After selling at Christie’s for almost half a million dollars, the AI created “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” raises questions about the nature of art, creativity and human achievement.

Brushes, a palette of paint, and a trained eye for the colors and shapes of the larger world. This is what most envision when they contemplate the creation of art — an artist toiling away in a sparse studio until they realize a vision and put it on canvas.

However, a recent portrait sold at auction by Christie's for an impressive $432,500 came by the hand of a different artist. A virtual artist. Currently, it stands as the most widely known example of art by algorithm.


A Different Kind of Paint By Numbers

The work is developed by Obvious, a French collective that includes both artists and researchers, by using two separate learning AIs or Generative Adversarial Networks. However, the process to generate “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” is more than just plugging numbers into a computer.

For the Belamy family of pieces, the collective entered data encompassing over 15,000 portraits from the 14th to 20th centuries into the AI system. From there, the two algorithms — the Generator and the Discriminator — go to work.

The Generator pulls from that data set and creates an image. The Discriminator works to figure out if the Generator’s creation is of its own doing or if a human was the source. The point being that if the Discriminator believes the AI image to be a non-AI work, then that proves to be the resulting final image. 

The original piece of work is then printed onto canvas using inkjet and signed with the formula that represents the two distinct algorithms. 

The project aims to explore the extent to which a machine can be creative, if at all.


Art and Technology, Longtime Collaborators

The convergence of art and technology is nothing new. 

In fact, the tech and tools of a particular era partially inform the produced works of that time. One need look no further than the evolution from stones to paintbrushes to keyboards to witness these changes.

Today is no different. The pace of advancement, however, is greater, and there are more avenues of technology to explore than in the time of Michelangelo, van Gogh, or even more modern masters like Picasso or Warhol.

Two prime examples include the use of blockchain to assist with art provenance and many artists employing 3D Printing and VR to create their own works. Even noted street artist Banksy called upon low-grade office tech to first destroy, then (perhaps) inadvertently increase the value of one of his paintings recently sold at auction.


Is It Art? Or Something Else?

Many will question if a piece created by non-human hands should be considered a genuine work of art. Christie’s certainly thinks so.

When asked for their interpretation, Richard Lloyd, a specialist for Christie’s who arranged the Belamy sale, left little doubt as to their stance. “It is a portrait, after all. It may not have been painted by a man in a powdered wig, but it is exactly the kind of artwork we have been selling for 250 years.”

Perhaps that is the most significant takeaway from the entrance of AI into the art world. If the piece resonates with a collector, scholar, or just an everyday lover of art, there should be little concern as to its origin. The genius of art can still be appreciated even if it was a binary hand that created it.