AI and algorithms: a challenge for human creativity and the artistic world?

Van Gogh, Art and Algorithms, photo : pixabay. 

What if entering a mathematic formula into an algorithm could turn you into a successful artist? Indeed, in October of 2018 at Christie’s auction house in New York, a French art collective spring a surprise by selling the first algorithm’s generated portrait for the incredible amount of $432,500, reaching almost 45 times its high estimate. The Edmond Belamy portrait depicts – in the classical European style – a blurry corpulent gentleman wearing a black coat and a white-collar. However, apart from his style, there is nothing conventional about this painting which has immediately sparked a controversy in the artistic environment and raised questions about the nature of art and human creativity.[]

Emond de Belamy, from la Famille de Belamy , Photo : CHRISTIE’S. 

Indeed, the progress in digital technologies has led to the gradual replacement of humans by AI machines in many fields. However, it seemed that certain tasks – such as creative productions – were the property of men only. Nonetheless, AI and algorithms are now breaking into the most subjective and human parts of our lives. These sophisticated programs are becoming more and more imbricated with artistic practices; generating singular artworks in the realm of fine arts, music, literature, dance or even culinary arts.[]

Therefore, what becomes the role of human creativity in the process of art? Are algorithms capable of creativity? Some people feel anxious about this evolution in the art sector. It is the case of Anna, a 25 years old intern at Sotheby’s in the Books & Manuscripts Department, who explicitly affirms: “For me, the use of algorithms for producing art pieces inherently contradicts our traditional understanding of an artist, who is supposed to use its imagination and to be motivated by a precise intent”. These innovations could thus be seen as a reduction of our ‘authority’ and our subjectivity in artistic practices. However, algorithmic art can also be accounted for as an extension of our creative capabilities. These new practices are interesting ways of enhancing and democratizing art creations.

Obvious, the French collective mentioned above, shows how algorithmic arts can improve creation. Their manifesto for the Belamy Family project presents this innovation as a natural evolution of a traditional complementarity between art and science. For this project, they have fed their algorithm with a dataset of 15.000 images of portraits painted by humans the GAN algorithm (Generative Adversarial Networks).  Then, this algorithm uses neural network architectures – based on sensory data such as vision and speech recognition –  and generates new visuals, by mixing characteristics of the training dataset’s images. For Obvious, the stated goal of the Belamy family project was to democratize art and to allow the audience to play a role in the act of creation. AI can reveal many creative possibilities for society. They express this enthusiasm across their manifesto: ‘we see algorithms as a fascinating tool to help dig into and better understand the different forces at stake in the process of creating something new’. Algorithms can help us in thinking about the act of creations and in developing our creativity.[]

La Famille de Belamy, photo : Obvious.

Here, thus, the algorithmic artwork depends on the artists’ initial selection of subject, data, output, and medium and is directed toward the democratization of art. However, there is still a part of the process that remains mysterious. The act of creation itself does not seem to proceed from the artist’s imagination. What role does human creativity have in the process of creating algorithmic art? Can an algorithm be considered as an artist? Mario Klingemann, another AI artist, twitted on its profile (@quasimondo): “the process is pretty much all I am interested in. The results are more like a proof-of-work.” Considering this, can we still attribute the same quality and significance to a work of art, of which the progressive choices of creation are removed?

Twitter Mario Klingemann, @quasimondo. Photo : capture d’écran. 

Can the final products of algorithmic art be thought of as great art? Jeremy Katz – the worldwide Editorial Director at Ogilvy & Mather  – posted a Linkedin video (called The Week in a Minute) to talk about this innovation and especially about the Edmond Belamy portrait. He expresses a violent critic of the artwork, stating loud and clear that ‘it is terrible. Just awful’ and rub it in by assuming that ‘Obvious could not have been oblivious to the poor quality of their work’. For him, the mediocrity of their work was produced on purpose for making fools of those who will consider this as great art and who will pay almost half a million for it. His disdainful attitude toward the Belamy portrait is understood as a more global disdain for all algorithmic arts throughout the video.  []. Therefore, account and receptions of algorithmic arts and the Belamy portraits are multiple and contentious. They express in the meantime the anxiousness and the enthusiasm of artists and their audience.

Besides, some artists – such as Trevor Paglen – have also taken the responding position by commenting on algorithms’ world visions through their work of art. The algorithms’ emergence among society has made them interesting subjects of art. Currently exposed at the Barbican Center, ‘From Apple to Anomaly’, examine the mysterious and powerful forces acting behind artificial intelligence. Paglen investigates a particular dataset of images (from ImageNet) used in teaching algorithms to ‘see’ the world. He has selected approximately 30,000 images from pre-organized categories in the archive and has individually printed and fixed the photographs on a wall of the Barbican Center. Paglen inverses the original movement by showing what is supposed to remind invisible to public eyes. He unveils the internal processes of algorithms:   how they ‘see’ and classify the world. In his conversation with Alona Prado – curator of the exhibition – Paglen explains that ‘It is important for us to look at these images and to think about the kinds of politics that are built into technical systems’ because ‘the consequence of these kinds of training sets and categories is discrimination – the point of systems that classify people is to discriminate between people’ (Catalogue of the exhibit, 2019). Algorithms can have strong effects on the population in terms of the bias and stereotypes they produce. []

Artist Trevor Paglen poses for a photo at a media preview of ‘Trevor Paglen: From ‘Apple’ To ‘Anomaly” at Barbican Centre. Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Barbican Centre.

The artistic gaze on such algorithms and their political world’s perception is interesting when put back in the scope of algorithm-generated artworks. Such an uncontrolled aspect in algorithms questions the domination of the artists upon the systems he uses for creation. It might not be sure that AI artists fully control their generated creation of art. It is thus reasonable to think that algorithmic artworks could possess some internal agency, which would dominate the result of creation.

Robot & art, GIF

Thus, this controversial accounts on algorithmic artworks question the very nature of art and the role of human creativity in the artistic process. Some will say that algorithms can produce great art, some others will say that they don’t. However, the most significant aspect of every artwork is to speak to the subjectivity of its viewers. Therefore, if you think that algorithms produce artworks, then they do. That is it, end of the discussion.