Art in the Age of AI

by Bret Schneider


Despite post-internet art's implicit insight that the WWW is a bloated corpse, web development rages on, taking over society not on a user level, but a production level. It is now in many ways the ground upon which AI and a perceived epochal change is constructed. Internet 3.0 has even been heralded as the next industrial revolution; a joke if it wasn’t pursued with such zealotry. If artistic protests against our new reality continue in their current form, the post-internet sensibility will go down in history as the first movement in a long line of increasingly impotent resistances—or, alternatively, dogmatically theoretical submissions—to the virtualization of everyday life.

Brian Eno’s post-election recognition that the cultural revolution was not revolutionary applies to new media fine art too: anti-corporate culture buckles under epochal technological development. We are now in a transitional culture: Neoliberal culture is irrelevant and sustains little interest; the identity politicians of culture have become caricatures or reneged (e.g. Kara Walker admitting that art changes nothing socially); installations increasingly look like retail storefront displays; the best critics of the era are now mere Democratic Party shills who lack any interesting insights about new artistic representation. Contemporary art as we know it will persist, but it no longer claims any relationship to the zeitgeist. Post-Internet, culminating in the Berlin Biennial of 2017 was the final claim to the present coming from within the industry of contemporary art.  As contemporary art fails to grip the masses, fringe elements begin to claim culture. We are entering an era of brute, technocratic manufacture, and with it comes a different culture to pay it homage. Coding bootcamps now absorb Humanities runoff to aestheticize technology, but also to aestheticize intelligence. Smartness has never been more in vogue, as it is increasingly required for the reconstruction of an Enlightenment ethos. ‘Smartness’ rediscovers its mimetic origins as fundamentally verbal and active: to smart, to sharpen. In the new society, the ‘smart’ are smart in the way tools are smart. The rise of neuroenhancers and artworks that utilize neurology will increase, if only because enhancing mental capacity is now an explicit requirement for retraining the workforce. The ethos of artistic representation undergoes revision as it intermingles with a new enlightenment spirit in what is broadly perceived as the age of AI.

It is not a coincidence that artifice as a concept incompletely related to artistic practice is brought back into the fold: various artistic visions (often dystopic and bound up in Cold-War era ideology) of a technocratic society over the past half-century have significantly contributed to technological innovations. The drive towards things like artificial intelligence, the internet of things, machine learning, and augmented/virtual reality has a lot of origins in Cold War era novels and Hollywood kitsch. Minority Report’s transparent, mutable screens were next year’s MIT students homework. Then, when tech is fully realized, artists race to re-use and abuse it. Since at least the Impressionists who were inspired by color science (however vulgarly to the color scientists!), artists have repeatedly used or rejected the new industrial tools provided.

Nietzsche’s image of a new science-art phenomenon has persisted as a task without being fulfilled. Contemporary art has largely resisted it. When technology enters the fold, it is usually as a pet theme whose importance is abstractly overstated. This was only reinforced in the net and post-internet generation of artists: as soon as the internet was proven a viable medium it was exploited thoroughly and then burned to the ground. The exhaustion of the net all but demanded a new one, and along with it a new neo-Futurism. AI has firmly established itself as here to stay more generally in society, with ‘coding’ as a lifestyle driven into the minds of children, producing the next generation of blue collar labor. Basking in their enlightened humanitarianism, the kings of industry have benevolently added an 'A' to the stem education so that the arts may continue to hobble on in the STEAM paradigm. And so now that the AI culture has firmly established itself, artists begin to mine it. And rightly so. The artists of the early 21st century that will be remembered are those that reflect and advance Culture more generally, for better and for worse. Analogously, it will be Jeff Koons’s acutely capitalist art, not the pseudo-Bohemian socially engaged artists, that are remembered a century from now for expressing the potential of the time.  

