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On the Value of AI-Generated Art

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Platform Graduate Award artists Bevan Hill & Will Griffiths create artworks generated entirely by AI technology. Their exhibition Real Art for Real People brings together painting, sculpture and written work, conceptualised and designed by computers. By removing themselves from the ‘creative process’ they explore the importance of individual expression and agency in an increasingly automated world.

This essay is drawn from their book. Posing as fake art critics, Hill and Griffiths’ written work gives more insight into their artistic intentions and the issues their work addresses.

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On the Value of AI-Generated Art

Wayne Gadbrooks

If we dust off that traditional notion of the lone artist in the hermitage of the isolated studiosymbolic of an introspective withdrawal in dedication to their craft, it’s a very different picture to the busy workshops and largely hands-off approach employed by many of today’s artists. Since Pop Art’s break with the Abstract Expressionists’ ideals of ‘originality, and their emphasis on the autographic touch’, in favour of the ‘detached neutrality of the assembly line’ (Jones, 1996), the embrace of the art object’s commercial value set a precedent for artistic production to align with manufacturing processes, such as the division of labour and mechanical reproduction. From Warhol’s bohemian factory-like outfit, to the modern-day sophisticated business operations of such big-ticket artists as Hirst, Koons, and Murakami, throughout the best part of the last century, artists’ operational processes have often exposed the commodity value of the artwork.

“Artists’ operational processes have often exposed the commodity value of the artwork.”

The conception of art as sacred or transcendental, elevated above the terrestrial world of commerce – the spirituality inherent in charging an object with one’s personal vision, which typically entailed a lifelong commitment at technical proficiency to this end, have been perverted by the cold impersonality of big business. Of course, artworks have always been bought and sold, but where this fact historically was incidental to the work itself, it is now very much foregrounded by artists’ commercial practices. After all, it is difficult to view a Koons sculpture through a lens that doesn’t coincide with the common knowledge of his horde of assistants, his record auction prices, or his background as a Wall Street broker. Yet, even aside from this, the works themselves betray their own commerciality, the banality of subject – his balloon animals, realised in highly polished reflective surfaces like trinkets, only inflated in both scale and pomp, exude all the air of flashy manufactured goods.

As Berger, building on Benjamin’s ideas, astutely noted, the glamour bestowed upon the visual arts by consumerism has returned to the art object an ‘aura’ which was lost with the advent of mechanical reproduction. Where these technological developments eroded the aura of the object by mobilising it from a fixed location, its value became more predicated on its authenticity as the original of reproductions, with its worth thus determined by scarcity (Berger, 1967). However, this fact also ‘collides with a certain…cultural status of art’ (Baudrillard, 1970): the idea of the artwork as being the ‘spiritualised possession’, and thus we observe a breakdown in the market mechanisms to create what Baudrillard terms ‘absolute merchandise’, a situation in which the artwork, steeped in unquantifiable mysticism, gains value directly proportional to its loss of meaning (Baudrillard, 1987). The result of this is the belief that ‘artists carry an urgent message, even when the works themselves remain unintelligible’ (Berger, 1967): they become Veblen goods, vapid status symbols. Amidst this hysteria, this value ecstasy, the question we’re faced with is: is commerciality truly a reasonable metric of artistic merit, an indicator of modern-day masterworks, or simply of those that have short-circuited the auction-house?

“Is commerciality truly a reasonable metric of artistic merit?”

Such a debate is provoked by Real Art for Real People, the latest effort from collaborators Hill and Griffiths. However, ‘effort’ is rather a misleading term in this instance, rooted as the work is in the premise of minimising any engagement with the creative process, its character essentially one of apathy. By relinquishing creative autonomy to artificial intelligence in an exaggerated, satirical reversal of the roles, the duo effectively becomes its own production line, realising works generated by an automatic unfeeling superior, whose efficiency is unmatched by any human creator. The implications of such a process on the commercial nature of contemporary artistic production are abundant.

If we begin our assessment from the perspective of efficiency, offloading the artist’s work to an artificial intelligence, capable of generating concepts and images almost instantaneously, mocks the business of artmaking by creating a situation in which productivity is all- for which originality, individual views, formal qualities, and effectively all creative choices and freedoms are exchanged. However, following the logic of business, the lightning speed at which a potentially indefinite quantity can be generated is precisely what renders them worthless: In the time it takes to read or view a generated concept or image, a hundred more could be generated to take its place. The AI’s products are made throwaway by its own tirelessness. For Hill and Griffiths, the closest thing to an agency in the creative process, though arguably still more of a curatorial role, is the progressive narrowing of these products. With a Duchampian attitude, the body of generated works is encountered as a set of ready-mades, from which their random selection is enough to afford a significance simply from being singled out of the endless torrent of images. Under a greater level of scrutiny, these selected images seem to gain value- elements such as the composition, colour palette, and the likeness of certain elements to recognisable real-world subject matter, all seem more deliberate and considered choices, perhaps because of the newly implied presence of restraint once the images are isolated.

“In the time it takes to read or view a generated concept or image, a hundred more could be generated to take its place.”

However, the physical realisation of these images by the duo in oil on canvas provides a further interrogative dimension. Where Warhol, for example, implemented mechanical means to market the art image as a reproducible commodity, Real Art for Real People jokes at legitimising the machine-made image through its one-off artisanal reproduction. In this reversal is a mocking parody of the detachment inherent in the process of the artist-manager, paralleled by the supplantation of their human input and expression by artificial intelligence. By using AI to devise a model of artistic production that is, on the whole, automatic, Hill and Griffiths mock the use of technology to conveniently offload the artistic process at the cost of creative freedom and agency, set against their analogue of the low-effort, detached process of the commodity artist bent on efficiency and commerciality. In their apathy surrounding the entire process, the duo not only warns of a bleak future for an art world dominated by technology, in which the algorithmic reorganisation of visual material has replaced the genuine communication of human ways of seeing, but also critique our contemporary situation by testing the lower limits of what indifferent object can qualify as an artwork.

