Art and Artifice

As someone who has no formal training or education in “the arts” and yet has spent a lifetime embracing creativity as a means of daily expression, I find I often feel things as an instinct rather than as an intellectual dissection of why and how. To my mind, that seems appropriate in a working sense; creativity belonging as it does the right hemisphere of our brain rather than the intellectual left. I’m not someone who teaches or lectures others, all my creativity serves a practical purpose to serve my own ends without having to justify my methods.

Just occasionally however the logical and the instinctive collide in my life and force me to think about it and sometimes sends me in a slightly different direction as a consequence and this has happened to me this week.

At this point I am editing this in light of the comments to add that the following is purely my own opinion and observations and that I have no scientific background nor am I a professional artist and this is based on my own experiences and knowledge of teaching myself to draw in my early teens and subsequent study of drawing as a non-intellectual process.

It started a few days ago when suddenly unusual looking photographs started appearing in my social media feeds. Initially a couple were so subtle my brain flicked over them with only a slight mental frown, putting them down to use of filters – something I’ve never really felt comfortable with personally but of course give users a lot of fun playing around with different effects. Suddenly a couple really threw me for a loop and made me look more closely. Noting the PRISMA legend in the corner of these photos, I realised there was a new trend happening and so I looked it up as yet another thing I was clearly behind on!

The Prisma iOS app is not a filter. Filters work by overlaying an original photograph to enhance, distort or alter it in someway visually. The recently launched Prisma tool works differently in that it digitally dissects the information and recreates the image anew from scratch using a “combination of neural networks and artificial intelligence”. One of the founders of Prisma stated this week that “It’s not similar to the Instagram filter where you just layer over … We draw something like a real artist would.”

At this point I was unable to gloss over it as yet another fad I’ve no interest in being part of. I understand what the 25 yr old Alexey Moiseenkov is driving at; the human brain does indeed filter the information it receives through the eye and by processing it puts its own slant on the interpretation of the creativity thus expressed. It does this imperfectly in the way that a photographic record does not, even when realism is the intended effect. However it is precisely the imperfection that gives creativity its innate beauty that so often has the capability to stir deep emotions within us, whether from colour, form or composition. Or indeed in sound or movement in other creative fields such as music, dance and performance art. No artificial intelligence can capture an image the way a human body and mind can do. Therefore I fundamentally disagree that even the most sophisticated technology can “draw something like a real artist would”.

Looking at some of the images I kind of understood though. Prisma appears to give people who feel they can’t draw or paint a way of turning out “works of art” in a swift painless digital mash-up. Suddenly doing art is apparently attainable for the inartistic. However, this too I feel is not true. Mostly because I do truly believe that everyone has the capability to learn to draw with some level of skill or other. The majority of us are not going to be the next Monet, Turner, Pissaro or Holbein. However drawing stick people does not have to be the limits of artistic ability, drawing is a learned skill that is within anyone’s grasp if they want it enough. It requires a degree of motor skill which can be honed through practice although most of us already have fine motor skills from our other everyday activities. Most important though is the ability to observe and override the brain’s need to process information symbolically and retrain it to literally draw what it sees.

For a lot of us in the Western world our artistic abilities become stunted in the early years of formal education where logical, left-brain thinking becomes more dominant and the stages of creative expression that a child goes through as its brain develops and makes sense of the world falter and become stuck in symbolic figures. The square house with a window at each corner. The door central to the facade and the smoke coming out of the chimney drifting upwards to the circular sun radiating yellow spokes like some celestial bicycle wheel wreathed in “M” shaped birds. Fluffy symmetrical clouds bordered by the thin blue line of sky that never meets the thin green line of earth leaving the whole hanging in a void of perspective.

The images don’t represent what the child is actually seeing, more what the child understands those things are represented by. For older children, some will persevere in more realistic representations – the carefully drawn hands with every detail shown, the fingers correct in anatomical length if not composition, hair drawn as individual strands or eyelashes fanning out like stage makeup. Often at this point we give up, frustrated by our inability to represent what we are actually seeing despite diligent use of the symbols we know to be logically “correct” to interpret what is in front of us. The verdict? I can’t draw. And so we move on to something else less frustrating, more attainable. And so often our creative selves shrink back with underuse, crying for a chance to burst free in a medium that can give voice to the human’s need to create. I feel that this frustration, perhaps at being excluded from a creative skill – look I can make art too now! – is perhaps what Prisma is tapping into so successfully and has seen its explosion in popularity over the past week.

