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Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative Practices? – Reading Obvious' “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy”

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Proceedings of POM Beirut 2019
Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative
Practices? – Reading Obvious' “Portrait of
Edmond de Belamy”
Jan Løhmann Stephensen
Department of Culture and Communication
Aarhus University
aekjls@cc.au.dk
As an emerging experimental subfield of AI in general, artificial creativitythat is, acts of creativity
performed (semi-)autonomously by algorithmic/software robotsposes a particular set of problems.
Most notably, computational/artificial creativity conflicts with the anthropocentric ways in which we
have historically invented ‘creativity’ as something uniquely and quintessentially human; hence the
term ‘post-creative’. Yet, when seeking to replicate the kinds of activities (or products) that we are
prone to label ‘creative’, we often tend to forget the contingencies of the 'creativity dispositif’
(Reckwitz 2017) and its contested and conflictual character. This amnesia includes the ways in which
labelling something as ‘creative/not' also, perhaps even primarily, is an aesthetic judgement—either
in the traditional sense of philosophical aesthetics, or in the new (Ngai 2012)rather than merely an
ontological statement. To this end, the paper discusses how theories of how art comes into being
(sociology of art, the institutional as well as the anti-essentialist theories of art) might have relevance
to the issue of creativity as well. Using the recent, heavily debated auctioning of the AI generated
painting, Portrait of Edmond de Belamy(by Obvious, 2018) as a case this paper will discuss how
research into simulating creativity as a productive human activity will have to address not only the
new challenges this phenomenon poses, but also some of the older aporias that have long marked
our theoretical dealings with the concept ‘creativity’.
Keywords: post-anthropocentric creativity, artificial intelligence, art, philosophy, sociology
INTRODUCTION
One of the main reasons people often mention for
finding art generated by artificial intelligence
interesting are that it challenges our conception of
how art comes into being. It allows or perhaps even
forces us to rethink the nature of human creativity,
posing the fundamental question, what does it mean
to create or bring something into being?
In this paper, I will discuss the AI generated painting
Portrait of Edmond de Belamy (figure 1) by the
French group Obvious, which hit the mainstream
news last year. I will do this in relation to my ongoing
research project on what I call ‘post-creativity’ (an
abbreviation of ‘post-anthropocentric creativity’).
This research project is inspired by some of the key
findings of Actor-Network-Theory and New
Materialism (e.g. Latour 2005, Coole & Frost 2010,
Dolphijn & van der Tuin 2012, Fox & Alldred 2017).
Figure 1: “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” (Obvious,
2018)
Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative Practices?
Jan Løhmann Stephensen
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But rather than just pointing out how humans and
machines are entangled and interwoven in
processes we would label ‘creative’, I am also
interested in what this does to the concepts we use
to make sense of these specific practices, and how
the vocabularies we use to discuss and (try to) make
sense of these tendencies, tend to cause certain
problems; partly because of new problems that
emerge, but certainly also because of old problems
we have inherited in relation to the notion of
creativity and how we think and talk about the way
things come into being.
To this end, a final, yet crucial disclaimer is in place.
The aim of the post-creativity research project is not
to locate one or more specific notions of creativity
that are to be considered more correct than others.
Rather, it is to point out how this, as I will argue
below, both contingent and highly contested
concept, is performatively being talked into being all
the time (Stephensen 2015a); while at the same
timewhich, however, I will not touch upon further
in this paper, so I will just mention it herebeing
embedded or installed in those technologies we
entangle ourselves with in our creative practices.
1
And they are so regardless of whether we think of or
use these technologies as mere toolsin one end of
the spectre; as ‘emergent’/’generative’ creators that
work more or less without human interference
(autonomously) at the other end of the spectre; or
somewhere in between these: as ‘creative
colleagues’ that “collaborate with human users on
creative tasks much like another human would”
(Davis et al. 2015, p. 10).
