Category: Art

Humane Ingenuity 45: What AI Tells Us About Art

Library of the Distant Future.png

(“The Library of the Distant Future,” as envisioned by Midjourney, when I was let into the beta in March 2022.)

Before one can become a Cassandra or Pollyanna about the uses or abuses of impressive text-to-image AI tools like DALL•E and Midjourney, it is worth stepping back and reflecting about the fundamental nature of this new technology. What is it actually designed to do?

Just as text generators like GPT-3 are engineered to provide highly plausible sequential arrangements of words, these AI image generators are designed to meet our expectations, visually. This agreeableness is right there in the math, in the way these tools distill millions of images into a multidimensional array of the proximities of various styles and shapes. They angle to be familiar, and from what we have seen so far, they are succeeding.

Note that this familiarity and agreeableness doesn’t mean they won’t surprise us from time to time, or even delight us. Clever questioners have coaxed unusual outcomes out of these tools with creative incantations. But even those images in some way meet our expectations, as they must; they are internally structured, like a golden retriever, to be pleasing to the incantor. I will gladly admit that Midjourney’s rendering of my request to conjure a “Library of the Distant Future” elicited an audible “wow” when it appeared. But then again, it also competently echoed the science fiction book covers of my childhood.

One can’t be churlish about this. I applaud the creativity that has gone into the design of these new tools, and they can be great fun. But they also helpfully highlight, by contrast, the nature of truly creative art.

The best art isn’t about pleasing or meeting expectations. Instead, it often confronts us with nuance, contradictions, and complexity. It has layers that reveal themselves over time. True art is resistant to easy consumption, and rewards repeated encounters. Accomplished paintings challenge easy or unitary interpretations, like Mona Lisa’s smile. The best books are worth reading multiple times, as we discover new elements and are affected differently each time we flip their pages.

As this new field of “AI art” develops, we should push for a higher-order Turing test: Are we inclined to view or read their outputs more than once, to ponder their deeper significance? Or, no matter how remarkable they may be, despite immediate, uncanny evocations of delight or humor or dread, do these images still exhaust their artistic reserves rapidly? If so, what does that tell us?

Complexity can be added to the machine; technologists are surely working on it. But the fundamental urge to meet expectations forms a major developmental barrier.

An AI text generator very well might spin a decent tale about a monomaniacal hunt for a white whale, perhaps even with copious Biblical references, given the right additional nudges, but would that work ever have the strange richness produced by a human writer familiar with the actual manual labor of whaling, and who is able to find layers of meaning in those seemingly mundane processes? An AI music generator very well might create the chord progression and melody of a decent song, with lyrics about envy and marriage, but can it record the heartbreaking plaintiveness of “Jolene” without the human experience of Dolly Parton?

The desire of AI tools to meet expectations, to align with genres and familiar usage as their machine-learning array informs pixels and characters, is in tension with the human ability to coax new perspectives and meaning from the unusual, unique lives we each live. Dolly Parton and Herman Melville worked within genres, and had their own arrays of common references, but they also exploded them in ways that could not be anticipated. That is a different sort of delight, and art.

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For What It’s Worth: A Review of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”

This is what we know: On November 24, 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan sold its latest album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, through an online auction house. As one of the most innovative rap groups, the Wu-Tang Clan had used concepts for their recordings before, but the latest album would be their highest concept: it would exist as only one copy—as an LP, that physical, authentic format for music—encased in an artisanally crafted box. This album would have only one owner, and thus, perhaps, only one listener. By legal agreement, the owner would not be allowed to distribute it commercially until 88 years from now.

Once—note the singularity at the beginning of the album’s title—was purchased for $2 million by Martin Shkreli, a young man who was an unsuccessful hedge fund manager and then an unscrupulous drug company executive. This career arc was more than enough to make him filthy rich by age 30.

Then, in one of 2015’s greatest moments of schadenfreude, especially for those who care about the widespread availability of quality healthcare and hip hop, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI for fraud. Alas, the FBI left Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in Shkreli’s New York apartment.

Presumably, the album continues to sit there, in the shadows, unplayed. It may very well gather dust for some time.

