Around a year ago, Christie’s, a British auction house, sold its first piece of computer-generated art, titled “Portrait of Edmond Belamy,” for a cool $432,500.
I have always been intrigued by the notion of computer-generated art. However, every time I try to think of the term, “computer-generated art” something seems off. Somehow, it sounds like an oxymoron to me. Let’s look at why. Here’s the definition of art from Google search:
“Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
For me, the key term in that definition is “human.” It seems to hint that, by definition, machines cannot generate what we call “art.”
There’s art, and then there’s the story behind the art. The story includes the artist and all her unique human experiences that led her to create that piece of art. More than the masterpiece, we’re intrigued by the artist’s story — why did they create what they created, what inspired them to do it? With computer-generated art, there’s usually not a great story behind the individual piece itself. If at all, there’s a story behind the team of researchers that discovered and wrote the algorithms that generated the piece of art. Without this human connection, it’s difficult for us to appreciate a piece of art in isolation.
Ahmed Elgammal is the director of the Art and Artificial Intelligence Lab at Rutgers University who works on GAN (the type of neural networks behind most of computer-generated art). I was glad to see that he believes AI-created art should be looked at as an artistic craft. He told Christie’s:
“Yes, if you look just at the form, and ignore the things that art is about, then the algorithm is just generating visual forms and following aesthetic principles extracted from existing art. But if you consider the whole process, then what you have is something more like conceptual art than traditional painting. There is a human in the loop, asking questions, and the machine is giving answers. That whole thing is the art, not just the picture that comes out at the end. You could say that at this point it is a collaboration between two artists — one human, one a machine. And that leads me to think about the future in which AI will become a new medium for art.”
So, there you have it — a significant chunk of the $432,500 value of the “Edmond Belamy portrait” art piece comes from the story of the team of researchers who fine-tuned the algorithm parameters over weeks to generate the Balamy piece we see framed at Christie's today. The researchers are the artists here. The GAN is just a new brush, giving birth to new artists. But, all said and done, the artists have to be human.
Art is something that cannot be commoditized. The day any art form becomes replicable by computers, that art stops being real art for us. It’s true with other types of machine intelligence endeavors as well. The day machines started beating humans at Chess; Chess stopped being a hard problem — it became a solved, trivial problem.
Art, by definition, cannot be scalable. The marginal cost of generating each piece cannot be close to zero. Otherwise, you and I would not value it more than the Picasso reprints sold on art.com.
And maybe, after all, Picasso wasn’t wrong when he said, “Computers are useless. They can only give answers.”