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What Is Systems Art?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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Broadly defined, Systems Art is any type of art in which the creator takes a methodical, systematic approach to making an artwork. Partially based on cybernetics, or the study of natural, social and mechanized organizations, Systems Art demands that the artist use preset and sometimes automated methods to create an artwork. Video game art and algorithmic art are examples of this type of art. The Systems Art movement began in the 1960s and is so broad that almost any type of art using a methodical approach can qualify as systems art, including conceptual art.

Video game art may be the epitome of using a system to create art. Many visual artists have gotten creative inspiration from the technology and concepts of video games. They operate on a set logic in which a particular outcome can lead to an event or series of events. Either by modifying these games or by writing their own code, video game artists express a variety of different ideas about society and life in general. These works are displayed as installations in museums or are available to the public online.

Another form of Systems Art is algorithmic art, in which the artist uses a set of calculations and a computer to methodically generate a work of art. Oftentimes the artist will introduce a random element into the algorithm so that the image changes to produce different results. Digital artists who create art based on algorisms are known as algorists.

Artists began making systems art in the 1960s and 1970s. MOMA Poll, created in 1970 by the artist Hans Haacke, is an example of a more conceptual type of Systems Art. Haacke questioned over 25,000 people about their reaction to New York Governor Rockefeller’s failure to confront President Nixon about his policy in Vietnam. The poll results were displayed in a show entitled Information at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). By referencing the voting process in the US, Haacke was clearly making a statement about social systems.

Besides exemplifying an obvious concern with systems, MOMA Poll also demonstrates several other tenets of this art movement. Impacting society through art is another key concept, and there is no doubt that Haacke’s piece induced a great deal of reflection on the part of participants as well as viewers. In addition, the Systems Art movement rejects the idea of an artwork as a precious, rarefied object. No doubt, some viewers of Haacke’s piece were asking, “Where’s the art?”

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