If Art imi­tates life, can Big Data imi­tate Art?

Chris­t­ian Mon­jou M. Phil (Oxon.)

If we accept Pablo Picasso’s provoca­tive but remark­able state­ment that “good artists copy, but great artists steal…” then Big Data pro­vides us with more oppor­tu­ni­ties “to steal”. The prob­lem is then a mat­ter of choice and deci­sion. How does this align with Harold Bloom’s the­o­ry of inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty and the “anx­i­ety of influence”?

In the lat­est of her Duet series of inter­views, Dr Cal­daro­la, author of Big Data and Law, and Chris­t­ian Mon­jou M. Phil (Oxon.), con­nois­seur of art and bridge builder between art and man­age­ment, con­sid­er what impact the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion will have on art and innovation.

I assume, being an expert in the field of art, you know what Pablo Picas­so has “stolen” and from whom? And if so, could an algo­rithm search­ing through Big Data also iden­ti­fy the stolen parts and con­nect them to the respec­tive creators?

Chris­t­ian Mon­jou: I think we need to be care­ful about using the word “steal­ing” as it has its own mean­ing, in terms of pay­ing homage to the paint­ings Picas­so used. The best-known exam­ple for inspi­ra­tion, copy­ing or serv­ing as a mode is “Las Meni­nas” by Velázquez, the rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of which one can find in the Pablo Picas­so Muse­um in Barcelona. As far as Picas­so was con­cerned, this paint­ing was the great­est paint­ing in his­to­ry. In 1957, between mid-August and the end of Decem­ber, Picas­so pro­duced 58 vari­a­tions of Las Meni­nas. I think Picas­so was inspired by the pres­ence of a woman or women and he had the ten­den­cy to com­bine the pres­ence of a woman whose influ­ence was declin­ing with that of anoth­er woman whose star was rising.

Of course, the Span­ish civ­il war and the mas­sacre at Guer­ni­ca were an enor­mous source of inspi­ra­tion for Picas­so, inspi­ra­tion in the sense of W.H. Auden’s quote “Mad Ire­land hurt you into poet­ry” so that Guer­ni­ca “wound­ed” Picas­so into painting.

Going back to women, with old age, we could say that women as a sub­ject mat­ter did not tend to main­tain a steady pres­ence in the painter’s life and they them­selves hes­i­tat­ed to be paint­ed so Picas­so had to resort to paint­ing works he admired and vari­a­tions there­of, like the “Women from Algiers” by Delacroix and Manet’s “The Lun­cheon on the Grass”.

Picas­so was prob­a­bly obsessed with work­ing. One must exam­ine his works as series involv­ing his admi­ra­tion of one work and he would have exhaust­ed all per­mu­ta­tions of that work until his inspi­ra­tion dried up. It would be inter­est­ing to have some­one who is not too knowl­edge­able about art be shown one of Picasso’s “copies” and see to what extent that per­son would recog­nise the orig­i­nal ele­ments or would they con­sid­er it to be a com­plete­ly gen­uine work because Picas­so was able to move far away from the mod­el and turn it into his own creation?

You asked whether a machine would be able to recog­nise the under­ly­ing sources of inspi­ra­tion? I don’t know if that would be pos­si­ble. I sup­pose you could “feed” a cer­tain num­ber of ref­er­en­tial paint­ings into the machine, say, 250 mas­ter­pieces. I would be tempt­ed to say that had the machine not been fed these works, then it would have some dif­fi­cul­ty recog­nis­ing these sources. That is where mem­o­ry is so impor­tant. It would be inter­est­ing to expand on this point to explore how humans might recog­nise sources dif­fer­ent­ly from machines, i.e., going by atmos­phere pro­duced or feel­ings pro­voked by the work, i.e., on an emo­tion­al lev­el which is some­thing machines can­not repli­cate, or at least not yet.

When Picas­so died, he was liv­ing in a small cas­tle not far from Aix-en-Provence. I read that the num­ber of arts, his­to­ry books, cat­a­logues, post­cards, repro­duc­tions of works of art etc. in his pos­ses­sion was absolute­ly stag­ger­ing. At some lev­el, I think too many ref­er­ences to oth­er sources “kill” the new orig­i­nal work and some of these ref­er­ences may not have been direct­ly seen or may not have direct­ly influ­enced the artist in ques­tion. Yet with­out those works- it doesn’t mat­ter whether they had been expe­ri­enced only fleetingly‑, the artist would not have pro­duced his or her own works. But the work in ques­tion still cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion and trans­forms it into some­thing which doesn’t resem­ble the orig­i­nal source of inspi­ra­tion. So, I have my doubts that an algo­rithm trained and “fed” all forms of art would be able to find the sources of inspiration. 

