Can machines produce art? Or is art an exclusively human endeavour?
These heavily debated and unresolved questions are of profound importance. They reach into the very roots of what our future will look like as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning advances. Before reading on, ask yourself, do you believe machines can learn to produce art? What is your intuition? Yes or no?
Now meet “AIVA” (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist).
Using deep neural networks AIVA has analysed over 30,000 musical scores from the likes of Mozart and Beethoven and it has been able to identify patterns within scores, in order to produce algorithms which can infer from those patterns what notes should come next when composing its own music.
To learn more, you can spend 9 minutes listening to this short TED Talk by Pierre Barreau, available at this link:
Listening to the music, it is beautiful, and to my subjective ear is indiscernible from music created by a renowned human composer. But is this art?
As somebody who likes digital photography and tinkers with RAW files in Adobe Lightroom, I’m reminded of the ability to retrospectively apply colour profiles onto pictures based upon templates. I.e. Canon has used data analytics from thousands of users to optimised the best “Landscape” profile. 70% of the time I feel it slightly improves my landscape picture, 30% of the time I feel it fall’s short of Adobe’s “Standard” profile. The Canon template is based upon what it “thinks” most would prefer based upon an analysis of data. The concept is analogous to AIVA, but to my mind, no where near as sophisticated or impressive.
My example, to me, does not constitute art. It’s just data manipulation. But what about AIVA? It too can be described as data manipulation, but in doing so it crosses typical boundaries of what we deem to be art? So what exactly is art? Here are some renowned opinions:
Oscar Wilde introduction to “Dorian Gray” famously describes art as a mirror to truth. It reflects life, and not just what life was (as does History), but what life could be (Art).
Immanuel Kant once described art as “purposive without purpose”. I like this one, it has a certain profundity to it, that I think gets close to the mark.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the German proto-existentialist, famous for his hatred of Hegel and his overall morbidity, believed art to be a distraction from the otherwise irresistible “will of nature”. This “will” is a treadmill of desire, mild and short-lived satisfaction at slaking of desire, followed again by desire, longing, desperation, frustration until desire fulfilled, and then repeat until the sweet annihilation of death. Art, and only art, had the power to break this cycle (will), and allow a stepping off this treadmill, momentarily anyway. Not the best company on a stag do!
So we have “Truth”, “Purposiveness”, and “Distraction” in the mix so far. There is also beauty. Surely we all agree that art should be beautiful? At least subjectively for many if not for all?
Is this piece beautiful?
(I took this myself as I was fascinated by the piece. No idea why.)
No its not beautiful, but it is art.
Or maybe, somebody believes that it is beautiful? It’s fair to say that producing this piece would involve skill, imagination, and craftsmanship. To me this conforms to Kant’s definition, i.e. its creation involved purpose but once produced that purpose seems somehow divorced from reality, and in the Schopenhaueran sense it could therefore distract from the “will of nature”. After all, I was thinking of nothing else while I admired this piece. But does this reflect some “truth”, present a mirror to the world, or attempt to communicate some message? If it does, I cannot tell you what it is.
Others suggest the art is dubbed as art, by those within the art community. This may seem probable given how there are many art experts and critics in the world who study various works in detail. They know more than we do surely? How does one pass into this elite club though? What qualifies? If I signed a urinal and called it “fountain” as Marcel Dechamp did in 1917 (cover picture), I am sure nobody would call it art! If Andy Warhol did it though, would it be dubbed art by the “institution”? What I’ve described here is “the problem with seriously weird stuff”, and it is actually dated to 1917 when Dechamp produced said “Fountain”.
The last one I’ll note to round off the point, and one probably more workable as a concept is the “Family Resemblance” view posited by Ludwig Wittgenstein. There are words that can evade precise definition. If you view a picture, say from a wedding, and recognise someone as from a particular family, not through any specific feature, but through a collection of combined subtle features, its hard to put your finger on why you believe them to be of family X, but you are sure by their “look” that they are. Wittgenstein used the word “Game” as an example. The instances of the concept ‘game’ form a vague network of overlapping similarities: as a result, there is no one thing that every game must have in common with every other game in order to count as a game, and there is no clear dividing line between things that are games and things that are not games. Games can be cricket, hopscotch, Monopoly, Sudoku, throwing a ball against a wall and other things like them. Some you can win, some have no competitive element, some have rules, some don’t etc etc. Art, like game, is a family resemblance concept.
I’m not sure we’ve got anywhere here though, when it comes to AIVA, and to the crucial question of can machines produce art? Let’s try this:
How many of these attempts to define art, does AIVA hit upon?
Is it beautiful? yes, having heard the music it produces I would say so.
Does it reflect a truth? No. Oh well, maybe, kind of, its a reflection of Mozart/Beethoven et al’s truth!
Does it have purpose? No. Well its creator had a purpose, but that is not the same purpose as the music AIVA produces.
Does it involve skill, imagination, and craftsmanship? No. The human creation of it did, but AIVA itself involves data and maths. (I’m struggling with my pronouns here!)
Does AIVA distract from the daily grind? Yes, in the same way as music does in the general sense.
Does it therefore hold family resemblance characteristics to the various theories of arts definition? Yes.
But does it hold enough of these to belong in the art family? Enough to fall into the art paradigm or framework? Crucially, I don’t know, because these has never been successfully defined from what I can tell.
I’m left pondering, with a big question mark.
On this subject in particular, I would be extremely interested in your opinions..