The Aesthetics of Esolangs

by Chris Pressey, Jun 17, 2013

I've been researching art, or whatever it is that people generally call "art", for the purpose of seeing how it relates, or doesn't, to esoteric programming languages. In this article, I'll try to examine the aesthetics of esolangs a bit more in-depth than I did in the previous article (and it will probably make more sense if you've already read the previous article.)

A preliminary point I should probably make is that by "art" I do not necessarily mean the "art world" (which consists of galleries, critics, collectors, art schools, and the like.) Nor do I mean "fine art". I think there's a certain amount of confusion that happens when the word "art" is used because it is sometimes prematurely taken to refer to one or both of those things, when in fact it needn't. There is a whole universe of art outside them: folk art, street art, outsider art, "arts and crafts", etc. As far as I'm concerned in this article, if it was produced with an aesthetic intent, and if it's consumed for its aesthetic appeal, it's art. I will of course conveniently dodge defining exactly what I mean by "aesthetic" here, because that could be a whole article (or series of articles) in itself. I'm hoping you might have a rough idea what I mean anyway. And if not, just trudge on regardless.

I do think esolang counts as art under the above definition. Not all programming languages are designed as art, of course, and not every programming language designed as art is an esolang. At the same time, it would be difficult to pin down the particular aesthetics behind esolangs, as opposed to other programming languages designed as art. I mentioned minimalism and Dada in the previous article, but these are certainly not exclusive. I'll mention a few others in a moment.

You could argue against my position here, by saying that what I'm calling Dada is just parody (or satire or lampooning) and what I'm calling minimalism is just the mathematician's tendency to reduce constructs to a form that is as simple and economical as possible. Well, I would say that I don't think these are necessarily exclusive.

Dada (and surrealism) and parody (and satire and lampooning) all fall under the rather broad umbrella of "absurdism", and while you can certainly have Dada that isn't a parody, and a parody that isn't Dada, there's nothing saying you can't have something that is both, too. While INTERCAL may be primarily a parody of the programming languages of its time, this accompanying diagram, as just one example, would seem to go well beyond that. Likewise, ILLGOL may have started purely as a send-up of compiler-based languages, but it soon turned into a bizarre experiment in mixed media which defies easy classification. And I can't look at any of Gerson Kurz' languages without feeling very strongly that satire is not the only thing going on there. It's not just piss-taking, it's actually bladder-mauling, or rather... well, Dada is somewhat difficult to decribe without outright descending into Dada; for a fuller explanation, I refer the reader to Richard Huelsenbeck's First German Dada Manifesto, which is the most comprehensible Dada manifesto I've come across (which is saying a lot.)

On the other hand, the mathematician's tendency to make constructs as simple and/or succinct and/or short and/or regular as possible, exists presumably because it leads to solutions that are elegant and/or eminently tractable (cf. Proofs from THE BOOK.) But, as pointed out by Marvin Minsky in Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines, this doesn't really work the same way when applied to models of computation: making your computer as simple as possible will only make your programs more horribly complicated. (INTERCAL understood this too.)

But I actually think that this was, in some sense, recognized generally in art-about-machines well before it was recognized specifically in programming-languages-as-art. More specifically, it was recognized by Rube Goldberg in the USA, W. Heath Robinson in the UK, and as Chindōgu in Japan. Machines are supposed to make life easier, when really they up and make it more complicated at the same time.

Extremely interestingly (to me anyway), this ties back with the first point. Goldberg's and Robinson's illustrations were certainly parodies, while Chindōgu has a very strong Dada feel to it (while at the same time holding a tenet that it should not be only parody.) The theme is one of complexity coming, unbidden and unwanted, from attempted simplicity; and while the underlying fulcrum may be different in esolangs ("Beware the Turing tarpit") than it is for labour-saving devices in everyday life, it's the same dialectic (can I call it that? I probably shouldn't, I hate that word) and that may explain why Dada and minimalism both appear to occur prominently in esolangs.

But I do want to stress (as I said) that these are not the only aesthetic strains in esolang. Another one that's quite strong, I'd like to call "Pop art" based on how its appeal works, but is probably better thought of as a kind of applied skeuomorphism. This is where the programs of the esolang are easily recognizable as some other artefact that exists in the culture, usually completely outside the domain of computers. The most blatant examples are probably Chef, Shakespeare, and Piet.

Are there other aesthetic strains? Yes, but I think we start skiing down the long tail when we look for them, as there are fewer and fewer examples of each, the more we look. zzo38's languages (particularly Please Porige Hot) honestly remind me a lot of outsider art: looking at them, you get a borderline-incoherent glimpse of an entire world that presumably exists inside his head that you will never fully appreciate — although, clearly, it includes many programming languages. Homespring's "metaphorical" paradigm could perhaps be considered "Slice of Life", and there are of course elements of tragedy and pathos in several esolangs, for example in Larabee and Half-Broken Car in Heavy Traffic.

I'll try to conclude this with a few related, but perhaps more general, questions of aesthetic classification.

Are esolangs conceptual art? Yes — but that's a very reservedly qualified "yes". Certainly, the central building blocks of programming language design — that is to say, programming language constructs — are almost purely conceptual in nature. "Loop" is a concept, "assignment" is a concept, and so forth. So in this sense, they are definitely conceptual art if they are art at all. On the other hand, conceptual art is an utterly huge category of art which defies delineation (yes, thank you post-modernism, thank you for that simplification, it really makes our lives easier, really it does.) If esolangs are conceptual art, they occupy a very narrow strip of that field, mainly due to being (voluntarily!) constrained by the ideas of computation, logic, and communication. At the end of the day, they are programming languages, and they should, arguably, at least look or act like them.

Are esolangs digital art (or "electronic art" or "computer art")? Well, no in fact, if we go by the previous paragraph, strictly speaking they're not; they're made up of concepts, and these concepts would exist even if our computing equipment wasn't electronic, or wasn't digital, or if we didn't have computing equipment at all. It's just that having computing equipment makes it a lot easier to design and experience these programming languages, to the point where if we didn't have the computing equipment, very, very few people would care about them (even fewer than now!)

Are esolangs abstract art? Well, that's debatable, but I'll say this: programs in esolangs can certainly be enjoyed as abstract art, even if you don't know anything about programming (and especially if you like ASCII art.) But that's certainly not exclusive to esolang (cf. the IOCCC) and it certainly doesn't end there.

I'll finish up by muddying the waters even further by presenting you with a handful of pieces of visual art that feel very "esolang-y" to me even though their creators have quite possibly never even heard of esolang.

(And I would be remiss in neglecting to also mention that there is at least one work of visual art which was directly inspired by an esolang, namely G E M O O Y by misen23.)


"Hello, world" in Piet