Portrait Created By AI Sold To Some Fool For Six Figures

As you may have seen in the news, last week a painting that was (sort of) created using artificial intelligence (“AI”) sold at Christie’s in New York for a whopping $432,500.

Christie’s take on the sale is rather disturbing, but then of course, they have a vested interest in what they’ve done here, and of course in the fee that they’re about to collect for their efforts in this charade. “It may not have been painted by a man in a powdered wig,” commented Christie’s head of prints and multiples Richard Lloyd, “but it is exactly the kind of artwork we have been selling for 250 years.”

Well no, it isn’t.

Let’s assume that this was in fact an Old Master painting, created by an actual French artist working in around 1760, and portraying a real French aristocrat. It’s a blobby mess of an image, with no particular distinction in terms of technique or composition, and the top of the picture appears to be cut off. Is Christie’s really maintaining that it would have gone to all of the effort that it has to market this work back in the 18th century, if it was just some chopped-off, undistinguished oil study by an unknown 18th century artist of an obscure, minor member of the French nobility? Such a claim is utterly lacking in plausibility.

British art historian Bendor Grosvenor who, despite my occasional differences with him, is still the best online read when it comes to looking at Old Master paintings in the contemporary world, is all over this story, as you might imagine. As he points out here, not only is the “AI” aspect of how the image was created somewhat suspect, but the portrait itself is little more than a Photoshop project:

But the much vaunted ‘AI’ artwork at Christie’s, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, is little more than a composite blurring of the 15,000 portraits fed into the programme in the first place. It’s you or I fiddling around on Photoshop for an hour, just scaled up. A regular cry against much contemporary art is ‘my child could have done that’. But now we can replace that with; ‘my laptop could have done that’.

Over on ArtNet, Tim Schneider describes Christie’s actions as “reactionary”: not in the sense often used by the left to describe conservatives, but rather in the sense of someone jumping on the first available bandwagon, as it were. “To me, this is about as reactionary as looking up from a fortune cookie promising true love and proposing to the first person you see in Panda Express,” Schneider scoffs, “and it speaks volumes about how superficially the high-end of the market is engaging with art and machine learning right now.”

I won’t get into the issue, pointed out by Grosvenor and Schneider, among others, that a significant segment of the art community is bemoaning the fact that the “first” AI painting to be sold at a high-end auction features the image of a (supposedly) dead white man. For those of you who are interested in such things, there are plenty of comments to that effect scattered across social media. Yet wherever you fall along the social justice warrior spectrum, I don’t think that issues of race or gender are really the point here.

Rather, in this story we have further proof, as if that were needed, that the Contemporary Art world is first and foremost a speculative bubble. It continues to be inflated by auction houses, art dealers, art media, and the art establishment. The goal is not to celebrate and encourage the creation of great works of art, but rather to make money off of poorly-educated, socially insecure, extremely wealthy people.

The idea of the art world bilking the newly rich by convincing them to purchase art at inflated prices has been around for a long time. Renowned art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was giving intentionally iffy or flat-out wrong attributions on works of Italian Renaissance art to Sir Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), art dealer to the robber barons, a century ago. That way, Duveen could jack up his prices, and Berenson could receive a larger fee for his services. Colin Simpson’s superb book, “Artful Partners” is still the authoritative text on this nefarious arrangement, which was the most significant, but not the only, one of these sorts of arrangements that existed during the Gilded Age. The Faustian bargain between the two deceivers ended up having a negative impact on art history for decades, and their actions still carry repercussions for art scholarship even today.

Recently I was fortunate enough to acquire the sort of painting that Duveen might have carried in his gallery a century ago. It’s an oil on wood panel depicting St. Jerome in the wilderness, engaging in prayer and penitence, and accompanied by his iconic lion. It dates to somewhere toward the end of the Italian Renaissance, and although reminiscent of the work of artists such as Palma il Giovane (1548-1628), I’m by no means expert enough to make such a firm attribution. It was purchased by a wealthy Pittsburgh manufacturer from a European art dealer about a century ago, and donated to a Rust Belt art museum, which has now deaccessioned it for a hammer price that was no doubt considerably less than what the American collector who brought it across the Atlantic originally paid for it, in today’s dollars.

If our art collecting Northeastern industrialist were alive today, and of course he would not be in heavy industry but in some sort of digital business, the AI portrait sold at Christie’s last week would be exactly the sort of thing that an art advisor would recommend that he purchase. The impetus to acquire however would not be because the art in question was actually any good, but because his owning it would attract the notice of the public and the admiration of his peers. There is no such thing as “bad” publicity, in the present age.

There is a difference here, however, between the world of the early 20th century buyer and that of the early 21st century buyer. While a beautiful image of sacred art is always going to find an audience, so long as there are still Christians who treasure such things, it would surprise me to learn that someone living a century from now would pay the equivalent of nearly half a million dollars for an unremarkable piece of computer art. Perhaps I am wrong about that, of course, but fortunately, I won’t be around to find out.


