Friday, 8 April 2016

When Smart Machines Channel Rembrandt: Is It Art?

I recently opened up my Globe and Mail to find a two page spread explaining how smart technologies created the picture displayed there of a man who never existed executed in the style of Rembrandt. The Globe and Mail called it a "frame worthy portrait." I don't know what to call it. An art fraudster's dream? Artish techno-crap? Abomination comes to mind, but maybe that's me channeling my Uncle Harry (see more on Uncle Harry below). Tu Thanh Ha, better known as a political reporter, gives us the story behind the image. The Dutch bank ING has apparently funded and supported public art for years. ING teamed up with the advertising moguls, J. Walter Thompson, to further advance its brand through the invocation of the greatest of all Dutch painters, Rembrandt. They asked leading technologists to whomp up something Rembrandtish for the public's enjoyment. So several leading experts brought to bear the smart technologies of the moment.  All of Rembrandt's known portraits were subjected to facial recognition software and other clever tricks to arrive at a statistically representative Rembrandtish array of pixels.This data was used to direct a 3-D printer. The result approximates the cracked, bumpy, brush-stroked surface of a painting made four hundred years ago, though it presents the image of a man who never existed and so was never painted by Rembrandt. It is not painted at all.

Please look at it and tell me what you think. I see a clumsy, sad sack sort-of person with a floppy hat, sort-of hair, a sort-of potato nose, lifeless eyes, a ruff of the period, illuminated by light said to mimic Rembrandt's use of same. To my eye it looks like paint-by-number.

As my Uncle Harry would say, I am appalled. Only technologists would consider this a project worthy of the name public art, technologists utterly disconnected from what art is, and why we make it.

So what is public art anyway?

Long ago when I was small, my Uncle Harry had strong opinions on same. He was a famous man in our town, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a city of nicknames including the Hub City, the City of Churches, the City of Bridges, but not the City of Art, though that should have been one of them.He was known as "Doc" because he fixed the broken bodies of cars.  He was the second eldest and best known among his accomplished and equally opinionated siblings, because he had a knack for calling public attention to his points of view on everything -- pioneers, business, the need for another community swimming pool, the weather. "How hot is it? It's hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk!"  the newspaper cutline would shout under a picture of my Uncle Harry frying an egg on the sidewalk on a sizzling day in July. Saskatoon had phone-in radio shows, and Uncle Harry often called in. He was an activist in things having to do with city governance, recreation, the pioneer experience, the rights of First Nations, anti-racism, and he also had strong views on civic art. Everybody in town knew his gravelly voice.

Now even then, when I was young, there were a lot of people in Saskatoon who knew from art. One of the leading businessmen in town, who had made a pile of dough in meat packing, was a major collector of the Group of Seven. In 1964, a beautiful, eponymous museum arose on the river bank to which Fred Mendel donated his works as a permanent collection. The Mendel was better attended in its prime than the Art Gallery of Ontario though the whole population of Saskatchewan was then (and is still) much less than half of Toronto's. There was -- is -- something about Saskatchewan that inspires visual artists and the love of same. The Emma Lake Artists' Workshop, which started as a summer school in the Thirties, took on the world in the Fifties when artists affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan (who were also part of an informal group known as the Regina Five), invited big name artists to come and do art on the shore of Emma Lake. Emma Lake is north of Prince Albert. That's north. The workshops were led by major majors (Newman, Stella, Noland, Judd, Olitski) and even by Clement Greenberg, then a leading critic in New York City. No surprise, then, that Saskatoon decided to commission a major work of public art in 1960 to grace its brand new City Hall.

My Uncle's opinion was not sought on this subject, and he was not pleased with the project selected. Why? It was not a sculpture of a guy on a horse or a gal with a man draped over her lap, it was not a human figure at all. It was a work in sheet metal cut into shapes reminiscent of farm equipment piled to suggest an ancient Mayan god of rain. Its title is Rainmaker. My Uncle Harry's view was that this was not art at all, or at least not something that the ordinary, every-day people of Saskatoon could possibly enjoy. It was something that could only appeal to the high-falutin' fools up at the University. Yet the public had to pay for it. Uncle Harry's egalitarian view was that public money should be spent on something that reflects public tastes. Starting with his.

So he made a big fuss.  He called up a radio talk show to make his views known. This involved comparisons that were invidious. This was not art, this was....

Apparently this tradition of protest over public art continues in Saskatoon. In 2014, two shrink wrapped bales of garbage were purchased from an artist by the City for the sum of $4,300 and set out on the sidewalk. A local man covered it over with a tarp and affixed a note saying that public money should be spent on taking away the garbage, not adding to it.

But listen, these works were at least made by people with ideas that they wanted to get across, they were not just statistically enabled theft. Love it, hate it, advocate for it, or militate against it, a work of art surely should be, must be something that erupts first in the mind of a person determined to reach out to others by means of an image. It can never be the shallow reproduction of a style apprehended by a piece of software. Now I'm willing to believe that in the future, as intelligent robots wend their way through the world, they may one day make works of art that encapsulate or celebrate their particular experience and world view. But this is not that.

So listen up, ING. You will never get any of my spare change in your bank by re-branding yourself this way. This project of yours can never be ennobled by the word art. Even the paintings made by bored chimpanzees have greater value. Why? Because chimpanzees, unlike software and 3-D printers, have hearts and minds. They have feelings. They have ideas. They belong to communities and they want to share.

Right Uncle Harry? 


  1. In Toronto builders gets exceptions from the code if they make a park(ette) or put a piece of art in the front. I.e, one could add two more storeys to their condo. Say, ten more units, half a million each, for whatever "art" they put out. All of this is at the discretion of the city councillor from that area. To a Russian, like myself, this scheme screams of corruption, tax evasion and kickbacks.