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Information Aesthetics

March 11, 2011 11:42


Information Aesthetics was mainly influential during the 1960s with theoreticians of aesthetics, concrete artists, writers, and designers. Max Bense developed the term itself in the 1950s, but it only became popular during the 1960s. His books Aesthetica, Aesthetica II, Aesthetica III, and Aesthetica IV, which were released between 1956 and 1960, as well as Aesthetica – Einführung in die neue Aesthetik from 1982, supported its dissemination, especially in Europe. The information aesthetics theory paved the way for media theory by Marshall McLuhan, Umberto Eco, and the like. Bense’s theory was based on the aesthetics of an artefact, meaning that objective measure was important to him, whereas the theory of Abraham A. Moles, who developed similar ideas at the same time, were related to the observer and contained subjective measures as well. Moles’ first book on the topic, called “Théorie de l’information et perception esthétique” [Information Theory and Aesthetic Perception], was published in 1958.


The ideas of both, Bense and Moles, were based on communication theories going back to the 1940s when for example Claude E. Shannon talked about Information Theory and Norbert E. Wiener about Cybernetics. However, the two adapted the before named theories for other fields as the fine arts, literature and music. So in case of the fine arts, for instance, the communication theory was adapted in such a way, that the artist creates messages, which then the viewer can receive. Also the mathematical formulation of aesthetic measures of Birkhoff, the formulation of a generative grammar by Chomsky and the statistical style analysis of Wilhelm Fuck were influencing Information Aesthetics.
Shannon’s Information Theory contributed to natural language processing and computational linguistics. Besides the introduction of the theory in his essay A Mathematical Theory of Communications in 1948, the article “Prediction and Entropy of Printed English” in 1951 further established it. "In Numerical aesthetics, Charles E. Shannon’s well-known procedure, in which a “real” text (in “real” language) is stochastically approximated by an incremental selection of words from repertories of equiprobable and joint frequency distributions, is used for the constructive generation of “artificial” poetic texts in a finite number of steps." [Rosen, 2011]

Birkhoff introduced his numerical aesthetics in the “Aesthetic Measure”, from the 1930s. He formulated therein the following: M = f(C/O), where M is the aesthetic measurement which is defined by O, the ratio of order, and C, its complexity. Leszlei Mezei says that “Birkhoff sought to assign an aesthetic measure or value to any work of art – be it two-dimensional shapes, Grecian urns, music, poetry, etc. If such a measure could be found, aesthetic design by computer would be much easier. We could calculate the aesthetic measure for many related designs and select automatically the one with the highest aesthetic measure, by varying parameters. (…)” “[”Birkhoff":agent@539] adopted the simple rule that the aesthetic measure is the order divided by the complexity; this is the expression of a well known definition of art by the 18th Century Dutch philosopher Hemsterhuis: “Beautiful is that which gives us the greatest number of ideas in the shortest space of time.” In other words, it is the density of order, relations in the aesthetic object." [Klütsch, 2007]

Wilhelm Fucks wrote a paper called “On Mathematical Analysis of Style”, which was published in Biometrika in 1952. Within he already introduced entropy into aesthetics. Further, “(…) Wilhelm Fucks and his collaborators at the Aachen Polytechnic found numerical material suitable for programming through careful analysis of classical and modern compositions.” [Bense, 1965]

In 1957 Noam Chomsky published his book “Syntactic Structures” which was well received in the field of linguistics. This book laid the foundation for his generative grammar, also known as transformational grammar, that influenced Bense’s work. “Hence generative aesthetics is analogous to generative grammar, in so far as it helps to formulate the principles of grammatical schema-realization of an aesthetic structure” [Reichhardt, 1971].

Bense’s theory

Between 1954 and 1965 Bense developed his Information Aesthetics, an interdisciplinary concept of developing exact, scientific measures for introducing objectivity into aesthetics. In a way, he was looking for the “laws of aesthetics”. His interest was to connect rationality with art and in his view this was only possible by applying mathematics and information theory. He began to deepen his understanding of aesthetical and semiotical theories, especially the ‘aesthetical state’ of artworks that were realized signs, sign processes and sign systems, in order to shift the production as well as the analysis of art and literature from an emotional to a rational one, one that can be scientifically proven.

“[”Bense":agent@209] defined the aesthetic object as a material carrier connected to “Mitrealität” [co-materiality], thus understanding the object as a sign. In the early phase of his thought, he relied upon Charles Morris’s sign theory, shifting in the 1960s to Peircian sign theory. By understanding aesthetic objects as signs Bense framed them within Shannon’s purely technical communication theory, which he attempted to adapt to human communication. As a link between the two notions of communication, he interposed Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics, which he understood as a model for the process of art production, consumption and criticism. Within this theoretical frame, Bense aimed to create a rational aesthetics, freed from subjective speculation and grounded upon a scientific base." [Klütsch, 2007] Bense divided aesthetics into micro- and macro-aesthetics, a concept he borrowed from modern physics. Micro-aesthetics concerns the indirect relationships between artwork and theory, which are based on signs and processes and are included in every artwork. Macro-aesthetics on the other hand deals with the perceptive reflection of an artwork hence its relations within the work. By introducing this concept he showed the differences between the subjective evaluation of a work and an aesthetic evaluation that is based on information and sign systems.

