An untitled 2015 work by the Greek artist—a mixed media canvas tinged with gold leaf—was shown by Kalfayan Galleries at Art Basel 2016 in Hong Kong, and was included as a sample image for the AAIL tests. Tsagaris finds A.I. art “fascinating,” and considers the algorithm more of a peer rather than a disruptive threat. “I’m curious to see how this project will progress as the technology develops further,” he says. “How human-made paintings generated by a machine look like is one thing; bringing the A.I. artist to the level where it can create a concept, a series of emotions upon which it will base the painting that it will create is a whole other level.” He sounds more like Philip K. Dick than Clement Greenberg: “I want to see art that was generated in the mind and heart of the A.I. artist.”
Art historian and critic James Elkins is less sanguine. “This is annoying because [algorithms] are made by people who think that styles are what matter in art as opposed to social contexts, meaning, and expressive purpose,” he says. “One consequence of that narrow sense of what’s interesting is that it implies that a painting’s style is sufficient to make it a masterpiece.” Elkins doesn’t believe artists will go the way of cobblers and cabbies anytime soon either. “If human artists were to stop making art,” he argues, “so would the computers.”
Michael Connor, the artistic director of Rhizome, a non-profit that provides a platform for digital art, agrees. He describes the gap between silicon- and carbon-based artists as wide and deep: “Making art is not the sole role of being an artist. It’s also about creating a body of work, teaching, activism, using social media, building a brand.” He suggests that the picture Elgammal's algorithm generates is art in the same way that what a
forger paints is art: “This kind of algorithm art is like a counterfeit. It’s a weird copy of the human culture that the machine is learning about.” He adds that this isn’t necessarily a bad
thing: “Like the Roman statues, which are copies of the original Greek figures, even copies can develop an intrinsic value over time.”
Elgammal is quick to point out that the learning curve of his algorithm perfectly conforms to the maturation process of the human artist. “In the beginning of their careers artists like Picasso and
imitated or followed the style of painters they were exposed to, either consciously or unconsciously. Then, at some point, they broke out of this phase of imitations and explored new things and new ideas,” he says. “They went from traditional portraits to
. This is exactly what we tried to implement into the machine-learning algorithm.”
And, just like a real emerging artist, the algorithm is about to have its first one-machine show. “Unhuman: Art in the Age of A.I.,” an exhibition in Los Angeles this October, will feature 12 of the original, A.I.-produced pieces used in the Rutgers study. And after this debut, Elgammal’s algorithm has plenty of room for career growth. That’s because the coders in the Rutgers lab haven’t exploited all the “collative variables” that can be used to jack up the “arousal potential” of the images the algorithm generates. The higher the arousal potential (to a point), the more pleasing the A.I. art is to humans (and the more likely they are to buy it, presumably).
Despite all the A.I. art naysayers, here’s the thing that should make painters and the dealers who represent them nervous: Elgammal claims that the images his computer code generates will only get better over time. “By digging deep into art history, we will be able to write code that pushes the algorithm to explore new elements of art,” he says confidently. “We will refine the formulations and emphasize the most important arousal-raising properties for aesthetics: novelty, surprisingness, complexity, and puzzlingness.”
Surprisingness and puzzlingness—not exactly Artforum buzzwords. But allow the algorithm time to improve and compile a body of work, and they might be. Elgammal insists this technology is no one-hit wonder. He envisions an entire infrastructure developing to support his arousal-inducing digital art: galleries, agents, online auctions, even authenticators (a service that will undoubtedly be rendered by yet another AAIL algorithm).