It’s inter­est­ing in a way that there should be a con­ven­tion about a work. After all, at some lev­el, all art is a copy of the art that went before it, how­ev­er dis­tant, like the Ford Mod­el T is a pre­de­ces­sor of the cur­rent auto­mo­biles. If peo­ple had been pre­vent­ed from copy­ing the Mod­el T, then we wouldn’t have any cars today or we would still have only Mod­el Ts.

I sup­pose we have to remem­ber that for a long time in Japan­ese and Chi­nese art, it was impor­tant to work with­in a tra­di­tion and yet bring some­thing dis­crete to the work. In my view, Chi­nese art tends to delve deep­er and deep­er into tra­di­tion instead of spread­ing nat­u­ral­ly and chal­leng­ing oth­er tra­di­tions and assert­ing one’s existence.

If we go back to Picas­so and his con­tem­po­raries at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, there was a cer­tain fas­ci­na­tion with African art and there was a cer­tain ele­ment of copy­ing and also of being inspired by that art, in a way. For a long time until the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry and again at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, there was a rule of imi­ta­tion of the ancients, such as French play­wrights writ­ing their plays, such as “Phae­dra” by Racine copy­ing, for exam­ple, a play “Hip­poly­tus” of Euripi­des. If the spec­ta­tor was able to per­ceive the ref­er­ence to the past as well as the nov­el ele­ments incor­po­rat­ed, then this was flattering.

But roman­ti­cism broke away from all that, say­ing that inspi­ra­tion based on imi­ta­tion was absurd and orig­i­nal­i­ty was the touch­stone of cre­ativ­i­ty: The cre­do was: “Make it new”. There was also a new way of look­ing at nature.  Moun­tains, for exam­ple, became an object of fas­ci­na­tion, such as described in Turn­er in the Alps by David Hill.

And then at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry there was this idea that pho­tog­ra­phy was going to take over from paint­ing. Paint­ing had to then play the card of being avant-garde, mov­ing in ways that had not yet been explored. This led in some way to an exac­er­ba­tion of colours, such as Die Brücke of Dres­den, because pho­tog­ra­phy could not “do colour” at that time. Paint­ing was try­ing to find a niche, to break away into abstrac­tion. The thought was if pho­tog­ra­phy had a monop­oly on rep­re­sent­ing how things real­ly looked then paint­ing could dis­pense with that.

In Chi­na, of course, and, I sup­pose, to a cer­tain extent in Japan as well, there was this idea of delv­ing deep­er into the same tra­di­tion and mak­ing it nec­es­sary for the ama­teurs to be in a posi­tion to see where tra­di­tion end­ed and orig­i­nal­i­ty began. There was sure­ly an ele­ment of pride in being able to detect what was part of the influ­ence and what was new.  Of course, you could not just repeat, there had to be suf­fi­cient­ly sub­tle and new ele­ments to tease the spec­ta­tor but still be visible.

In a way, I sup­pose art has always been a ten­sion between observ­ing and mim­ic­k­ing real­i­ty or nature and abstrac­tion, turn­ing away from real­i­ty, a pen­du­lum between the two. If art moves too far away from real­i­ty, it prob­a­bly dies but if it doesn’t move far enough away, then it also dies in a way, thus, a ten­sion between the two must exist.

Where­as in N.Y. in the 1940s, there was total abstrac­tion in the form of the abstract expres­sion­ism move­ment, such as with Jack­son Pol­lock and oth­ers; of course, the object, the body, face, dis­ap­peared from paint­ing. Some peo­ple even dragged pho­tog­ra­phy into abstract expres­sion­ism. It’s prob­a­bly no sur­prise that some­one like Andy Warhol, and Pop Art in gen­er­al, was a kind of deter­mined, strate­gic reac­tion to that trend. The way Warhol brought back objects and through objects a con­sumerist soci­ety rep­re­sent that sort of trend. Pop Art could then be seen as rivalling photography.