This has made many people unhappy, and some have hatched schemes to retrieve Once, ideally using the martial arts the Shaolin monks are known for. But our obsession with possessing the album has prevented us from contemplating the nature of the album—its existence—which is what the Buddhists of Shaolin would, after all, prefer us to do.

RZA, the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, had tried to forewarn us. As he told Forbes, “We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of music…This is like someone having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”

Many have sought ways that the public might listen to Once, but few have taken RZA at his word. What if Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is meant primarily as art, as a precious artifact that only one person, like a king, can hold? And if we consider this question, do we really need to listen to the album to hear what it’s saying?

*          *          *

In 1995, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei took an ancient, priceless Han Dynasty vase and dropped it onto a brick floor. It instantly shattered. He took a series of high-speed photographs of the vase drop, which he assembled into a triptych; in the middle photograph the vase seems like it’s in a levitating, suspended state. It exists, but it is milliseconds from not existing. It is forever there, whole, and yet we know it is forever in pieces.


He shouldn’t have destroyed that singular vase, you may be thinking. You must think more deeply, and enter the Shaolin temple of your mind.

*          *          *

In the old mill town of North Adams, Massachusetts, a cluster of nineteenth-century factory buildings has been converted into the largest museum of contemporary art in the United States: Mass MoCA. One entire building, from top to bottom, is dedicated to the work of Sol LeWitt.

Sol LeWitt is an unusual artist in that he rarely painted, drew, or sculpted the art you see by him. Instead, he wrote out instructions for artwork, and then left it to “constructors”—often art students, museum curators, or others, to do the actual work of fabrication. LeWitt liked to be a recipe writer, not a chef.

“Wall Drawing 1180: Within a circle draw 10,000 straight black lines and 10,000 black not straight lines. All lines are randomly spaced and equally distributed.”

Somehow, incredibly, this ends up looking like a massive picture from the Hubble Telescope: an infinite field of stars emerges after weeks of drawing thousands of squiggly and straight lines with a pencil.


Sixty-five art students and artists, none of them Sol LeWitt, made the Sol LeWitt exhibit, and it is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see. The patterns, the colors, the way that LeWitt’s often deceptively simple recipes result in a sumptuous banquet for the eyes, is remarkable.

But the exhibit will only last for 25 years—eight of which have already ticked by—after which the museum will paint over all of the art. Touring the exhibit, you can’t help but think about this endtime: All of this beauty, and yet on some Monday morning in the not-really-that-distant future some guy with a 5-gallon bucket of white paint from Home Depot and a wide roller brush on the end of a long wood handle will cover those walls forever. Will he sigh before making the first stroke?

Until that Monday morning in 2033, the Sol LeWitt exhibit exists. You have 17 years remaining, but time moves more quickly than we like, doesn’t it? I have told you to see it, but will you make the trip to North Adams? Right now, for those who have not seen it, it’s Ai Weiwei’s Han vase in mid-drop. It’s just that the gravity is lighter, the fall slower. But the third photograph, the smashed pieces, is coming.

Do you fear the loss of that magical field of stars and scores of other wall-sized artworks? Or have you closed your eyes, meditated, and concluded: Even if I never get to North Adams, LeWitt’s recipes will still exist, and they are the true art.

*          *          *

In 2008, as Mass MoCA was constructing the Sol Lewitt exhibit, they also hosted an exhibit of the art of Spencer Finch. Finch was fascinated by Emily Dickinson, and wished to recreate the moments in which she looked out of her window, thinking and writing poetry. Could these ephemeral views be recaptured, made physical for us so many years later?

“Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004),” tried to do so. Finch used lighting and light filters to make a cloud of just the right wavelengths that Dickinson would have seen outside of her bedroom on a particular day.


You cannot capture a moment, you mutter softly, waving your hand, nor Emily Dickinson’s thoughts.

*          *          *

Open your favorite streaming music app, and search for the blockbuster 2013 song “Get Lucky.”

Make a playlist that includes the original Daft Punk version, which should come up as the first hit, but also add to the list three other covers of the song by artists you have never heard of, which you will find by scrolling down the search results page.