Socially speaking, the value of intelligence has never been simply intelligent. More to the core of the particular type of industriousness of the human species, innovation is not accomplished through intelligence or genius, but rather through obsessive social labor—e.g. the painstaking construction of Mosques (or better, Kafka's Great Wall of China) that outlasted the individual lives of those who made them. The open source movement is a way of trying to outsmart human toiling without exactly eradicating it. Intelligence then lingers as a general task bound to no particular discipline or form of inquiry. The polymath designers of Artificial Intelligence are not just tasked with mimicking something that already exists, but also creating something entirely new and alien--as such artists are brought before the kings of industry as they have been for centuries, co-mingling with scientists and whoever else happens to have a vision. For instance, the Google Cultural Institute may have more purchase on the present than art museums (e.g. recent reports show a dramatic decline in museum attendance in at least Germany). All the better to drag artists out of their beloved marginal spaces! Because there is no other social imagination currently on the table, ‘smart society’ now demands the ‘creativity’ of this generation’s current artists, for better or worse, just as religion demanded countless artistic accomplishments over history in order to monumentalize itself. But like religious art which turned out to be nothing at all about religion, the long culture beginning with AI may not be about intelligence at all.

There is also of course a history of purely aesthetic interest in AI. For instance, the original idea of experimental music was the design of systems that are unpredictable, self-generating, and seem to compose themselves. For the past half-century the most interesting strain of experimental music has become increasingly intertwined with algorithmic principles, now developing into explicit algorithmic music movements (live-coding, modular synths etc.); ‘printer’ or ‘scan’ art, though not AI, evidenced an increased interest in systems thinking and machinic non-composition; MoMA stakes its claim on computation culture with its Thinking Machines exhibit that dares to show—n full Neo-Futuristic fashion—actual computers as if they were artworks. Finally, over the past few years, there are inklings of what comes next: Jordan Wolfson’s animatronic stripper; a panel discussion about algorithms as heir to minimalism hosted by contemporary art’s most relevant proponents; Autechre recently revealing that their ‘music’ is now more of an artificially intelligent collaborator than music per se; artists like Ed Atkins use of uncanny 3D rendering; Yasunao Tone’s longstanding idea of using neural nets to compose music decades before it was implemented by facebook; Holly Herndon’s neurologically influenced sound art; and so on. There are countless more examples, and this is not even considering pop culture, with an endless list of dystopic fictions and TV shows like Westworld, which blatantly opens to an image of a player piano performing to an empty room, referencing Conlan Nancarrow’s generative music that has influenced today’s more extreme sonic experimenters, e.g. Thomas Brinkmann. And Ex Machina—a movie not even about modern art—offers the clearest interpretation of Abstract Expressionism since Greenberg, effortlessly outstripping the last half-century of lame art criticism. These types of fringe sensibilities will continue to eat contemporary art’s lunch, even as Contemporary Art institutions increasingly claim to appeal to the masses.

At the same time, one thing we re-learned from the post-net-art generation is that many artistic sensibilities strive to undermine the technology that is also its medium. There is a self-canceling aesthetic at play. Conservatively, development is usually truncated before going ‘too far’, belying a deep ambivalence. The Elon Musk's tell us that we are supposed to be afraid of the future. If the word was the imprisonment of the poet in the 19th century, and not its liberator, the same might be said for artists who felt both betrayed and motivated by the virtual materials they were consigned to use. More broadly speaking, the years of the post-internet generation coincided with the years of Zombie Formalism and ‘minor art’, a conservative reaction to technologically sophisticated art. If AI took concrete root in the ‘drone’ (see: drone music, use of actual drones!) of the Obama years, (statisticians are quick to point that he won based on machine learning technology) it did so alongside the development of petit-bourgeois culture and ‘minor’ painting—it’s telling that Obama chose a Giorgio Morandi painting for the White House. For every important technological innovation, there was a tasteful, unimportant painting striving and failing to undermine it. Humans still hate the things they create, and create more things to negate many of the things previously created. Citizens are expected to create their way out of misery. Creativity is part of the problem, not the solution, as products are continually heaped onto the landfill of cultural history. This seems to be part of the  reason we want the machines to create themselves and their own art and just get on with it without our creative input contaminating it. The general culture around AI and in the 21st century is at once the harbinger of human progress, but also deeply nihilistic about the species.

