May 3, 2018
I debated about how artificial intelligence and art intertwine with Josette Melchor, Gray Area Founder (San Francisco), Alicia Sabuncuoglu, Strategic Partner Development Manager for Social Impact at Google, and Juliette Bibasse, digital art curator and producer at the Academy of Science in San Francisco.
You can read about the event in this article by Anna Volpicelli.
I agree with Edsger W. Dijkstra (1930-2002), Dutch early pioneer in computing science, when he said: “The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.” Submarines look like they are swimming (they move forward, up and down) but they actually don't swim like fish. I like the analogy: computers can create and analyze visual data, like the submarine can move in water. Is this authentic art? At the same time, technology like google art palette can be an extension of the artist, a new medium, or a new tool, enhancing his/her artistic power.
Another question that remains open is: who can legitimize art? Pierre Bourdieu approached the question with a sociological eye (The Field of Cultural Production (1993) and The Rules of Art (1996)): he categorized the legitimacy of various types of art production depending on who defines it, from academia to "non legitimate" authorities such as advertising (see picture below).
Finally, Artists and Robots, the exhibition that took place in Paris at the Grand Palais April 5-July 9, 2018, was an ideal opportunity to reflect on whether robots can make art... or not. I hope the exhibition will be brought to San Francisco soon.
This event was presented by:
AFTER TOMORROW 2018, a season by the French Consulate in San Francisco, the Cultural and Scientific Services of the French Embassy in the United States, French Tech San Francisco, Institut Français and the French American Cultural Society.
MUTEK, renowned for its artistic and cultural projects, promoting innovation and digital cultures through live experiences.
To see my slides, click here
Sorry, I don't have a video.
Navigating the spectrum between abstraction and representation is challenging. Semi-abstract paintings often feel nice, but also botched, incomplete, or irrelevant (see the zebra picture at the bottom of this post); but not the ones by my favorite painter Nicolas De Staël. Here is what I learned from De Staël's biography by Laurent Greilsamer (2003): making relevant semi-abstract paintings requires 3 artistic qualities: authenticity, idealism and ambition. De Staël’s artistic quest genuinely went beyond the classification of abstraction versus representation. Semi-abstraction happened without him categorizing it as such.
The authenticity of De Staël is palpable throughout his writings and his life. He was in remote contact with contemporary artists who were leaders in abstraction (ex: Kandinsky, Picasso) and criticized the very notion of categorizing abstraction versus figuration (see here). Originally influenced by Alberto Magnelli, pioneer in abstraction who went himself back and forth between figuration and abstraction, De Staël explored abstraction and then refused to aim specifically for it, exasperating his peers by his resistance to fully embrace the movement, and growing isolated: “You are stopping halfway, harshly reproached Jean Dewasne, who was resolutely turning towards geometrical abstraction” (p237). De Staël persisted his idealistic quest towards the “truth’, dedicating his entire self to it, neglecting his comfort and the one of his family “He is starving, and his family along him, but covers his canvas with the most sumptuous pastes” writes Greilsamer (P199). De Staël’s ambition for himself included high expectations for the art of painting in general. When Jean Dewasme, offended by the resistance of De Staël to embrace the notion of abstraction, asked him: ”One need to move forward, steam ahead, invent, invent everything, find new forms, not repeat the past!” De Staël answered: “What do you think I am doing? What matters is the painting, only the painting, the tension that happens there, between inorganic order and organic disorder! Voilà! One need to struggle with the canvas, make it go off!" (p237). As Greilsamer put it: “Staël followed deep reasons that were related to his pride, his confidence of being unique, his refusal of schools of thought. He preferred being the only contemporary artist in a “small” gallery, over being a pawn in a prestigious racing stable”. I think these were the driving forces that made De Staël mastering semi-abstract art, without naming it. The paintings below are the living proof of his mastery, in the 3 main genres of paintings.