Terms Bense used include “redundancy”, a measure of order, and “entropy”, the material expenditure, both terms which were frequently used by Norbert Wiener. “The final aspect of Bense’s aesthetic theory is the notion of negentropy. Bense saw in art a process going in the direction opposite that of the physical process. While the physical world moves toward chaos, the world of art moves toward order. Both process and order are key terms in Bense’s aesthetic, delivering the ontological basis for his scientific approach.” [Klütsch, 2007]

Bense himself defines that “The aim of generative aesthetics is the artificial production of probabilities of innovation or deviation from the norm.” [Bense, 1965] Bense describes this in his text 19 from 1965, which was published on the occasion of the first computer art exhibition worldwide, in Germany. Not intended as a manifest, it is nowadays often referred to as the first manifest of computer art, which was certainly a point of reference for the Stuttgart School, that build up around Bense. There are four methods of abstraction described in his projects of generative aesthetics:

  1. the semiotic method
    The semiotic method uses triadic relations of signs in order to determine the single and complex signs which constitute a work of art, by means of three main and nine subclasses developed by Charles Sanders Peirce and others defining the sign in relation to its object, to its interpreter and the sign itself. For the semantic analysis of a work of art as well as for the synthetic realization of units of meaning (semantemes) in a number of material elements, it is necessary to be familiar with the construction of the work in terms of classes of signs.
  2. the metrical method (macro-aesthetic)
    The metrical method of describing an aesthetic state uses numerical data in the same way as older schematics, i.e. theories of proportion in art. This method will establish the macro-aesthetic constitution of an art object, in other words, the composition dealing with form, figure and structure.
  3. the statistical method (micro-aesthetic)
    The statistical method is involved with the concept of frequency or probability of appearance of elements. Also with numerically assessed characteristics of elements in their relationship and organization. Thus we arrive at the micro-aesthetic constitution of a work of art which can be used to arrive at, not the ‘principle of formation’, but the ‘principle of distribution’.
  4. the topological method
    Finally the topological method is mainly concerned with the sets of elements which constitute the work of art, based on notions such as environment, connexion, open state, seclusion, simplicity and complexity of sets of elements. With the formation and distribution principles, the ‘set’ principle is the third.

Moles’ theory

Moles’ theory, in contrast to Bense’s ideas which dealt with the fine arts in general, was more focused on linguistics and music. He wants to capture the perception of information intuitively and thus uses super signs, that are primarily based on perception. Moles tried to connect Cybernetics and Information Theory with empirical psychology as well as socio-scientific explanatory models. This means his theory also allows subjective measures, in contrast to Bense’s. “Moles’ theory is probably the most comprehensible, thorough and revealing of those concerned with the application of cybernetics and information theory to computer-assisted art and aesthetics. Particularly significant and farsighted are his analyses of the concepts of simulacrum and translation, his models of ‘creative machines’, as well as his reflection upon the consequences of aesthetic change in regard to the notions of artist, work of art, and recipient.” [Reichhard, 1971]

“Viewed aesthetically, the simulacrum implies a relation between technology and the quest for operational consistency. [”Moles":agent@352] saw a direct connection between the crisis of truth criteria and the rise of new technologies building on attributes of performativity. By transferring a factually technical concept into the artistic cultural sector, Moles was far ahead of his time and underscored the original nature of his concept." [Claudia Giannetti, 2004] Claudia Giannetti describes five models that Moles used in regard to the generation of works of art:

  1. The machinic viewer,
  2. the amplifier of complexity,
  3. permutational art,
  4. the simulation of artistic creation,
  5. and the creation machine based on successive integration.


Although Information Aesthetics was a very important development in relation to design and art, there is controversy about its practical usefulness. In February 1968, for example, Max Bense and Gunther H. Pfeiffer discussed the topic of Information Aesthetics in the Frankfurter Allgemeine under the titel “Ist kunst berechenbar? Max Bense und der Computer” [Is art calculable? Max Bense and the computer]. Pfeiffer "commented controversially: “We conclude that the problems of Information Aesthetics can be focused in two statements: It does not know what it should measure to, nor does it know why it should measure.”" Even though Bense confessed to “ambiguities”, he still defended his scientific approach to measure aesthetics. [Herzogenrath et al., 2007]

About Information Aesthetics Claudia Giannetti criticizes on MediaArtNet, that "No attention is paid to the subjects involved in this communication process, to the context in which it takes place, or to the semantic content. By ascribing importance merely to those properties which are accessible and quantifiable, Information Aesthetics limits itself to syntactic structures, with the result that the information is confined to a very reduced range. The attempt to find an aesthetic “measure” for evaluations immanent to the work of art and independent of reception and context, and therefore resting solely on the information content of aesthetic communication, can be viewed as a failure." [Claudia Giannetti, 2004] Further, she states, if aesthetics are getting connected with communications, they are understood as a “processual category of the social system” [Claudia Giannetti, 2004] and therefore would rather fit into system theory and Constructivism than in Shannon’s theory or Cybernetics.

At the Tendencies 5 symposium, Information Aesthetics, especially Bense’s, was dismissed as a failure. In the view of the attendees, Bense excluded all aspects of non-calculable conditions of communication, such as psychological, social, political and economical issues. “His provocation of bourgeois post-war culture by mathematical aesthetics had lost its edge in the politicized atmosphere of 1968/1969. The clash between Joseph Beuys and Max Bense during a panel discussion in Düsseldorf in 1970 was the visibly spectacular finale to the project of a rational, mathematically oriented aesthetics that had sought to demystify art and the artists.” [Rosen, 2011]


Information Aesthetics and its pioneers were a pathfinder for Computer Art. Bense and Moles had a strong influence on the first computer artists and their work. Not making digital art themselves, they still strongly supported the first steps of artists and scientists in this new direction. They did so by supporting exhibitions, like Bense did with Computer-Grafik Programme, as well as both were assisting disserations in the area of Information Aesthetics respectively Generative Aesthetics. Even though, the topic is controversial until today, the influence of it on Aesthetics, Design and Art to this day can not be ignored.