In August 2018, Christie’s New York announced that it would be auctioning a computer-generated artwork created by a Paris-based art collective named Obvious (https://www.npr.org/2018/10/22/659680894/a-i-produced-portrait-will-go-up-for-auction-at-christie-s). At the time, this was seen as a novelty and regarded with interest, but not overly so. However, the portrait, titled Edmond de Belamy, shattered records when it sold for $432,500 – well above the initial estimates of $8,000-$11,500. Since this extraordinary event, there has been much discussion in the art world regarding the nascent field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and what it signifies for the future of contemporary art (https://www.christies.com/features/A-collaboration-between-two-artists-one-human-one-a-machine-9332-1.aspx).
Obvious is comprised of three 25-year-olds, which accounts for their reliance on digital technology and philosophy: “The whole process is about humans having as little input as possible in the finished piece,” and “engag[ing] in exploring the interface between art and artificial intelligence.” Obvious utilizes algorithms that are self-taught, as opposed to programmed, and fed with thousands of images until the system creates a new image that can fool itself; in other words, until the system is unable to differentiate between a generated portrait and a human-made one (https://www.npr.org/2018/10/22/659680894/a-i-produced-portrait-will-go-up-for-auction-at-christie-s). The crux of the matter is whether an algorithm can accurately reflect – and potentially replicate – the human mind’s creativity. (https://news.artnet.com/market/artificial-intelligence-christies-1335170)
There is a preoccupation underlying this phenomenon, namely: will AI art make humans irrelevant? “We are redefining what art actually is for the 21st century… art is valued at what people are willing to pay for it.” (https://www.npr.org/2018/10/22/659680894/a-i-produced-portrait-will-go-up-for-auction-at-christie-s) This statement threatens to reduce art purely to its market value, over any intrinsic or aesthetic value it may possess.
However, there is nothing creative about AI per se. It regurgitates what it has learned. AI looks at many examples of human art and then produces something “new.” This is called Adversarial Reinforcement Learning; i.e., one machine tries to fool the other by creating human look-alike art. The other machine tries to distinguish between the two. Notwithstanding fears of AI-producing art, the recent sale of an interactive work by Sotheby’s London failed to meet the six-figure mark and sold for a comparatively modest $51,000 (https://news.artnet.com/market/artificial-intelligence-sothebys-1481590). Despite this downward curve, AI is still a useful creative tool for artists, who continue to explore interactions between digital and analog forms of art. Tatiana Mejia, manager of Adobe’s AI platform, sees AI as a potential for creative growth: “Creativity is profoundly human… AI cannot replace the creative spark”(https://www.theverge.com/2019/2/1/18192858/adobe-sensei-celsys-clip-studio-colorize-ai-artificial-intelligence-art). There are many artists willing to exploit A.I. as a medium without ceding creative control over the end product, in contrast to Obvious, thus allowing for a more collaborative creation between humans and machines (https://news.artnet.com/market/9-artists-artificial-intelligence-1384207).
In addition to AI, blockchain is another technology with concrete repercussions on the art market, particularly with the increase of online sales. It consists of “blocks” that store digital pieces of information from verified transactions; each block has a unique code and multiple blocks can be grouped together to form a chain. Blockchain is a ledger: it transcribes transactions, it does not interact with art, but is relevant for the art market. Blockchain improves record keeping, the process of transcribing transactions, because it is immutable, incorruptible, and cheap in the sense that the process is cheap. You digitally sign the transaction and it is instantly verifiable. It is democratic in the sense that you do not need another authority to validate the transaction, but this transaction has nothing to do with owning art or producing art, while AI is a technology used to produce art.
Once added to a chain, blocks are very difficult to edit and impossible to delete, making them resistant to hackers (https://www.invesopedia.com/terms/b/blockchain.asp). Blockchain has gained immense popularity and is the subject of heated debates on the role of innovation and objectification of art, as well as to what extent the market can capitalize from this platform, where anything of value can be moved and stored securely and privately (https://hbr.org/2017/03/blockchain-could-help-artists-profit-more-from-their-creative-works). While some have categorized blockchain as “disruptive” and “inevitable,” it has the potential to transform the conception of ownership – through the use of shared buyers who each own a set percentage of a work (fractional ownership) – and provenance research – by allowing for a more transparent log of previous purchasers and sellers. Artory, a blockchain-based art registry, merged with Auction Club, an international auction house sales database, giving subscribers access to data over the last 40 years. Buyers are provided with a secure digital record of the history of each artwork, establishing ongoing provenance (https://thenextweb.com/hardfork/2019/ 03/22/art-auction-records-blockchain/). Nonetheless, blockchain is still vulnerable to forgeries, inconsistencies, and performance issues, and is of limited applicability to non-contemporary artworks (https://www.forbes.com/sites/zoharelhanani/2018/12/17/how-blockchain-changed-the-art-world-in-2018/#4507ec233074). The main issue with blockchain was succinctly defined by NYU professor Amy Whitaker: one cannot “expec[t] a technological innovation to solve fundamentally human problems. Even the most elegant software can’t change a thing if the people involved don’t want it to take place” (https://news.artnet.com/art-world/art-of-blockchains-1411054). A full understanding of blockchain technology is needed in order to support emerging contemporary artists within the market, as well as inexperienced purchasers outside the niche of galleries, museums, and established private collectors. Blockchain therefore has the potential to democratize the art market further by allowing art to be shared outside traditional spaces, which challenges the status quo. For instance, last week, artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy launched a project for the Whitney’s new-media portal which allows anyone to make a pitch as to why they deserve donor credit for the piece, transmitted through blockchain and tracked through a ledger. This gives lay individuals the opportunity to think about patronage and institutional influence in addition to the right to sell, donate, or transfer their credit in perpetuity. The names of chosen donors will be displayed alongside the work’s physical copy, and included in the museum’s online inventory, making the project a relatively communal experience (https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/public-private-key-whitney-1491694).
Both AI and blockchain have one element in common – the human element. Neither can exist or continue to develop without real human interaction. Technology might blur the line between art and science fiction – not to mention creative and generative processes – but without an author or audience, including sellers and purchasers, it does not reach its full potential. It will certainly be interesting to see how these two digital tools influence the art market, and how they interact with artworks and each other.
Special thanks to Sebastian Korbei for his suggestions about Blockchain and AI.
Claudia S. Quiñones Vilá is a licensed attorney in New York and Puerto Rico with experience in civil international law and an interest in the art market, illicit trafficking of cultural objects, sustainable development, urban law, and public policy. She currently works at Amineddoleh & Associates, a leading NYC legal firm dealing in art and cultural heritage disputes for high-profile clients, including the Cultural Ministry of Greece. In 2018, she completed an internship at UNIDROIT in Rome focusing on cultural property, specifically the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention’s applicability to private art collections in the US and Latin America. In 2019, she received honors for her master’s thesis on cultural heritage legislation and policy in the EU as part of the EUPADRA MA/LLM program hosted by LUISS Guido Carli University (Rome), the Universidad Complutense (Madrid), and the University of London.