If we go back to drama­ti­sa­tion of the ges­ture, as a way to see­ing if an artist reveals his sources of inspi­ra­tion, then we observe some­thing par­tic­u­lar with Warhol: Just as with Ver­meer, with Warhol you nev­er see the painter’s hand, noth­ing of the painter, there is no trace of the ges­ture, of the work of the painter on the can­vas, to hide art. If we con­sid­er Rembrandt’s final years, such as, “The Jew­ish Bride”, you realise what is going on: a young man and woman get­ting mar­ried, but if you move clos­er to the paint­ing, you become fas­ci­nat­ed by the way the thick­ness of the paint reveals the con­stant move­ment of the brush, the ges­ture has been sus­pend­ed but not erased- where­as you nev­er get that with Ver­meer. There is no trace of the ges­ture, the work of the painter on the can­vas: “ars artem telare”, the pur­pose of art is to hide art unlike “ars artem demon­strare” means you are per­fect­ly enti­tled to make peo­ple see that the paint­ing has a sub­ject and also to see how it has been made.

There is a con­stant bal­anc­ing of the pen­du­lum, keep­ing in mind that paint­ing has to do with the way we look at life and, there­fore, the organ­ic ele­ment has to be present some­where and recog­nised, appre­ci­at­ed and enjoyed, and also, at oth­er moments, that paint­ing is more a ques­tion of abstract archi­tec­ture which under­lies our whole exis­tence. Piero del­la Francesca is a good exam­ple of the lat­ter view in that he was con­vinced that God was more revealed in per­spec­tive because for Piero the world was organ­ised around fig­ures, math­e­mat­i­cal­ly: the math­e­mat­i­cal design­ing of the world by God. Con­verse­ly, before Piero, the gold­en back­ground of paint­ings was always meant to attract your atten­tion and tell you that, how­ev­er real­is­ti­cal­ly the fore­ground of the paint­ing was done, the back­ground led you to realise that what you were shown was no mere anec­dote or sus­pend­ed moment in time but the mean­ing of time and space were revealed in the scene you were look­ing at and the gold­en back­ground was prob­a­bly more a ques­tion of sen­si­tiv­i­ty, an intel­lec­tion seduction.

Visu­al artists, musi­cians and writ­ers can now receive detailed feed­back from Big Data analy­sis on what makes their work more or less appeal­ing to prospec­tive buy­ers.  For exam­ple, musi­cians stream­ing their works on Spo­ti­fy may receive feed­back on what sells best, or input con­cern­ing the length of the intro­duc­tion, instru­ments, vocals, etc.  If new art­work is pro­duced in response to these demands, will Big Data become the new patron of the arts, tak­ing over from the patrons of the past who fos­tered and sup­port­ed the old masters?

There is a quo­ta­tion by the Amer­i­can poet, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, which explains, in a way, the moti­va­tion behind her poet­ry: “This is my mes­sage to the world, even though the world nev­er sent me any messages…”

There is, I think, an enor­mous dan­ger for the artist who is depen­dent on the tastes of his cus­tomers, as it were. Because cus­tomers tend to want to be reas­sured, mean­ing they love the rep­e­ti­tion of what they like. Most peo­ple have for­got­ten that when Claude Mon­et pro­duced the first major work of impres­sion­ism which is called “soleil lev­ant” dat­ed 1872, estab­lished art crit­ics were absolute­ly appalled at what they saw. One of the most famous art crit­ics of the time said that any kind of wall­pa­per was bet­ter paint­ed than Monet’s impres­sion of soleil lev­ant and, of course, 30 years lat­er every­one tried to paint like Claude Mon­et. That is, at the same time, inevitable, per­fect­ly accept­able, and yet, extreme­ly dan­ger­ous because of the dan­ger of pro­duc­ing an end­less rep­e­ti­tion of what is thought to sat­is­fy the respec­tive customers.

Picas­so is again a very remark­able exam­ple because as soon as he had reached the cli­max of a peri­od, like the Blue Peri­od, Cubism, the two forms of Cubism, he turned to mon­u­men­tal­i­ty and sculp­ture and vol­ume, sur­face and lines etc. I mean of course you can say all kinds of bad things about Picas­so, but you have to recog­nise that he took a risk every time he broke down his own achieve­ments, so to speak. As soon as a cer­tain num­ber of peo­ple in the pub­lic had realised what it was Picas­so was aim­ing at, then gen­er­al­ly he broke that down, tak­ing the risk, which indeed hap­pened to him sev­er­al times in his career, of being mis­un­der­stood and for a few months or even years being aban­doned by his public.

The great dan­ger is that nar­cis­sis­tic ele­ment in pub­lic appre­ci­a­tion of art:  We like what we know, what we have been taught to appre­ci­ate, we like things where we can recog­nise our­selves in it. A great artist, I think, is one who is able to make the pub­lic accept being shak­en into a new appre­ci­a­tion for some­thing dif­fer­ent. It is called, I sup­posed, marketing.

