Could AI ever be an artist?

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Life and Death, Gustav Klimt

Could artificial intelligence ever be an artist? Could a computer act as a curator?

These are questions that have been bubbling in my mind for months now. But the more I dissect, the more emerge — because, what is art? Who is an artist? When and are we able to classify ourselves as one? And who decides what work is worthy of entering the notoriously old and mostly white canon?

AI’s tendrils are slowly creeping into every aspect of our lives. While most of us are okay with it claiming factory jobs and menial roles, there is something about art that remains untouchable. I have long believed that art isn’t about what you create, it’s about what others receive. Art should elicit an emotional response. It should stir something. Conjure some fire in your belly: be it yearning, anger or sorrow. Art must fundamentally convey a feeling. Otherwise, it’s just empty. Anyone can draw, but not everyone is an artist. An artist requires heart.

“It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.” — Anais Nin

But this is the small, scared part of me speaking. The corner that is quietly terrified and desperate to be seen, recognised and loved. I romanticise my calling to eliminate the competition. That rabid dog in me makes me overzealous and protective: my teeth clenching over scraps. ‘If I have to prove myself’ it says, ‘so must you.’ How can AI be an artist, if I struggle to call myself one?

As a young artist, the title feels clumsy on my tongue. Even on my kinder days, I still fumble as I speak it. There’s an anxiety that slips through as I push past my imposter syndrome and hope the sentinels don’t spot me. A piece of advice I give others and myself most mornings is that you are already an artist. If you make and feel and convert your achings into some kind of artefact: then you are an artist. You are an artist. You are an artist.

Creative coders

But if art is about provoking a response, pushing the viewer to question, rethink and feel, then AI is certainly one. The mere fact I’m mulling over it now says as much.

I look to creative coders like Manoloidee or Shinohara who use AI to create surreal, otherworldly images. Or the algorithm that ate up all Rembrandt’s art and then 3D printed a new piece; exact, layered with printed paint, even including his signature brushstrokes and use of colour. But who here is the artist? Where does creator end and tool begin? To whom — or what — do we give credit? And is enough to just be a novelty?

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https://twitter.com/manoloidee

There is a tension that exists between intuition and the practicalities of application when it comes to art. There cannot be one without the other — a kind of creative chicken-and-the-egg conundrum — because, as the American historian, Melvin Kranzberg, so aptly noted, without the human element an instrument has no use. Without the instrument, the human cannot make music. But again, it was still made by human hands and shaped by our knowledge, so it is us that remains the creator. Both god and disciple. I guess my deeper rumination is that impossibly simple question: what is art?

What makes a masterpiece?

There are some pieces of art that stay with you. Some strike like lightning straight through your consciousness and feel heavy in your chest. Other times, what captivates isn’t so clear. I remember the first time I saw a Frida Kahlo painting: it was like a magnet. I felt her acrylic eyes following me around the gallery space.

I tried to pay attention to the other paintings and give them due care, but somehow those eyes were always burning in the back of my head. Somehow my feet were always wandering back. I stood there with my ears ringing and the light just a little bit too bright in front of this tiny, painted piece of wood and glass. It was disorientating. I imagined that it was holy. That this was a pilgrimage and I a weary traveller that had finally arrived in front of what Frida had touched, what she held in her hands and moulded.

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Frida Kahlo, El Marco

Some pieces pierce you. That is what Frida was for me — achy, vulnerable and speaking in a voice so unmistakably human. Then others, like those of the Baroque masters, feel alive and leaking. Like the pools of light might slip off the canvas and onto the floor. Like you could reach in and touch its fleshiness, feel its pulse, taste the scar. There is an empathy imbued in the paint that transcends time and language. You as an existent are annihilated. Consumed.

I think of one of my favourite paintings, La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee, held in Bristol’s Museum and Art Gallery. It is not a remarkable painting by most standards. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Pre-Raphaelites and fairy stories, but my love is less about the work itself and more about all the people I have been while stood in front of it.