Drawing – and painting – are entirely learnable skills however. Perhaps even more sadly the Prisma app enthuses that you can convert your photos into art in the style of artists such as Munch, Picasso, Hokusai, Mondrian. In fact, practising drawing “after” the styles of other artists is a good way of training yourself to develop your own style.

What struck me most was how instinctively I found the images repellant on first glance. At that stage it was nothing to do with conscious thought – I simply found the images slightly creepy, neither art nor photograph. It is screamingly obvious that they are artificially created but of course we live in a world surrounded by artifice as a norm so I couldn’t understand why that aspect would repel visually or why they should be creepy when they are innocuous photographs created purely for fun.

The next day I happened by chance on a radio programme – The Why Factor – about robots. Titled Fear of Robots, the discussion ranged on whether robots are good or evil, whether it is right to fear them or not and the classic science fiction trope on robots taking over their creators. It’s not normally a subject I’d find hugely fascinating, however I was up a ladder painting the kitchen and so the radio stayed on! When the conversation turned to discussing the “Uncanny Valley” suddenly my previous musings on Prisma fell into place.

The Uncanny Valley is not a new concept; first coined in the 1970s it describes the uneasy feeling humans have about robots that look too much like us. When a robot clearly looks like a machine we are OK with it. It can be a high functioning robot performing a range of incredibly delicate skills normally associated with human intelligence or more likely things that we aren’t actually able to perform with the same precision and as long as it stays looking like a robot, we accept that is it a machine or tool to aid us and therefore a good thing to be welcomed – even it it has rudimentary body parts such as mechanical limbs or a head. However the more a robot is made to look human, instead of increasing our attraction to it at some point it switches over to some instinct in us that repels us or creeps us out – this is the uncanny valley.

There are lots of theories as to why this is. Suggestions range from biological, superstitious, religious, cultural or ethical. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that that which is too perfect or too artificially human usually causes a feeling of unease. I remember reading about this more than 20 years ago where someone had produced an image of the most beautiful woman in the world. A reconstruction using features from renowned beauties, this hybrid woman had perfect lips, eyes, teeth, facial bone structure and hair. The verdict in the article? Yes, perfect. But bland and almost sinister.

This made sense of the creepiness of artificial art too. Whilst it is impossible for humanity to achieve perfection, our tolerances in our senses are so finely attuned that we are able to pick up subtle perceptions of change even when not knowing exactly why. Hence perfumes are created by someone who has a “nose”, wines are tasted by master sommeliers, chefs are trained to pick out delicate distinctions in flavour combinations, a colourist can detect subtle shifts in hues. Our sensory acuity is developed to keep us alive and safe. This also comes into play in neutral situations such as looking at a piece of digital art or a robot where there is no danger but it still raises emotional hackles somewhere deep inside.

I could choose to ignore this as something I don’t need to think about any more. I do think sometimes things coincide to make us look more closely though. I think this is probably a slight wake-up call to me to refocus on my own human skills base despite that being a counterintuitive concept in a thoroughly technological era. Talking with a music teacher friend this weekend about the extent to which I have lost the musical skills I had acquired as a child and teenager and the frustration that as an adult coming back to it I’m unable to just pick up where I left off. We discussed some of the pieces I used to enjoy playing or at least tackling with a level of competence if not proficiency and she regarded me with gentle kind amusement and pointed out I was rather chucking myself in at the deep end. My music playing was interrupted by years of arthritis in my hands and then compounded by further years of distraction and busyness. The only way to reacquire those skills from 20 years ago is to start again from foundations and relearn them. The real question is not whether it is possible; rather whether I’m willing to do that and how much I want it. Just like learning to draw.

