One of the most debated topics in recent years is the threat of artificial intelligence replacing human across a broad range of activities and jobs. While it is still believed that creativity and intuition are innate features exclusive to human, nevertheless, this growing concern of technology rivaling human has infiltrated in the art field, pushing the boundaries of the role of artificial intelligence in creative endeavors and challenging the meaning of art as we know it. Many experts contend that we have barely scratched the surface of the potential of artificial intelligence, and French painter Paul Delaroche’s declaration in 1839, “from this day on, painting is dead”, once again resonates in the art world. His remark was a response to the invention of photography, which posed challenge to realistic paintings prevalent in that period.
It goes without saying that painting and visual art in general are far from being dead even in this increasingly digitized world. If history is any guide, perhaps the issue is not about coexistence, but our position as human, the creator and end-user of these terrifyingly intelligent machines. By presenting some of the latest developments of artificial intelligence in the artistic realm and interviewing different figures in the field, this article addresses the root questions in the nature of creative process, the limits of both machines and human, as well as the challenges and opportunities technology could generate.
Disrupting the Art World
In 2013, Galerie Oberkampf in Paris held an exhibition in which all the artworks on display were created by “The Painting Fool”, a computer program that only needs minimal direction and can come up with its own concepts by going online to source material. It produces art that is meaningful to the audience because it essentially draws on the human experience as we live our lives inseparable from the screen and increasing communicate and express our opinions on the web. Undoubtedly, machine-learning has the ability to create based on information, but can we call their creations art? Does it have the unique skills that even not every human possesses? It turns out that this question is not difficult to answer at all.
In 2016, a painting was unveiled in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. It astounded the art world with its skill that emulates one of the greatest masters in history. The 3D printed painting is the result of “The Next Rembrandt”, a project that performed extensive study of Rembrandt’s oeuvres and created software that generated the painting based on data. “The Next Rembrandt” painting features the artist’s masterful techniques, “[o]nly this time, data is the painter, and technology the brush.” While many would react to this technology by pointing out the idea of originality and emotional response in the value of art, unsurprisingly, the tech world is already getting ahead of the subject.
Last June, Art and AI Lab at Rutgers University published an impressive finding that some artworks generated by the deep learning technology, Creative Adversarial Networks, were ranked higher by human in terms of their communicative and arousal-raising properties. The machine has been trained to generate artworks that do not fall under any known artistic genre hence appear to be “creative”, and it is able to evaluate its own artworks.
There is no shortage of evidence that demonstrates artificial intelligence can replicate human’s artistic techniques and generate works that are considered original, appreciative and imaginative, all-too-familiar ways to describe a young emerging artist, only this time this talented artist is a machine. Artificial intelligence is capable of generating something novel, but so far what it has created are based on human’s experience and input, so can we call this creative or simply random result of an algorithm that has been trained to exploit human’s expressions?
The investigation of artificial intelligence ultimately leads us to a deeper understanding of the concept of creativity and what it means artistically. Artists often explain their creative ideas with such mysterious concept as inspiration and intuition, which essentially are the combination of historical and cultural knowledge as well as lived experiences, data that machines can source from the immense digital world and create based on a set of instructions. One would argue that creativity must involve a personal texture, the nuance emerged only during the creative process that has no guideline to follow; for example, a good singer is not about how well he or she can catch the notes but the way the singer performs between each note; a painting is not just about how precisely it represents an object or idea but the painter’s decision behind each brushstroke. However, as artificial intelligence continues to interact with this world and imitate human beings through the deep learning technology, it is possible that it would gain its own “experience”, develop its own character or even emotions, hence it would be able to add its “personal touch” to its art.
THE INNER QUALIFICATION OF ART
Arguably, computational creativity cannot work the same way as human’s creativity, but some suggest that it does not make their works less artistic and appreciative; the study conducted by Art and AI Lab at Rutgers University, in which people ranked machine generated artworks higher than those by human artists, is a good example. However, the real question should be, under full disclosure, would the test result remain the same? “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” The words by one of the greatest disrupters in art history Marcel Duchamp point to the importance of the “inner qualification” of art, the consciousness in both the viewers and the artists.
