The artist in the machine


In his 1868 prose poem The Songs of Maldoror, the self-styled Comte de Lautrémont described a young man as being as handsome as the “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table” – a startling image that would inspire the surrealist movement in history. art half a century later.

Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI), we no longer need to rely on the vision and talent of an artist to imagine what such a meeting would look like. AI image generation programs combine machine learning algorithms with the Internet’s massive amount of images and their associated metadata to create a virtually endless catalog of original images, limited only by the word combinations used to create them.

While computer-generated imagery isn’t new, the technology has become more familiar — and scrutinized — over the past year as it has grown exponentially more powerful. A Colorado artist made headlines a few months ago when he used one such program, Midjourney, to win a digital art contest. The open-source Stable Diffusion has already been widely criticized for its potential to spread even more visual misinformation than older technologies like Photoshop have already made possible.

And then there’s DALL-E, which has established itself as the leading image generator in the field. His name – a portmanteau of Salvador Dalí and Pixar Wall-E – gives clues to its purpose: a self-learning automated entity that generates endless and often surreal combinations of imagery, art styles and abstract concepts. (The association is presumably meant to invoke the wildly creative young Dalí and not the peddler he became – although given that DALL-E’s San Francisco-based parent company, OpenAI, stands to profit largely from licensing the program, perhaps late-stage Dalí is also one of the guiding spirits of the program.)

Access to DALL-E was limited to guest users from its release in January 2021 until last month when OpenAI released DALL-E 2 and opened it up to everyone. (You can play with yourself at The process couldn’t be simpler: describe something in a text sentence, or “prompt”, and DALL-E creates an image of it . An impressionist painting of Mickey Mouse surfing atop the Pilgrim Monument? It’s only a few clicks away. (To help prevent its use for nefarious purposes, DALL-E will not allow prompts that include identifiable people; anything illegal, violent, or sexually explicit will also not pass through its filters.)

Twenty years after its invention, photography is described by Baudelaire as “the deadliest enemy of art” and “the refuge of any painter too poorly endowed or too lazy to complete his studies”. Some reactions to DALL-E and its ilk in the contemporary art world have been similar. Is it a new art form or the latest art fashion? (Remember NFTs?) Or is it an existential threat to human creativity itself?

I first asked my colleagues, the writer and painter Abraham Storer and the photographer Agata Storer, what they thought of it. We decided to invite a few other local artists to experiment with technology to see if it’s something that portends the eventual obsolescence of fine art or just another tool for inspiration and experimentation like digital tablets, acrylic painting and photography – all of which were met with skepticism when introduced. After all, even Baudelaire ended up admitting that photography could at least be useful as a “servant of the sciences and the arts”.

Their AI-generated images and the prompts that created them follow.

A minimalist painting of Wellfleet in the snow.

“I wanted to create an image that would look like something I’d like to paint, or something I’ve painted in the past. The system seems to have a sophisticated knowledge of composition and an understanding of winter colors. One of the images that I generated shows an uncanny resemblance to oceanfront beaches; others seem more derived from the area around the pier. They got things wrong, like the scale of the local architecture and the oversized hills. I found the images emotionally moving, which surprised me. The machine has a long history of creative human endeavours. Abraham Storer

A geometric painting of a sunrise on a winter day that is almost entirely in shades of white, a la Sol Lewitt.

“I used this prompt because I want to create new paintings and am looking for inspiration. I have found that unless I have identified a well-known painter (in this case Sol Lewitt), almost all the images generated were impressionist in style, and that’s not what I was looking for. It’s not the first time I’ve used AI image generators to brainstorm inspirations. It’s a good way to spin the wheels. I’m not trying to reproduce the images generated but rather to source ideas. I find this particular image interesting because it contains elements that echo my style, with some variations in color and composition that I don’t wouldn’t have thought of it myself. —Gaston Lacombe

A gay man who bowls with straight men.

“My first prompts were to generate images of the male figure – and in particular gay male figures – to see how DALL-E would represent these differences. After playing, I became much less impressed with the artistic merits of the images generated and more interested in their social implications. I found this particular image funny – and a little disturbing. The gay figure in the center has a stereotypical posture and his straight bowling mates look slightly amused (or embarrassed, confused and/or horrified) by having him in their presence.Michael Lyons

A plein air style painting of a New England coastal town in October at dusk.

“When I tried this prompt, it spit out paints that looked vaguely familiar to me – but none quite like mine, which was a relief. Materials are really important to me, and AI can’t replicate that. The presence of the human hand – the twist and imperfection of things – will always be important. I see it as a useful tool, even if it’s not for me. But it will only get better as we use it. —Karen Cappotto

Across the water at triathlon swimmers starting a race.

“I’m always looking for images beyond my imagination as painting references. The story I want to tell is not something I could easily direct, even if I had a role model. I often look for an underwater view. I discovered that the AI ​​doesn’t know how to transport a canoe – and probably other experiences are still foreign to the robot, such as viewing the seabed. It’s fun to think I could lead my AI in these experiments. —Mark Adams

A mannerist painting of mores.

“I’ve always been interested in language and meaning and the gap between what we intend to say and what is heard and understood – maybe where almost all of life happens. Trying this, it’s kind of like that gap and kinda like learning a new language I found I had resistance to learning on the terms of an algorithm, but I also wanted to win a game by getting interesting images He seems to like associations between literal ideas and not being poetic at all, and takes abstraction as given in the most infuriating way.Mostly, it made me want to paint. Mike Carroll

Chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.

Just because. —John D’Addario

A photograph of a transparent retro angel ghost standing above a bed in an old film style, 1920.

“I decided to try to create photographs that would not have been possible at a given time without a lot of darkroom work: something ephemeral and transcendent. After toying with the idea for a while, I settled on images of angels. To me, DALL-E is a scary tool in that it produces good quality artwork – as well as something very exciting to work with. Imagination is the only limit. Agata Storer

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