We don’t normally cover the fine art beat here for obvious reasons, but there was a sale of a painting to a French collector in February which drew some attention. Another work by the same artist is going on sale at Christie’s presently. They works are going for some impressive amounts of money, but that’s not what makes the story interesting. The artist is an Artificial Intelligence program from a company named Obvious. (Time)

Hanging inside a gold frame on a pristine white wall in Christie’s Central London Gallery is a dark, moody portrait of a man in Puritan-style black clothes—the work, it seems, of some Old Master. But scrawled in the bottom right corner, there’s an unexpected signature: a mathematical equation.

This is Edmond de Belamy by French art collective Obvious—or, more accurately, by an algorithm designed by Obvious.

“The whole process is about humans having as little input as possible in the finished piece,” says Gauthier Vernier, one of three 25 year-old French men who started Obvious in April 2017 out of their apartment in Paris. Since then, by teaching a computer about art history and showing it how to make its own work, Obvious have produced 11 artworks with the help of artificial intelligence.

I’m not going to go into great detail about the technical particulars behind this since you can read them all at the article and at the Obvious Art website if you wish. The short version is that they developed an algorithm that scanned a vast number of paintings taken from classical art. It uses something called Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) which randomly generate images meeting certain criteria (a face has two eyes, one nose, one mouth, etc.) and the program “tests” each image itself to see if it can tell whether it’s original art or a computer generation. The results do indeed resemble portraits.

Here’s the real question: Is this art? Allow me to offer the definitive answers (plural) because it works both ways.

First… Yes. This is art.

But that answer comes with a caveat. Anything can be art because art is in the eye of the beholder. You can walk down the beach, find a particularly interesting looking piece of driftwood, take it home, clean it up and mount it on a wooden base. If you find it attractive, if it brings you pleasure, if your friends come over and compliment you on it… it’s art. And that’s only good art I’m talking about. Some of the crap put out by human beings as “modern art” is total garbage. If a crucifix in a jar of urine or three basketballs shoved into a broken fish tank (I actually saw that one in a gallery in New York City some years ago) qualify as art, then anything this robot spits out can certainly bear the name.

Second… No. This is definitely not art.

What they are presenting is a painting. But it didn’t come from an original thought or moment of inspiration in a mind, human or otherwise. They fed a bunch of examples into a program and had it randomly place zeros and ones corresponding to random colors until it generated something which matched certain test criteria that the programmers defined as being “art.” There was no feeling, no intent nor even any knowledge in the “mind” of the program of what it was doing. It was solving a math problem by randomly guessing combinations until it arrived at some solutions which met those design criteria.

It also wasn’t “painted” in any way that requires effort, training or involves risk of messing up a brush stroke. I had to search for a while to find out how the actual, physical paintings are created, but the AI only generates an image file. It’s then fed into a fancy laserjet printer which is set up to print on canvas instead of paper. Then a human being took it out and mounted it in a frame. An artist could never reproduce one of their painting precisely by hand. There would always be at least minute differences. Obvious could crank out the same portrait a thousand times and they would all be the same.

This isn’t even artificial intelligence as near as I can see. And it’s certainly not fine art. You could switch out the canvas for paper and it would be making interesting posters. If some rich collector wants to go to Christie’s and lay out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for one of these creations, that’s up to them. But save up your money, because Obvious can produce thousands more for you in no time at all.