The history of art is also a history of rejection. I’ve written that somewhere before. Once the patterns that recur throughout art history become apparent, you might expect there to be a learning curve. But there isn’t one. Why is that? I’m also not sure why there is so little understanding of the fact that the very things that are so feverishly, vehemently and vocally rejected—be it photography, video, the internet, Instagram or, more recently, NFTs and artificial intelligence—ultimately win out in the end. Herbert W. Franke (1927–2022), Germany’s best-known science fiction author, metaverse visionary and computer artist, devoted decades of his life to writing books and texts that remain as relevant as if they were written yesterday. He wrote tirelessly to demonstrate that art can indeed be created using technology, and that such art deserves serious consideration.
And no, this rejection did not begin with the advent of technology or digitalisation. Vera Molnár, the grande dame of generative art, once recalled that modern art was not even discussed at the art academy in Budapest in the 1940s. And on the rare occasions when Picasso was mentioned, he was accused of perverting the tastes of the young and dishonouring women. We do not have to look far to find historical examples of this resistance to innovation: the notorious ›Salons des Refusés‹ in Paris in the 1860s, where Manet’s ›Luncheon in the Grass‹ was ridiculed, is one example. Then again, highly critical attention also bolsters the legitimacy of the avant-garde.
As Anne Spalter, an artist and collector who, with Michael Spalter, has amassed one of the most extensive private collections of early computer art since the 1990s, recently tweeted, »AI might be the most important technical advancement in artmaking since paint got put into tubes.« You might think that this is a direct route to acceptance. But it is not. What we find instead is yet another tedious debate about whether art made in collaboration with artificial intelligence can ever truly be called art. The answer is simple: it depends. Not everyone who takes a photograph is an artist, just as not every output qualifies as art. Beeple, the artist who sold a JPEG for more than $69 million at Christie’s auction house just over a year ago, recently told Bloomberg in an interview that even those using AI need to come up with something new and innovative if they want to produce something of lasting value. It sounds like an adage straight out of ›AI for Dummies‹.
»In the art world, particularly in Germany, digitisation seems to occur only under duress.«
There are, of course, also critical voices among the artists who use AI themselves. At the forefront of the ongoing debates is German artist Mario Klingemann, who has been an international pioneer at the intersection of art and artificial intelligence for years. Now Klingemann presents us with an art critic he plans to send on a global tour of galleries and museums—a dog, a performative sculpture called ›A.I.C.C.A.‹, short for ›Artificially Intelligent Critical Canine‹. Trained with data, images and texts from art history, this canine companion defecates critiques of artworks based on its knowledge. Klingemann explains: »Undoubtedly, ›A.I.C.C.A.‹ serves as a commentary on the overwhelming deluge of shit dumped on us thanks to social media engagement algorithms and the complicity of AI-automated creativity. We’re inundated to the point where it’s almost impossible to process it all ourselves. So, it seems logical to delegate critical viewing and consumption to a machine. At the same time, my dog critic is also a recursive critique of the ever-increasing ›spectacularisation‹ of the art world, in that he himself becomes a spectacle so as to have any chance of being noticed in our attention economy.«
In the art world, particularly in Germany, digitisation seems to occur only under duress. How many of the online formats art institutions developed during the pandemic remain today? I, for one, would love to gather everyone in one room and attempt to find an answer to that question. We would all be looking at each other in silence.
One could argue that online exhibitions are unnecessary when museums and galleries are accessible in person. Similarly, livestreams, online tours, and social media outreach might seem redundant when physical meetings and exchanges are possible. But what of the generations that have grown up with the Internet and spend more time online than offline? Where do they get engaged and drawn in? Certainly not at the museum entrance.
Even Instagram was rejected for years until it became inevitable, given that artists now naturally embrace the platform and its immense daily user base of several million people as a communication channel. Similarly, NFTs continue to be rejected until they are understood as essentially a digital contract—or rather a deed of ownership—transparently recorded on the blockchain. And as for AI, resistance will be ongoing until people understand the invaluable role of ChatGPT as an everyday assistant, helping with tasks such as writing emails or concepts. How many curators already allow ChatGPT to dictate exhibition titles and texts? The rejection of these technologies won’t diminish the art we see; on the contrary, because now really everyone has access to Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, and Dall-E.
Undoubtedly, the thing that poses problems for NFTs will present even more challenges when it comes to AI. Digital art, at least, has a history from which criteria can be derived and applied to the present. AI art, by contrast, lacks established criteria. Until now, the AI art that draws the most intrigue is the one that leverages the flaws of AI: a technology that can generate nearly everything one can think of in a matter of seconds, yet stumbles when it comes to the finer details. As Kevin Abosch, the Irish conceptual artist and pioneer of blockchain art, aptly puts it: »The wise artist doesn’t fear emergent technology, but rather asks, ›How can I use this tool in a meaningful way?‹ What I find so valuable in AI, and deep-learning algorithms in particular, is its power to surface that which I may not have been able to without assistance. In working intimately with AI, the artist has the opportunity to come under the influence of the machine. This is not a simple transaction from which one walks away unchanged. The machine can teach us a different way of looking at a subject, often leaving us with another understanding and with enhanced sensibilities. We are changed. Indeed, to properly navigate our AI-future, this form of evolution is necessary. Artists and philosophers will be our guides.«
Abosch is represented by Berlin-based gallery Nagel Draxler, which in 2022 opened the Crypto Kiosk at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, an exhibition space exclusively dedicated to artists working in the digital realm. Much like Abosch, these artists often utilize blockchain and AI as media. During this year’s Art Basel, the gallery stood out as one of the few that steadfastly supports digital art and NFTs and dares to show artworks created in collaboration with artificial intelligence.
Berlin itself stands out as one of the rare cities boasting galleries that have specialized in the history of digital art for decades. Among them are DAM Projects in Charlottenburg, helmed by Wolf Lieser, and Panke Gallery, along with emerging gallery formats including Office Impart in Moabit and the above-mentioned Crypto Kiosk in Mitte.
Amid all the commotion surrounding AI, Virtual Reality has tended to take a back seat, but Berlin has been at the forefront there as well. Nominees for the VR ART PRIZE have just been named. As Peggy Schoenegge, curator of the accompanying DIGITAL ART LAB at Haus am Lützowplatz during Berlin Art Week, noted of the potential of VR, »VR enables artists to create virtual spaces of experience. Viewers immerse themselves in these worlds to discover new, speculative perspectives on our society.«
This is precisely why art produced with the aid of modern technologies is more relevant than ever. We live in a post-digital world. We are surrounded by technology. Algorithms and AI already wield significant influence over our daily lives, often unbeknown to us. Critical reflections by artists can enlighten us about these new technologies and help us live with them in a more conscious way. Conversely, fear and rejection only hinder us from adopting an informed approach to technology.