AI art (ctd.)

October 26 2018

Image of AI art (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

My prediction that the 'first AI work to be sold at auction' would fly above its estimate of £5k-£7k has come to pass; it made £337k at Christie's yesterday. Truly, there is no shame in the contemporary art market; what a woeful blancmange of a painting.

Now, I don't deny at all that their is a genuine and laudable creative process behind the concept of art-producing AI. To that extent, what we're really being asked to appreciate is the human creativity behind it. But the much vaunted 'AI' artwork at Christie's, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, is little more than a composite blurring of the 15,000 portraits fed into the programme in the first place. It's you or I fiddling around on Photoshop for an hour, just scaled up. A regular cry against much contemporary art is 'my child could have done that'. But now we can replace that with; 'my laptop could have done that'. 

In none of the breathless reporting of the auction result will you find any analysis of how easy it is to game the contemporary art market at auction.  Let us suppose you have a direct financial interest in an artist. You may be that artist. You may be their agent. You may own a number of their works. If you want to set a new, higher value for that artist, then the combined opacity and visibility of the auction market is perfect for you. The contemporary art market is driven by auction values; they take the place of stock indices, and are widely seen to be 'authentic'. But everything else is done in secret. You can consign anonymously, buy anonymously, and bid anonymously. You, and others, can bid on artworks without any disclosure, driving up value. If by some misfortune you end up being the last bidder, then no matter; a new high 'value' has been established, often with global press coverage, and all it has cost you is the price of the auction house's commission. 

Update - here's an article on The Verge showing how the 'collective' behind the picture sold at Christie's seems actually to have borrowed the code from, er, someone else:

[...] for members of the burgeoning AI art community, there’s another attribute that sets the Portrait of Edmond Belamy apart: it’s a knock-off.

The print was created by Obvious, a trio of 25-year-old French students whose goal is to “explain and democratize” AI through art. Over the past year, they’ve made a series of portraits depicting members of the fictional Belamy family, amplifying their work through attention-grabbing press releases. But insiders say the code used to generate these prints is mostly the work of another artist and programmer: 19-year-old Robbie Barrat, a recent high school graduate who shared his algorithms online via an open-source license.

Update II - there's an interesting article from Jerry Saltz in Vulture. He makes the important point that although Christie's promoted this as 'a first', really it's anything but:

I’ve seen the process done with landscapes, flowers, dogs, movie stars, clouds, buildings, and food. This poster is an individual image, but it’s not unusual to see it done in grids or series of images printed out. People have done it with Hollywood blockbusters arranged by superhero, color, setting, and even credits. It’s been done with porn films that render one Ur-orgy, superstar, or set of sexual fetishes. I’ve seen every abstract painting reduced to one meta-abstraction and seen it done with these same abstract paintings morphing endlessly one into the next like a hypnotic screensaver. Benjamin Edwards has been doing it in paintings since the late 1990s — compiling all the Starbucks in Seattle, for example, into one wild structure. Artists Jason Salavon and the late Jeremy Blake were doing this sort of thing in video and painting back then too. Julie Mehretu’s paintings are said to be handmade versions of the same visual overlay strategies. Really, this generic tic has never not been around since these sorts of digital files, compiled pictures, found footage, and captured images became a genre. World famous photographer Thomas Ruff has made, shown, and sold pictures like this for almost 20 years. In other words, it is a flat-out lie that this is the “first portrait generated by an algorithm to come up for auction.” The question is, why did so many collectors go crazy for it?

As to his last question, I think it's an assumption that 'collectors' did go crazy for the picture. I think it's more likely to have been speculators and vested interests.

That said, there was of course 'a first' in action at Christie's; the first time such a work had made a ton of money. And what made it 'valuable' in the first place was the fact that Christie's chose it for inclusion in an auction. That act was part of the art itself, if you like, just as Sotheby's auction in London was an integral part of Banksy's new work, Love is in the Bin.  

But let's think about what that artistic 'moment' actually said about the market and indeed the art world. Earlier this week I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester to give the 49th Pilkington Lecture (and I only found out afterwards that the first lecture had been given by none other than Kenneth Clarke - which pleased me no end). The topic of my talk was 'Why connoisseurship matters', and as part of my explanation of the history of connoisseurship I touched on the controversy of 'the canon' in art historical academia; the idea that the canon as promoted to us by art history in the 19th and early 20th Centuries was almost exclusively one shaped by white, privileged men, from Western Europe with Christian beliefs. In other words, deeply conservative.

And what was 'the first' AI artwork to make a ton of money? Why, a portrait of a white, privileged man from Western Europe. He was actually given the title 'Count'. Isn't it a bizarre contradiction that the painting hailed as revolutionary leap in art should be something so backward looking? 

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