Updated: Feb 18
If you think technology disrupting the art world is a 21st century phenomenon, think again. Once upon a time the art market, if it could be termed as such, was in the hands of the Church and Royalty. Artists depended on their patronage and subsequently created art that supported myth-making about their patrons. Eventually aristocracy and wealthy merchant classes ascended to the roles of patrons as well.
Technology was responsible for disrupting this exclusive model of art creation then, just as much as it is paving the way for evolution and revolution in the art world today. From the invention of applied pigments, the printing press, photography, computers to artificial intelligence – tech has long had a role in dictating the ways art is produced and consumed.
In today’s hyper-digital world, technology is transforming how and what we perceive as art whilst providing opportunities for creating and innovating with it. We look at how some startups and tech giants have revolutionised the art work with their disruptive technology and how some emerging trends are changing the definition of art itself.
Artsy’s ambitious art mapping project
In 2009 when Carter Cleveland sat in his dorm room at Princeton and tried to research and buy art online, he was surprised to discover that there was no single website with a sizeable art inventory where people could learn about, purchase and sell art. He thought the concept was an ingenious one and that he would be ahead of the curve if he founded something along these lines.
What he didn’t know is that many people had tried building exactly the same thing and failed at it. Today Cleveland openly admits that had he any idea how hard it was going to be he would never have tried it. Fortunately, he didn’t know. Artsy went from being a dorm room startup to one which is valued at hundreds of million dollars. And it’s all because of the way it leverages technology to fuel art discovery.
The Art Genome Project, the classification and technological framework that powers Artsy, is a mega-ambitious art mapping engine. It decodes the ‘genes’ of art – that is the defining characteristics and attributes of works of art like medium, styles and movements, genre, concepts, methods, techniques and so on. It then applies these genes to artists and artworks featured on the site, creating a genomes that lead viewers down infinite rabbit-holes of exploration.
Users can find artworks by browsing connections and recommendations based on similarity. According to their website, “A student unfamiliar with Jackson Pollock might learn more about him via the splattered/dripped gene; a collector might discover Takashi Murakami in his or her weekly personalisations after following Jeff Koons; a writer may research recent trends in abstract painting by browsing the monochrome painting gene.”
The project is ongoing and constantly evolving. Given its giant scale, it helps widen individual tastes, assess and predict global art trend,s and uncover unassuming historical connections and patterns.
Google Arts & Culture’s massive global art platform
Thousands of artworks from around the world available in high contrast and perfect resolutions that enables you to notice even the tiniest details is a reality only because we live in the 21st century. Google Art & Culture collaborated with 1200 museums, galleries and institutions across 70 countries, and counting, to bring to everyone with access to a smartphone unimaginable possibilities to learn about and play around with art.
For example, in 1889 Van Gogh painted three canvases depicting his bedroom in Arles. These three paintings now hang in three different museums. The curious-minded can create their own galleries where they can view these paintings side by side and compare their similarities and differences. The zoom views and high-resolution images provide a sense of realness that brochure images cannot compete with.
A global art platform with current and reliable information is only able to succeed because of the massive technological support it receives from Google. When it was first unveiled, New York Times wrote about the Google Art Project (as Google Arts & Culture was then called): “I don’t know how many wonders of the world there are by now, but it is possible that the Google Art Project will someday join the list.”
Apart from providing a predictable, but no less awesome, list of features like zoom views, virtual reality, virtual gallery tours and many more, it also has an Art Selfie feature. It uses facial recognition to find a work of work that resembles the user’s likeness. Imagine discovering your long-dead doppelgänger in a museum in north Poland?
Opinions divided on Neural network art
Neural network is an algorithm modeled on the human brain that has a range of applications, such as medical image analysis, natural language processing, image and video recognition and so on. One of the most recent and fascinating applications is the way it is used to create art.
Even before the conversation could turn to, ‘Can neural network produce real art?’ there are some pretty cool creative things it was already doing. When a network was fed a set of images of people who do exist, it learned to produce images of people who don’t exist.
It also can convert a photograph into any painting style you choose. If you want your latest vacation pics to be rendered in the style of Monet or your selfie to be recast in the style of Mona Lisa, the neural network’s got your back.
It was only a matter of time before people decided to see if it could produce art on its own. In 2018 Paris based art collective Obvious engendered the creation of an artwork by an open source neural network on GitHub. The algorithm referenced 15,000 portraits from various periods to produce the picture of a blurry man titled Edmond De Belamy.
The reaction was mixed. Many were awed by it and others didn’t think much of it. There were genuine concerns about ownership when art created using AI is based so much on the works of others. When Obvious decided to auction Edmond De Belamy through Christie’s, they expected $7000 - $10,000. The painting ended up fetching $432,000.
There are those who find this laughable. Tristan Greene from the Next Web writes, “At best it’s randomly distributing pixels in a pre-programmed attempt at imitating the art it was trained on. At worst, it’s being used to rip people off.” Then there are those who think this cutting edge intersection of art and science is worth nearly half a million dollars. We are content to sit back and watch AI do its thing.