Art Ex Machina


Art by Jake Upton


By Will Jeffries


Visual art has been a deep-rooted creative outlet in humans for tens of thousands of years, and this innate need is often considered a fundamental part of societal, cultural, and individual identity.

Surviving art dates at-least as far back as the Chauvet Caves in France, which are estimated to have been painted with their distinctive animal images in gorgeous detail sometime in the range of 30,000 and 28,000 B.C.E. Other findings in South Africa, which include apparently deliberate collections of ocher pigment, pierced shells which may have served as jewelry, and engraved objects may point to humanoid art being created as far as 164,000 years ago [1].

For so long, art has been a realm of human hands sculpting, painting, weaving, and forming the world into meaningful and aesthetically beautiful or emotionally provocative images. Even with the advent of printing presses, mass-production, computer imaging, and CGI, the human mind remained the source inspiring and channelling creativity into artistic being. Now however, a new form of art is gaining traction which raises questions as to exactly what it means to be artistic. Or perhaps, of where the paintbrush ends and the human hand begins.




Figure 1: Example Mandala - staedtler.us/en/inspirations/mycreativeescape/mandala/


Although computer programs have been used for decades to produce CGI and digital effects under human direction, the growing complexity of artificial intelligence combined with mathematics and image recognition are opening new doors and new questions in the light of introducing another kind of creative perspective, one that could perhaps be called a “Human Derived” intelligence of its own.

This new approach is known as Algorithmic or Generative Art, a combination of human inspiration and computational interpretation that has grown increasingly blended and nuanced, especially as innovations such as artificial intelligence have grown in their capability in the last few years.

The style might at first be considered an extension of Geometric Art or Geometric Abstraction where art is created based on repeating geometric patterns and shapes. Examples of this Geometric art can include everything from the almost organic and yet structured complexity of Mandalas, to the simple fluted surface of many Greek ionic columns.

However, Algorithmic Art has in recent years begun to introduce a new level of creativity that takes on a life of their own. The website AIArtists highlights several examples of how cutting-edge artists are producing “Generative Art”, explaining how in some instances an artist will first “create rules that provide boundaries for the creative process. Then a computer (or less commonly a human) follows those rules to produce new works” [2]. The results can be truly staggering, producing otherworldly images that can appeal to human senses of aesthetic and expression in forms that may never have been considered by a human mind. Often Algorithmic Art will be used in conjunction with a human interpretation, which provides a blending of the computational ideas and the human ones.




Figure 2: An example of Algorithmic Art - Sprawl, by Mark J. Stock


Perhaps one of the most striking examples of a creative “mind” which technology and art have given birth to so far is the deep-learning artificial intelligence system known as Generative Adversarial Networks or GAN. On October 25th of 2018 at an art auction in New York an unassuming ink portrait featuring an officious looking gentleman in a dark suit and white collor sold for a remarkable $432,500 [3].

More unusual than the price that the painting fetched however, was perhaps the fact that the “artist” of this piece was a GAN program written by the Paris-based art collective Obvious. Obvious had trained their AI using 15,000 portraits from the 14th through 20th century in order to develop its artistic “intelligence” until it could create its own works of art which to the uninformed eye appears to fit right in alongside portraits created by more traditional means but was entirely original in its composition.



Figure 3: An AI generated artwork sold at auction in 2018 - Portrait of Edmond Belamy


As algorithms create art that appeals to human aesthetics in never-before-seen forms, and are even capable of mimicking human styles to a level that is almost indistinguishable, then what will come next? Are we outpacing our own relevance in such a fundamental human field? To ask such a question however, perhaps similar to asking whether a camera would replace a painter [4]. Just like so many tools that have appeared and been adopted by a new generation of artists, Algorithmic and Generative art is another palette where the creative mind dances with expression. This is where we capture a moment or a feeling, spark ideas and emotions, or illuminate truth while standing at the crossroads of our experience and our imagination.


Works Cited:

  1. Jo Marchant, Justin Mott. “A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Jan. 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journey-oldest-cave-paintings-world-180957685/.

  2. “Generative Art: Best Examples, Tools & Artists (2020 GUIDE).” AIArtists.org, aiartists.org/generative-art-design.

  3. “Portrait by AI Program Sells for $432,000.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Oct. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/technology-45980863.

  4. Elgammal, Ahmed. “AI Is Blurring the Definition of Artist.” American Scientist, 14 June 2019, www.americanscientist.org/article/ai-is-blurring-the-definition-of-artist.

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