Making Art by Accident

By Noah Schmutz


I went to Tate Modern this weekend. Among the paintings displayed on the walls, there was a notice, different from the usual notice of the paintings, some kind of advertisement for another level of the art gallery: “Can a work of art be made by accident? Discover more on level…” (I don’t remember the end of it). I did not have time, as it turned out, to discover whether it was possible to make art by accident or not, because Tate Modern was closing at that time. However, this notice triggered some reflection about this question.

The first answer that came to my mind was “well, yes, of course”. But then, with some afterthought, I came to realise that the answer to that question is not as easy as it seems at first glimpse. Some clarification is needed on the terms of the question. In this case, making art “by accident” is interpreted, I think, as adding a random feature to your piece, as a way, for example, of triggering your imagination. In that sense then, the notion of “by accident” gets introduced by the artist in the making of the piece of art through a process inducing randomness.

Now, it appears as if this “making art by accident” is quite common. In an article called “The Deliberate Accident in Art”, Christopher Turner explores the way in which different artists would take inspirations for their paintings in stains, or blots, randomly made by them. Among the examples cited are Alexander Cozens, who would splash plates with blots, and turn them into landscapes, and Victor Hugo, who would turn stains into dreamy, again, landscapes – his “taches” as they are called in French. Turner even goes further than painting, by talking about the “automatic writing” in literature (a way of writing without any conscious control on what you write) a process often used by Surrealists writers such as André Breton. In brief, what is common to all these artists, is the unconscious feature they add to the making of their piece of art – whether at the outset or throughout the process. This unconscious process is the “by accident” part of the making of the piece of art.

But can we really call that “by accident”? It seems that the accidental part of these method for making art is controlled, in that it is wanted and even made on purpose by the artist. This, I think, weakens the notion of “by accident”, since the randomness is random only to a certain extent. Based on these observations, the question is to be asked again: Can we make art fully by accident? And as a first step toward an answer, how would we be able to make art fully by accident? Maybe, since it is the control of the artist that weakens the randomness, we could try and remove this control, namely, by not wanting to make art in the first place. However, this seems quite problematic. How are we to make art if we don’t want to in the first place? The question then stays open. We might have come close to one of the boundaries of art, that is, the fact that it can never be made fully by accident.

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