All human skills are acquired through diligence and practise, it’s up to us to make choices about how we will apply that. I could chose to concentrate on digital photography which I very much enjoy (and in itself a creative skill) or spend some of that time on the nuts and bolts of drawing again. I can appreciated digitally recorded and transmitted music by performers immeasurably better than I could ever be and develop that cultural aspect of my brain or I can make myself reacquire the physical music making skills I once had albeit in a lower key.

I think most of all it has made me stop and think. There is nothing good or bad in artificial art. It simply is. And yet it isn’t either. If art is an expression of human self I fail to see how technological representations can be an expression of anything creative – it isn’t in fact art at all. Like so many things however, artificial creativity has been around in some form or other for a while and will be here to stay. Just like fear of robots, fear of artificial art is a non-thing. It cannot, as some have mooted, ever replace that which is created by humans. There is a crudeness about its perfection that makes it lesser than a child’s honest attempts or the naivety of primitive art. Its masterful blandness is not equal with naivety. It make overtake in terms of production as it already has in terms of imagery, photography, technology, 3D printing and a whole host of other areas. It may become the norm so that we no longer enter the Uncanny Valley when we look at it.

It’s more about whether I want to retain and celebrate those unique skills that belong to humankind and us alone.

And I think I do.

2 Replies to “Art and Artifice”

  1. What a horribly negative post…
    I use Primsa because it’s fun, I happen to like how the images turn out, and who are any of us to say that our personal taste is superior to that of another.
    As it happens I can paint, and draw, and I choose to embrace modern technology as a way of expressing myself as well. In essence art is an act of creative decisions. I’ve made a creative decision in the way I’ve framed a photo, if I then go on to make decisions to further manipulate that photo why should that image cease to be art (and I think you have no problem with photographs being classed as art). I have still had to decide how I wish to manipulate that photo, and to pick the manipulation that gives me the effect I find most pleasing.
    Yes it’s fast art, but I think you are being horribly narrow minded to just declare everything created with Prisma is unpleasant to look at, and not art.

    Plus the right brain, left brain stuff. All now completely discredited.

    1. I’ve OK’d your comment Katie in the interests of fairness and because I’ve no wish to be prejudiced – in case you think I am; you seem to assert that I consider my opinion superior to others (!?). I’m sorry if you feel my post was negative – in fact it was an attempt to be positive in a celebration of the creative human skills we can acquire if we want. You yourself are a really good example of that in that way you constantly seek to perfect your knowledge of specifically spinning but also its associated areas such as dyeing, colour and other textile skills and write and teach extensively on those subjects. You are not afraid to express your personal opinions on any of it. Nor do I challenge them when I happen to disagree with certain points – there is room for all of us to hold our own views and who is to say who is right or wrong?
      I was expressing an opinion about an emotional response to some technology new to me and something that I’ve been thinking a great deal about over the past 5 days and writing it on my own personal blog – it was not directed at any individual person. Something I think I am permitted to do? Anyone can do whatever they want to their own images – that wasn’t my point.
      I was simply intrigued by the emotional response I had to various Prisma images I’ve seen and the various articles written about the app recently showing further examples of the achievable images – it is so close and yet not quite there which does indeed fit with the Uncanny Valley. It reminded me of physical manipulations on polaroid inks my brother used to do on boring sessions on fashion shoots as an assistant 25 years ago – how he’d make slight tweaks to models faces that make you look twice and think something isn’t quite right but you can’t tell what it was and then making really obvious distortions for a laugh so that the distinction is just humorous rather than unnerving.
      Those opinions and reflections doesn’t mean I think I’m right or superior, all life is a continual process of learning and questioning and we should always hold ourselves open to other views. I’m also not saying that people shouldn’t use technology either in a creative or any other sense. We all of us in creative fields do so. My conclusion was that the process of thinking about it all has simply made me want to positively rebuild some of the “low tech” skills that I once had but have lost through lack of time, illness or other things taking priority.
      You seem to feel I’m attacking you or others for using Prisma which I am not – but does explain the hostile feel of your comment you’ve left. You’ve been quite blunt in the past about things you don’t like that I do and I don’t feel insulted by your different opinion or think you narrow minded because we like different things. I am sorry if I upset you because you took it personally – but this blog post was most definitely not directed at you xx

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