“It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.”
There has been a bit of a to-do recently about Christie's selling a "portrait" produced by an AI. The makers of the AI, a group called Obvious, say they fed in thousands of different portraits and the result of the AI's processing was elaborately framed and was sold at Christies for $432,500.
The makers of the algorithm and the merchants at Christies talk about this product pushing the boundaries of art and bringing up the question of "what is art?" in a new and interesting way. I would argue that this whole affair is merely the most recent effort at further obscuring the reality of what art is by a culture that has long rejected it.
Art is man's pursuit of Beauty. Chesterton pointed out that this is one activity that separates us from lower animals - man can be defined as the artistic animal. I would also like to point out that the true making of art also separates us from machines.
The making of art is a free response by man to the beauty he sees around himself, within himself, and that he senses in many unexpected ways - a response that drives man to distill beauty and to capture it. Ultimately the artist realizes there is always more beauty than he can encompass - and at its best art raises the mind of the artist and the viewer through wonder to the Source of Beauty.
Compare this with the activity of an artificial intelligence producing an image. Images are fed in. A complex program then produces an image. It is impossible to see why the AI "decided" to put a certain color here or a certain shade there. It is simply hidden - the term computer scientists use for this mystery is "the black box." It is utterly beyond even the scientists to come to an understanding of how the AI produced its results. It is beyond the art critic who, at his best - according to Chesterton - is able to describe and understand artistic choices: why an artist chose this and not that; why he drove one way rather than another.
With so many things that are beyond the everyday particular understanding - from our cars and appliances to our governments and vast corporations - more and more of our lives in the modern world fall into some sort of at least metaphorical "black box." I think that is one reason why there has been a resurgence of realist painting. It is reassuring and fundamentally human to want to relate to other human beings. There is a comfort and an intelligibility to objects and processes that bear the mark of the human touch. The man-made object is one that allows one to see the work of another human mind and a sense of relationship is made present.
To me, the paint stroke in particular is the antithesis of the "black box." It is a frozen thought from a mind searching for beauty communicated through a human hand. Its end is eloquently apparent as that individual thought comes together with many others to recreate the miracle of human perception of the physical world - something so particular and beautiful that one instantly knows it could never be an accident. The paint stroke is integrated and harmonized with the whole and, in a way, reveals the process of its making to the viewer.
In a world where causes and effects can be so divided and elusive, a beautiful painting is a bastion of sanity. Every stroke can give insight into a well ordered mind and the comprehension within that mind of the order of Creation.
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley, an oil painter in the Boston School tradition. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
Connect with John: