Can computers really make art?

This is a topic that pops up every now and again – can computers really make art? I’m not so sure. I have seen it, with my own two eyes, a computer making art, but at the end of the day, the computer is programmed to follow certain rules (rules inputted by a human) so is that human making the art? Is the computer making something an art form in itself? Or is the final product the art? It is controversial for sure! Computers are crazy, mind-blowing inventions, ones I can’t even begin to work out. So with the constant development of technology, can computers learn to make art too? Can they have their own imagination? Can they create something without being told what rules to follow or how to make it? I just don’t know.

I have been to a number of digital art type exhibitions, but the one that stands out where a computer made art, was that at The Lowry, back in November 2019, named ‘The State of Us‘. One piece there, named ‘Human Study #1 RNP’ by Patrick Tresset, was an interactive piece. The participant would sit at a chair and in front of them was a desk, with a computerised, robotic arm, holding a pencil. As the person sat there, the robot arm drew the person. There were a ton of examples of previous portraits on the walls around the piece, showing how eager people are to see themselves drawn by a computer. So does this class as a computer making art? Again, I’m not so sure. There was a gallery assistant there explaining how it worked, the computer is told to pick up on light and dark shades and create marks on the paper to match that. And if you look at examples below, they aren’t direct portraits, they aren’t detailed, they are, well, marks to represent light and dark that form a human face.

The definition of art says: ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.’ Did you see it? ‘human creative skill’, so that alone answers the question, computers can’t make art. Full stop. But… in April 2019, a piece of art sold for £337,000, a painting which was created by a computer. That is sickening, considering some amazing artists out there are still pushing for sales of a couple of quid, and a bloody PC comes along and is making more money from a sale than most of could ever wish for. The piece in question is a portrait of Edmond Belamy, generated by an algorithm by a Paris-based art collective called Obvious. Note, the money made went to Christie’s charity, so that’s good. So in this case, I guess a computer can make art – but again, if it is generated by an algorithm, did the creators make the art? On the flip side, if someone loves that piece, if they have an emotional connection to it, does that make it art? No matter who or what made it?

Image from The New York Times

The article about the portrait of Edmond Belamy was shared on Facebook, and it is great to read some of the comments on there:

  • ‘Why on earth are we allowing AI sycophants to threaten the livelihoods of everyone from truck drivers to artists?’
  • ‘Talk about missing the point about what art is!’
  • ‘Can AI actually be inspired to create instead of just programmed and/or commanded to make something that falls within a certain set of parameters?’

I also put a shout out on Facebook whilst writing this article to see what you guys thoughts:

Lucie Fitzpatrick says, ‘I think they can create aesthetically pleasing images. For me, things like Art by AI is interesting because it is emulating human art, in some cases weirdly, not because I connect on a human level. Until they are truly sentient and have free, lived free experiences, it’s not the same imo.’

Amina Sheikh said, ‘I have no doubt AI can create complex images but would you consider this as ‘art’. As it is created without soul or passion. Being an artist myself I know how much of myself is part of my artwork.’

Michele Oakley commented, ‘Oooh, debatable! Not sure where I stand on this one. I guess it depends what you consider the art to be: is it the computer? The code or algorithm by which it operates? Or the end product? Is the computer the artist, the creator, or is the computer simply the medium? If I create a computer and I write the code which lets it “create”, am I not the artist? Even if the end product, or “art” were to be completely random and unpredictable. Does it come down to ownership: if I create the computer/code/algorithm, then I would consider the art to be mine too. (Especially if valued in the thousands/millions!😂).’

Sounds like a lot of people are on my side with this – computers can’t make art. I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling artistic, I will look at other artists work, take inspiration from what others are doing and start from there. Or I would feel something emotional that I need to let out, something inside that is telling me, I need to draw that/paint that. Or, I will see something, something pretty and think I want to re-create that in my own style. All of these inspirations for making art, are all human reactions to things, something a computer couldn’t ever do – right?

But computers can already do so much, and creatively as well, they can make designs, games, music even, so is art the next thing? But even if they can make art, would we as art fans ever accept this? Would we be happy to have a gallery full of computer generated, AI designed art? When I purchase art, I want to know about the creator, the meaning behind the piece and so on. Imagine having a wall of art and you simply say, oh yeah, that was generated by a computer – is that not a little soulless? But then again, that would also be a conversation starter! But then again again, that computer was created by a human, who inputted the data and algorithms, so does it always link back to a person and are they the artist?

No, I don’t think computers can make art. I think they can create something in the form of art, a drawing or painting etc, but at the end of the day, a human has told the computer to do that. I do think though, that if someone sees a piece and loves it, then that is the important thing, and where it comes from is secondary. I think watching computers create ‘art’ is also very intriguing and I think those humans that created the program to make the computer do that work, are very talented people indeed! But no, I don’t think I will be on board with Siri making me a landscape painting any time soon. Soz Siri.


Read other articles including ‘Arts relationship with Instagram‘ and ‘What about the Women in Art?’


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