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The Romantic Resurrection

The death of art, AI and what comes next

Critics in the mid-19th century warned that photography would kill art. Cultural commentator and poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) cautioned that “If photography is allowed to deputize for art in some of art’s activities, it will not be long before it has supplanted or corrupted art altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the masses, its natural ally”. 

Baudelaire was wrong. The popularisation of photography did not corrupt nor supplant art altogether. Quite the opposite: artists had to reinvent themselves against the mechanical medium in order to reassert their relevance. Art became increasingly abstract, facilitating a greater level of self-expression against photorealistic representation. Idiosyncratic artistic languages, such as Impressionism, Surrealism, and Cubism, continue to resonate with audiences today. 

Human creativity is already suffering under postmodernism

Techno-sceptics now prophesy that artificial intelligence (AI) will kill art. This is a misdiagnosis, but also a prognosis. Human creativity is already suffering under postmodernism, and only AI can save us. 

Evaluations of artistic value have increasingly shifted from the immediacy of human experience to grandiose political and power-based theories. In the process, art has become formulaic. These new technologies should only cause panic for those speaking in postmodernist tongue. Now, anyone can enter a few prompts to create a notionally “original” image or exhibition concept, and such tired discourses — characterised by the obfuscating language of theoretically abstract acronyms and buzzwords — can be generated within seconds. No grounding in reality required.

Let me provide an example. I asked ChatGPT to produce a proposal for a contemporary exhibition at the Tate Modern. The result? “Exploring Identity and Power in Contemporary Art”, an exhibition which “bring[s] together a diverse group of artists working in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, installation, and digital media.” The formulaic spiel is uncanny in its reflection of today’s artistic climate, and is worth quoting in full:

The sections will include “Race and Ethnicity,” “Gender and Sexuality,” “Politics and Activism,” and “Memory and Trauma.” Each section will feature a range of works that explore the complexities of these themes, highlighting the diverse perspectives of the artists involved.

One of the key aims of this exhibition is to showcase the work of artists from underrepresented communities and to explore how their perspectives challenge dominant narratives in contemporary art. The exhibition will also seek to engage with the social and political issues of our time, reflecting on the ways in which power is manifested and contested in contemporary society.

Some of the featured artists in the exhibition will include Yinka Shonibare, Lubaina Himid, Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Ai Weiwei, and Shirin Neshat. Through their work, visitors will be able to engage with a range of perspectives on identity and power, and to explore how these themes are central to contemporary art.

We can simply look around to recognise this creative lacuna. The current Milk (30 March – 10 September 2023) exhibition at the Wellcome Collection “explores our relationship with milk and its place in politics, society and culture”. It asks, how has the substance “been used to exert power as well as provide care?” This is what universities teach nowadays. It is normal to ask how milk exerts power and unacceptable to argue otherwise. The capitalist nature of oat milk is presented as one of the most pressing issues of the day. “Creativity” never tasted so bland.

For the first time, AI can accurately replicate these “artistic concepts” — highlighting how art has become a political maze of mirrors rather than a porous human exchange. This should not come as a surprise. Writing in 1750, Rousseau predicted that the arts and sciences would eventually become so disconnected from the world that mankind would have to beg God to return to us our “ignorance, innocence, and poverty, the only goods that can make for our happiness and that are precious in your sight”. The interchangeability between the Tate ChatGPT proposal and the Wellcome Trust exhibition reflects this artistic dystopia.

Artists, it is time for a Romantic Resurrection.

The political underpinnings of postmodernism stake a claim on “relevance”, but its incapacity to protect human creativity in the face of new technologies suggests otherwise. AI comprises the pivotal chapter in this story of hope: a resolution in the form of something to run from.

Artists, it is time for a Romantic Resurrection.

Romanticism — although notoriously difficult to define — is the pursuit of an undefinable interiority that is absolutely and resolutely human. For Baudelaire, “romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subjects nor in exact truth but in a way of feeling”. For Caspar David Friedrich, “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him.” For Eugène Delacroix, romanticism was “the free manipulation of my personal impressions, my aversion to models copied in the schools, and my loathing for academic formula”. 

This is the battle call to rediscover humanity. An aversion to formulae, Romanticism embodies the belief that the most valuable knowledge — incommunicable by way of words — is located in feeling. To reconstruct an art industry impenetrable to AI technologies, artists must reconnect with what makes them human. The “deconstruction” of life and society is alienation from feeling, and so art must relocate to immediate experience unveiled from extraneous theory. 

In protest, some argue that AI is just another tool in the box — akin to a paintbrush or a palette knife. To this, I concur, but only up to a point. Difficult to distinguish, but possible to do so, there is a difference between an AI-generated artwork and one made by the human hand. These distinctions will be drawn through intuition. AI art is ultimately limited by its artificial nature. Recent media attention surrounding the winning AI-generated photograph in the Sony World Photography Awards emanated from, and is limited to, it being an instantaneous and unaccountable digitally-produced image. In contrast, artistic creation has been traditionally predicated on human encounter, extended in time between the artist, artwork, and viewer. These exchanges offer insight into the human psyche, and this is where its value lies. 

The importance of encounter reiterates the human as artist-creator. Postmodern theories erode the importance of the individual from assessing artistic worth. In the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Karl Marx argued, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Social, political and economic context shape human consciousness and culture, rather than the other way around. Taken to its extreme, the result is ultimately inhuman — as highlighted by the replicability of AI technologies. 

In contrast, Romanticism elevates the creator rather than the created to the locus of aesthetic attention. The creative process, or rather, struggle, is an inextricable part of the artwork itself. Picasso’s granddaughter once reflected: “No one in my family ever managed to escape from the stranglehold of this genius … He needed blood to sign each of his paintings”. The Romantic Resurrection should not require the suffering of others but must entail self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Baudelaire described how the photographic industry had become “the refuge of all failed painters with too little talent, or too lazy to complete their studies”. If AI constitutes an unparalleled shortcut to image and exhibition generation, an artist must craft a personal language to express their unique situation. The result is real diversity accurately expressed in individualised artistic form.

Tennyson mused in In Memoriam (1850): “I sometimes hold it half a sin / To put in words the grief I feel: / For words, like Nature, half reveal / And half conceal the Soul within.” AI ultimately reveals how formulaic contemporary art has become. In response, artists must resurrect a new Romanticism to reaffirm their relevance to modern society, uncovering the Soul within. They must produce art that enhances the human story — imaginative expressions of hope, beauty, sorrow, jealousy, and desire — emotions which connect us all. 

Only human artists can fill this void, and glory to those who lead the fight.

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