2
‘POST-CREATIVITY’
Portrait of Edmond de Belamy is a specific instance
of what we might term ‘artificial creativity’or as
others would put it: ‘computational’, ’algorithmic’,
‘digital’ or ‘machine creativity’ as well as ’expressive’
or ‘creative AI’. With this notion of ‘artificial creativity’
(a specific subgroup of AI in general) I am referring
to Machine Learning algorithms that have been set
up to act (fairly) autonomously in ways and contexts
in which we would normally think of as ‘creative’, and
often also ‘artistic’. That being said, the promise of
an ‘artificial artistic creativity’ per se often appears
quite speculative or futuristic, as the endeavours
within the field has hitherto mostly been exploratory,
1
This part of my ongoing research project on post-
creativity is inspired by Jeffrey Bardzell’s (2007) work on
creativity in amateur multimedia-production.
2
See Davis et al. (2015, pp. 110-114) for an elaboration
of this three-level taxonomy of human/non-human
entanglements in relation to what they label
‘computational creativity’.
3
Especially within the field of commercial/popular music,
we have, however, recently seen a trend towards
often in the shape of interdisciplinary experiments
crossing the fields of artistic practice and computer
science.
3
As already mentioned, my term of choice ‘post-
creativity’ is an abbreviation of ’post-anthropocentric
creativity’. The latter is less catchy, which is why the
shorter one has been preferred. But ‘post-
anthropocentric’ does have the benefit of pointing
more specifically and in detail to the fact that the
interest of my research project is primarily in the
change of perspective (on the whats and the whos
and the hows we tend to think of as being central to
creative practices), than it is meant to reference a
change in creative practices as suchalthough this
might also be the case. But what certainly is not the
case, is that AI will fundamentally “disrupt”
creativity/creative practices in toto, as some would
argueperhaps most notably those AI-advocates
that have made a living through elaborating upon
sci-fi author Vernor Vinge’s (1993) notion of
‘technological singularity’.
4
What both terms, ‘post-creativity’ and ‘post-
anthropocentric’, have in common is that they try to
emphasise the fact that these practices of ‘artificial
creativity’ fundamentally seem to challenge the ways
in which we historically over the last Centuries have
invented (and reinvented) ‘creativity’ as a concept,
as an idea and as a (fairly diffuse) set of practices,
namely:
(i) as something we have increasingly come to
perceive as being a quintessentially human
thing, that is: the idea that creativity is something
only humans can dosomething exclusive and
significant to our speciessomething that
defines us (think in terms of Marx’ notion of
Species-being (1967): creativity as a species-
characteristic); an anthropological assumption
about human inventiveness that has become
quite normative/imperative (often accompanied
by the agenda that creativity somehow needs to
be emancipated, either from stifling
organisational frameworks like bureaucracy and
so on, or from capitalism; and often with the help
of ‘new technologies’);
(ii) as something that challenges the idea that
creativity could and perhaps even should
function as a marker of human ‘greatness’
individually and collectivelyas something we
praise, strive for, encourage, organise our lives,
developing genuine business models that compete with
other traditional services (cf. Drott 2019)).
4
According to Ray Kurzweil, who elaborates on Vinge’s
notion, “[t]he Singularity will allow us to transcend these
limitations of our biological bodies and brains. [...] There
will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human
and machine” (2005, p. 9).
Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative Practices?
Jan Løhmann Stephensen
3
societies and collective practices in relation to,
build institutions for, have conferences to
discuss, etc.
The important point is, that in the long history of
humanity, all of this is actually fairly new. Even
though we have become accustomed to the idea of
human-driven change, innovation and novelty as
something that has always been part of the human
condition and on top of our agenda, it is, in fact, a
very Modern idea.
5
Likewise, the increasingly
widespread expectation that one’s life should be a
creative lifeor that creativity and innovation should
be central to our societieswould have been
unthinkable before the 1960’s. In fact, creativity
seems to be one of those ideas, which Michel
Foucault (2003, p. 351) suggested have become so
natural to us, so common sense, that we tend to
forget they have a history. But creativity does have
a history.