Artificial intelligence learns to understand the process of human brain through data and analysis, but applying its perfectly logical thinking on the subjectivity of art, which is a complex interplay between social, emotional, cultural, historical and psychological factors that are too deep and expansive to be quantified, means that it lacks the consciousness behind artistic creation. From the perspective of artists, the meaning of art comes from their aspiration to express and transform their thoughts at a particular time and place through a unique visual language that is both improvisational and intentional. This creative spirit also involves rumination on one’s own works as well as contributions to an artistic movement and culture. For viewers, different levels of appreciation towards an art piece not only are the results of individual aesthetic standards but also their subjective interpretations of the work based on the understanding of the artist’s background and shared experiences.
Artistic Director of 3812 gallery, Calvin Hui, who specializes in Chinese contemporary ink art pointed out a thought provoking subject concerning particularly the relationship between long history of Chinese culture and technology. Undoubtedly, ink art has the most profound “inner qualification” as ink not only is the medium but also the spirit of thousands of years of Chinese cultural heritage. According to Calvin, unless the programmers have a thorough understanding of Chinese spirituality deeply rooted in the traditional philosophy of Taoism and Confucianism, it is unlikely that artificial intelligence could challenge the art form. Organised by 3812 gallery, the recent large-scale exhibition “Ascendance” by Hong Kong based contemporary ink artist, Chloe Ho, attempts to further investigate this subject. Having worked for years with ink on paper, Chloe for the first time has brought her art to the third and virtual dimension, creating a space where the past and future converge. Chloe states in her artist statement, “I ask can we or will we lose aspects of being human as we enter this new technologically dominated era? For humanity was the very thing that allowed us to build the ever-ascending structure of our accomplishments.”
Artificial intelligence is programmed to execute based on codes, it does not need any motivation or aspiration to create, neither does it need to reflect on its own works. If it does not have a reason to create in the first place, does it need to have stories of its own that resonate with viewers? If we know for a fact that this virtual artist is artificial, why are we trying to look for its “soul”? Does it even require a human factor at all? These questions have no definite answers, however, as artist Chloe Ho reflects, they confront us with new issues of humanity, calling for our attention on the direction of technological development.
FOR THE BETTER OR WORSE?
One of the arguments for the development of artificial intelligence in the art field is the “democratization of creativity”, enabling those without particular skills to have creative expressions, thus allowing more creative possibilities and pushing the boundaries of art practice and sensory experience. Essentially, machines are the studio assistants who execute artworks based on the artist’s instructions, which has long been a common practice since the eighteenth century, only this time the assistants are highly efficient and have the ability to create unprecedented forms of art. Another argument is the restoration of old and lost paintings. With the capability of perfectly replicating skills of any artist, museums and galleries would have no problem discovering quality artworks, but is it a solution or a problem?
We must know that our reliance on technology is a two-way street. As we continue to have exponential growth in technology, we are slowing down at certain skills such as language, communication and mathematics. As artificial intelligence continues to progress in the art space, challenging our skills, creativity, originality etc., many worry that this very act of human’s personal expression would be replaced, leaving little role to human artists and diminishing the value of art. As the creator and user of technological innovations, human’s decisions and actions are key to the direction of the evolution. At the end of the day, it is not the codes that make us human, it is human that makes the codes. The intent of this article to is to act as a starting point for further discussion on the role of art and its value in humanity.
Renowned digital artist Eyal Gever’s recent project in collaboration with NASA, #Laugh, will end the article on an inspiring note. Gever 3D printed a sculpture fabricated from a sound simulation of crowd-sourced laughter, then released it into the space. “The earliest cave paintings were of human hands which were a way of proclaiming and celebrating the presence of humanity,” Gever explained. “#Laugh will be the 21st century version of that — a mathematically-accurate encapsulation of human laughter, simply floating through space, waiting to be discovered.”
The talented artist ingeniously depicted a future of technology and human coexisting in harmony, and most importantly, the essence of humanity.