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Leitmotifs in Franke’s work

The rational penetration of what art is was always a hallmark of Herbert W. Franke’s work. He had learned throughout his studies as a physics student how the exact natural sciences look for universal knowledge about a topic of study. As a result, he attempted to apply this approach to art analysis as well. His particular interest was in abstract art, which can be judged without regard for its content. Works that lack this conceptual level are easier to study scientifically because the graphic structure is the only criterion for examination. This is where Franke got his start. This contrasts significantly from traditional art theory, which examines works from the perspective of art history. In the cybernetic approach of an Abraham Moles or Karl Steinbuch as well as in the information-aesthetic thoughts of Max Bense, Franke found the starting point for his own considerations, in which he connected the information aspect with psychology. Unlike the mathematician Bense, for example, Franke thus did not search for the „abstract-absolute work of art“, but interpreted art in his art model as an evolutionary phenomenon of subjective perception. Thus, for Franke, it is not the artist alone who decides what art is, but always the viewer or, generally speaking, the addressee. Depending on individual previous knowledge and the neuronal structures subjectively learned in his environment, the latter can come to deviating evaluations.

With this approach Franke found an aesthetic, even if only abstractly graspable bracket for such different things as visual art, music, literature. Artistic products, as heterogeneous as they may be, are all and all a perceptual offer that is possible exclusively through the sensory organs and can only be defined by them. And they thus follow the same structure-forming criteria as nature and biology. These structures can be described mathematically simplified. Mathematics is therefore not only the basis of nature, but also of every abstract-artistic design from generative photography to algorithmically determined NFT art.

Beauty in nature
The Aesthetics of Mathematics
Abstract art

The study of perceptual processes has traditionally been a field of psychology, which today has passed into neural brain research. Its experimental quantification was first possible with the data processing that emerged in the 1960s, and which is followed not only by our computers. Psychology found that different data rates are also processed in our perception in the brain: For example, the brain can process environmental information received via the eye at much higher data rates per second than information flowing into the brain via the ear. In this upstream process, analysis, filtering and recoding of the information results in a considerable reduction of the data. Only in this way is the human being able to react without delay to dangers, for example. A large part of this processed data subsequently does not enter the consciousness at all, but rather goes to subconscious centers where, among other things, reflexes are triggered, for example to control emotions. The constant processing and modification of neuronal data–whether on a conscious or subconscious level–which in turn are stimulated by constant new input from the outside world, is what we call learning. Into the consciousness, which is to be regarded as a working memory, only that tiny part of information reaches, which is recognized as particularly important due to special characteristics–for example by their innovative, unusual or also danger-associating character. Here the last and most complicated step of the analysis begins: the one which is carried out consciously. For this purpose, the thinking strategies known to us are used, especially with the help of prior knowledge. For this cognitive processing–triggered by associations–numerous contents from the short-term memory and the long-term memory are called back into consciousness and used for conscious decision processes.

DRAKULA from 1970/71: Art for information-aesthetic experiments

Like any data-processing technical system, the human neural network is subject to certain physically determined restrictions, such as limited operating speeds and limited storage and flow capacities. On average, these values, which developed during evolution, are such that humans are always able to grasp the complexity of the perceived environmental impressions. However, the complexity of the stimulus patterns can also overtax the system; it turns out that then, with the help of certain methods, for example based on approximation processes or probability assumptions, useful results are often nevertheless obtained in the required time unit. Occasionally, however, man also encounters sources of information from which a flow of information emanates which corresponds quite well to the receptivity of consciousness. Such stimulus patterns trigger emotions that lead the person to perceive the perceived phenomenon as beautiful. If a work of art thus meets the described, individually highly different conditions for optimal conscious information absorption, then it becomes art for the recipient. This shows at the same time that the absolute work of art cannot exist, since it depends on the strongly divergent knowledge of the individual.

At the same time, art cannot be examined in isolation from what is around us–be it of natural or artificial origin. For perceptual processes of art are always driven by perceptual processes from the environment.

