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AI Will Make Human Art More Valuable

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The rise of generative AI models has led to equal amounts of clapping and handwringing.  One worry is that, as Kevin Kelly put it, “artificial intelligence can now make better art than most humans.” So where does that leave us?

The mistake is to assume that the meaning of “better” will stay the same. What’s more likely is that the goal posts will shift because we will move them. We have changed our collective tastes in response to technological progress in the past. We’ll now do it again, without even noticing that it’s happening. And if history is any indication, our tastes will evolve in a way that rigs the game in favor of human artists.

It’s not surprising that in conceiving of a new world awash with AI art, we haven’t accounted for a society-wide change in taste. We tend to assume that in the future we will want the same things we want now, and that only the ability to achieve them will evolve. One famous study dubbed this the “end of history illusion”: People readily agree that their most strongly held tastes have changed over the past decade but then insist that from this point on those tastes will remain as they are. Having presumably reached some peak level of refinement, they can now rest idly in their self-assurance.

In truth, what turns us on and off is constantly being reshaped by a range of powerful social forces, mostly beyond our awareness. Technological progress tops the list because it changes what is easy and what is difficult, and our running definitions of the beautiful and the vulgar are instantly affected by these criteria. When new advances expand the confines of what is possible, collective tastes respond—by wanting to partake of the new abundance and by wanting nothing to do with it.

I think of this as the William Morris effect. Morris was the bushy-bearded figurehead of what came to be known as the Arts and Crafts movement, which emerged in Victorian England in the 1870s. The timing was no coincidence: Britain had reached the peak of the industrial revolution. It had become the fastest-growing country on the planet, and London its largest city. For the first time, tableware, jewelry, and furniture could be made in factories, at scale. Such a quantity of goods had never been so accessible to so many.

Morris and his acolytes denounced the new abundance. They decried the soulless homogeneity of the machine age. In response, they looked to the past, seeking inspiration in medieval patterns and natural forms. Their designs were all intricate leaf patterns, elegant ferns, and curving flower stems. It was a radical move for the time, and the “medievalists,” as they were called, were mocked at first. But they quickly found a receptive audience. Just as technology was bringing mass-produced goods within reach of the middle class, under the influence of Morris and his acolytes, elite tastes turned to block-printed floral wallpapers and furniture purposefully left unfinished, the better to hint at its handmade origins. Soon, this fancy spread through English society. By the end of the 19th century, Arts and Crafts interiors had become the dominant style in British middle-class homes.

William Morris shaped British tastes, spawning imitators throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. But he was also a product of his time. The zeitgeist was waiting for a figure like Morris. The general unease with Victorian factory conditions and the dense London smog expressed itself through a sudden appreciation for intricate hand-drawn floral patterns. Time and again, technical advances change our sense of what is appealing or valuable. And as in 19th century Britain, the change often runs against the grain of technology, rather than with it.

So what does the William Morris effect imply for our newly expanded possibilities? How will the ability to spontaneously generate images by dictating a prompt to an AI reshape our idea of what is beautiful? Forecasting trends is a tricky business, but in this case, we don’t lack for clues.

A full 15 years ago, a team of researchers from University College London and the University of Copenhagen put people into an fMRI machine and showed them a series of abstract images. They told them the images were either made by a human or by a computer. A clear winner emerged. People not only claimed to prefer the (identical) human-made pictures, their brains’ pleasure centers actually lit up more brightly. What the researchers didn’t anticipate, but which is likely to happen, is that this visceral preference for human over robot makers might grow stronger with time, just as technology closes the gap between them. Think of it as humanity’s collective defense mechanism.

Why would people derive more aesthetic pleasure from an otherwise identical illustration, painting, or poem, merely because of how it was made, or by whom? It’s one of the distinctive quirks of modernity. Consider what a recent invention the notion of a “fake” is. Art historians estimate that half of all commissioned artworks in the 16th century were copies of originals. As long as they were competently executed, those copies were thought to be almost as valuable as the real thing. You see it in the prices each would fetch: In the Renaissance, an original painting went for about 2.5 times the price of a good copy. Now, that ratio might be closer to 10,000:1.  A perfect replica of an Old Masters painting valued at millions might fetch a few hundred dollars, at most. The market for copies is so dismal that few painters even bother. Our tastes have long been shifting in a direction that might strike any AI as baffling, not to mention deeply unfair. It’s a learned preference, and we’ve been working hard at our lessons.

