AI “Completes” Keith Haring’s Unfinished Painting and Controversy Erupts

The celebri­ty graf­fi­ti artist Kei­th Har­ing died in 1990, at the age of 31, no doubt hav­ing com­plet­ed only a frac­tion of the art­work he would have pro­duced in a life a few decades longer. Upon first see­ing his Unfin­ished Paint­ing of 1989, one might assume that his ear­ly death is what stopped him from fin­ish­ing it. In fact, paint­ing only about a quar­ter of the can­vas was his delib­er­ate choice, intend­ed to make a visu­al com­men­tary on the AIDS epi­dem­ic that had claimed so many lives, and, not long there­after, would claim his own. Pre­sum­ably, it nev­er occurred to any­one to “fin­ish” Unfin­ished Paint­ing — not before the age of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, any­way.

“Last sum­mer, artist Brooke Peach­ley … post­ed a pho­to of the work on X” — the social media plat­form for­mer­ly known as Twit­ter — “along­side a prompt ask­ing oth­ers to respond with a visu­al art piece ‘that nev­er fails to destroy [them] every time they see it,’ ” write Elaine Velie and Rhea Nay­yar at Hyper­al­ler­gic. “Over six months lat­er, anoth­er user respond­ed to the orig­i­nal post with a gen­er­a­tive AI image that ‘com­plet­ed’ Haring’s pur­pose­ly half-paint­ed work, writ­ing, ‘now using AI we can com­plete what he couldn’t fin­ish!’ ”

One might, per­haps, sense a jok­ing tone in that post, though the many incensed com­menters it con­tin­ues to draw seem not to take it that way. “The post swift­ly caught the ire of the X com­mu­ni­ty, with users describ­ing the action as ‘dis­re­spect­ful,’ ‘dis­gust­ing,’ and a ‘des­e­cra­tion,’ ” says Art­net News. “Some praised the pow­ers of A.I. for ‘show­ing us a world with­out AIDS,’ while oth­ers deemed the tweet excel­lent ‘bait’ on an Elon Musk-led online plat­form that new­ly rewards out­rage with engage­ment.” As often these days — and very often when it comes to appli­ca­tions of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence in pop­u­lar cul­ture — the reac­tions to the thing are more com­pelling than the thing itself.

“The A.I.-generated image doesn’t appear to be faith­ful to Haring’s style, which often includ­ed images of human fig­ures,” writes Julia Bin­swanger at “These kinds of fig­ures are vis­i­ble in Haring’s orig­i­nal piece, but the image gen­er­a­tor wasn’t able to repli­cate them.” The algo­rith­mi­cal­ly filled-in Unfin­ished Paint­ing may be with­out aes­thet­ic or intel­lec­tu­al inter­est in itself, but con­sid­er how many view­ers have only learned of the orig­i­nal work because of it. Nev­er­the­less, stunts like this (or like zoom­ing out the Mona Lisa) ulti­mate­ly amount to dis­trac­tions from what­ev­er artis­tic poten­tial these tech­nolo­gies may actu­al­ly hold. A.I. will come into its own not by gen­er­at­ing images that Har­ing or any oth­er artist could have cre­at­ed, but images that no human being has yet imag­ined.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Demys­ti­fy­ing the Activist Graf­fi­ti Art of Kei­th Har­ing: A Video Essay

A Short Biog­ra­phy of Kei­th Har­ing Told with Com­ic Book Illus­tra­tions & Music

Kei­th Haring’s Eclec­tic Jour­nal Entries Go Online

Behold the World’s First Mod­ern Art Amuse­ment Park, Fea­tur­ing Attrac­tions by Sal­vador Dalí, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kei­th Har­ing, Roy Licht­en­stein & More (1987)

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Brings to Life Fig­ures from 7 Famous Paint­ings: The Mona Lisa, Birth of Venus & More

An AI-Gen­er­at­ed Paint­ing Won First Prize at a State Fair & Sparked a Debate About the Essence of Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (10)
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  • Anon says:

    This is just vile. Noth­ing was com­plet­ed and we should­n’t be giv­ing it any atten­tion.

  • Anthony says:

    besides just how wrong it is to fin­ish this paint­ing — the AI does­n’t under­stand how Har­ing did lit­tle body out­lines. there are none in the “inter­pre­ta­tion” of the fin­ished prod­uct. Moral of the sto­ry? Stop using AI to do art. It’s insult­ing.

  • Rod Stasick says:

    A fun con­cep­tu­al project that has, for very weird and overt­ly pearl-clutch­ing rea­sons, riled up some folks who seem to thrive on their bor­rowed def­i­n­i­tions of what’s moral­ly wrong. I’d ask a class of young art stu­dents to each make a ver­sion of their own and spend the class time dis­cussing their var­ied dif­fer­ences there­by engag­ing them in ways of dis­cov­er­ing the very spe­cif­ic ele­ments of an artist’s work. Appar­ent­ly, it’s eas­i­er to throw a blan­ket on some idea than to embrace it — even swad­dle it — with a cre­ative learn­ing expe­ri­ence.

  • fyrwerx says:

    Look, look at what my com­put­er can do! (yawn)

  • SinnaOne says:

    Who cares? Har­ing did­n’t do it.

  • Eric says:

    AI isn’t an “art stu­dent.”

    Aside from that, the “inter­pre­ta­tion” it gave here is hilar­i­ous garbage.

    This is the art equiv­a­lent of 7‑fingered hands in AI ren­dered “pho­tos.”

    If you under­stand any­thing about line or com­po­si­tion, you can look at the AI ren­der­ing and see exact­ly where it start­ed and Har­ing stopped. The val­ley is quite uncan­ny.

    From a pure­ly for­mal stand­point, what the AI did is sim­ply bad… Hon­est­ly ter­ri­ble. It miss­es devel­op­ment com­plete­ly, breaks down the extent ele­ments in an inter­est­ing way, and then overde­ter­mines them through­out.

    It’s ama­teur­ish and quite dumb.

  • Quit crying says:

    How many of you lost a loved one to aids in the 90s? I can tell you from first hand expe­ri­ence it was hor­rif­ic. One thing I’m almost cer­tain of is that if the peo­ple who did die from it had the chance to be alive and observe what an uproar fin­ish­ing this paint­ing caused they would­n’t care because they would be alive again and great­ful. So maybe we should take that into per­spec­tive and chill out we’re alive and look at what we get to com­plain about.

  • B says:

    The AI lit­er­al­ly just focused on like four details and copied them every­where with jagged line con­nect­ing them. You can clear­ly see where the inter­pre­ta­tion of the work starts. AI is not there yet.

  • Peter says:

    I came here to say the same thing. It’s miss­ing the human fig­ures. It’s too com­pact and visu­al­ly dif­fer­ent from the upper cor­ner. It shows no com­pre­hen­sion of what the artist style actu­al­ly is, and of course the use of it destroys the mean­ing of the orig­i­nal. I lived in Boston and I nev­er got to meet him but I’ve seen his art in var­i­ous places. There is a post office that was paint­ed by him on the inside down­town Boston. I don’t know if it’s still there but it was nice to be able to see and touch his art.

  • Ramin Dadmanesh says:

    Oxy­moron­ic terms; arti­fi­cial, intel­li­gence.

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