What is AI doing to art?

Millions of people are currently flocking to Amsterdam to see the works of Johannes Vermeer, an exhibition that was sold out throughout. These pictures are paradigms of art, something that gives a word art its meaning. Vermeer signed them because he made them; man and work are in some sense the same. When I think of art in general, I imagine a painting by Vermeer or Leonardo, a sculpture by Michelangelo or Rodin. A reasonable first attempt at a definition work of art it would be appropriate to point to some Vermeers and Rodins: These things, and similar to them in the relevant respect, are works of art.

I suspect that many of the people who go to the Vermeer exhibition are looking for a direct “immediate” encounter with real objects. You can see the images on the internet, of course, or in books or on posters: really, you can’t avoid it The girl with the pearl earringwhich currently seems to be constantly appearing in all media, and in many of them forms, including as the most popular form of artificial intelligence (AI) imaging. But the actual physical surface on which Vermeer’s hand applied oil and pigment, and which has been loved and preserved ever since, is significant, directly expressive, and priceless, in the way that an exquisite JPEG image or DALL-E’s response to the query “I as The girl with the pearl earring” still isn’t. Going to the Rijksmuseum may not be an escape from information technology (you’ll probably take a tour via an app), but it does provide experiences with objects that were made before such technologies could be devised. This is, no doubt, part their powers to us now: They seem so pre-post-human, that is, so human.

Crispin Sartwell as Vermeer "The girl with the pearl earring"

The significance of Vermeer derives in part from the fact that Vermeer was not, as far as art historians could determine, a bot like DALL-E, one of a series of increasingly sophisticated image generators being released and refined daily. (One of the most recent—Adobe’s Firefly—may be the best.) Vermeer’s paintings seem to be direct expressions of human emotion—perhaps his characteristic tone of “gaiety,” which is one of the reasons he’s beloved—and the embodiment of skill. But what does DALL-E express as it scours the web, merges thousands of images, and produces, in seconds, the requested work (“Taylor Swift hits a Picasso-esque bong,” for example)?

What’s wrong with bot art cannot be the mere fact that the images produced by the apps are technologically mediated. All art is by definition technologically mediated. Indeed, if there is an ancient Greek word for art, that is techand if there is an ancient Latin word for technology, that is ars. Maybe artistic media are just technologies and vice versa. Artists have generally bravely embraced new technologies, which have often advanced their craft and their expression.

The Italian Renaissance represents many fundamental achievements, such as perspective, a fundamental technique for creating virtual or simulated space. Artists (most famously Albrecht Dürer, Vermeer’s great model) shamelessly used various means to achieve this. They still work.

The artist David Hockney is one of many who have suggested that Vermeer himself used a camera obscura – a darkened chamber in which an image of what is outside can be projected, inverted, onto a wall – to produce his paintings, perhaps even outlining them on a screen. But as Svetlana Alpers and other art historians have argued, many of the technological innovations produced by the Dutch scientific and commercial explosion in the 17th century, especially with regard to lenses, were immediately adapted to the production of paintings.

Abelardo Morell is one of the many artists who still use the camera obscura or even present camera obscura images as finished works of art, one of the many indications that technologies can be replaced without being eliminated: old technologies usually remain as possible techniques, which appear as needed.

Photography emerged when chemical techniques were created to fix and record images in what was still basically a camera obscura or dark chamber into which a lens projected an image of what was outside.

The effects of photography on the visual arts were completely transformative, and in the 19th century the question arose whether art could survive the latest technological transformation, as it does today, in the face of advances in artificial intelligence. At the very least, photography directly challenged many traditional beliefs about the nature of art. The oldest definition is that art is an imitation of reality: “the mirror of the world”, as Plato said. Photography implied that such images could be produced mechanically. Was there any reason to painstakingly paint a portrait when a good image could be produced at the push of a button?

But photography’s effect on Western art was rich with revolutionary implications. Mid-19th century painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Thomas Eakins began to use photography at every stage of their process (Eakins himself was an excellent photographer), and by the end of the century many or most Western artists had done the same. For example, beginning in the 1950s, various “photorealist” painters projected photographs onto a surface and then painted over them, as in a camera obscura. Photography helped launch an entire modern art form. Impressionists tried to capture something of its immediacy and chance, and post-impressionists and early abstractionists used it as one of the motives to decisively abandon the idea of ​​art as an imitation of reality. Photography helped painting and sculpture to free themselves from the representation of the world.

By the 1990s, most artists used Photoshop and similar programs to manipulate images, some to create their final works, many as a compositional tool. I know artists who work in medieval media such as stained glass and egg tempera, but whose processes begin on their screens. I don’t know any artist whose process does not essentially involve information technology more or less entirely. If you go to a gallery now, chances are every work you see is made with techniques that centrally involve information technology: video editing, CGI, 3D printing. You can’t make Anish Kapoor’s beans or Frank Gehry’s buildings or Olafur Eliasson’s monuments without relying heavily on apps. We already have no idea what the art and architecture of this era would look like without software. The names of those who died on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial were carved using photo stencils and aluminum oxide sandblasting.

All this for the purpose of opening the discussion about artificial intelligence and art. In some ways the technology is unprecedented, but so were each of these advances as they appeared. AI is an even more capable technology, perhaps the first to make us wonder whether the technology or the person using it is an artist, using all previously accumulated technological achievements. But if I had predicted, admittedly a very dangerous prospect, I would have predicted a shift, but not a catastrophe. AI is already leading directly to changes in style and content similar to the emergence of photography. Honestly, right now it leads to a lot of repulsive and trivial images, but also some excellent art.

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