Today, the William Morris effect is once more upon us. The first-wave craft revival that Morris brought about was the precursor to our current yearning for “authenticity” in every guise. Just as an unprecedented expansion of international trade has made cheap goods manufactured abroad widely accessible, the Western consumer has become enamored of locally made small-batch mustard with handwritten labels. The distinction comes down to the presumptive identity of the maker, and what we like to assume of their intent.

In my book, Beyond Self-Interest: Why the Market Rewards Those Who Reject It, I argued that the incentives of capitalism lead us to value disinterested makers over self-interested ones. In a crowd of greedy profit-seeking market actors, the only ones we can trust are the obsessives who care more about their craft than their bottom line—or at least claim to. One paradoxical result is that doing things for their own sake has become a profitable move. We find individual passion reassuring, and this preference is not limited to farmers’ markets: Experimental evidence suggests that corporate managers view passionate workers as more competent, and they promote them more rapidly—even when those passionate employees’ output is actually lower. Artists face an extreme version of this whim; their market success depends on being seen as oblivious to market success.

The advent of AI models will only accelerate this trend. We will place ever more value on works that seem made for their own sake, rather than ours. That’s bad news for the AI robots, which are explicitly designed to please us. Engaging in a task for its own sake is one thing that, by construction, is beyond any AI’s ability. Trained on what has appealed to us in the past, they offer it back in new colors.

We will look upon these pastiches with increasing suspicion, scrutinizing the provenance of words and images. Books and movies will tout their full-blooded bona fides. We will regard these as “better,” just as we convince ourselves that small-batch mustard tastes more “real” than its supermarket equivalent. We will develop increasingly sophisticated means of telling the two apart, and technology will itself be enlisted in the effort.

The ground has already been set, which is often the case. It turns out the gothic revival had been in the air for over a decade by the time William Morris offered British elites hand-painted tiles from his atelier. Similarly, the AI revolution will elicit a further elevation of “authenticity” from consumers, which painters and illustrators and writers will pounce on. Far from signaling a decline of original art made by humans, the advent of AI will render it more precious by contrast. The gap between the artists and the robots will grow wider, just as their technical abilities continue to converge.

What actual form might our newfound preferences take? William Morris provides some additional clues. His greatest influence was the art critic John Ruskin, who was 15 years his senior and can be credited with launching the gothic revival that Morris capitalized on. Ruskin was a polemical thinker who united a set of aesthetic preferences with a zealous social philosophy. He not only had set ideas about church stonework, but also strong beliefs about social institutions. Inveighing against what he saw as the dehumanizing division of labor in Victorian factories, he held that makers should be involved at every stage of the making. “The painter,” he claimed, “should grind his own colors.” Morris himself embodied this idea, and it proved good business. Though he eventually found himself at the head of a thriving firm, he never stopped grinding his own colors; he remained obsessively involved at every stage of production.

Expect the trend to continue. We will demand works that can be attributed to an identifiable individual vision. The AI age will lead to a doubling down on biography, which happens to be another thing robots are notably short on. Already, there is grumbling over how major contemporary artists, from Damien Hirst to Jeff Koons, rely on vast studios of assistants to do the actual painting and sculpting as a way of keeping up with the demand for maximal scale and output. Expect the complaints to grow deafening, and the rote response, according to which even Renaissance artists delegated tasks to dozens of apprentices, to lose its potency. That may have been fine for Titian’s time, but we now have painting robot upstarts to contend with, and our tastes have grown fickle.

This isn’t to say that artists will not take up AI as a new tool. Even the Impressionist painters, who responded to the advent of the daguerreotype in the 19th century by going to places where photography couldn’t follow, relied on photographs as a sketching device for their own work. But AI creations will only be rescued by tethering themselves to an individual human vision.

