which are considered by the sampling
procedure. For different series of works they tend to employ
different "image grammars", which typically define a small repertoire
of shapes with a small number of variable properties. The random
choices must then be made within the set of possibilities specified
by the image grammar. For instance: a random number of dots
with randomly chosen sizes is placed on randomly chosen positions;
or, a random number of lines with randomly chosen lengths and
directions is placed on randomly chosen positions; or, one line
is drawn through a randomly chosen sequence of points. In work
like this, the promise of surprise and diversity, which is implicit
in the idea of an "arbitrary image", does not pan out. The decisions
of the artist (which elements, which variable parameters, what
range of variation) largely determine the character of the resulting
image; the random choice which is made within the constraints
of the image grammar does in fact not make that much of a difference.
