It’s often said that creativity is what makes us human. That was until 1 August 2019, when a team of academics working in law suggested that, going forward, artificial intelligence ‘should be classed as an inventor in its own right’. As another powerful stride forward in the growth of AI technology, they propose the machine as a creative genius with a potential equal to and even independent of humans. But within the world of art, what might this mean for the future of the artist figure and the industry as a whole?
Of course, the gradual influence of AI on the production of art is nothing new, and has largely been embraced by artists. Recently 3812 Gallery in London exhibited the work of Victor Wong, who created the world’s first robotic ink artist. Able to paint with a brush and ink in the old tradition of Chinese art, the practice has led a new ‘TECH iNK’ movement. Elsewhere, the German artist Mario Klingemann uses neural networks, algorithms and code in his art to produce mysterious representations of male and female faces generated by a machine. His work featured in the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction in March, and last year received the Lumen Prize, an award recognising art made using technology. It was the first time the prize had been won by an AI-aided artist.
Crucially, Klingemann considers the artist to be himself – not the machine. For him, the AI technology is only another a medium, akin to a paintbrush or a camera. But if, as Klingemann suggests, these ‘machines can create from scratch’, capable of their own ‘imagination’, we might owe greater appreciation to the creative authority of the technology behind it. And as the title of the current Barbican exhibition, ‘AI: More than Human’ (in which Klingemann’s work features) suggests, might machines eventually supersede the creative potential of humans completely?
There are some who would argue that AI art is nothing but a passing fad. When in November 2018 Christie’s auctioned a computer-generated artwork for the first time, the portrait sold for £432,500, a whopping 45 times its high estimate. But when Sotheby’s offered up their first ever AI-created canvas earlier this year (one of Klingemann’s, no less), the final bid stayed at the lower end of its pre-sale estimate – the novelty perhaps already worn off.
And even if AI art is here to stay (which it almost certainly is), we might anticipate a rethink by artists and the art world at large of just what art made by humans should be. Just as photography encouraged the less literal forms of depiction that resulted in the whole new avenue of modern painting, so it might be time for artists to consider what they have that machines don’t: everyday experiences, personal histories, emotions – those purely human of qualities which might explain the lasting appeal of confessional artists such as Tracey Emin.
Far from pronouncing a new death of the artist, then, AI might just mark his rebirth. For it’s not only the creativity of machines which we’ve underestimated, but perhaps also the adaptability of humans.