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Algorithmic Aesthetics:

Computer Models for Criticism and Design in the Arts


George Stiny and James Gips


(One author’s viewpoint, 2003)


Can a computer appreciate a work of art?  Can a computer create a new work of art?  What does it mean for an object to be a work of art?  How are objects understood as works of art?  Dozens of ways of understanding art have been proposed.  Is there one true way to understand works of art?  If not, what do the different ways of understanding art have in common?  How might they be implemented in a computer?  Does this “computer” or “algorithmic” approach have any contributions to make to the field of art and aesthetics?


Algorithmic Aesthetics is a book by George Stiny and myself that explores these and similar questions.  The book was written between 1974 and 1976 in Los Angeles.  We had no access to a computer so we contracted with a typist to translate our hand written pages into typed manuscript.

The book  was published in 1978 by University of California Press.  The book won the 1979 Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award.  After 15 years and total sales of 912 copies, the book went out of print.  In 1994 University of California Press returned the rights to the book to the authors.  Now, in 2003, with George’s agreement (“Sure. Why not?”), I am putting the book up on the web.


I believe in the ideas in the book as much now as I did when we wrote it.  I especially am a fan of EZ, the evaluation function we developed, which I believe is widely applicable. 


At the time we wrote the book neither of has had ever taught.  After teaching for over 25 years and having authored a textbook I don’t think I would write the book in the same style, which is a bit formal though logical. 


This website contains a complete scanned copy of the book.  To proceed to the book itself click here.  Thanks to Carrie Alexandrowicz for doing the scanning and setting up the individual pages.


George and I met as undergraduates at MIT, where we collaborated on projects on the automatic computer recognition of hand tools, automatic generation of the shapes of leafs of different species of plants, and visual illusions.  After graduation in 1967 we developed the notion of shape grammars.  These ideas were first given in the paper “Shape Grammars and the Generative Specification of Painting and Sculpture”, which was presented at IFIP Congress 71 in Ljubljana and subsequently published in The Best Computer Papers of 1971 (Auerbach Publisher, 1972).  A copy of the paper can be obtained for free here. The work on shape grammars became the basis for our doctoral dissertations, both of which were published: J. Gips, Shape Grammars and their Uses, Birkhauser Verlag, 1975 (available for free here) and G. Stiny, Pictorial and Formal Aspects of Shape and Shape Grammars, Birkhauser Verlag, 1975.  The beginning outlines of this aesthetics book can be found in the original shape grammar paper and then in more detail in the dissertations.  More information on shape grammars is available at the site, which was created for the Workshop on Shape Computation held at MIT in 1999.  Watch for George’s new book, Shape, from MIT Press.


For something related but a bit different see my paper “Ramona’s Painting”, about a painting by an elephant of an elephant.

The next book we were going to write after Algorithmic Aesthetics was on an algorithmic approach to science.  Basically aesthetic systems applied to science and the scientific process.  "Science Systems" if you will.  The book on science never was formally begun, though we talked about it and I can picture it in my mind.  After that, vaguely on the horizon, was a unifying book on an algorithmic approach to generalized "meaning".


Please feel free to email me at  My BC website is at  George can be reached at




-- Jim Gips



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