The ai-art gold rush began in earnest last October, when the New York auction house Christie’s sold Portrait of Edmond de Belamy, an algorithm-generated print in the style of 19th-century European portraiture, for $432,500.
Bystanders in and out of the art world were shocked. The print had never been shown in galleries or exhibitions before coming to market at auction, a channel usually reserved for established work. The winning bid was made anonymously by telephone, raising some eyebrows; art auctions can invite price manipulation. It was created by a computer program that generates new images based on patterns in a body of existing work, whose features the AI “learns.” What’s more, the artists who trained and generated the work, the French collective Obvious, hadn’t even written the algorithm or the training set. They just downloaded them, made some tweaks, and sent the results to market.
“We are the people who decided to do this,” the Obvious member Pierre Fautrel said in response to the criticism, “who decided to print it on canvas, sign it as a mathematical formula, put it in a gold frame.” A century after Marcel Duchamp made a urinal into art by putting it in a gallery, not much has changed, with or without computers. As Andy Warhol famously said, “Art is what you can get away with.”