Why Algorithms Will Never Make Great Art

The composition is awkward and the brushstrokes are a touch clumsy. Even so, the “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” which sold at Christie’s Auctions & Private Sales in New York City for $432,000 (£337,000), looks suspiciously like art.

The creative energy behind the image is not a person but an artificially intelligent system built by a French digital collective called Obvious. The A.I. system was programmed to compare its portraits to thousands of authentic, painted portraits, and to keep adjusting its image until it is unable to detect a difference between the two.

In the province of modern art, there are countless examples of art that have been created by mechanical mediation, or even completely surrendered to the vicissitudes of a predetermined process.

Undoubtedly, the A.I. painting looks like art. Not good art, I would argue, but since it fits into the convention of three-quarter view portraiture, is contained within a gilded frame, and is hung on a wall in an environment where we expect art to be displayed and sold, it looks like the real deal.

But is it?

Countless works of art — particularly modern art — have been created by mechanical mediation. Some pieces completely surrender themselves to the vicissitudes of a predetermined process. Perhaps this is how we should view the A.I. portrait. John Hilliard, for example, made Camera Recording Its Own Condition (1971) — a work consisting of 70 snapshots taken by a camera aimed at a mirror. Each snapshot showed the moment of exposure, and the shots differed by film speed, exposure time, and aperture size. More recently, Anish Kapoor created Shooting into the Corner (2009). It consisted of a canon that periodically fired 11-kilogram balls of wax into a corner of a room, allowing them to hit the wall and splatter.

These are just a few examples of “process art,” or art made according to methodology rather than explicit intent. On these terms, the A.I. portrait could be considered part of the tradition of process-driven art.

Some commentators have argued that the real artists behind this work are the computer programmers of the French collective. They used the A.I. system as a tool, a vehicle of artistic realization, like a complex paintbrush.

And yet, I suspect the French A.I. programmers had no intention of contributing to the acclaimed history of modern art, or “process art.” I suspect they wanted to create something else altogether.