This has for instance been argued convincingly by
the German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz in his The
Invention of Creativity, in which hewith reference
to another concept from Foucaultsuggests that
we should think of creativity as a dispositive (2007,
pp. vii-viii, 9-32). With the so-called ‘creativity
dispositif’, Reckwitz refers to all those specific
institutions, objects, artefacts and practices, actors
and actants, values and norms, beliefs, attitudes,
sensibilities, and modes of knowledge and
appreciation that especially since the 1950s have
emerged in relation to the notion of ‘creativity’;
including the individual (identity) and collective
(political) drive to intensify the diffusion of creativity
into every fibre of society (the ‘creative society’),
which simultaneously has happened through our
own desire to be/come creative and through a broad
variety of institutionalised demands from the state,
our employers, various normative discourses, etc.
6
And, as I will argue in relation to the case, this
assumption that creativity has always been with us
causes some specific problems. When seeking to
replicate the kinds of activities (or products) we
historically have become accustomed to labelling
‘creative’, we often tend to forget the contingencies
of the whole idea and, as I will argue below, its
inherently contested nature. Thereby we often end
up trying to imitate something that is not really there;
at least not in the sense we tend to think of it and talk
5
Recently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling book
Sapiens (2014) on the history of humankind, this struck
me as a quite important point, which he, however, does
not make much out of himself: that in the long history of
mankind, we have only quite recently come to value, let
alone systematise, inventiveness and the ability to make
something new. See Godin (2015) for an elaboration of
the normative and ideological agendas that has
surrounded the concept ‘innovation’ over the last three
millennia.
about it. And we end up doing it for reasons, we are
not always really aware of either.
PORTRAIT OF EDMOND DE BELAMY
Late 2018, the story of the auctioning off of the AI
generated painting Portrait of Edmond de Belamy hit
the news. This paintingor to be more precise: this
print in a golden framewas put on auction by
Obvious, a group of three French students, who had
trained a Machine Learning algorithm on a selection
of classical portrait paintings. This was done by
using a so-called Generative Adversarial Network
(GAN), which had actually been built by someone
else, namely the 19-year-old student, artist and
programmer Robbie Barrat. From the paintings,
which the GAN had put out, Obvious had selected
11 paintings, which made up the imaginary Belamy
family tree (figure 2)all bearing quite a few
resemblances to works by modernists like Francis
Bacon (why always Bacon, one might wonder?). It
was the painting of the youngest offspring of this
fictitious family, Edmund, which in October 2018
went under the hammer at Christie’s in Manhattan.
Figure 2: The Belamy family tree (Obvious, 2018)
This was not in any way the first AI generated
painting; there is a long tradition for this. Nor was it
in any way the first AI painting to be sold (Elgammel
2018); although it was the first at one of the major
auction houses. So, there were actually quite
6
Foucault himself describes the dispositif (apparatus) as
"a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of
discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory
decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific
statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic
propositionsin short, the said as much as the unsaid.
[…] The apparatus [dispositif] itself is the system of
relations that can be established between these
elements" (1977, p. 194).
Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative Practices?
Jan Løhmann Stephensen
4
specific expectations concerning the estimated
sales price, based on what similar examples
previously had been sold for. However, the
estimated sales price at 7-10.000$ was pretty far
from bull’s eye. It went for 432.000$ instead, leaving
the expected estimate off with a factor of
approximately 50:1. Hence, you could argue, the
portrait was catapulted from the realms of ‘fun-to
have, interesting gimmick’ to ‘fetishised art object’.
It was, of course, this huge, unexpected selling price
that caught the interest of the media and made
headlines. But almost immediately, other questions
popped up, namely:
(i) Should this be thought of as some kind of
‘artificial creativity’ that could potentially match
human creativity? This has, of course, been the
longstanding ambition for a lot of people in this
field, and the reason why so many people have
worked on defining creativity: to replicate and
multiply it and to develop what we might label
‘creativity short cuts.’
