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Christie's AI action, Edmond
Edmond is surely pleased with himselfChristie's

An AI-made artwork just sold for more at auction than most artists do

But the three French students who sold it have been accused of stealing the code from artist Robbie Barrat

“Behold the future – here it is,” proclaimed an auctioneer at Christie’s before unveiling an artwork made by an AI on Thursday, October 25.

The auction house later tweeted that a “bidding battle” had taken place, before the hammer came down at $432,500. To put that into perspective, the price is around ten times more than the average dollar fetched for art by a male artist at auction and – surprise, surprise – 20 times more than artworks by women. Not bad for a work which was originally valued at between $7,000 and $10,000.

The painting is called “Edmond de Belamy” – it’s part of a bigger series of a whole fictional Balamy family – and its details are listed as follows: generative Adversarial Network print, on canvas, 2018, signed with GAN model loss function in ink by the publisher, from a series of eleven unique images, published by Obvious Art, Paris, with original gilded wood frame.

The subject of the canvas is a man, likely Edmond, whose half-finished figure is set amongst a black puff that billows behind him. Half-turned, he stares out at the viewer, dressed in a white collar and what appears to be a black gown. The AI behind the work was created by a creative studio where humans supposedly work, called Obvious, run by three French men.

Or was it? On Twitter, a 19-year-old programmer and artist named Robbie Barrat has accused the company of using open source code which he created.

For those of us already a little sceptical about the question of AI art, there’s plenty of reason to be more wary about “Edmond”. In an essay published on Medium, Obvious attempts to justify the project by saying that even though the act of using AI removes subjective emotion and expression from the artwork itself, the artist/s behind the AI is/are still (the) human/s who designed and used the algorithm. It concludes that, therefore, “the collaboration between human and machine has never been so close”.

It’s a brazen claim, given there is evidence that Obvious was communicating with Barrat, and openly admit that it used large portions of his code (though it was coy about publicising that until recently). So which humans are truly close to the machines, and which humans (if any) deserve the credit, and all that cash? What does it mean for the collaborative AI community if work can be hijacked and commodified like this? And are our courtrooms prepared for the legal battles that are coming on the horizon?

It will be interesting to see how future AI artworks sell. The reason for “Edmond”’s notoriety – and likely its staggering price – is that it is the first ever AI artwork to be sold at auction. It’s a great headline, good press coverage – look, here we are – but it’s not because of the artists behind it or their talent. And, while we look to “the future”, should we be so quick to gloss over our past, or even present, problems? Women are still worth notably much less than their male counterparts, cuts to arts programmes are increasingly commonplace across the UK, and artists studios are emptied in favour of luxury flats. Imagine we injected a cool $400k into any of those issues instead.

While it’s to be seen whether this will open the floodgates for an entirely new age and burgeoning art movement (dubbed GANism, apparently), and push the value of artists and their crafts even closer to the brink, this doesn’t feel like best, or most ethical, move into “the future”.