Christie’s, Trying to Be Relevant, Puts AI Art on the Block

The opportunity to capitalize on the buzz surrounding artificial intelligence fits in with Christie’s efforts to market itself in new ways.


With their eyes trained on a gilded frame containing a smeared, half-formed image of a distinguished gentleman, a small group of potential bidders gathered Friday night over cocktails at Christie’s New York and heard the pitch: here was the first portrait generated by an algorithm to come up for auction. The portrait, produced by artificial intelligence, hung on the wall opposite an Andy Warhol print and just to the right of a bronze work by Roy Lichtenstein.

There were some smiles and at least one frown. Two people snapped cellphone pictures of the work, which looked as if someone had taken a sponge to a 17th-century oil portrait. The arrival of what some call the infant stages of the next great art movement at one of the world’s leading auction houses was greeted nonchalantly, with a nod of understanding and a sip of mezcal margarita.

Christie’s is hoping for a more explosive reaction Thursday, when the gavel comes down on “Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy,” formally testing the art market’s interest in AI art. The work — estimated at $7,000-$10,000 — was a collaboration by the members of Obvious, a French trio composed of a student of machine learning and two business school graduates, none of whom have a background in art. There was no paint or brushes involved, just an algorithm that learns to imitate sets of images fed by humans — in this case, thousands of portraits spanning the 14th century to the 20th.

But is it art? Frédérique Baumgartner, an art historian at Columbia University, said the AI work raised questions about “intention and authorship,” but so, too, did artists from the past, including Marcel Duchamp (who famously made art out of a urinal). She went on to compare the portrait’s contrasting tones, coupled with the subject’s sober dress, with the old master of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt van Rijn — though she quickly added, “That’s if I look half-closing my eyes.”

The unusual sale shows the challenge traditional auction houses face staying relevant in a culture that moves at WiFi-enabled speeds. Christie’s — which shattered auction-house records in 2017 when it sold a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting — reached out directly to Obvious this year, rather than working through a seller. (It is the only AI work in Thursday’s sale of 363 lots.)

Surprisingly, the loudest criticism has come not from the art establishment but from the small but passionate community of artists who work with AI, many of whom say that what Christie’s and Obvious suggested was groundbreaking was in fact effectively AI Art 101. Ahmed Elgammal, director of the Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Rutgers University, said that the technology used to create the work, Generative Adversarial Networks, or GANs, had been used by artists since around 2015. “This group was totally irrelevant,” he scoffed.

Mario Klingemann, a German artist known for his work with GANs, put it bluntly. “When I saw that announcement” of the auction, he said, “my reaction was ‘you can’t be serious.’” He compared the portrait by Obvious “to a connect-the-dots children’s painting.”

Richard Lloyd, the International Head of the Prints & Multiples department at Christie’s, who brought the work in, acknowledged that he hadn’t made an exhaustive search of the small but very active field of AI art. “I just responded to it and thought it’d be cool,” he said.

He added of AI art, “It’s just a personal sort of interest I’ve had for quite a few years.” He said he had been inspired by a report earlier this year that Nicolas Laugero Lasserre, a French collector, had privately purchased a portrait from Obvious, for about 10,000 euros, or about $11,400.

What struck Lloyd most, he said, was the work’s resemblance to European portraiture. “It looks like something you’d expect Christie’s to sell,” he explained. “We’re the people who sold the Leonardo for $450 million.”

He thought that the work Obvious was doing would be a good way to ease potential buyers at Christie’s into work made with AI. “I like the fact that it didn’t at first blush look different,” he said.

Many artists and researchers who specialize in artistic applications of AI technology, while generally glad of the potential exposure the sale could bring, say that the portrait chosen by Christie’s is derivative. Codes written to produce the kind of images Obvious has made are also shared freely online among enthusiasts, raising questions of originality.

For its part, Obvious acknowledges that the technology it used was gleaned from others. “It’s open source,” explained Pierre Fautrel, one of the group’s members, in an interview in New York last week. “We took a lot of different parts from different people.”

The biggest difference between the Obvious portrait and their predecessors’ is the fact that Obvious had theirs printed on canvas and “signed” in the bottom right corner with a mathematical function used to produce it. They also had it extravagantly framed. “We’re introducing it to people who do not necessarily know what a GAN algorithm is,” Lloyd explained, speaking to the presentation. “It has to be, all things being equal, comparatively simple.”

The opportunity to capitalize on the buzz surrounding artificial intelligence fits in with Christie’s efforts to market itself in new ways.

In July it held its first Art & Tech summit, focused on the theme of blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. (Obvious themselves have sold art on SuperRare, an online marketplace that allows users to buy and sell digital artwork using cryptocurrency.)

Brick-and-mortar auction houses have been slow to accept art that explores new technologies. To be sure, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips offer plenty of digitally generated works by blue-chip artists like Andreas Gursky and Christopher Wool. But the sort of digital video and virtual reality pieces that are featured routinely at contemporary art biennials rarely, if ever, appear at auction houses.

Artists in the field are hoping that works sold at auctions like Christie’s will increasingly enter private collections. That appears to be happening more often. Earlier this year the New Delhi art gallery Nature Morte hosted what was billed as India’s first exhibition of work made entirely by AI, including works by Klingemann, Tom White, Memo Akten, Jake Elwes and Anna Ridler. In December, Elgammal of Rutgers will exhibit AI art for sale at Art Basel Miami Beach.

Who knows what art historians of the future will say about these works and the impact of AI as a tool for artists. But Baumgartner at Columbia offered a gut response to the Obvious portrait.

“It’s just so strange,” she said.

c.2018 New York Times News Service

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