7
This case rose the
suspicion that this might be a successful
realisation of this project/agenda.
(ii) Does this mean that computers, through
Machine Learning or Artificial Intelligence, can
now produce artworks that are as good as those
artefacts made by human hand? (Or put in
Creativity Turing Test terms: indistinguishable
from human-made products?).
(iii) What are the implications for the role of the artist
and for the spheres of Art? Will artists (at least
visual artists that produce paintings) potentially
become superfluous as the market might be
flooded with these kinds of artefacts?
These questions were also brought up by the
auction house. In quite a sensationalist tone they
note that “when [the portrait] goes under the
hammer, [it] will signal the arrival of AI art on the
world auction stage” (Christie’s 2018). Likewise, the
same issues were the pivotal point of an article on
The Smithsonian’s homepage in which the author
pondered:
If an AI researcher designs and executes an
algorithm, who is the end product’s true creator:
human artist or machine? And, most importantly,
if robots can create art, where does that leave
humans? (Solly 2018)
In extension of these questions, the case also raised
some legal and economic discussions. This was
immediately pressing given the fact that Obvious
7
In this, there seems to be at least two underlying
assumptions, that perhaps too often are reproduced
without much reflection. Firstly, the idea that we generally
lack creativity (I would, for instance, argue that what we
are short of might not be creativity, but rather things like
empathy, solidarity, dignity, reason, etc.). And secondly,
had used a GAN made by someone else. So, both
the art and AI community soon also found
themselves discussing:
(iv) Who is entitled to profit from the sale of the
auctioned artwork? (And by implication: from
others like it?)
The questions concerning creativity and making (of
art) are, of course, closely related to the discussions
about copyright and ownership. These legal
frameworks mirror our inherited, fundamental ideas
and assumptionsor perhaps even: collective
mythsabout how things come into being, and what
kind of agency that goes into that process. The
notion of copyright, intellectual ownership, patents,
etc. thus reflect an understanding that emphasises
that a certain privileged kind of human activity,
‘creativity’, has been involved; which in turn
becomes the moral foundation for granting a specific
person judicial, economic and conceptual authority
(cf. Woodmansee 1984, Lessig 2004 & 2008, Towse
2010).
8
READING PROFIT (AND CREATIVITY)
The astronomical sales price of the portrait can be
read in (at least) two ways:
Either, it reflects that the artwork has, in fact, been
evaluated and valued as a genuine piece of art
which grosso modo matches artistic artefacts
produced by human hand and mind. No longer just
a gimmick, but “real Art” with a capital A. The Market
has spoken; and it has so in a kind of Creativity
Turing Test (Boden 2010), which in this case is not
even blind! If this was the case, it certainly would be
the realisation of the wet dream of substantial parts
of the artificial creativity community: to replicate
human creativity to the extent that it is difficult,
impossible, perhaps even irrelevant, to tell the
difference.
This is also the way both Obvious and Christie’s
frame the piece; most likely, of course, quite
deliberately playing the ‘AI hype’ (Elgammal 2018).
Obvious have for instance been arguing that it is
actually the code that should be thought of as the
artist: “the portrait was generated by an algorithm”
(Obvious Feb 14, 2018). This is also the point of
replacing the traditional signature of the artist with a
string of the code that produced the portrait. In more
general terms, the Obvious collective have even
that it would be meaningful to couple the more generic
agendas of efficiency with those of creativityor in other
terms: that creativity should be easier, more accessible.
8
In fact, it could even be argued that creativity really
mirrors whole cosmologies (cf. Mason 2003), but that
would be another paper.
Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative Practices?
Jan Løhmann Stephensen
5
proclaimed that “creativity isn’t only for humans
anymore (quoted from Vincent 2018).