As an illustration, the 2014 Ikea catalog proposes ready-to-hang pictures that range from abstract (left) to representative (right). In the abstract picture (left), the design is nice but meaningless -to "look trendy". In the representative picture (right), the overwhelming subject matter (=the Eiffel tower) prevents you from appreciating any abstract qualities. In the semi-abstract picture (middle), the subject matter is quickly recognizable (a zebra) but the zooming, framing and black and white stripes add some abstract visual qualities that make the picture more interesting than a plain zebra. However, is it a relevant semi-abstract photo? I don't think so. It lacks authenticity, idealism and ambition (other than commercial).
Take a look at my latest exhibition at the Alliance Française, San Francisco (July 23 - August 25 2016)
Some painters, as Salvador Dali, trick us. When we look at Dali's paintings (see picture below), we think we are looking at visual arts, while in fact, we are spying on Dali's mental world, highly loaded with thoughts and verbal concepts, not with visual concepts.
Salvador Dali used the visual language, not for the sake of it, but to illustrate his psyche, his favorite subject matter. When I visited the Dali exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2013, I could see how people were hooked as they accessed Dali's very unusual mind through his numerous art pieces. They were fascinated by Dali's exceptional mental giftedness, his overflowing delusional paranoia, and the fair amount of death and pornography included in his work. I was myself almost under the spell.
Dali is undeniably an amazing painter, at least technically. In fact, his technical virtuosity is so overwhelming that, at first sight, one may think it is what his paintings are about. The technical qualities of his paintings (smooth finish, pseudo realistic rendering) and the unusual subject matter (projection of the mind, melting watches, organic forms of unclear origin, surrealistic world) are what makes us believe that this is great visual art. But it is masking the reality, which is that Dali’s paintings are actually about the verbal concept of “paranoiac knowledge”, as he called it, or "the ability of the brain to perceive links between things which rationally are not linked", and not about the painting itself. Dali described his work as a "spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena." His subject matter is his psyche. His process is based on psychological introspection. One could almost say Dali paints from imagination (as opposed to nature). The painting is just a support to deliver his concepts.
For example, in The persistence of Memory (see picture below, on the left), the notion of hard versus soft, the symbol of the time that passes, and the oniric or delusional imagery refer to verbal concepts issued from Dali's mind. The soft central piece may even be seen as a symbolic representation of the artist's tortured mind, half sleeping or delusional. In that sense, Dali's painting virtuosity takes us where he wants us to go, which is inside his complex mind. For that reason, one could consider him a brilliant, efficient painter.
However, I would argue with that. The fascination comes primarily from the character of Dali himself (and therefore his subject matter), more than from the painting qualities per se. In a way, I wish Dali used his technical talents to make amazing paintings, meaningful in a plastic way, instead of limiting himself to illustrations of his mind. In his smartness, and untreated madness, Dali was in fact very aware of that: in a famous interview, he claimed he was a very bad painter and attempted to explain why (see video below).
Coming from a person with an oversized ego, this statement meant a lot. In the video, Dali was paradoxically humble (or realistic) about his work as a painter, and confessed he was mostly interested in the mind (being intelligent), while he felt paint should be restricted to dummies. This is where he really missed the point. Great art work as by Velasquez (that he quotes, see picture above on the right) are not necessarily made by dummies. In fact there are innumerable examples of great artists with a brain at least as gifted as Dali, but probably more psychologically balanced.
As a brain specialist, I don't grow tired of watching Dali's interviews and paintings: what an amazing window into the brain of a true paranoiac (or a person faking it very well), who fully embraced his delusions and made something remarkable out of it! Unfortunately, I think Dali teaches us more about paranoia than about painting. He had a great painting potential, but did not develop it. In a way he wasted his talent as a painter, because he was so focused on putting it at the service of illustrating his delusions.
