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.
Western countries have – due to the Bern Convention – a common legal agreement on what an invention or a work is: It always needs to be new. This implies that copying as well as stealing from another inventor or author is regarded as an infringement that results in damage claims. Nevertheless, this understanding is not true for every country. If we look to China, for example, rejection of copies is not as rigorous as in Western countries, since an artist or an inventor is traditionally valued more, the better and more precisely s/he copies the work of his or her teacher, champion or idol. What explanation exists for such differences in perception?
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.
I assume Pablo Picasso and T.S. Eliot meant to copy their colleagues. Would you also regard copying nature as a borrowed or stolen copy? Let us take the example of Antoni Gaudi who observed and analysed the nature of animals, plants and human beings for his architecture to improve statics, light, etc. Today, there is a trend towards biomimicry where product manufacturers study nature in order to come up with environmentally friendly products. Do creative techniques depend on innovation to achieve their goals and trends- such as in the case of biomimicry with a view towards being aware of the scarcity of resources?
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:Christian Monjou M. Phil (Oxon.)
“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”
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.