This readingthat the sale of the portrait mirrors a
successful imitation of human creativitydoes,
however hinge upon an essentialist idea of creativity
‘being out there’. Creativity as something objectively
existing which we can define, localise and
reproduce. In other words, an understanding of
creativity as something that is not our own invention,
something we have not created over time, but has
been there all the time.
9
In contrast, the other reading would suggest that the
sales price really just reflects the fact that the portrait
has been evaluated, valued and priced in exactly the
same way as many other art works (as commodities,
investments objects, etc.). Not because it is art in
any essential sense. But because it has suddenly
(for reasons we don’t know, since the buyer is
anonymous) has been moved into the ‘Art’ category.
It has, in other words, become part of the social,
economic and sometimes even political/ideological
game of art. A game, which is not in any ways new,
since it actually quite some time ago has been
described by some of the theoretical classics dealing
with art, from which we could perhaps also learn
something about the ‘game of creativity’ as well.
We could find this kind of description in the sociology
of art (for example the classical works of Howard
Becker (1974) and Pierre Bourdieu (1993, 1996),
which both stressed the social character of art-
making/making something into art; as well as Luc
Boltanski & Arnaud Esquerre’s recent work (2016,
2017) on the “economic life of things” and how
various artefacts can be “enrichedthrough narrative
framings like the story of a portrait created by the
much hyped technology of AI). And perhaps more
surprisingly, a quite similar analysis can actually be
found within philosophy, both by the Institutional
Theory of Art (cf. Arthur Danto (1964) and George
Dickie (1971)), who emphasised the role of
institutional gatekeepers and the Artworld, as well as
the Anti-essentialist Theory of Art (Morris Weitz
1956).
OPEN AND/OR CONTESTED CONCEPTS
These analyses of the (language) games of art seem
to be worthwhile applying to creativity; despiteor
perhaps because ofour tendency to discuss
creativity as a given, as something out there, no
matter how mysterious it might seem. (Which, of
course, was the exact same reason those guys gave
for writing about art: that people were talking about
9
There is a lot of talk about defining, localising,
enhancing, etc. in the emerging field of ‘creativity
research’ (cf. Williams, Runco & Berlow 2016, Runco
2014), sometimes also referred to as ‘creativity studies’.
it as something that was almost independent of us,
and independent of what we would like it to mean
and our uses of it.)
Take for instance Morris Weitz’ notion of art as an
‘open concept’ (in this quote he is talking about open
concepts in general, but hopefully it should be
obvious how this applies both to ‘art’ and ‘creativity’
as well):
A concept is open if its conditions of application
are emendable and corrigible; i.e., if a situation or
case can be imagined or secured which should
call for some sort of decision on our part to extend
the use of the concept to cover this, or to close
the concept and invent a new one to deal with the
new case and its new property. (1956, p. 31)
This means that the question whether some
borderline case like an AI-generated portrait is art or
notand by extension, I would argue, whether
something should be labelled creativeor not“is
no factual, but rather a decision problem, where the
verdict turns on whether or not we enlarge our set of
conditions for applying the concept” (p. 32). Which is
pretty much what has happened to both concepts in
question here: ‘creativity’ and ‘art’.
Yet, given the ways in which creativity over the last
decades has been ascribed an increasingly crucial,
socio-economic and politico-ideological role in our
contemporary societies (Stephensen 2015a, 2015b,
Reckwitz 2017), we should perhaps add, that this is
not just a strictly philosophical problem, but also
and perhaps even predominantlya political and
conflictual one. ‘Creativity’ has become a battle
ground! So, perhaps we should even think of the
concept of ‘creativity’ as an essentially contested
concept (in a very strong sense), rather than merely
an open one (which would be too weak a term).