Effect of tomatoes on the soprano: the hilarious neuroesthetic article of Georges Perec makes me wonder about creativity in science today
In 1974, Georges Perec, the French novelist of the Oulipo Group, wrote a hilarious pastiche of a scientific article about music: Experimental demonstration of the tomatotopic organization in the Soprano (Cantatrix sopranica L.). This parody is doubly relevant to neuroesthetics: its subject matter is a neuroesthetic study (how does throwing a tomato at a soprano affect her singing!), and the text itself is a masterpiece of language experimentation (pseudo-scientific article) by a virtuosic writer who was exposed to scientific literature when he was a librarian.
The comic effect in Cantatrix sopranica L. comes from the paradoxical distancing of the author (serious tone) from his and our emotions (laughter), and the use of abstruse vocabulary and syntax contrasting with the so-called straightforward scientific demonstration that they are meant to convey. At the same time, those who, like me, published or tried to publish articles in scientific journals, will recognize the mindset we are in when it comes to (re-re-re-)write and (re-re-re-)format a manuscript for submission, in a desperate attempt to fit in and please the reviewers. The language used in scientific articles has always puzzled me. At the same time, when I am in a good mood, I find the autonomous flow of technical words, the regular recurrence of specific terms of unclear significance that become more and more familiar throughout the text, the rhythm chopped up by references, and the unreadable figures supported by overloaded legends, almost endearing, if not poetic. Cristina Grasseni reported an unexpected appreciation of beauty through "skilled vision"; why not acknowledging that "skilled scientific writing" may also carry an inherent aesthetic value?
Yet I find the format of scientific writing very limiting in terms of creativity. In 2012, Phillip Prager, who spoke at the 11th International Conference on Neuroesthetics, suggested in his article "Making an Art of Creativity: The Cognitive Science of Duchamp and Dada" (Creativity Research Journal), that scientists are less resistant than artists to the idea of creativity as a "combinatorial process" that can be the result of chance: "seemingly incompatible concepts are blended into surprising new meanings, ‘‘a cut and paste process’’ in which ‘‘two concepts or complex mental structures are somehow combined to produce a new structure, with its own new unity (...) or ‘‘conceptual combination’’". Prager refers to scientific discoveries that date mostly from last Century (ex: unexpected discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928). I wonder if "chance" is still embraced today as a factor of creativity in scientific research, especially in academia? Where is the space for creativity, chance and combinatorial process in scientific articles?
Similarly, this question applies to scientific grant applications: guidelines suggest that they be strongly "hypothesis driven", with a clearly defined "aim", and preliminary data (supporting the hypothesis) are a pre-requisite. More specifically, the NIH recommends, when it comes to designing a project for RO1 grants (classic research grants for principal autonomous investigators): "Be innovative, but be wary" or "Since innovation is a review criterion, you want to think outside of the box—but not too far". According to the NIH, innovation is a slight expansion of the "known" towards the "unknown" (see picture below). There is no space for chance, and barely for risk.
So I am wondering and hoping: could neuroesthetic research (and emerging literature) be innovative and free itself from the sole constraints of academic standards? Could the emerging neuroesthetic literature be more open to chance? Wouldn't it foster creativity in the field? I hope so, but there may be a long way to go: Phillip Prager told me he was not able to publish his paper in an "art history" journal, while a more "scientific journal" accepted it right away. Still, when I read his article, I did not find it really... scientific (nor do I think that Creativity Research Journal can be considered a pure scientific journal)! Regardless, I found his article absolutely fascinating and relevant to both science and the history of art.
I created a Proust Questionnaire on Neuroesthetics (inspired by the original -and more romantic! Proust Questionnaire). It is a nice ice breaker and promotes interdisciplinarity. A few of us tried it already (click on the icons below).
What would you answer? You are welcome to try it: it takes 3 minutes.
Proust Questionnaire on Neuroesthetics
3 extra questions related to the International Conference on Neuroesthetics:
This is part of a series of posts on the 11th International Conference on Neuroesthetics (September 2014).
I listed the 16 speakers of the conference. Click on my sketches to read my posts, some of them include interviews. Or scroll down my blog.
Click here to read the interview of Tamia Marg, President of the Minerva Foundation