Christie's Has Auctioned Off Its First Piece of AI Art for $432,500

Friday, 26 October 2018 - 1:01PM
Science Art
Artificial Intelligence
Friday, 26 October 2018 - 1:01PM
Christie's Has Auctioned Off Its First Piece of AI Art for $432,500
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Adapted from Pixabay image
Modern art has become infamous for selling ridiculous novelties for insane prices (such as an artist's messy, blood-stained bed or sealed tins of actual feces), but the recent sale of Portrait of Edmond De Belamy at the famous Christie's auction house presents a slightly more interesting (if frustrating) case: despite being sold for $432,500 to an anonymous collector, the AI artist community has called it an amateur's paint-by-numbers picture at best and a scam at worst. Of course, the real story is a bit more complicated.



Belamy 
is the product of the first major AI art project undertaken by the French art collective Obvious, which took the code for its AI from an open source GAN neural net ('GAN' is short for Generative Adversarial Network). The GAN program was created by Robbie Barrat, a 19-year-old AI artist and coder, and was based on the work of the father of GAN, Ian Goodfellow. Obvious used a 'scraper' program to collect images from Wikiart to train its neural net and create warped versions that imitated the style of the originals. After selling one of their pieces to a collector named Nicolas Laugero-Lasserre, Obvious was contacted by Christie's to auction Belamy (which was initially expected to sell for $7,000-$10,000).

Here's the thing: Robbie Barrat already did something exactly like this last year. He even tweeted comparisons between his works and Belamy. Obvious used the same scraper (which Barrat created), and even trawled the same source (Wikiart). To make matters worse, Obvious made some misleading claims about their AI, implying that the art it was creating was wholly original and driven by the program itself. In an interview with Jason Bailey at Artnome, Hugo Caselles-Dupré (Obvious' technical lead) said this:

"I think that's what happens when you are doing something and nobody cares, then you're just goofing around and you are really inconsistent...For us it was just a funny way to talk about it. If we knew we were going to have 400 press articles on what we do, we most definitely wouldn't have done that. But at this moment we were like, 'Yeah, okay whatever, let's put it like this.' But retrospectively, we are now like, 'That's a big mistake.'"

Since the story about Belamy hit the mainstream, Obvious has tried to give credit to Barrat and Goodfellow, but the greater AI art community has scorned them as being amateurs who lucked out with someone else's code. According to Mario Klingemann, another prominent AI artist, Belamy is a very simplistic product, essentially the equivalent of of "a connect-the-dots children's painting." Meanwhile, Caselles-Dupré is haplessly left trying to explain that the whole thing has gotten out of hand. According to him, "...what we do is not that complicated, or it can be qualified as not really very original compared to what is done in the AI art community, and we totally agree with that because it was just the first project...You've got to start somewhere. And we started there."

Depending on how you look at it, it's a kiss of death for a burgeoning group of artists, or an incredible windfall for a bunch of first-timers.
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