But the reception of art is only one side of the consideration. For reception happens in the moment. With works of art, however, an effect takes place that extends beyond the moment of initial perception. Franke has described this with the multi-level model. From an information-aesthetic point of view, how can he ensure that his work has an effect not only at the moment of reception? Up to now, the artist has mainly used intuitive, unconscious methods for this. But now, for the first time in the history of the arts, information aesthetics also offers him a rational grammar as a guideline. It is based on the fact that humans are capable of selectively focusing on different levels of meaning of an information offer. If each of them is configured according to the conditions for optimal perception, the work, when presented again, offers the extraction of other, previously unnoticed data from previously unnoticed levels of meaning. With the help of this multi-level model, it is possible for the artist to serve different levels of impact of his works. This played a central role for Franke, for example, as a literary author. He always tried to supplement the level of the exciting plot with other levels. This included, for example, the design of the spaces and landscapes in which the characters act, but also the underlying interpretative level, which concerns the context of social mechanisms and enables deeper „further thinking“ of the underlying problem with its relation to today. The reader can use these literary multi-level offerings in an individual way. Language is therefore not an end in itself for Franke. From the very beginning, a clear, sober style prevailed in his literary works, his current trademark, which was negatively noted by some critics in the beginning.

Motif from the series Intarsia
Views of Franke’ kaleidoscope collection
Franke with kaleidoscope

For Franke, there is a mathematical code behind every work of art. In music, this is defined by the score with notes. It is based on the perception of tones and their perceptual contexts. But Franke is convinced that there is not only a grammar in music, but also something comparable behind every visual work of art. What is commonly and rather vaguely referred to as the „handwriting of an artist“ is the mostly undiscovered and essentially more complex „mathematical code“ behind a visual work, which will also be increasingly deciphered for the visual world: based on a grammar of optical perception, with which the visual artist will be able to work and design in the future, just as the composer already does today.

Cluster – experiments with continuous curves in 1974.

This optical grammar, for which Symmetries–such as those that arise in kaleidoscopes and with which Franke also experimented aesthetically in series such as Intarsia–represent a simple principle, then becomes abstractly mathematically comprehensible, like musical notation. Another element of this visual grammar, which can already be described mathematically, is for Franke not only symmetry but also Continuity, whose significance for human perception he analyzed just as much as its aesthetic dimension. Thus, these overarching mathematical rules of such notations can be used for any art design in the future. Even if this complex mathematics of visual art is largely still not accessible to us today, for Franke there is always an underlying mathematically describable structure for optical perception in every work. And this is what Franke calls the „core“ of a work of art. This core is particularly evident in computer art, which is per se algorithmic. For Franke, this algorithmic code constitutes the actual artistic value of digital works; in this respect, the printed work of computer art is „only“ one of many manifestations of this algorithm. 

From a mathematical point of view, a grammar is a method that reduces the information content, since it combines variants of certain contexts into a cluster that have the same structural features by means of a formalized description. The method is not only known in mathematics, but also plays an essential role in the brain when it comes to the rapid processing of sensory impressions into neuronal structures that also allow quick decisions.

But for Franke, in addition to structure formation, random always plays a major role in art design. Franke creates his own works in the area of tension between this rational analysis with methods of science–this includes aspects such as developing algorithms creatively, playing through trial and error–but also specifically using random as a creative moment in art, as for example in the PC program Gramus from 1980 with the interplay of random processes and symmetries.

This interplay of analytical cognitive work and the influence of random can be seen as a guiding principle throughout Franke’s artistic work – not only in the visual arts, but also in literature: for his models of possible future scenarios follow precisely these principles in science fiction.

From the considerations described above, however, we can also derive an insight into the social utility of art: In today’s civilizations, successful perceptual processes no longer have the same significance as a means of survival as they once did for humans in the wild, where one had to react to dangers and be constantly „on guard.“ Nevertheless, even members of modern communities often find themselves in situations that require the ability to quickly perceive contexts in order to cope with them. The reception of works of art, which psychologically represents nothing other than a congitive learning process, contributes a great deal to the training of these perceptive abilities of man–no longer through dangerous situations to which man is exposed, but through aesthetic offers which he can absorb for pleasure. In this respect, Franke ascribes an important role to art and the artist for modern society as well.