In the Eye of the Beholder


The painting you see above sold at an auction in London last month for $432 000.

To put that figure in some kind of perspective, $432 000 would be somewhere approaching the median house price in my neighbourhood.

So what was so amazing about what looks to be, at least on the surface and to the untrained eye a very minimalist, one might even say rudimentary portrait?

It was painted by a computer.

Or to be more precise, an Artificial Intelligence (A.I) generated algorithm.


Viewed up close, this image cobbled together with 1s and 0s, becomes a grid of mechanical-looking dots, the man’s face a golden blur with black holes for eyes.

Created by a Paris collective, a data set consisting of some 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th and 20th centuries were fed into a super computer to effectively teach ‘it’ by example the fundamentals of human portraiture painting.

Besides the soulless look and feel of this ‘painting’ the other giveaway that it’s not born of a human mind is the signature of the ‘artist’ in the bottom right hand corner of the work.



It took only nine minutes of bidding at Christie’s London auction house for this work to reach the price of $432 000.

Creativity is something we have always closely associated with what it means to be human. For decades we have elevated ourselves above the level of mere machines by claiming that although a computer may be able to quantify the size of an atom or calculate the exact distance to the moon it will never, with heavy emphasis on the word NEVER, be able to create a true thing of original beauty like a painting or a music symphony.

In the age of Siiri, computer driven cars and speech recognition software, it may just be time to ever so quietly step away from those previously so over-confidently stated assertions.


All this brings me in a quite round-a-bout way to what I really wanted to let you know about in this post. Every so often SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK justifies its name choice and talks something about actual writing. This is one of those occasions.


A writing website run by Chris Fielden based in England is running what it calls a free-to-enter writing challenge. Entrants must use a news article as inspiration for a short, flash-sized fiction story. Mini-prose pieces submitted will be published in an anthology, part-proceeds of which will be donated to charity. If you’re interested in finding out more CLICK HERE

My fiction story, based on the A.I. created painting that was reported on in an on-line edition of the Australian edition of THE GUARDIAN newspaper last month HERE is  entitled ART BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

Summoning every bit of his severe intelligence, Guy finally spoke. “If there’s one thing I hate it’s ridiculous attempts at AI expressionism. And you can forget cultural bona-fides. This painting is an evolutionary cul-de-sac, a Darwinian twilight zone that makes me feel like something is terribly wrong on a scale that dwarfs us all. To hell that it passes the Turing Test. It’s plain to see the damn thing’s got no soul!”

Guy was melancholic by nature. As he stood alone and muttering to himself, casting judgement in the floor to ceiling glass walls of the state-funded Petaflops Algorithm Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Munich – the world’s first gallery devoted wholly to showcasing computer-made art works – the somewhat depressing and certainly off-centre occasion was definitely no watershed moment for him. Beret-wearing Guy was a person comfortable in his own misery, you could tell. He looked and sounded as though he’d been here before.

The female security guard had begun staring arrows in his direction and speaking into her secret service earpiece by now.  Guy knew it was time to leave. He canted forward with his narrow shoulders hunched, as though heading into a bracing wind and made his way to the lift going to the ground floor exit.

On his way out, it took all his will not to shield himself with his hands as he travelled past the elderly reception person he couldn’t be a 100% certain wasn’t a robot. Instead he opted for a signature departure accompanied by one last under-his-breath but still audible critique – “ Flapdoodle I tell you! This goddamn machine art is all bloody flapdoodle! But in an interesting way – I’ll give you that”.

Ps. $432 000 might seem like an insane amount of money to pay for a piece of art, A.I or no A.I. but it pales in comparison with the $90 million, that’s right $90 million forked out just last week for this piece of aquatic eye candy.


This artwork was done by a human (now 81-year-old British artist David Hockney) back in 1972 and has just set a new record for the highest price paid at auction for a painting by a living artist.

Regular readers will know I’ve currently got a thing for swimming pools, having just bought a house that came with one. So I can actually picture this attractive little number decorating one of our bare walls. The beyond gut-bustingly hilarious price tag however is obviously all wrong.

In light of my recent spate of extravagant outlays going right back to the purchase of a new Mazda CX-5 back in June, $15 wall art courtesy of the modest opulence of The Reject Shop is much more within my present budget.

And I reckon I spied one at that price last weekend in that exact store. And it didn’t look half unlike it’s multi-million dollar royal cousin pictured above.

Reckon it’s still there?



12 thoughts on “In the Eye of the Beholder

  1. I think I’d go so far as to say the true artist here is a programmer, not the program. And the painting still says the programmer doesn’t know anything about art, which is why their chosen profession is programming. It’s a good gimmick though. Novelty sells. That’s the part that hurts most. We live in an era that fails to recognize fact, and truth is left to the whim of advertising. Of course the pursuit of art imitates life. In this case, it’s just as empty. Interesting post. Much to consider.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Gimmick with a capital ‘G’ that is for sure!
    I will say though it is way more interesting than the 2001 Steven Spielberg-directed movie A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE starring Jude Law which I slept most of the way through in a film theatre in Tokyo, Japan.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. OK, now we get to go really deep here in SWS Land. I may be wrong, but something I can only wonder will never be programmable into an AI medium is emotion. Nuanced emotion is what sets real art apart from trash. Yes, price paid is no measure of quality – there are plenty of fools out there willing to part with their money, and yes, I’ve been one myself at times, but certainly not for items of art.

    Indeed the AI inspired artwork you referred to Glen had no soul whatsoever. Will computers ever have a soul? Perhaps in movies. Indeed one did of sorts in Lost in Space, but that is another blogspace.
    What the artwork did have was 2 snouts – one was between the eyes, and the other where the mouth should have been.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The person who parted with the equivalent money sum of a new house for that 5th rate portrait obviously wanted it for the A.I novelty value rather than any overwhelming attraction to the peceived sublime beauty of the thing.

    Then again, was the ‘person swimming while someone watches on’ painting done by a human really worth $90 mill? In market terms the answer has to be ‘Yes’ because that’s what some mad investor paid for it.

    It all comes back to that ol chestnut saying – ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it really does come down to chestnuts I guess Glen. Whether writing books, painting, or whatever, it is safe to say there will always be someone willing to buy our product and like it. That is one of the beauties of this modern connected world.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the phrases: “An evolutionary cul-de-sac, a Darwinian Twilight Zone”
    and “Petaflops Algorithm Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Munich.” Lol!
    I think people get bored a lot. That’s why they delve into things like machines “making art.”
    And I can’t believe that $90 million price for Hockey. How absurd! I wouldn’t pay a dime over $80 million.

    Liked by 2 people

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