As far as prognoses go, we will probably see various things: more reactionary painting, sentimental poetry, and a deepening of ‘protest art’ from those that refuse to leave the late 20th century cultural turn. Conversely there will probably be a rise in the academic art-science world, of which the 'altruistic' MIT Media Labs is prototype. In the wake of Neoliberalism, there is no impetus to falsely bridge gaps such as these: art movements may become more tribal and alienated, trading in dialogue for community ideologies. Curators may either bridge the gap in unusual ways (e.g. pitting opposites into the same exhibits), or sequester their practices into diminishing identity politics bubbles. Either way there will be a resurgence in the primitive nature of art’s social positions. But with the advancement of extra-artistic tech culture, art movements might increasingly be at war with each other, as they compete to solve problems not solvable through art alone. Social contributions would then be recognized not by disparate artists and subcultures who have been bred to be increasingly specialized, academic, and narcissistic, but rather by whatever juried panels who are socially assigned the role of comprehensive judge. As the swamp of Neoliberal art bureaucracy drains, artistic merits will be judged by their concrete accomplishments on a broader and more universal level, not by their servility to communities organized around ballot boxes and expressed through mission statements that never deliver the goods.  

But prognoses are misleading. One of the interesting things is the return to Enlightenment philosophy. For instance, Nick Bostrom speaks of AI as a form of collective, modular intelligence for species-being, the implications of which are comparable to the neolithic revolution; assuming the computer as primarily an aesthetic tool. Bret Victor thinks the vanguard of visual representation lay in the development of the new ‘dynamic artist’: those artists who make fully aesthetic the social medium of an increasingly interactive internet; and videogame culture has even fostered its own avant criticism that can’t help but recall Schiller’s play drive. A perceived newness or refeeling of enlightenment ideas by the vulgar philistines and supposedly tasteless bros of Silicon Valley. But they may have much more to practically contribute to a human aesthetic than the tasteful experts! They feel like humanity is at the very beginning of an aesthetic revolution, and not operating mechanically in the end of times. True or not, the perception is critical to optimists and progressives with a nose for utopia and the role that art should play in the cosmic destiny of the species. It is far more important than the countless nihilistic statements and propaganda being made about society's ills that we've endured for decades.

Critical problem-solving and aesthetic progress is no longer a subject tabooed by the humanities, but rather something required of all citizens, lest they be judged guilty of trading in the revolution of education for political posturing. The new, somewhat ethically positivist enlightenment philosophes in the early 21st century will not allow its citizens to be lost to the nihilism of postmodern obfuscation and pseudopolitical resistances to aesthetic education. Citizens will be dragged kicking and screaming into humanity’s destiny, pulled by Judge Holden-type Quixotic robots who rationalize their way to freedom, manufacturing aesthetics with shrewdly-calculated hearts. Yet for progressives who believe that utopia is slowly won through a series of ruses, the current vulgarity of science and art still trumps tasteful elegance.

From Ryder Ripps Instagram: Poster concept. STOP MAKING NEW SOFTWARE LET US HAVE LIKE ONE FUCKING MONTH WITH FUNCTIONAL SOFTWARE STOP UPDATING POINTLESSLY!!!  // A good example of artistic discontent with technological 'development'. Innovation and creativity are perceived as a potentially crippling pathology. The comments are great here too, especially aaronwinters916's insight that the Javascript scene (the language of the net) is so convoluted & overdeveloped that it barely works.


// A good example of artistic discontent with technological 'development'. Innovation and creativity are perceived as a potentially crippling pathology. The comments are great here too, especially aaronwinters916's insight that the Javascript scene (the language of the net) is so convoluted & overdeveloped that it barely works.


Yasunao Tone developed the idea to use neural nets decades ago: what took Silicon Valley so long to catch up? The latter's implementation is much less interesting. Too little too late.


Victor is part of a broader sensibility in computing theory that believes technology hasn't actually advanced, but regressed, since its invention. "We live in primitive times". 

Bret Victor: The main thing I want you to take away from this talk is dissatisfaction....I want you to have higher standards for this medium (the ipad).

Victor also has a lot of dissatisfaction with education, & identifies programming as "blindly manipulating symbols." The current educational initiative (or indoctrination of children) to think that coding is cool would be a missed opportunity for more dynamic visualization than the current educational standards. One wonders if the 'revolution' is a means to simply reconstruct our poor educational models and squander potential. Tbd!

Even so, computer scientists like Victor and Alan Kay have oddly inherited the task of clarifying and developing visual experience, since the humanities has basically handed the aesthetic education of man to them on a silver platter through decades of circle-jerking.