Banksy’s Auto-Da-Fé Strips Bare The Contemporary Art Market

By now most of you are familiar with the destruction of a painting by Contemporary artist Banksy that occurred at Sotheby’s last week. For those who missed it, a work by the graffiti guru depicting one of his best known images self-destructed by being shredded shortly after it was sold to an unknown buyer for $1.4 million. Sotheby’s claims that it had no idea that the shredding was going to occur, so we will go with that unless and until any conclusive evidence shows otherwise.

There are many rumors and theories bouncing about in cyberspace about this occurrence. Speculation is rife that Banksy himself, or one of his minions, was in the audience, and pushed some sort of remote control button to start the shredder. Many have noted that the destroyed work was not the original, which was a piece of graffiti on a wall long since destroyed, and that this piece was merely a recent copy specifically created for its destruction on camera.

Whatever you want to believe about the event, British art historian Bendor Grosvenor sums up the whole thing very succinctly by saying that the “happening”, if you will, boils down to one word: money. The Contemporary Art world, and in this I include most of the art establishment, is besotted with money over quality, showiness over substance. Perhaps ironically, this is rather reminiscent of the contrived, pricey, cloyingly sentimental Victorian paintings of children playing with puppies or gazing vacantly at bouquets of flowers, which the newly rich amassed to fill their homes in the second half of the 19th century.

Intentionally or no, Banksy’s auto-da-fé of his own work has shone what for many ought to be a very disturbing light on today’s art world. From the business side of things, reasonable voices have been quietly noting for some time that there is a bubble in Contemporary Art prices. ArtTactic, which provides research data concerning the art market, notes that confidence in the strength of the Contemporary Art market has fallen 24% this year, even while sales of Contemporary Art continue to increase. That bubble has been inflated largely by the art press, art institutions, and art dealers, so that art collectors with extraordinary resources at their disposal are, in many cases, buying largely for investment value rather than out of artistic appreciation.

For a more specific example of how this works, take a look at the downward slide in prices achieved for works by Damien Hirst, one of the most famous Contemporary artists in the world. It’s true that artists go in and out of fashion all the time, but if you bought a Hirst at the top of the market about a decade ago, you’re going to be taking a serious bath if you try to sell it now. Hirst, who for the past two decades has consistently diversified his holdings by investing in property and commercial venues to supplement his already considerable income, recently closed several business ventures in the British coastal resort region of Devon, even though a recent sale of “The Veil Paintings”, new work by Hirst shown at Gagosian L.A., did quite well. Coincidence? Or a reaction to declining market value?

Tied into the inflation of prices for Contemporary Art, as Jane Kallir pointed out in her (excellent) opinion piece for the Art Newspaper yesterday, is the intellectual dearth of connoisseurship in the art market and in the art press that has accompanied the ascendance of Contemporary Art to the sine qua non of current art acquisition trends. “In the past few decades,” she writes, “academia has largely abandoned traditional connoisseurship because it was too often tied to ‘great man’ narratives. Over the same period professional art criticism has been eclipsed by a journalistic preoccupation with glamour, scandal and money.”

As a result, at present the worth of a particular piece lies not so much in its subject matter, or in the artistic skill used in creating it, but rather in the notoriety of the artist (see, e.g., the entire oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat.) The astronomical amounts of financial speculation involved in the Contemporary Art world, which has led to, inter alia, marketing materials being passed off as serious art criticism and scholarship, and the concomitant decline in art education for the general public, has poisoned the well for decades to come. I don’t see any short-term solution to the problem which Banksy has so succinctly demonstrated exists in the present art establishment, short of some sort of collective recognition of guilt and complicity resulting in a secular bonfire of the vanities.

Yet we need to be careful not to rub our hands too gleefully before such a flame. Not all Contemporary Art is terrible, and there are still highly-skilled, talented artists out there creating interesting work. Moreover, while much garbage was destroyed at the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history, instigated by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, many beautiful works of art were destroyed in that conflagration as well – including books by Boccaccio and Dante, and paintings by Botticelli and Fra Bartolomeo. Let’s not go down that road, again.


Should Graffiti Be Protected Art?

In what will prove to be a very interesting decision, however it comes out, a New York City developer is appealing a lower court ruling that ordered him to pay a group of artists $6.8 million in damages, for destroying graffiti which they created on his property.

Some decades ago, the developer had purchased a group of old factory buildings in Long Island City, Queens, with the intent of eventually redeveloping them or the land on which they sat. Beginning in the 1990’s, graffiti artists were given permission to rent studios in the crumbling complex, and to paint all over the buildings. Eventually the site became known as “5Pointz”, and attracted visitors and arts media coverage from all over the world.

As gentrification in recent years caused real estate prices to spiral into the stratosphere, Long Island City became one of the key epicenters of this trend, thanks to its large concentration of abandoned industrial and commercial structures. To take advantage of the market conditions, the decision was finally taken by the property owner to demolish 5Pointz, and redevelop the site with condos. The requisite public hearings and permit applications began in 2013, despite efforts by the graffiti makers and their supporters to stop it. As part of the redevelopment, most of the decades’ worth of graffiti that had accumulated at the site was whitewashed prior to demolition.