I think of my first interaction with the painting. The first in our history. It began with reading the eponymous Keats poem aloud in class when I was thirteen. It was one of the first poems that made my heart swell for literature and even now, the memory of the knight alone and palely loitering remains etched in my mind (and him on the hillside).

Enter the painting. Now, I live close to the gallery and I have found myself wandering its halls often; on rainy days, for respite, for solitude, for entertainment. I frequently come to see this painting: looking, regarding, or while eating a sandwich. I think of my twenty-one-year-old self, barely out of university, sat in front of this painting trying and failing to make a life for herself.

A painting is a story

I took friends, dates, partners here. We laughed in the hallways. I remember the heavy anniversaries when I came here for a distraction. I think of my twenty-forth birthday where the world felt too loud and too near, and I retreated into the gallery for shelter, hoping it could be my still point in a turning world. I sat and cried in front of it (and then retreated into the dimly lit video room for more privacy).

Now when I see this painting it comes through a haze of smoke. It feels lot like falling in love: at first the face of our beloved is like many others, then suddenly, without knowing, it’s divine. Our hearts ache at the sight of them; there has never existed a thing so exquisite, so beautiful — it becomes impossible to see them for first time, to crack through the lens of love and separate the feeling from what’s in front of you. This is how this painting feels for me. It is a canvas on which I can construct and measure my change.

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Frank Dicksee

My experiences are those that I have projected on to them. While it is certainly true that I could carry out this process without knowing whether the piece was created by a human or machine, there is a metaphysical quality in artwork. Something higher. The materiality is matched with something more, something spiritual — like I said, something holy.

So, could AI ever create such a transcendent experience? Could an algorithm ever fashion something so human, so true? The artist — whatever their craft or tool of choice — transmits and translates onto the page a feeling without ever knowing why.

I think of Bukowski’s words:

“Unless it comes out of

your soul like a rocket,

unless being still would

drive you to madness or

suicide or murder,

don’t do it.

unless the sun inside you is

burning your gut,

don’t do it.”

Can a machine know that drive? Can an engine understand that absolute necessity, that all-or-nothing ethos, that little voice that says: ‘I’ll die if I can’t do this, I’m nothing if I can’t do this’?

Maybe we need a new kind of art

Then, logic reappears and pushes me to question: could our long-held and much-loved ideals of a ‘muse’, or even the idea of creation guided by a higher power, be compared to an algorithm? Are we not all already conditioned and programmed in our own ways — by language, signs, culture and moral frameworks? I say art requires freedom, but are any of us free? Besides, not a shred of our selves or creations is original: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes. We stand on the shoulders of giants. We are just the latest version in a millennium of experimentation. Humans 2.0. Software update incoming.

The cynic in me leans to this reading, but my heart isn’t in it. Maybe the artist in me rejects anything that strips away my strangeness or makes my idiosyncrasies obsolete. But I believe in my stomach that creativity requires agency. It is not about honing a craft or creating the perfect replica. It must communicate some deeply rooted human truth.

Art gives me the same vulnerability you see in hands pressed against bus windows saying goodbye, or someone tripping in the street or being reunited with their loved one. It is human, it is real, it is impossibly beautiful and tragic and paradoxical. Like us, it makes no sense. It must be made by a mind that encompasses our contradictions, our sharp edges and loneliness. Our need for a tribe and our absolute hunger for independence.

It must be made by hands that grapple with death. That feels loss and hate and love and the sublime. It must be made by a being that exists with the absurd knowledge of its impending mortality. A machine can imitate, but there is something within humans we cannot quantify or key into code. The artist takes the unknowable and makes it real. They steal away emotion and turn it into something tangible.

Real art — as opposed to motel art — debates and detangles the human condition. It speaks with a raw, shaking voice. It is a hand reaching out from the void — and until a machine knows what it is to exist in all its poignant beauty, the only thing AI can create are glorified screensavers.

Written by

Writer, artist and occasional poet. Lover of philosophy, folklore, history + curiosities. UX writer by day. Writing a book about death by night.

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