Is AI Art History what we really need?


Source: Ai-Da’s self-portrait using her new painting style

Last April, the Venice Biennial inaugurated the new Art edition welcoming visitors from all over the world. Among the artists, until July 3rd, we can find an unusual participant. AI-Da Robot is the first AI humanoid robot exhibiting at the Biennial. What does it tell us about our relationship with new technologies and artificial intelligence?

Once again, the Venice Biennial disclosed its doors welcoming visitors to wander around contemporary artworks and provocatory exhibitions. For the second post-pandemic opening, curator Cecilia Alemani takes inspiration from the children’s book ‘The Milk of Dreams.’

Author Leonora Carrington imagines a world where fantastic hybrid creatures can transform from human to natural to mechanical. The strict binarism underlying the categorisation we use to identify bodies and identities loses its meaning, leaving space for an unpredictable mixture between reality and imagination. The metamorphosis of entities and the blurred definition of ‘human’ become the theme connecting the different exhibitions, representing these current times of social change.

Since we can remember, the arts had the enormous responsibility of perpetuating the essence of each culture, like a sort of window through which to look at past ages or to express the fragmentation of contemporary times. Artists are the ones able to capture on a single canvas — in the case of paintings — the whole human essence, narrating the never-ending tale of our civilizations.

But what if the artwork is created by a machine, instead of a human?

The Future of Art Through Computer Vision

AI-Da Robot was presented as the first humanoid robot artist with the solo exhibition Leaping into the Metaverse. Entering the characteristic location Concilio Europeo Dell’Arte, visitors can wander among 3D printer flowers and a visionary hologram recalling Fortune Tellers and Diviners of Dante’s Purgatory.

Spread in 5 connected spaces, the exhibition takes inspiration from the Italian poet to narrate the relationship between humans and AI technologies. As Purgatory is either evil or good, technologies like the Metaverse are blurring the lines between what perceive as reality and fiction.


AI-Da Robot uses algorithms and databases to create paintings and 3D printer sculptures. In between surprise and disdain, critics are still debating if we can attribute value to a robot’s artwork. And whatever a machine can express and represent something that can relate to human feelings.

However, Is AI-DA the First AI Artist?

Truth to be told, artists have been experimenting with computational tools since these systems have become available to users — a part of the Biennial also includes pieces from the 70s investigating the growing role of technology in society.

Looking at artificial intelligence, we can consider a wide range of computational practices and embedded-software technologies able to perform what we usually define as human tasks — self-learning, decision making, and creation of new outcomes.

Generally speaking, AI art includes artworks made by a generative system. AI paintings and computer-generated art include an element of uncertainty, as the outcome depends on human ideas and the machine’s response to inputs.

After the 2010s, researchers and artists started experimenting with a class of machine learning, Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). With this program, artists and researchers can train an algorithm working as the ‘artist’ — the generator model that creates the output — and the other acting like the ‘critic’ — the discriminator that classifies the output as real or fake. Since then, AI and computational tools have become increasingly more popular in the art world.

In 2018, the auction house Christies sold the Portrait of Edmond de Belamy for $432.500 — over 43 times its estimate. The collective Obvious trained neural networks to create a portrait ‘like a human.’

Source: Portrait of Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy (2018)

Without hesitation, Sotheby followed the example by selling Memories of Passersby’s Mario Klingemann, a neural network art piece producing ever-ending portraits of non-existing people.

Source: Mario Klingemann, Memories of Passersby I (2018)

As these systems become common among users, artists have been playing with AI as a tool and means of reflection. From AI algorithms to robotic arms, to 3D printers, AI art practices include a variety of practices between engineering and art. However, besides the hype created by the debate, we have several examples of artists creating artworks with a machine as a ‘co-authorship.’ The most popular case is the pioneer generative artist Harold Cohen, who is producing art with AARON (an automated and computational machine) since the 70s.

It’s hard to tell if AI-Da is the first AI artist, and who can we call an AI artist — the machine or the man who created it? And paraphs, the most interesting question is why this debate feels so relevant today, and it did not 30 years ago.

Is AI Art History What We Really Need?

While critics and curators are debating if machines and AI can be defined as ‘arts,’ it’s interesting to look at how AI-Da’s exhibition fits into the 2022 Biennial’s theme.

While we feel robots as a distant future, new technologies are ever more present in our daily gestures. Even before the pandemic, most of our actions were mediated by and interconnected with digital devices. Common actions like buying products, booking a holiday, or applying for a job are filtered by algorithms and automated systems. Between conspiracy fears and enthusiasm for innovation, the pandemic made clear how much our relationship with AI systems is co-dependent and intertwined.

Without thinking about it, we use daily autonomous systems able to self-learn and improve their performance by interacting with the environment. How many times have you found yourself thinking that Netflix suggestions know you better than your friends? Or that the Google search bar seems to be reading your mind? Behind user-friendly and interactive interfaces, complex algorithms collect data and classify your preferences to improve their performance and provide you with what you need before you even ask.

Source: @TheSquareComix

We got used to easy-to-use interfaces, letting these systems into our daily gestures, into language, forgetting that the common use of these automated devices doesn’t make their functionality any less ambiguous — or their interconnections with social, behavioural, and economic dynamics.

And Even If Robots Aren’t Smarter Than Us, Is There Something We Can Learn from Them?

While the art world debates the value of a robot’s artworks, it’s, perhaps, more interesting to look at the artist robot thinking about our relationship with technology and non-human.

Back in the day, Descartes wrote that the silliest man is still more intelligent than the most sophisticated machine. Yet, we rely on intelligent machines every day. Besides social implications, the use of digital devices is changing how we think of an action or learn information about the world we live in. As the world is quickly changing without waiting for us, blurring the lines between art and technology can help us understand how we can co-exist in a sustainable world.

Going back to Dante’s Purgatory inspiring AI-Da works, Diviners and Fortune Tellers are punished because they tried to see too far ahead of their times. Their destiny is to look behind with blurred vision for eternity, as their head is backward, and their eyes are full of tires. Instead of trying to look too far ahead, AI-Da is a suggestion to look at what is already happening, to understand how we are going to be in the future.

When Arthur Coleman Danto declared the end of art and the beginning of the post-historic age, he also said that art would not be able to surprise us anymore.

After all, once ordinary objects become art, how can artists shock us again? Yet, art always finds its way to surprise us once more. A robot acting as an artist questions our most intimate human traits, forcing us to see the impact of non-human on our evolution. We need technological devices to survive as much as we need bees, water, and more sustainable food production. Putting humans always at the centre made us forget that we are not the only contributors to this shining progress depicted in our history books.

An artist-robot simply represents the contradictions — and the potential — of this post-historical, post-human, or post-digital age. And it’s up to us to try to make sense of these paradoxes. Whether AI-Da is a real artist or not, it’s a debate in the art world.

Background Bibliography

Descartes, René, 1596–1650. Discourse on Method. New York : London :Macmillan ; Collier Macmillan, 1986

Danto, Arthur. “The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense.” History and Theory, vol. 37, no. 4, 1998, pp. 127–143.

DeLanda, Manuel. “Introduction.” In 10.000 Years Of Non-Linear History. Reprint, Swerve New York, 2000.