Sign up today and save 1000s of items from landfill
A portrait of Edmond Belamy has sold in auction for £337,000 ($432,500). Created by AI, what does this mean for the art market? Will there be others?
3 Mins

Is AI Art a Medium?

Lewis Findley
Lewis Findley

Artwork Created by AI in Auction

AI art, yes that's art created by artificial intelligence, has been making waves in the art world.  

It all started back in December 2018 with the blockbuster auction of Edmond Belamy by Christie's. It shocked the world when it hammered in for $432,500 in New York.

This sale breathed new life back into the art world with words like revolution being whispered around but, it still attracted debate. 

This debate centred around a burning question. Can AI even be considered an art medium? If so, what does this mean for the art market? Can AI even be creative?

Before we get into that, how does it all work? Are other people doing it?

How does an AI create art?

In order to explain how an AI can paint, we'll use the case of Edmond Belamy.

A Paris-based collective called Obvious tasked themselves with creating art using AI. In order to do this, they needed to develop an algorithm using a GAN.

Short for Generative Adversarial Network, it's a training program for a generative model. 

What does GAN mean? How does it create art?

So, GAN is comprised of two networks, a generative network and a discriminative network. They worked together to complete the task. Here's how:

  • The generative network creates an image.
  • The discriminator network will judge if it's art.

How does the discriminator network know if it's art?

To enable the discriminator to know, it needed to understand what it's looking for. A data-set of 15,000 portraits from the 14-20th century was created for it to process.

The algorithm (GAN) went back and forth until an output was perceived as art by the discriminator network which in this case was Edmond Belamy.

How did they do?

Art review - Edmond Belamy 

Image Via - NewsAtlas

The portrait is certainly no Mona Lisa so it's inevitable that a degree of distortion would be present. This distortion is the result of the discriminator looking at the features of those 15,000 images and not the whole thing. 

For an algorithm though, it's quite remarkable and yes it looks half-done but it's still impressive.

Trying to piece together the portrait is the fun part but Edmond is wearing dark clothing with a white collar which may suggest he works for a church? As a scholar? Professor? Poet? Works close to a King or Queen?

If you look closely at the placing of the painting, you'll see that it's not central, it starts from the left-hand side. The facial features are hard to interpret and there are parts of the painting still untouched. 

How would you describe Edmond? Is this a conceptual work? The painting doesn't mean anything because the question of whether AI is art is the subject.

Can AI create art?

This is the problem.

How do you define art? Is there even a consensus on it?

What we can agree on is that art is the creation of something using skill and/or imagination.

Could it then be argued that the algorithm is doing just that? By drawing inspiration from the data-set, it has created a painting in its own image. 

You can imagine that this will be debated for a long time!

Final Words

The sale of Edmond Belamy has reignited the art world and could possibly inspire a new wave of art to come from AI.

Sotheby's also joined the AI art market with their auction of Memories of Passersby I by Mario Klingemann.

Will AI become an art medium? It will be difficult to convince the purists but a contemporary audience is a different matter. This collaboration between man and machine shows that art is heading in an interesting direction.

What are your thoughts on AI art? Hit the comments and let us know!