If peo­ple are not seduced by some ele­ment of nov­el­ty, they will not buy. But, iron­i­cal­ly enough, if they do not recog­nise a cer­tain tra­di­tion­al ele­ment of exper­tise and com­pe­tence, they will not buy either. Some artists start­ed repeat­ing them­selves at some point in their career. Per­haps that is why peo­ple say those who are loved by the gods, die young. Once they have wrought some­thing entire­ly new, then the next step is either to repeat or break that very new thing which one has pro­duced. Let’s take three very impor­tant painters in West­ern paint­ing: Tit­ian, Rem­brandt, and Picas­so. There is a cer­tain ele­ment of com­mon func­tion­ing between the three which is the abil­i­ty, once they brought a cer­tain por­tion of their career to its cli­max, its per­fec­tion, to turn away from that- at the risk of pro­duc­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent and new and thus los­ing the atten­tion, the benev­o­lence of the pub­lic and, there­fore, of prospec­tive clients. It’s all a ques­tion of clients.

NFTs are cre­at­ing a new mar­ket­place for art. Ear­li­er in 2021, an NFT for a dig­i­tal col­lage by the artist Beeple sold for $69.3m, the third most expen­sive work of art by a liv­ing artist. Will NFT tech­nol­o­gy (asset tokeni­sa­tion on blockchain) help dig­i­tal art become the art of choice for high-tech elites of the 21st century?

The man who bought that dig­i­tal col­lage, if mem­o­ry serves, is an Indi­an mil­lion­aire based in Sin­ga­pore. When he bought the work by Beeple, he was in some way paving the way for Asian and Indo-Pacif­ic prospec­tive cus­tomers to cre­ate a new mar­ket for them­selves which they would dom­i­nate in a way which had not hap­pened for tra­di­tion­al, Euro­cen­tric works of art.

It’s inter­est­ing because it’s not just a new tech­nique which also seems to her­ald the arrival of a new taste, but rather new cus­tomers com­ing from oth­er parts of the world, dif­fer­ent from the ones that have been tra­di­tion­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the art mar­ket. At the same time, of course, there is some­thing extreme­ly phys­i­cal in art. Per­haps one of the best exam­ples is Jack­son Pol­lock: the way Pol­lock put the can­vas on the floor, then dripped and even dripped vio­lent­ly, wav­ing, agi­tat­ing, danc­ing, mov­ing etc. Con­verse­ly, per­haps Ver­meer inter­ests us because we can­not find any trace of the phys­i­cal pres­ence of the painter, only the “eye” in a way. Ver­meer is an extreme case which fas­ci­nates us because we all know that with­out the phys­i­cal pres­ence and com­mit­ment of the painter to the paint­ing there would be no work of art. And we know of course that the dif­fer­ence in ges­tures is essen­tial for reveal­ing the per­son­al­i­ty of the artist and it’s essen­tial in the con­sti­tu­tion of artis­tic indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty. At the same time, medi­a­tion wrought by the machine is for me a major ques­tion. Art is extreme­ly phys­i­cal but also extreme­ly intel­lec­tu­al. One of the most intel­lec­tu­al painters of all time, Paul Cézanne, was, in gen­er­al, extreme­ly present ‑spend­ing hour after hour in front of his can­vas­es and in nature before he was paint­ing and he went to church every morn­ing as well.

Your ques­tion under­lines the speci­fici­ty of the indi­vid­ual com­mit­ment to the ges­ture in artis­tic creation.

Speak­ing of bor­row­ing and steal­ing, a new nat­ur­al lan­guage AI GPT‑3, now avail­able to sub­scribers of Microsoft cloud, can write bril­liant and almost indis­tin­guish­able sto­ries in the style and voice of any writer sug­gest­ed. The sto­ries have their own mer­it.  As this AI tech­nol­o­gy becomes more refined, will these works cre­at­ed by an arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence still be recog­nised as orig­i­nal works of art?  Will we all become writ­ers by learn­ing to use this technology?

I must admit I find that a lit­tle bit prob­lem­at­ic. You know of course that Mar­cel Proust wrote at night. Prob­a­bly writ­ing is itself not the prob­lem, but rather the expe­ri­ence of writ­ing is the prob­lem and feel­ing that what you have expe­ri­enced needs to be expressed. Some peo­ple express it in all sorts of dif­fer­ent ways, paint­ing, writ­ing etc. I love the quo­ta­tion by Fran­cis Bacon, who said: “If you can talk about it, why paint it?” There is an urgency about artis­tic cre­ation. If artis­tic cre­ation is sim­ply repro­duc­ing tech­nique, then it is not artis­tic cre­ation.