It turns out we’ve been prepping for the AI revolution for decades, developing quirky tastes for the very kind of symbolic values—individual passion, purpose, lived experience—that robots will not exhibit anytime soon. That’s why AI is unlikely ever to produce “better” art than humans. Instead, it will transform our sense of sweet and sour. Our collective defense mechanism will kick in. It’s the robots who should be wringing their little grippers.

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Ehiko: The Multidisciplinary Artist Shaping Decolonization Through Art

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Ehiko, a multidisciplinary artist born in Lagos, Nigeria, now calls Toronto, Ontario, her home. An OCAD University graduate, she has gained recognition for her powerful and evocative works that delve into the complexities of decolonization, health and wellness, spirituality, sexual violence, and the representation of melanated hair.

Ehiko’s artistic journey began in the vibrant city of Lagos, where the rich cultural heritage and traditional artistry influenced her deeply. This foundation blossomed in Toronto, where she continued to experiment and manipulate raw canvas due to its flexibility. Her expressive palette and the use of various textiles pay homage to traditional Nigerian craftsmanship, creating a unique blend of contemporary and ancestral art forms.

Her works are not just visually striking but also laden with profound messages. Ehiko’s exploration of decolonization is evident in her large-scale multi-medium paintings, performances, drawings, and installations. Each piece she creates is a testament to her commitment to unravelling spirituality linked to traditional Afrakan masks, presenting a dialogue between the past and present.

One of the central themes in Ehiko’s work is health and wellness, particularly within the context of the Black community. She addresses the often-overlooked aspects of mental health and the importance of wellness practices rooted in African traditions. Through her art, Ehiko encourages a reconnection with these practices, promoting healing and resilience.

Sexual violence is another critical subject Ehiko tackles with sensitivity and boldness. Her works often depict the pain and trauma associated with such experiences while also highlighting the strength and resilience of survivors. By bringing these issues to the forefront, she fosters conversations that are essential for societal change and healing.

The representation of melanated hair in Ehiko’s art is a celebration of Black identity and beauty. Her pieces challenge societal norms and stereotypes, presenting Black hair in its diverse and natural forms. This representation is not only about aesthetics but also about reclaiming cultural identity and pride.

Ehiko’s exhibitions in Lagos and Toronto have garnered significant attention, and her private collection of purchased work is available upon request. Her contributions to the art world extend beyond her creations; she is also an advocate for using art as a tool for social change and empowerment.

In every piece, Ehiko weaves her experiences, heritage, and vision, creating a tapestry that speaks to the heart and mind. Her work is a powerful reminder of the role of art in decolonization and healing, and her journey continues to inspire and influence the global art community.

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Home + Away artwork opens in Vancouver’s Hastings Park

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A new art installation now towers over Vancouver’s Hastings Park fields in celebration of the city’s history of spectators and sports.

Home + Away is a sculpture by Seattle artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio, which opened Monday in the southeast end of the historic park.

It’s a 17-metre-tall structure that resembles a narrow set of bleachers — similar to the stands of the Empire Stadium, which stood on the site of the park from 1954 to 1993 and hosted The Beatles, among many others. It recalls a covered ski jump that stood there in the 1950s and the nearby wooden rollercoaster at the PNE.

The city says the public is invited to walk the stairs and sit on the benches.

“In addition to being visually striking, this artwork is intended to be ascended, sat on and experienced. It offers exciting experiences of height and views and provides 16 rows of seating for up to 49 people, making for a unique spectator experience when watching events at Empire Fields,” the city said in a release Monday.

The idea for the park to include public art was outlined in the Hastings Park “Master Plan,” first adopted by the city in 2010. The city says Han and Mihalyo first presented their design in 2015.

“It’s wonderful to see this piece realized within the context of such a well-used public space,” said Han.

Home + Away was inspired directly by the site history of spectatorship, and we hope it will connect Hastings Park users to that history and the majestic views of the environment for many decades to come,” added Mihalyo.

The artwork features a large light-up sign, in the style of a sports scoreboard, that reads “HOME” and “AWAY.”