These versions exist because of something called a “compulsory license,” which means that by paying a defined fee to an agency, you are allowed to record a cover song without asking for, or receiving, permission from the artist who wrote it. The song becomes a recipe and you become the constructor.

Now visit a friend. Play the “Get Lucky” playlist on shuffle mode. When all four songs have been played, ask your friend to identify the original version. The guitar and bass and singing will sound surprisingly similar in each version. Your friend will probably ask, increasingly frantically: “Which is the one true song?”

Do not answer. Thank your friend, bow, and leave.

*          *          *

“Get Lucky” was co-written by Nile Rodgers, the mastermind behind some of the greatest pop music of the last 40 years, starting with Chic, the disco band that gave us infectious dance hits like “Good Times.” Shortly after “Good Times” was released as a single, the enterprising music producer Sylvia Robinson brought a funk band into a recording studio and had them copy Chic’s bassist Bernard Edwards’ memorable bass line from that song. She also sampled its string section. Adding some rappers no one had ever heard of before, she created “Rapper’s Delight,” which seemed laughable to those who really knew the inventive, emerging hip hop scene, but which rather effectively set rap music on a course for mainstream (and white) popularity.

Rodgers initially hated “Rapper’s Delight,” believing it was a wholesale copy of “Good Times,” and he and Edwards sued for copyright violation. Later, after he won and was listed as a co-writer of the song, he declared himself proud of “Rapper’s Delight.” He realized it was a brilliant theft that changed pop music forever, and yet didn’t diminish Chic’s original work.

“Rapper’s Delight” was far from the only hip hop song to borrow; in fact, the reuse of older recordings was standard within the new genre, and part of its enormous creativity. The technique reached its apogee in arguably the three seminal rap albums of the late 1980s: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. Each of these albums had over a hundred samples, mixing and matching from different genres to make sounds that were totally new.

They were large, you nod, they contained multitudes.

*          *          *

In 1992, the science fiction author William Gibson, who had coined the word “cyberspace,” released a new work entitled Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). The text was issued, most famously, in a deluxe edition on a 3.5” floppy disk encased in an artisanally crafted box. The disk would encrypt itself upon a single reading, so you only had one shot to read the text as it scrolled across your screen.

This Agrippa cost $2000, and only a very small number were made. Gibson publicly revelled in the work’s combination of the ephemeral and the valuable. He loved that the book, after viewing, would become like a television tuned to a dead channel.

Almost immediately, however, the text of Agrippa was surreptitiously released on an underground electronic bulletin board called MindVox. Anyone can now read it online, and view the deluxe packaging as well.

What is the nature of art, you consider, without its packaging? What is its value?

*          *          *

The British artist Damien Hirst is probably best known for putting a dead shark in a large tank of formaldehyde and giving it the existential title “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” In 2007, he asked the jewelers who fabricate items for the British monarchy—scepters for the king—to make a human skull out of diamonds and platinum, based on a real skull he bought. The skull’s teeth were added to the final product. Hirst called this artwork “For the Love of God.” Many critics called it “tacky.”


But “For the Love of God” was as much an exercise in the finance that goes along with the contemporary art scene, where prices for works regularly head into eight or even nine figures at auction. The fabrication of the skull apparently cost £14 million, and Hirst tried to sell the bejeweled skull to bidders for £50 million. Although there were rumors of a sale, ultimately there were no takers. A mysterious consortium then evidently bought the skull, but for less than £50 million, perhaps much less, and oddly, Hirst seemed to be one of the investors. Some analysts believe that Hirst actually lost money on the deal.

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was also rumored to be for sale for a much higher number, perhaps as much as $5 million, but Shkreli ultimately bought it for $2 million, which is far less than the Wu-Tang Clan would make from a regular album release.

*          *          *

What is Once Upon a Time in Shaolin really worth? Is its scarcity its worth, and its worth its true art and value?

Once Upon a Time in Shaolin may not be as scarce as we imagine. It surely exists beyond the sole copy in Martin Shkreli’s apartment. It exists in the sense that members of Wu-Tang created it and still have its music in their heads and could likely recreate it if they wanted. Perhaps RZA is humming some of the songs in his shower right now. It exists as a recipe.

