The machine and its art

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on February 07, 2020 Published on February 07, 2020

Fair copy: AI-based technology was able to simulate van Gogh’s style — the brushstrokes, choice of colours and subjects   -  Reuters

Artificial intelligence may be able to predict and recreate, but it cannot surpass the creative unruliness of the human mind

Various forms of art developed through technology, a word derived from the Greek ‘techne’, meaning art and craft. It implies that the purpose of technology was to give art and, by extension, life a form.

European painters for a long time were painting portraits and still life in their studios because the pots of paints could not be moved about easily. With the invention of the tube, they found that they could be more mobile. Their tubes of paints allowed them to paint outdoor landscapes. The next phase in this evolution has been brought about through artificial intelligence (AI).

AI adapts through progressive learning algorithms to let the data do the programming. AI finds structure and regularities in data so that the algorithm acquires a skill. So, just as the algorithm can teach itself how to play chess, it can teach itself musical skills, storytelling skills.

About a year ago, the British auction house Christie’s decision to sell a work of AI-based art — a painting called Portrait of Edmond de Belamy — sparked a debate on whether it could really be called art.

Around the same time, new paintings by Vincent van Gogh were created — or rather generated. Computers were fed all the information and the results were strikingly similar to van Gogh’s style — the brushstrokes, the choice of colours and subjects. It could fool any art historian who knew nothing about AI into thinking it was an original van Gogh that was discovered in somebody’s attic.

If you look at story and drama from a very classical perspective, we have the famous quote from Bharat muni’s Natya Shastra, something I learnt in my younger days as a dancer. The quote is: “Yatho Hasta thato Drishti. Yatho Drishti thato Manah. Yatho Manah thato bhaava. Yatho Bhaava thato Rasa (Where the hand goes, the eyes follow. Where the eyes go, the mind follows. Where the mind goes, the feelings follow. Where feelings go, Rasa or aesthetic experience ensues).”

3D AI is already around the corner. So is it possible to feed the AI dancer this basic principle of dance? Will AI generation be just as effective? Can it generate Rasa?

When I read about American art theorist Suzanne Langer’s three stages of an art movement, it changed the way I looked at my writing process, it enhanced my ability to get the best out of my actors as a director, and it changed my perspective on learning and life in general.

These stages are very simply put by Langer. According to her, every art movement is born, it lives, it dies. This thereby gives birth to a new movement, which will live, and eventually die. Simple. She calls the first stage as Naivety. Where you don’t know. Where somebody has a bright idea — “why not do it this way?” Or probably discovers something. Shakespeare, for instance, decided to make up his own language and the world is blessed with a wealth of idioms.

The second stage of the art movement is Sophistication. Classical art forms based on canonical theories came from a deep level of study, understanding and knowledge. The naive breakaways were given names — abstract expressionism, Dadaism, art deco. Almost all our traditional dance forms come from a sophisticated classical structure.

The third stage, one that I have learned to embrace as I grow older, is the stage of decadence. When you have seen boy-meets-girl-oh-no-here’s-dad kind of stories for the nth time, or Hollywood white male heroes saving the world over and over again, you know it is time to go back to the drawing board. It’s the return to naivety which keeps the creative energy flowing.

We need all three, undoubtedly. And we need to pass through all three. The best example of all three stages is Shiva’s eternal dance of creation and destruction. He is considered to be naive in some ways, hence the name Bholenath. But he is the king of dance — a master. He is also the destroyer with his quick temper and Tandav Nritya. Then he is back to being the innocent, simple mendicant.

What technology has done is that it has increased the pace at which we move from one stage to the next. It can happen in 15 seconds. You tweet, you are retweeted, you are ignored.

We are compelled to embrace this decadence that advancements in technology have brought in. And wake up to a new world where technology is a given circumstance in our lives. What we do next may be the most important thing in the history of mankind. As important as discovering another plane of artistic expressiveness with AI. We don’t know. And not knowing is what makes us different from AI.

AI can only come up with a van Gogh if it knows the brushwork of van Gogh. It cannot come up with a van Gogh if there was no van Gogh to begin with. It needs the sophistication that comes with information.

Only a human being has the privilege of creating from a blank slate, an empty space, a shoonya.



Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

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Published on February 07, 2020
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