 

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Bill Viola, Video Artist Who Established the Medium as an Integral Part of Contemporary Art, Dies at 73

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Bill Viola, whose decades-long engagement with video proved vital in establishing the medium as an integral part of contemporary art, died on July 12 at his home in Long Beach, California. He was at 73 years old. The cause was complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. The news of his passing was confirmed by James Cohan Gallery.

Viola’s works are centered around the idea of human consciousness and such fundamental experiences as birth, death, and spirituality. He delved into mystical traditions from Zen Buddhism to Islamic Sufism, as well as Western devotional art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in his videos, which often juxtaposed themes of life and death, light and dark, noise and silence. These explorations were achieved by submerging viewers in both image and sound with cutting-edge technologies for their time.

“I first used the camera and lens as a surrogate eye, to bring things closer, or to magnify them, to experiment with perception, to extend vision and make lengthy observations of simple objects,” Viola said in a 2015 interview. “Once you do that, their essence becomes visible. So I suppose I was always interested in the inner life of the world around me.”

Beginning in the 1970s, Viola created videotapes, architectural video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances, flat panel video pieces, and works for television broadcast—all of which expanded the scope of the medium and established Viola as one of its most notable practitioner.

Video still of a man diving into water that has been reversed. The image is mostly black and teal.

In 2003 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Tate, London; and the Centre Pompidou in Paris jointly acquired Bill Viola’s 2001 three-channel video installation Five Angels for the Millennium.

Photo Kira Perov/©Bill Viola Studio

Bill Viola was born in 1951. He grew up in Queens and Westbury, New York, and attended P.S. 20 in Flushing, before receiving his BFA in experimental studios from Syracuse University in 1973. There, he studied with visual art with the likes of Jack Nelson and electronic music with Franklin Morris.

Following his graduation, between 1973 to 1980, Viola studied and performed with composer David Tudor in the music group Rainforest, which later became known as Composers Inside Electronics. He also worked as technical director at the pioneering video studio Art/tapes/22 in Florence, Italy from 1974 to 1976. During that time he encountered the work of other seminal video artists like Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci.

Viola was subsequently an artist-in-residence at New York’s WNET Thirteen Television Laboratory between 1976 to 1983, wherein he created a series of works that premiered on television. He traveled to the Solomon Islands, Java, and Indonesia to record traditional performing arts between 1976 and 1977. Later that year, Viola was invited to show work at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, by cultural arts director Kira Perov, with whom he married and began a lifelong collaboration.

He was appointed an instructor in advanced video at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California in 1983. He was the Getty Research Institute scholar-in-residence in Los Angeles in 1998 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000.

In 1985, Viola received with a Guggenheim Fellowship for fine arts, and later that decade, in 1989, he was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. His work was also featured in some of the world’s most notable exhibitions, including Documenta VI in 1977, Documenta XI in 1992, the 1987 and 1993 editions of the Whitney Biennial, and the 2001 Venice Biennale.

In 1995, he represented the United States at the 46th edition of the Venice Biennale. For the pavilion, Viola produced the series of works “Buried Secrets,” including one of his most known works The Greeting, which offers a contemporary interpretation of Pontormo’s oil painting The Visitation (ca.1528–30). The Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and New York’s Guggenheim Museum commissioned the digital fresco cycle in high-definition video, titled Going Forth By Day, in 2002.

Viola’s work was the subject of a major 25-year survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, which subsequently toured internationally. His work has been the subject of major museum retrospectives in the years since, including at the Grand Palais in Paris (in 2014), the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (2017), the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (2017), and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (2019), as well as an exhibition pairing his work with that of Michelangelo at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2019.

Viola is survived by his wife Kira Perov, who has been the executive director of his studio since 1978, and their two children.

“One thing that’s very exciting about video that has turned me on since I first saw this glowing image way back in 1970 is that it can be so much,” Viola said in a 1995 with Charlie Rose on the occasion of this US Pavilion at the Biennale. “Furthermore, what’s really exciting is I don’t think it’s been since really the Renaissance where artists have been able to use a medium that one could say is the dominant communication form in society.”

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