Richard Lloyd admitted to the New York Times that he had not completed detailed research on the field of AI art before opting to sell ‘Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy’ at Christie’s New York this morning (25 October). The print on canvas by French art collective Obvious was created using an algorithm that learned to imitate 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th to 20th centuries, which were fed into the system. It is estimated to fetch between US$7,000-$10,000 (£5,000-£8,000) when it goes under the hammer at 15:00 GMT today and will make Christie’s the first ever auction house to sell a work of art created by an algorithm.
Framed in a gilt frame, the work depicts a Frenchman in frockcoat and white collar, suggesting he is a clergyman. It has an unfinished appearance and the composition places him slightly off to the north-west. The algorithm behind the work appears in cursive Gallic script at the bottom right corner of the painting as the artist’s ‘signature’. One of a group of portraits of the fictional Belamy family imagined by Obvious, it is a product of the collective’s working method called ‘generative adversarial network’ (GAN).
None of the members of Obvious boast a background in fine arts. The collective is comprised of a machine learning student and two business school graduates. In the race to stay at the cutting edge of the art market, Christie’s contacted Obvious directly to secure the work, which the New York Times commented resembles a 17th century oil portrait smeared with a damp sponge. Despite the auction house’s efforts to remain relevant, the lot has divided both critics and fans of AI art.
Columbia University art historian, Frédérique Baumgartner, compared the work with its contrasting tones and soberly dressed sitter to a Dutch Golden Age painting by Rembrandt. “That’s if I look half-closing my eyes”, she clarified. She also remarked that Obvious’ work poses questions about “intention and authorship” just as the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp dared to do.
Among the most vocal critics of the Christie’s sale are AI artists themselves. While pleased the auction house is spotlighting the medium, they are disappointed by Christie’s suggestion that it is championing something revolutionary when the work was produced using code which is freely available online. Director of the Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Rutgers University, Ahmed Elgammal, said GAN technology had been in use by artists since 2015 and was therefore hardly breaking new ground.
An even fiercer criticism came from German AI artist, Mario Klingemann, who compared Obvious’ work to a “connect-the-dots children’s painting”.