The “aerosol artists” [eyeroll] then sued claiming, inter alia, that they had not been given 90 days’ notice to take action with respect to the impending destruction of their art. To the surprise of many, a trial court agreed with the artists and awarded damages against the developer, who is now appealing. The basis for the appeal, in part, appears to be a somewhat powder keg argument that graffiti art should not be accorded the same protections as other types of art.

This isn’t an art law blog, and I don’t want to go into a lengthy discussion of the competing legal rationales involved in this case. That being said, whatever one thinks of graffiti art – more on that in a moment – the developer in this case should never have agreed to permit graffiti or artistic use of the complex in the first place, and certainly not for such a lengthy period of time. The developer even chose to incorporate some of the graffiti art which was not destroyed into the interior spaces of the new towers, and unsuccessfully attempted to trademark the term “5Pointz” – a moniker created by one of the graffiti artists – to market the property, arguing that he owned the term because he owned the buildings.

Apart from the idiosyncratic aspects of the 5Pointz case however, the larger issue here is the legitimization of graffiti art in general, which is why the outcome of this appeals process could be of greater significance than might at first appear. The proliferation of and acceptance of graffiti is a serious problem, and one which I maintain has been encouraged by the art establishment. The celebration of the subversive at the expense of basic property rights and the rule of law is the stock-and-trade of most Contemporary Art aficionados, from dealers and curators to reporters and collectors. And unfortunately, the rest of us who do not care for it must bear the consequences of their celebration of such efforts.

Back in August for example, someone decided to vandalize a Romanesque sculpture on one of the façades of the famous Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, using a blue permanent marker to paint over the face and part of the body of a saint with references to the band, Kiss. It took restorers hours of work, including the use of laser treatments, to remove the graffiti, and the event raised an outcry in the international art press. The Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, had just been cleaned after a lengthy restoration that took years and cost millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, just down the street at the Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporaneo (CGAC), Santiago’s museum of Contemporary Art, CGAC held an “artists’ workshop” this summer which included the work of – you probably already guessed it – a self-described “subversive” graffiti artist.

This is an all-too-cute example of how the art establishment seeks to have things both ways. The art world simultaneously sows the seeds for destruction of existing works of art and architecture by raising an artist such as Banksy to heights of international fame unimaginable to any petty criminal – excuse me, I mean, “aerosol artist” – before him. Galleries and museums, media and the art press, by their fawning coverage of “subversive” graffiti art, are, in effect, encouraging others to go out and try to become the next Banksy themselves.

In the case of many European cities and towns, not just Santiago de Compostela, this state of affairs has helped to create an environment in which the antisocial and illegal behavior of those who choose to defile both public and private property with their “talent” is a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut. It’s impossible to travel anywhere in Europe now without seeing graffiti slathered all over, from street signs to shop doors, and local authorities seem to have given up the effort to swiftly and effectively prosecute those who engage in it. The notion of catching an “aerosol artist” and forcing them to do hours of community service removing graffiti from bus shelters, overpasses, and the like seems too harsh a penalty for most Europeans to contemplate (though if my readers are aware of such penalties actually being enforced anywhere in the EU, by all means please share a link with us all in the comments section.)

Yet even as we may tut-tut at the inaction of the Europeans, we are rapidly reaching the same point in the U.S. Taking Amtrak into Philadelphia just a few weeks ago for example, I was shocked at how graffiti coverage begins many miles outside of town, well before one actually comes within sight of the city itself. It made me wonder whether there is a national shortage of whitewash or flat gray house paint which has gone hitherto reported by the media.

No doubt some of the graffiti that we see in depressed areas of cities like Philadelphia is the work of those who are, in effect, crying for help. These are people living in desperate, dangerous conditions, with no hope for a better future, and they live a life of suffering which most of us cannot even begin to imagine. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it at least explains it; to be fair, rational adults, we need to acknowledge this.

That being said however, I suspect that a research statistician would be able to prove that most of the current crop of graffiti that we see is in fact of the, “Aren’t I cool? Now where’s my phone so I can snap a picture of this for my social media accounts before I go back to designing my next tattoo on my laptop,” variety. In fact, if you follow any art accounts on Instagram, you’re very much aware that the site is filled with images from events and exhibitions in which members of the Millennial bourgeoisie use graffiti to express their frustration at…I’m not sure what, exactly. Their local Whole Foods being out of avocados today?

Who knows how long the 5Pointz case will take to grind its way through the court system, or how high any further appeals might go, but the end result is absolutely going to be worth keeping an eye on. Will there be a narrow ruling, tailored to the particular circumstances of the case? Or will some appellate court create a broad precedent by which all future property owners, if they do not immediately take action to remove any trace of graffiti, will be stuck paying damages to “aerosol artists” if they attempt to remove their work at a later date? Stay tuned for developments.