But it may also exist in actuality, albeit in pieces, like the wisps of a cloud. The master recordings may have been destroyed, but the way that digital recording works mean that elements of Once existed more than once on magnetic media and probably, somewhere, continue to exist regardless of what Wu-Tang Clan has done with the completed master. Parts of the album can probably be dug up, like the scepter of an Egyptian king, or the disappearing poetry on a phosphorus screen.

If samples were used, they exist on other recordings; if a drum machine was used, those beats exist, identically, on many other machines. Any computers involved surely have files that have not been truly erased, and that could be dug up by digital archaeologists. There may be assembly to be done, and perhaps the final product would be different from the “original.” Or would it?

And perhaps too many traces of the full Once Upon a Time in Shaolin exist for it not to leak, just as Agrippa did.

Of course, then it will just be another stream of bits among the countless streams in our ephemeral era, severed from its unique packaging. It will take its place on millions of playlists, its songs sitting alongside tens of millions of other songs.

We will have gained something from Once’s liberation, but then we will have lost something as well.

*          *          *

The abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, who recently died, was once asked about the nature of art. “I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living,” he said, with more than a bit of Shaolin wisdom. “This is an illusion, of course.”

Sol LeWitt and the Soul of Creative and Intellectual Work

I won’t get there until the summer, but I’m already looking forward to experiencing the Sol LeWitt retrospective at the always entertaining and often thought-provoking Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as MASS MoCA. (For previous thoughts provoked by MASS MoCA, see my post “The Artistic and the Digital.”)

For those who can’t make it to the retrospective—and really, you have no excuse, since its limited engagement runs through 2033—the museum has just put online a terrific website for the retrospective (one that exhibits many of the principles of good design, including the use of small multiples):

The site also has mesmerizing timelapse films showing how some of the giant works of wall art were created. This being LeWitt, the works were of course created not by him but by a team of (sixty-five) artists, including many students. LeWitt died last year, but his wall drawings were always made in this way. He “merely” created the plan for a wall drawing; others carried it out, and most of the works at MASS MoCA have been produced multiple times, on walls of different sizes and in different contexts.

Among LeWitt’s many innovations was this utter disdain toward a particular instance of a creative or intellectual work. The “artwork” was not what was on the wall (or the many walls a specific design had been placed on); it was in the ideas and feelings the artist had and the communication of these ideas and feelings to the viewer. The notion of a nicely framed work of art, a work of art that gained its value from its trappings or price or uniqueness, seemed hopelessly traditional, sentimental, and superficial. It missed the point of art.

My thoughts naturally turned to Sol LeWitt and the lessons we might learn from him as I mulled over the future of books and music this weekend. On an interesting listserv I’m subscribed to a debate raged about ebooks and the joys (the heft, the feel, the smell, the cover) of physical books; at the same time, the New York Times lionized Gabriel Roth, who is recreating classic soul and funk by eschewing digital technology and who speaks of the joys (the heft, the feel, the smell, the cover) of vinyl records.

My musical tastes happen to run toward classic soul and funk, but even I can’t help but feel that in Roth’s yearning for “real” vinyl and that rare 45 and book lovers’ similar idealization of hardcovers and that rare edition there isn’t something odd going on that LeWitt would have instantly recognized and scorned: the fetishization of the object rather than its underlying ideas, a nostalgia that improperly finds authenticity in packaging.

When Gabriel Roth tells Cliff Driver, a 75-year-old keyboardist, to replace his electronic Roland with an upright piano, Driver calls him “an old, traditional type” and the Times reporter notes that “Driver and his peers would just as well leave [such analog sound] in the past with their Afros and bell-bottoms.”

The soul of soul isn’t in the vinyl; it’s in the talent and creativity of its makers. The soul of books isn’t in their format; it’s in the ideas of their authors. Sol LeWitt understood that.