If we look at the historical transformation of the
notion of creativity and how it has been put to use,
especially the ways in which it has expanded and
diffused into nearly every fibre of societyor in
Weitz’ terminology: enlargedthis also becomes
evident. It has always been closely related to
ideological struggles and agendas; regardless of
whether we’re talking about its ‘instrumentalisation’
(cf. the creative industries and creative economy-
agendas); or if we’re talking about its so-called
‘democratisation’ (for instance up against alienating
labour of capitalism (Stephensen 2015b); in relation
to the so-called ‘participatory turn’ and all those
emancipatory connotations that sticks to it; or how
the creative abundance of contemporary culture is
It is the reason why this field exists and seeks and quite
often gets funding, etc. So, it’s not just about journalists
“not getting it”.
Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative Practices?
Jan Løhmann Stephensen
6
determined by the decline of elitism in the arts and
the rise of digital media (Bolter 2019)).
Hence, the inclusion of any activity or artefact into
the realms of ‘creativity’ is always tied up with
normative, ideological and political issues. As a
minimum, it has to do with the power to draw the line
between ‘creative/not’. And the discussion of
whether an AI-generated painting like Portrait of
Edmund de Belamy is art/not art’ or creativity/not
creativity’ certainly would be such a case.
It does, however, make sense to insist that not any
object or practice could easily be included. Breaking
with the conventions in an interesting way (which is
one of the key criteria for granting a given artefact,
practices or process access to the realms of ‘Art’ or
‘creativity’ (cf. below)) is, in fact, quite a conventional
business. Or put even more bluntly: there seems to
be conventions for breaking with the conventions of
art. (Those who would object, “How, for example,
about Duchamp’s famous urinal (or other ready-
mades), then?”, should think of the fact that it took
almost 50 years until it actually became an important
piece of art (cf. de Duve 1996)).
‘CREATIVITY’ AS AN AESTHETIC CATEGORY?
This issue of locating or pointing out ‘creativity’ could
also be discussed in the terminology of Aesthetics.
10
Because the act of labelling something as
‘creative/not creative’ is also a passing of an
aesthetic judgement, rather than merely an
ontological statement. Despite its linguistically
speaking seemingly objective or definitive character
—”this is creative!”this kind of postulate really has
many affinities to the Kantian ‘antinomy of taste’
(Kant 1914/1790, pp. 230-241), especially the same
paradoxical characteristics. The way we talk about
‘creativity’ in such objective termsand on top of
that: often as a singular, definite nounglosses over
the fact that we do so only as if we could really speak
in that way about something so relative, contingent
or subjective (de Duve 2012). Or as Morten Kyndrup
succinctly has put it (in relation to ‘art’ and aesthetic
judgements):
All judgments are pronounced as-if a shared
scale of aesthetic preferences did exist (which it
does not). Judgments are addressed to
communities, to the notion of a joint “we”, and
thus they do participate in the creation and the
maintenance of the social as such. (2018, p. 75).
10
Cf. Shusterman 2012, Welsch 2009 and Shiner 2001
for introductions to aesthetic theory, and Eagleton 1990
and Bourdieu 1996 for more critical takes on the
This, I argue, is reflected in how we use the term
‘creativity’ as well. It is almost always used
positively, as a superlative or a recommendation.
We typically use it socially too, addressing someone,
often implicitly saying: “I like this, don’t you agree
that we should call it ‘creative’?” hereby both
establishing a community of tasteor as a
minimum: extending an invitation to a dialogue. At
least, this is what Kyndrup would argue; whereas I
would insist that although there might be some
positive community-building in this implied “you
ought to think the same”, there is certainly also an
element of power at play. Not everyone can weigh in
with the same amount of authority on this issue; and
as a critical-sociological analysis would suggest, the
rules that structure the distribution of clout on these
issues are typically quite opaque. This has for
instance been pointed out by Yves Michaud, who
notes that the social and political potentials of art
(specifically as they are implied in Kant) is often
thought of as ”a utopia of possible communication, a
utopia of ‘cultural communism’” (1998, p. 146), when
“in reality, nobody actually agrees on anything. […]
The aesthetic community is in fact skirmish and
strife.” (p. 151). And the same has been pointed out
in Daniel Ericsson’s (2001) Bourdieu-inspired
reading of the increased ‘creativizationof our work
lives, which is characterised by a predominant
discourse of emancipation that runs parallel to those
on art and aesthetics; and glosses over an equal
amount of inconvenient, socio-political facts.
