“Portrait of Edmond De Belamy”, 2018.

An artwork made by an algorithm has been sold for almost half a million dollars. Oddity of art? No, and there’s more here to say.

On October 25th, Christie’s auctioned a very special artwork, because it was made by artificial intelligence. Initially expected to be sold for about $ 10,000, the work of the French collective Obvious titled «Portrait of Edmond De Belamy» closed for a much higher price: $ 432,000. What does this mean? Let’s try to see the big picture with one assumption: the art world is unpredictable and trying to decode it with a rational approach is not only impossible, but also intrinsically wrong.

The boundaries between art and technology are fading.

Who’s the real artist? (ah, by the way, Edmond De Belamy does not exist).

Who is the painter then? The generator? The discriminator? The author of the code? The authors of the 15,000 original images that fed the algorithms? All and nobody, in a sense. Or – and this is my personal view – authorship is in the very execution of the code by the specific machine. The code defines a process that has its own originality, but which is void until it’s executed.

The execution determines one of the infinite possible instances of a model and then realizes the purpose of the code. The end result is therefore the inseparable product of man and machine, of idea and execution. This is a concept that often comes back when analyzing artificial intelligence.

The value of the code is not the value of the work.

The discussion about the intrinsic innovative value of the algorithm makes sense, but this discussion is not relevant from an artistic point of view. The only thing that matters to art is the object in relation to the creative process that made it possible. The buyer, as well as those who simply look at the picture on the Internet, sees something waiting to be processed. In this sense art is code and code is art. Code is poetry. Code is Law. Code is everything.

One, none, one hundred thousands code-painters.

The «De Belamy» according to the algorithm.

However, it’s clear that, along with the path it is doing with this algorithm, Obvious must now raise the bar and look forward. The risk is end up as those who made a great debut album and then disappear in their own shadow. Good luck, Obvious.

Art in the era of APIs.

No matter the interpretation of the public, or better, there is room for any interpretation. At the intersection of technology and art there’s above all the need to experiment and investigate the nuances between technological optimism and pessimism. To provoke, contest, overturn and amaze with the language of code is one of the ability that society must develop to reach a digital maturity.

«Boil the Ocean, Cool the Books», Carlo Zanni, 2018.

For example, Carlo Zanni, the talented Italian artist, has created a work-coin on Ethereum’s blockchain doing what most companies have so far left written only in some powerpoint chart: study, apply, learn and go further.

Conclusion (wrong?).

This isn’t just a technological path, also because in the digital society the limits of technology are our limits. At the same time, technology, in particular Artificial Intelligence, is rapidly inheriting our flaws and transforming them into bias. What remains is the need to experiment and improve. Also in art. It’s a process that involves everyone, not just a handful of well-paid engineers.

Are we really creating intelligence through technology? Someone prefers to call it «Artificial Rationality» or «Augmented Intelligence». Whatever its name, this is a form of our ability to express progress, a creative step in a precise direction. The future is an expression of «what» and «how» we advance.

Edmond De Belamy is a creation of the present that speaks of the future with a form inspired by the past. In its traits we can see a human figure, distorted as in an interpretation by Francis Bacon, but less scary. Inside Edmond De Belamy there’s a possibility for everyone: take what is there and create something new, even if artificial.

-Riccardo Zanardelli

(This piece was originally published in November 2018 by agendadigitale.eu)

Riccardo is Beretta’s Digital Business Development Manager. Graduated in Engineering, he has served in various marketing roles before focusing on business transformation and digital platforms since 2016. In the last decade, he has developed a personal interest in exploring the potential of computational privacy/trust towards a more effective and sustainable data driven society. With the aim of contributing to a wide and open conversation about MIT’s OPAL project, he published “The end of Personalinvasion” (2019) and “OPAL and Code-Contract: a model of responsible and efficient data ownership for citizens and business” (2018). He is a member of the advisory board of “Quota 8000 — Service Innovation Hub” at TEH Ambrosetti. Since 2000 he experiments with digital art as an independent researcher. Some of his projects have been acquired from the permanent ArtBase collection of Rhizome.org — NY (2002) and exhibited at the Montreal Biennial of Contemporary Art (2004), as well as at Interface Monthly (London, 2016, by The Trampery and Barbican). In 2015, he released FAC3, one of the first artworks in the world to use artificial intelligence. He is married and father of two. Want to drop a line? → riccardo [d ot) zanardelli {at} gmail [ do t} com