Heavy Metal at CHNM

An incredible new piece of art is enlivening the main lab at the Center for History and New Media—a mammoth (5 feet by 7 feet) scrap metal sculpture of the United States. Many thanks to CHNM Project Manager Sheila Brennan‘s husband, Ian, for this stunning work of art! (With some witty touches if you look carefully.)



The Artistic and the Digital

Roy Rosenzweig and I begin our book Digital History with a list of the advantages and disadvantages of digital media and technology for the practice of history. The “dangers or hazards” include questions about quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility. Although scholars in the humanities fret about these hazards, my experience at several art meccas over the last few days has made me think that a supposedly less conservative (small “c” conservative) group than historians—artists—is having even more trouble adjusting to the realities of the digital age.

We are fortunate here on vacation in East Chatham, NY, to be equidistant from several incredible museums. No one should visit the Berkshires without making a trip to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., of course. But it was my experience at Olana, the outrageously designed and decorated house of one of the great nineteenth-century American artists, Frederick Edwin Church, and at MASS MoCA, the center for contemporary art in North Adams, Mass., that made me wonder whether artists can handle the impact of digital technology.

At first blush, contemporary art is full of early adopters. Photography, film, video, and Photoshop were quickly taken up by artists in the twentieth century. And several iMacs were part of MASS MoCA’s collection. (Best use of an iMac: to beam the brainwaves of the artist Spencer Finch to the star Rigel as he watched a one-second loop of the giant wave from the beginning of the TV show “Hawaii Five-O.” As the exhibition description notes with no discernible humor, “Finch’s wave is expected to arrive at its destination in the year 2956.”)

Spencer Finch, Sunlight in an Empty Room

[Spencer Finch, Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004), 2004.]

But MASS MoCA’s collections were filled with the products of technically savvy artists who have rejected placing their art in the digital realm. Panamarenko, the Belgium artist obsessed with modern technology (his pseudonym is a jokey contraction of “Pan American Airlines,” one of his obsessions), makes fussy, fragile replicas of dirigibles and other aircraft. Some may remember the Dutch physicist-turned-artist Theo Jansen’s early art, computer programs that presented digital worms replicating themselves on the screen. Jansen has long since abandoned his computer. His new artwork, easily the great highlight of MASS MoCA’s current collection, are Strandbeest, amazing robotic creatures he has fashioned out plastic rods and canvas. Conspicuously absent from the Strandbeest are on-board computers or any electronic devices—they move along the beach like giant crabs by picking up the wind in their canvas sails.


[Theo Jansen, Animaris Percipiere Primus, 2005.]

In short, the artists at MASS MoCA still feel that the height of art is to produce something physical, or a physical space, or a unique sensation, that can only be experienced by trekking to see their art. For them, art requires incarnation and uniqueness—elements that the digital realm is particularly efficient at destroying. Finch, a talented artist who uses a number of scientific instruments to create his art (colorimeters, computers), nevertheless sees real art as a single end product. Art cannot be placed on the web or uploaded to YouTube; it cannot tolerate near-infinite copies being traded across the internet like MP3s, the digital low-brow.

In this way, these artists are little different than Church. Church made a fortune on his art by selling massive (up to 5 foot by 10 foot) canvases with views of the American wilderness, the Andes, and the Middle East for equally massive prices. Like other Romantic and Victorian landscape painting, the experience of seeing a large Church canvas was like a ticket to a summer blockbuster (there were even tickets to see single paintings). No tiny reproduction would do. Similarly, Church spent decades trying to find just the right site and design for his house, which is indeed situated at perhaps the greatest overlook in the Hudson valley, with each window of the house framing a spectacular view that echoed Church’s optimistic, spiritual vision of American nature. (The Persian-by-way-of-Victorian decoration of the house is a little too busy for my tastes, but the views of out of the structure are breathtaking.)

Dawn in the Wilderness

[Frederick Edwin Church, Dawn in the Wilderness, 1860.]

Undoubtedly there are contemporary artists putting their work online, or giving copies away for free in a digital format, but my sense is that these artists are unlikely to show up in the Whitney Biennial, as Finch did in 2004. In the art world, it seems that the physical will for some time trump the digital.