Can Artificial Intelligence Make Art?

In February’s Scientific
, technology columnist David Pogue wonders if human artists and
composers should start worrying about a new development in artificial
intelligence (AI):  the automated
composition of music and production of paintings.  Computer scientist Ahmed Elgammal’s Art and Artificial
Intelligence Lab at Rutgers University is developing algorithms that start with
well-known famous works of real art and abstract elements of style and composition
from them.  Then the machine can
either be set to do imitations in the same style, or else he turns on a
“style ambiguity signal” that forces the digital Rembrandt to deviate
from the style it’s learned. 

I have viewed some of these products on the lab’s website,
and while I make no claims to be an art critic, my impression is that Rembrandt
doesn’t have much to worry about. 
In fairness to Elgammal, he doesn’t claim that what his system is doing
is just as good as human-created art. 
Rather, he sees himself as exploring theories of art creation using AI
to see what happens if style rules are either slavishly followed or
intentionally broken.

When he mixed the products of his AI “artist” with
works by actual humans in a couple of different sets—abstract expressionism and
contemporary art from a recent European art show—he found that people who
viewed the artworks without knowing which was by a human and which was by a
computer, often picked the computer-generated ones as more “intentional,
visually structured, communicative, and inspiring” than those made by
unaided humans.  He was surprised
by this outcome, but he shouldn’t have been.

Most people will agree that much visual art that is bought
and sold for millions of dollars today doesn’t look much like the artworks that were
painted, say, a hundred and fifty years ago. Elgammal has happened to come
along with his AI artist at a time when the so-called standards for what
constitutes art are all but nonexistent. 
Last year The New Yorker
carried a story about a young man named Jean-Michel Basquiat who mainly wanted
to be famous.  He tried music as a
path to fame first, but was discouraged by the fact that it takes years of
practice to become even an adequate musician.  So he switched to art. 
Starting with graffiti, he attracted the attention of the art world,
rocketed to international fame, and died of a heroin overdose at the age of
27.  The magazine’s art critic
Peter Schjeldahl thinks that his art is worth looking at, but probably not
worth paying $110 million for, as a Japanese business man did last May for a
Basquiat work from 1982. 
Schjeldahl himself described it as a “medium-sized,
slapdash-looking painting of a grimacing skull.”  Judging by the photograph in the article, that’s a pretty
accurate description.

My point is that what passes for art these days is a
departure from what has passed for art in the past, well, several thousand
years.  Up until the nineteenth
century, artistic works represented both recognizable objects, and also the
higher operations of the human mind and spirit, operations that distinguish
human beings from the lower animals. 
G. K. Chesterton regards the production of art as one of the primary
distinctions between people and other animals, and points to the cave paintings
such as those in Lascaux, France, as being evidence that those who painted them
were humans like us. 

One chronic concern that arises as AI advances into more
areas of endeavor formerly regarded as exclusively human, is that when AI
starts to do a certain kind of thing better and cheaper than people, what will
happen to the people who earn their living doing it now?  So far, humanity has survived the
replacement of telephone operators by automatic dialing, elevator operators by
pushbutton elevators (everywhere except at the United Nations building, I’m told!),
and more recently, the advance of AI into the professions of engineering,
medicine, and even law.  Right now,
the unemployment rate in the U. S. is at a historic low, but that is due mainly
to an economy that is close to overheating, and doesn’t take into account the
millions of people who neither look for work or are particularly troubled that
they’re not working.  And here is
where we find the real matter to be concerned about.

The issue isn’t whether AI will send some artists to the
unemployment line.  The real issue
is how we regard art and how we regard humanity.

When Chesterton wrote in 1925 that “Art is the
signature of man,” he didn’t mean just any random scrawl.  He had a particular thing in mind,
namely, that the portrayal of nature as interpreted by the human spirit is
unique to man.  Certainly no other
animal produces anything that is generally regarded as a work of art.  I am aware of the bowerbirds of
Australia and New Guinea which construct large elaborate arches of sticks and
decorate them with blue objects and sometimes even paint the walls.  But this is simply instinctive behavior
directed at attracting a mate.  No
one has seen bowerbirds exchanging worms for a particularly fine bower and
signing bills of sale. 

If people today can’t seem to tell the difference between
computer-generated art and human-generated art, the reason isn’t that the
computer is now as artistic as a human artist.  The problem is that artists have degraded their craft to the
level of a machine-made product, and taught the general public that yes, that is indeed art
even if I tied brushes to two turtles and let them crawl across the
canvas.  When Marcel Duchamp tried
to exhibit an ordinary urinal as art in a 1917 New York art show, the show’s
committee rejected it, but photographer Alfred Stieglitz allowed him to put it
up in his studio.  In 2004, 500
“renowned artists and historians” reportedly selected this work,
called simply “Fountain,” as the most influential artwork of the
twentieth century.  And it was made
by a machine.

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