In addition to keeping in mind this fundamental
scepticism concerning the implicit conflictual,
ideological and political agendas of the seemingly
universal aspirations of the aesthetic judgement, we
might also want to update our aesthetic categories
(especially if we are to relate it to the issue of
creativity). According to Sianne Ngai (2012) we
should no longer think of aesthetic judgements as
being related to traditional aesthetic categories like
‘beauty’ or ‘the sublime’. Today, these have been
replaced by new categories like zany’, cute’ and
‘interesting’.
In particular the latter, ‘interesting’, seems pertinent
in relation to the specific case being discussed here,
since Portrait of Edmund de Belamy might actually
have gained its surprising status within the artworld,
both as a commodity and as “talk of the town”, by
being philosophically interesting in the same way as
much Conceptual Art has been interesting. Namely:
as an aesthetics praxis that takes on the discussion:
what is art (or creativity)?
11
Or to be more precise:
ideological and conflictual aspects of aesthetic
discussions.
11
A strategy, which dates back to avant-garde
precursors like Marchel Duchamp’s various readymades,
Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative Practices?
Jan Løhmann Stephensen
7
through Obvious’ and especially Christie’s
successful attempt to para-textually frame the piece,
which managed to create and steer a hype in
direction of these questions (Elgammal 2018).
In extension of Ngai, I would argue that we might
want to consider adding ‘creative’ to this updated list;
either as yet another contemporary aesthetic
category; or as a subcategory of ‘interesting’
(understood here as the historically novel or
innovative, hence interesting). This is also in line
with another point made by Andreas Reckwitz: that
one of central pillars of the current creativity
dispositif’ is the ways in which ‘creativity’ has been
put into semantic proximity with both
‘newness’/’novelty’ and the ‘interesting’all within a
societal framework that is increasingly aestheticised
(2017, pp. 26-27). According to Reckwitz, the
interestingis one of the ways that our enormous
sensuous appetites, which have been trained and
refined all throughout Modernity, are enticed,
subsumedand sometimes even satisfiedunder
the label ‘creative’, which has become one of the
primary superlatives we apply to express our likings.
THE NEWNESS OF IT ALL?
In this sense, the issue of this paper possesses a
certain irony. On the face of it, the recent re-
emergence of and hype about AI (including artificial
creativity in general) seems to cause a lot of new
problems. But maybe it is our old, inadequate
understanding(s) of the contingencies of creativity
that still trouble(s) us the mostespecially the fact
that we have convinced ourselves of the existence
of a creativity in the definite singular conjugation
(and typically a very heroic version too); which is
quite a paradoxical reductionism given the findings
of various sociological and anthropological studies
of the actual practices we tend to think of as
creativity(or making; cf. Ingold 2013).
This becomes obvious when we are discussing
whether algorithmic agency might someday replace
human agencyfor instance with reference to
examples like Portrait of Edmund de Belamy, as if
this was the case here. Because the problem of
assigning authorial authority in situations like these
might not, as it is often suggested, just be the lack of
humans. In an unpublished paper entitled 'Music AI:
which raised the same kinds of questions (Bürger 1984,
de Duve 1996), including who gets to be (recognised for
being) involved in the labor processes that produce art,
that is, the so-called ‘circuits of authorship’ as John
Roberts (2007) called it. In fact, it could be argued that
the notion of ‘interesting’ has been with us throughout the
entire history of Art (as an autonomous praxis in the
modern sense), since Friedrich Schlegel already in 1797
Copyright, Compensation, Commons', Eric Drott
recently argued that
the trouble creative AI presents to contemporary
copyright regimes doesn’t stem from a lack of
human involvement, as machines become
creative agents in their own right; rather it stems
from an excess of human involvement, from the
complex network of human and nonhuman actors
in which creative AI is entangled. (Drott 2019, my
emphasis)
Yet, despite the fact that Drott does makes a
sobering point, this abundance of human agency
through the involvement of coders, data suppliers,
neural network trainers, etc., many of whom have
not even thought of their own work as a contribution
to the making of an art piecenonetheless still
hinges upon the fact that things (technologies,
materialities, etc.) increasingly seem to interfere and
make a difference(Latour 2005, p. 71). There are
so many (human) actors, functions and (nonhuman)
actants involved; which, of course, also includes all
that human stuff that over the years has been
inscribed in institutional and conceptual categories
like genre, tradition, conventions, etc., as well as in
the various physical materials of painting itself,
which made up the data training set used for Portrait
(although the machine learning algorithm was, of
course, only fed digital scans of the classical
portraits).
