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Programming as an Art

Programming as an Art

Art as skill, as technique. The lost meaning of the XXI century. 1

The Arts of Old

If we go back to the latin roots, we find ars, artis, meaning “skill”. It is perhaps significant that the corresponding Greek word was τέχνη, the root of both “techonlogy” and “technique”.

Nowadays when someone speaks of “art” you probably think first of “fine arts” such as painting and sculpture, but before the twentieth century the word was generally used in quite a different sense.

In medieval times, “art” meant something derived by man’s intellect, as opposed to activities derived from nature or instinct. During the middle ages the word “art” by itself usually meant logic.

Science vs Art

“Science” being used to stand for knowledge, and “art” for the application of knowledge. Thus, the sciecne of astronomy was teh basis for teh art of navegation. The situation was almost exactly like the way in which we now distinguish between “science” and “engineering”.

Works of Art

When I speak about computer programming as an art, I am thinking primarily of it as an art form, in an aesthetic sense.

My feeling is that when we prepare a program, it can be like composing poetry or music; programming can give us both intellectual and emotional satisfaction, because it is a real achievement to master complexity and to establish a system of consistent rules.

Furthermore when we read other people’s programs, we can recognize some of them as genuine works of art.

Some programs are elegant, some are exquisite, some are sparkling. My claim is that it is possible to write grand programs, noble programs, truly magnificient ones!


  1. Communications of the ACMVolume 17Issue 12Dec 1974 programming as an art