I've offered up several AI images on this site. I've electronically signed them as my own.

But are they?

The answer's more complicated than it might seem.

Artists have copied other works with slight alterations since the earliest days of primitive art. Sometimes in part or sometimes in whole.

During the Renaissance, it wasn't uncommon for the lead artist of a studio (Michelangelo, for example) to develop a painting only to have it completed by students using the very methods Michelangelo would have employed.

Marcel Duchamp famously signed an industrially made urinal.

Andy Warhol copied photographs taken by other photographers and silk-screened them in repetition.

A conventional view of authorship is an artist creating something from the " ground up from a blank canvas block of stone or lump clay.

There's a psychological purity for the viewer knowing that the artist had total ownership of all of the ideas contained in a work from the very beginning.

But here's the thing...

They never did.

They never did because no artist is a blank slate. We all improvise off of one another either consciously or unconsciously. In fact, it's an occupational hazard in the music business.

George Harrison was sued for "copying" "He's So Fine", a 1963 classic by the Chiffons in his classic song, "My Sweet Lord". It wasn't consciously copied but, nevertheless, even a Beatle can't escape being inspired by other's works.

What we often think of as a new idea is frequently an amalgam of things we've heard or seen before.

Electronic sampling, starting largely in the 1980's by hip-hop artists, often used the hook from other songs as a starting point to build a new song. This still remains somewhat controversial because the questions arises, "If the song is a hit, isn't it really because of the catchy 'hook' actually written by another artist?"

Artificial Intelligence - particularly those that use Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN) - to "mash-up" various source images or sounds to develop something new is the next Rubicon of authorship. Unlike a repurposed photograph or a sampled drum beat, the original authorship of AI-generated art is sometimes harder to uncover.

GAN essentially "learns" various features of a model (eyes, nose, mouths... drumbeats, guitar chords, vocal timbre) and recombines them in an infinite variety of "conversations" that develop into something entirely new.

Yet, somewhere in the stew, are the original ingredients of originality of another artist. Another artist who ALSO used technology and unconscious inspiration to develop their work.


Are these pieces on this site original?

Yes. And no.

Yes, in the sense that they are unique unto themselves. There may be similar images who've used the same or a variation of similar sources. But these images are unique unto themselves.

No, in the sense that I did not create them from a blank canvas. In fact, if you look closely, you'll see the feature lineage in a few of the images as I explored various iterations of an intent.

They are original in the sense that I've used a GAN engine to curate thousands of features from other works - many of which I don't know the origin, others of which I've personally fed into "the machine" (a Rembrandt and a photo of Andy Warhol, for example in the piece called "Remdy") - and recombined them until I developed an outcome I found pleasing or compelling on some level.

What skill was required of me to create these images? Curation of content and knowledge of materials and techniques. And proficiency in a few pieces of software. I've also employed a separate pass that further develops the surface interest that mimics traditional art materials.

There is fakery everywhere! A feature Orson Welles would've relished.

Yet, in the slight-of-hand, there is originality. There is a new expression. There is a new punchline to an old joke.

So, in the end, you must decide for yourself what constitutes art. Is it the eye and the ear that's tuned to recognize compelling images and sounds? Is a great DJ an artist? Was George Martin an artist? Was Andy Warhol an artist? Was Picasso - who frequently mimicked African art - original?

Or is an artist only someone who can perfectly render a face using nothing more than a paper and pencil? Who can hit a note without missing pitch?

The irony, of course, is that the artist who's eye and ear is developed can produce something with infinite depth and complexity using a pot of ingredients from others...

And a skilled crafts-person can immaculately produce a human face with a pencil and paper that is bland and lacking interest.

Skill does not necessarily create art.

Art, then, is some kind of combination of execution AND curation.

The proportion of each is perhaps the perpetually unknowable quality in a work of art.

As technology rolls on, how we define art must evolve, too.

There was a time when synthesizers attempting to produce the sound of an orchestra were clunky and kitsch. You now hear them all the time on songs on Spotify and in musical scores for films and television and are none the wiser.

In some ways - except to perhaps the most sophisticated ear - the simulacrum has become indistinguishable from the real deal.

So with that, enjoy these works of AI art in the spirit in which they were created... A curated discovery designed to capture interest and intrigue and maybe even inspire your own conversation of "what is art?"

- Sean Apple

September 24, 2020