Jean Genet, the French writer, was obsessed with Alber­to Giacometti’s cre­ative process and he wrote a book which is called “The stu­dio of Gia­comet­ti” because he used to vis­it Gia­comet­ti in his stu­dio and watch him cre­at­ing. He has this mar­vel­lous state­ment at one point where he says: “Beau­ty has no oth­er ori­gin than a wound, unique, dif­fer­ent for each per­son, hid­den or vis­i­ble, that every­one keeps in him­self, that he pre­serves and to which he with­draws when he wants to leave the world for a tem­po­rary but pro­found soli­tude.” If the work is not recog­nised as com­ing from a wound, but, at the same time, is sim­ply mak­ing an effort to con­vey the wound, then one require­ment has not been met- you can’t have one with­out the oth­er. Each alone is essen­tial­ly unin­ter­est­ing. There is a dou­ble require­ment. What­ev­er focuss­es on the per­fec­tion of the con­vey­ing with­out being inter­est­ed in the wound is a waste of time.

I am remind­ed of a rather nice quo­ta­tion by Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh, the great inte­ri­or dec­o­ra­tor and archi­tect from Glas­gow at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry: “There is hope in hon­est error. None in the icy per­fec­tions of the mere styl­ist”. I am afraid that a machine might pro­duce the icy per­fec­tions of the mere styl­ist, if you know what I mean, but noth­ing of the hon­est error.

The Mona Lisa is bril­liant and still holds secrets. Will the dig­i­tal age come up with even bet­ter art?

Of course, there have been count­less works ded­i­cat­ed to the Mona Lisa so we can­not hope to solve her mys­tery in a short answer. How­ev­er, what has saved Mona Lisa is pre­cise­ly her mys­tery, enig­ma, and, if we think art reduces or elim­i­nates the mys­tery instead of cre­at­ing it, then I don’t think that is art. Tech­nique is prob­a­bly sci­ence, but not art. In my view, we have to be very care­ful about this search for solu­tions, answers.

My opin­ion is:

“Art is more con­cerned with ques­tions and enig­mas than with solu­tions, answers, and recipes.
I think there is a great dan­ger in recipes. Art means jump­ing beyond the recipe”

Chris­t­ian Mon­jou M. Phil (Oxon.)

Mr Mon­jou, what a won­der­ful clos­ing state­ment. Thank you for shar­ing your insight­ful reflec­tions on the impact the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion will have on art and innovation.

Thank you, Dr Cal­daro­la, and I look for­ward to read­ing your upcom­ing inter­views with recog­nised experts, delv­ing even deep­er into this fas­ci­nat­ing topic.

About me and my guest

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola, LL.M., MBA is the host of “Duet Interviews”, co-founder and CEO of CU³IC UG, a consultancy specialising in systematic approaches to innovation, such as algorithmic IP data analysis and cross-industry search for innovation solutions.

Cristina is a well-regarded legal expert in licensing, patents, trademarks, domains, software, data protection, cloud, big data, digital eco-systems and industry 4.0.

A TRIUM MBA, Cristina is also a frequent keynote speaker, a lecturer at St. Gallen, and the co-author of the recently published Big Data and Law now available in English, German and Mandarin editions.

Christian Monjou M. Phil (Oxon.)

University associate professor, lecturer and researcher at Oxford University, past recipient of a Fondation Besse award and professional speaker, Christian Monjou is an expert on Anglo-Saxon civilisations. A teacher in first-year preparatory classes at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, Mr Monjou is also a lecturer at the l’Ecole Normale Supérieure de la rue d’Ulm. In addition, Mr Monjou conducts lectures at numerous firms employing art as a tool (graphic arts, theatre, opera) to address managerial issues, such as leadership, inter-relationships, innovation, positive competitiveness or intercultural matters. By means of his lectures, he analyses the bonds between management, works of art and their creators. He provides, for example, lectures on innovation by means of contemporary art (Abstract Art, Pop Art, Street Art) as well as others on the topic of how to get out of the crisis by considering paintings, architectural elements or even historic gardens.

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola, LL.M., MBA is the host of “Duet Interviews”, co-founder and CEO of CU³IC UG, a consultancy specialising in systematic approaches to innovation, such as algorithmic IP data analysis and cross-industry search for innovation solutions.

Cristina is a well-regarded legal expert in licensing, patents, trademarks, domains, software, data protection, cloud, big data, digital eco-systems and industry 4.0.

A TRIUM MBA, Cristina is also a frequent keynote speaker, a lecturer at St. Gallen, and the co-author of the recently published Big Data and Law now available in English, German and Mandarin editions.