November 26, 2018

On the Value of a $450K Piece of Digital Art

There’s this controversy about technologists scamming their way into the Art World™ and selling a $430K digital art piece at Christie’s. The debate comes from the muddy details behind the “AI” technology and what some call “borrowed code”.

One of the members of the Obvious collective behind the stunt explains it like this:

Right now it’s like a computer program that can do something that we find impressive, but it is not really that impressive in the end, because if you think it’s some kind of robot with a human-like mind, okay, it’s really, really impressive, but it’s not.

So it turns out that they didn’t build an Artificial Intelligent Artist. So what?

The confusion is more interesting than the price tag.

What is the nature of “provenance” when we are talking about art made by machines (call it AI, robots or plain code). In “classic arts” it is expected of an artist to first study the masters, then copy them, and finally, if the artist is talented enough, to create art that goes beyond the derivative. The question arises in the world of digital art. What is derivative and what isn’t? Is using somebody else’s code akin to plagiarism? Or are those just artistic influences?

In his article, Jason Bailey inquiries about the responsibility of the digital artist to not only acknowledge their influences, but also to share the profits with the original coders.

The idea behind the Belamy project borrowed heavily from one of Robbie Barrat’s earlier projects that uses historical portraits to train a GAN to generate AI art. […] Maybe you are thinking that that’s a pretty broad project idea. Shouldn’t other artists be able to explore that, as well? Sure, but Obvious also admits to using the exact same scraper for getting the portraits from the exact same website, Wikiart. And who wrote the scraper that Obvious used? Robbie Barrat. […] [Obvious] used code, project ideas, and algorithms written by other developers and artists because it was a quick and inexpensive way to get started. Most people start by learning from other people’s code (they just typically stop short of selling the results at Christie’s).

“Is Digital Art?” might become 21st Century’s version of the eternal debate around “what is Art?”

November 26, 2018


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