So, the problem is not (just) the lack of humans.
Despite the fact that this is exactly how
autonomously working ‘artificial creativity’ is often
being framed; which is also what Obvious
themselves and especially Christie’s do for instance
implying that it is actually the code, that should be
thought of as the artist. The machine as creator,
rather than a human being; or in fact: replacing the
human being. They are not saying it directly, but the
implication is, that the need for human creativity
might soon vanish, thereby also hinting at the more
general discussions about the role of human
industry in a future of automation, robotisation and
AI, in which it is actually often creativity that is being
pointed to; either as our last refuge (the only thing
that will be left, which we do better than the
machines); or creativity is highlighted as that
particular area of praxis, which we will soon be
emancipated to devote our lives to (given that the
machines will do all the humdrum tasks).
12
introduced the term as crucial to literature (cf. Ngai 2012,
pp. 35-38, 110-173).
12
This discussion has a surprising number of affinities
with discussions within the New Left half a century ago
on how Karl Marx’ distinction from Capital between the
‘realm of freedom’ and the ‘realm of necessity’ would turn
out with the introduction of new technologies such as
automation (cf. Marx: “Beyond [the realm of necessity]
begins that development of human energy which is an
Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative Practices?
Jan Løhmann Stephensen
8
The irony stems from the fact that the tendency to
overlook, theoretically and analytically, a lot of
invisible human agency and participation in the
creative production processes is not new at all.
Sociology of art (although rarely speaking about
creativity per se) have for instance for ages argued,
that this has always been the case. We have always
had ideological narratives about processes of
creativity and making that downplay the social
distribution of agency, that is, the role of many other
human actor). And ANT and the New Materialists
would certainly agree, although they at the same
time would argue that the traditional sociology of art
fails to register the co-productive agency of
nonhuman actants. Which according to ANT/New
Materialism certainly could include both new, digital
phenomena like AI; and ordinary, old stuff-stuff as
well (Miller 2010, Boscagli 2014).
But also, and this is an important point: this also
applies in retrospect. Which is the reason why I
began this paper by emphasising that the concept of
post-creativity would not merely be helpful to the
study of new creative practices, but rather has to do
with more general perspectives on creativity and
how we make use of them.
So, to conclude, in some ways you could argue that
Portrait of Edmund Belamy highlights how borderline
cases like these are really hard to get a grip on. Not
because it is radically new, but rather because we
often tend to either apply too rigid concepts (which I
would argue we often do, when we discuss the
imitation of human creativity through AI, ML etc.), or
because we think of the discussions concerning
these concepts as already settled or without
contingencies. So, despite the hype about the
newness of it all, what we are struggling with is
perhaps mostly old problems.
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... Epstein et al. [43] use the "Portrait of Edmond Belamy" case to explore how anthropomorphization of an AI system influences the perception of humans involved in the creation process. Stephensen [117] discusses the implication that the Belamy case has on the philosophical understanding of creativity. Colton et al. [28] discuss how human understanding of different notions of authenticity can be used to address computational authenticity. ...
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