The act of producing these images as large-scale paintings not only packages them into a form that can be bought and sold, but the adoption of traditional media, in combination with the enlargement in scale from a low-resolution jpeg to 1.5m2 canvas serve as a tongue-in-cheek strategy to apply prestige to these images. An appropriate comparison might be with Jeff Koons’ ‘Seated Ballerina’, which, appearing in various sizes, from 7ft in stainless steel, to a 45ft nylon inflatable, uses its large scale to command a greater authority (and price tag) as an artwork than the miniature Soviet-era statuette from which it is enlarged. In Real Art for Real People, the reification of the digital also serves to imbue the image with an ‘aura’, by introducing a fixedness and materiality that the endlessly copyable jpeg lacks. Additionally, the significance of feeding the Ai’s products through a chain of different AI generative processes is that it not only more engagingly simulates a creative process of development, but the translation into various media creates a body of connected works that allude to the fact of its operation by a consistent logic and machine language to which we are not privy.

The irony in this comes with the recent buzz surrounding NFTs, or ‘Non-Fungible Tokens’, which has seen the direct monetisation of digital images- a digital collage by the artist known as Beeple was sold by Christie’s for the equivalent of 69 million dollars in the cryptocurrency Ether. An example more direct to our purposes, however, might be ‘Cryptopunks’, which are effectively 10,000 algorithmically generated avatars, which can each be purchased- the most expensive, a truly moving rendition of a blue alien smoking a pipe, selling for 4200 Ether, equivalent to only the paltry sum of roughly 10 million dollars at the time of writing. What a steal! No, sarcasm aside I do believe that this latest turn of events is a form of unsustainable speculation, a financial bubble reminiscent of the absurd ‘Tulipmania’ in 17th century Netherlands.

What it does tell us is that the presence of a human creator is no longer a requisite for something to be deemed art, if we can swallow back the vomit long enough to call them that: Hill and Griffiths’ dystopian vision looks to be in danger of coming to pass, and perhaps worse than they imagined it. It also displays that the notion of art has become such currency in its own right, that so-called ‘artworks’ need not possess any intrinsic artistic merit or even tangibility in order to become charged with the aura of the ‘spiritualised possession’- the idea alone will suffice. The highest-priced artworks are no longer valued as such because they’re thought to be the best, they’re thought to be the best because they’re the highest-priced: Baudrillard’s conception of the artwork as ‘absolute merchandise’ has never rung so true. With NFTs, we see the apotheosis of the artwork as status symbol, with their purchase akin to the phenomenon of acquiring an artwork only to proudly hang the receipt. Incidentally, it may come as no surprise that Murakami has recently announced his foray into NFTs, with a range of emoji-like versions of his trademark smiling flowers- one of which smokes a pipe in homage to its inane, blue role-model.

“The highest-priced artworks are no longer valued as such because they’re thought to be the best, they’re thought to be the best because they’re the highest-priced.”

In Real Art for Real People, reference to these ideas appears in the form of the catalogue present in the exhibition space, which, against the exhibited works, would appear to document an enormous body of further paintings on the same theme. However, it is ambiguous as to whether the images are actually of existing paintings that have been digitised for print or are the AI’s original generated jpegs. If we assume the latter, which I think is likely given the duo’s penchant for trickery, the function of the art object is further interrogated through the implication that the digital image and its physical manifestation are interchangeable. Additionally, it is implied that none of these paintings exists until sold, the catalogue thus transformed from a documentation of a real body of work, into a retail catalogue of made-to-order-products the gallery space discredited as the legitimate venue of art appreciation, by all the feeling of a showroom.

A further significant element of the installation is the grandiose gallery setting, only visible in augmented reality. Once again, this presents a further strategy to interrogate the validity of the AI-generated artwork, as the association with the cultural institution of the museum invites us to question whether or not this new development is truly a valid descendant to the cultural terra firma of the canon. Hill and Griffiths make their disapproving stance apparent via a play on the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ parable, as the prestigious context surrounding the work is crucially intangible- a hoax, the visual metaphor serving to cut through the mystification of value in the art world. Another ramification of this is that, by having the viewer engage with the installation through a mobile phone camera, the potential of technology to supplant human agency is exemplified in the process of viewing art as well as production. It seems as though our proclivity to consume media through digital technologies has overshadowed the real thing- the familiar image of people experiencing physical exhibitions and live music vicariously through their mobile phones as they photograph or film the event is satirically made a necessary method of viewing this installation. Ultimately, the meaning of the piece’s title begins to come into clearer focus: With a sarcastic tone in keeping with the rest of the work, Real Art for Real People offers us quite the opposite- a detached, ingenuine art for a vacant audience.

Bibliography

Berger, J. (1967) Art and Property Now. in Berger, J. and Overton, T. (ed.) (2018). ‘Landscapes – John Berger on Art’ London: Verso, pp. 159-164

Baudrillard, J. (1970). Pop- An Art of Consumption in Taylor, P. (ed.), (1989) ‘Post-Pop Art’. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 33-44

Baudrillard, J. (1987). Beyond the Vanishing Point of Art. In Taylor, P. (ed.), (1989) ‘Post-Pop Art’. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 171- 189

Jones, C. (1996). Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 189-267

Visit Real Art for Real People until 17 October. Click here to find out more and plan your visit.