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Is it Art if a Computer Made it?

Updated: May 15, 2019

AI generated art “Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy”
“Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy”

In 2016 when a new Rembrandt painting was unveiled to the world, it was not however a lost work by the Dutch master. Instead, it was the idea of Bas Korsten, creative director at the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson in Amsterdam. It was created after 18 months of analysis of 346 of Rembrandt’s paintings and Artificial Intelligence learning how Rembrandt created the right eye of many of his portrait sitters. The AI then learned the other important components of Rembrandt’s painting style and created a portrait which was then printed on a 3D printer so that it included the texture of brushstrokes, the same kind of strokes Rembrandt would have used. You can read the full story here:

Rembrandt, AI, New Rembrandt, Artificial
AI Generated Rembrandt - image from NPR

Fast forward to 3 days ago, when a computer generated work of art fetched $432,500 at Christie’s auction house in New York City. The painting “Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy” was created by an AI algorithm known as Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN). This is a portrait of a person who is not real, it is a conglomeration of facial features the computer learned. This is a work of art created by a computer that was programmed with open source coding and fed with 15,000 portraits for the AI to come up with its own “original” portrait. You can read more here:

These two instances bring up a lot of philosophical and artistic questions. The Rembrandt portrait is interesting in that the computer learned the characteristics and components of what Rembrandt typically put into his portraits. The interesting part of this is that if a computer can learn a certain artist’s technique, then if a work is damaged in some capacity, a computer can fill in that area and make a work whole again. But by doing that, are we degrading the original, taking away from the authenticity of the work?

But what about a work of art, a portrait that sold at auction that has no tangible artist or person that it is based on? It means a couple of things. First, you no longer have to be an artist to make art, all you need to know is code and have a computer powerful enough to run AI and allow it to “learn” whatever it is you want to create – whether that be a portrait, an Impressionistic work, or even an Abstract piece.

Taking the artist out of art equation means it is just technology not an artistic endeavor. Artists feel, experience, think, etc. and all of these qualities are what makes art so important and what allows us, the viewer to connect with sculpture, painting, mixed-media or any other art form. Without an artist, creation is hollow which means the work is hollow and when something is empty it cannot connect with anyone. As a person who works with artists and sees their hard work, I am hoping that this is not a trend that continues. Artists cannot be replaced they are the mirror that reflects the world around us in a way that we can connect to.

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