The ‘code poet’ or (shudder) ‘rockstar developer’ terms seem to have caught on because we software developers view ourselves as creative, and that art is seen by many as the highest form of creativity. On the record, I don’t consider myself a code poet. Don’t take this to mean that I am not passionate about what I do – I love software development and I strive to be the best developer I can be. Its just that in my view, poetry is art, and for the most part code is not, cannot be, and should not be considered art.

Despite the notorious difficulty of defining what art is, I’m going to have a stab at a vague definition for the purposes of explaining my position. For me art is something produced for the purpose of encoding an emotional state in a physical form.

What I mean by this is that art represents a class of programs designed to be run inside our minds. The ‘code’ for these programs are written in the form of oil on canvas, music, sculpture, or any number of other forms. The physical artifact when viewed sets the program running which depending on the intention or skill of the artist, will manipulate our emotional state in certain ways.

Under this definition we can see that everything can exist on a spectrum based not just on its emotional effect, but on its purpose. If we think about literature, one could place dictionaries at the far end of the non-art spectrum, as while certain parts of the text may invoke minor emotional responses, it is clearly not a dictionaries primary purpose to do so. At the extreme other end of the spectrum we could place poetry, which while it may have some practical secondary purposes, its primary purpose is to invoke some strong emotion in the reader.

So why do I exclude code from the artistic realm if I’m basically saying that artists are creating programs? The key differences lie in where these programs are executed and the purpose of these programs. Pure art has no other real purpose other than to hack our neural wetware into feeling a certain way. Software is concerned with the much more practical purpose of manipulating bits inside a computer. The output of the software may very well be art (I’m definitely in the games as art camp), but the code that creates the output is not art any more than a paintbrush is art, they are simply intermediaries toward a possible artistic end point.

In addition to my position regarding art, I also think that considering ones self as a code poet or more generally an artist when creating code has potential negative consequences. The reason I say this is that pragmatism and compromise are seen as being undesirable when creating art, however they represent key aspects of effective engineering and I can’t see how you can effectively reconcile the two.