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Ai Weiwei says art that will be replicated by AI is ‘meaningless’ – philosopher explains what which means for the long run of art

Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous dissident and artist, has called art that will be easily replicated by artificial intelligence (AI) “meaningless”. What I find most striking about this comment is the way it manages to look each backwards into the intricate corridors of art history and forwards into the uncertain way forward for the art world.

Does Ai Weiwei mean that AI should make us rethink our appreciation of the artistic endeavors of the past? Or is AI so powerful that it should shape the mission of future artists?

The undertones of this double challenge are familiar to philosophers of art, who’ve, at times, seriously entertained the claim that art can come to an end.

Exploring art’s goal

Among probably the most famous and influential voices are G. W. Hegel within the early nineteenth century and Arthur Danto within the late twentieth century. Both have argued that while artworks can proceed to be produced in great numbers – and even perhaps in latest and exciting ways – there’s a way wherein the progress of art has reached its peak.

According to their arguments, art has “ended” since it has accomplished its goal. This claim may appear obscure to a up to date audience, but what each Hegel and Danto were getting at is pretty easy.

G.W Hegel was a distinguished philosopher of art.
Alte Nationalgalerie

If you concentrate on art as having some form of innermost goal, then you definately can imagine that in some unspecified time in the future in time, that goal has been attained. Art at all times does something in that it has an effect. An effect on the artist creating it, on its audience and ultimately on the world. But that intended overall effect can change.

Danto claimed that looking into the history of art, we will extract a narrative, or a story, about how art has achieved its goal.

The first narrative, capturing centuries of art history from classical Greek sculpture to Renaissance paintings, was focused on verisimilitude – here art’s goal was to create realistic representations of its subject.

The second of art’s narratives, Danto believed, was triggered by a crisis which got here from the technological advancement brought by the camera. Since art’s first goal – of making perfect representations – had been superseded, art needed a brand new one. The second goal was to investigate into what art itself could possibly be, in search of out its own limits.

The works of varied modernist artists – reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s The Aficionado (1912) or Wassily Kandinsky’s Bustling Aquarelle (1923), as much as Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) – could then be understood as a quest for establishing what it means for an object to be an artwork and asking: “What is the meaning of art itself?”

Writing in 1967, Danto believed that even this second goal had been fulfilled – but perhaps its repercussions haven’t quite been felt yet.

A 3rd goal for art

This is where I feel Weiwei’s latest perspective is refreshing. It seems to suggest that AI technology could be pushing us towards a brand new goal for art. The latest challenge can be establishing what a very digital way forward for art might seem like – and what our human contribution to it could be.

We can then ask how art will be meaningful again in our AI-shaped social worlds. And what the role of the artist ought to be in creating this meaning.

Philosophers of varied convictions, from John Dewey to Kendall Walton, have pointed to such an answer for a very long time. We can create latest meaning for art by exploring latest types of expression – by doing latest things with each latest and old tools.

The black cover of Weiwei-isms.

The cover of Weiwei-isms.
Princeton University Press

Art not only adapts to latest tools and technology, it does something latest with them, and in that process, it has the potential to develop into something latest itself.

Ai Weiwei himself touches upon this in certainly one of his quotations in his book Weiwei-isms (2012), when he says that art is: “About freedom of expression, a brand new way of communication. It is rarely about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall … I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics.”

The subtle slide here, from latest types of expression to latest ways of contributing to political conversations, prompts one other vital query: how can art contribute to political conversations in distinctive ways?

In his latest book, Artists Remake the World: A Contemporary Art Manifesto, philosopher Vid Simoniti suggests a possible answer. He claims that art provides a definite mode of political expression which enables audiences to reflect on central issues while momentarily setting aside binary judgments of right or improper.

Art permits engagement with political matters without imposing the burden of adopting a selected stance. It is moored to the actual world, but allows also for an open-ended space where latest positions will be imagined, explored and inhabited. Could AI create those artistic spaces with us, or for us? Perhaps confronting this challenge could set a brand new goal for the digital art of the long run.


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