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

Théâtre D’opéra Spatial by Jason Allen Jason Allen via Discord

The technology behind artificial intelligence-aided art has long been in development, but the era of artificial intelligence-aided art feels like a sudden arrival. Since the recent release of DALL-E and other image-generation tools, our social-media feeds have filled up with elaborate artworks and even photorealistic-looking pictures created entirely through the algorithmic processing of a simple verbal description. We now live in a time, that is to say, where we type in a few words and get back an image nobody has ever before imagined, let alone seen. And if we do it right, that image could win a blue ribbon at the state fair.

“This year, the Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition gave out prizes in all the usual categories: painting, quilting, sculpture,” reports the New York Times‘ Kevin Roose. “But one entrant, Jason M. Allen of Pueblo West, Colo., didn’t make his entry with a brush or a lump of clay. He created it with Midjourney, an artificial intelligence program that turns lines of text into hyper-realistic graphics.” The work, Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, “took home the blue ribbon in the fair’s contest for emerging digital artists,” and it does look, at first glance, like an impressionistic and ambience-rich past-future vision that could grace the cover of one of the better class of science-fiction or fantasy novels.

Reactions have, of course, varied. Roose finds at least one Twitter user insisting that “we’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes,” and an actual working artist claiming that “this thing wants our jobs.” Allen himself provides a helpfully brash closing quote: “This isn’t going to stop. Art is dead, dude. It’s over. A.I. won. Humans lost.” Over on Metafilter, one commenter makes the expected reference: “It has a sort of Duchamp-submitting-Fountain vibe, only in reverse. Instead of the proposition being that the jury would wrongly fail to recognize something trivial and as art, now we have the proposition that the jury would wrongly fail to recognize that the art is something trivial.”

However little desire you may have to hang Théâtre D’opéra Spatial on your own wall, a moment’s thought will surely lead you to suspect that, on another level, the conditions that brought about its victory are anything but trivial. Midjourney, as the original poster on Metafilter explains, “can be run on any computer with a decent GPU, a Google collab, or run through their own servers.” The ability to generate more-or-less convincing works of art (often littered, it must be said, with the bizarre visual glitches that have been the technology’s signature so far) out of just a few keystrokes will only become more powerful and more widespread. And so the “real” artists must find a new form too vital for the machines to master — just as they’ve had to do all throughout modernity.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How Cinema Inspired Edward Hopper’s Great Paintings, and How Edward Hopper Inspired Great Filmmakers

Edward Hopper is as American as blue jeans, Coca-Cola, and urban alienation, and American in essentially the same way: his work is rooted deeply enough in American culture to be identifiable with it, yet shallowly enough to allow adaptability into many other cultures as well. “All the paintings of Edward Hopper could be taken from one long movie about America, each one the beginning of a new scene.” These words come from the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who paid direct tribute to Hopper a quarter-century ago in The End of Violence, and more recently re-created a host of his works in the 3D installation Two or Three Things I Know About Edward Hopper.

Wenders may be the paradigmatic Hopper fan of our time, in part because he makes movies, and in part because he isn’t American. That the influence of Hopper, the most cinematic of all American painters, manifests in films from all over the world is made clear in the Great Art Explained video essay above. (It supplements a previous episode on Hopper’s Nighthawks.)

Its creator James Payne turns up Hopper-inspired imagery in the work of such American auteurs as Jules Dassin, Woody Allen, John Huston, Terrence Malick, and David Lynch — but also, and even more richly, in the work of such foreign auteurs as Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Roy Andersson.

“Hopper’s vision of American life has had a huge impact on how the rest of the world pictures the United States,” says Payne. “It is a world that, today, we still call ‘Hopperesque.’ He is what we think of as a quintessential American artist, yet he was also a major influence on so many non-American filmmakers who saw an intensity in Hopper, a sense of emptiness, and a lack of communication that we can all understand.” Such artists, in film or other media, “see that the psychology behind a Hopper painting can be translated into any culture, and any language” — including the language of K-pop, itself well on the way to becoming world-dominating cultural form.

Related content:

How Edward Hopper “Storyboarded” His Iconic Painting Nighthawks

How Edward Hopper’s Paintings Inspired the Creepy Suspense of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Seven Videos Explain How Edward Hopper’s Paintings Expressed American Loneliness and Alienation

What Makes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks a Great Painting?: A Video Essay

Edward Hopper’s Creative Process: The Drawing & Careful Preparation Behind Nighthawks & Other Iconic Paintings

10 Paintings by Edward Hopper, the Most Cinematic American Painter of All, Turned into Animated GIFs

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Vienna’s Albertina Museum Puts 150,000 Digitized Artworks Into the Public Domain: Klimt, Munch, Dürer, and More

Though it may not figure prominently into the average whirlwind Eurail trip across the continent, Vienna’s role in the development of European culture as we know it can hardly be overstated. Granted, the names of none of its cultural institutions come mind as readily as those of the Prado, the Uffizi Gallery, or the Louvre. But as museums go, Vienna more than holds its own, both inside and outside the neighborhood aptly named the Museumsquartier — and not just in the physical world, but online as well. Recently, the Albertina Museum in Vienna put into the public domain 150,000 of its digitized works, all of which you can browse on its web site.

“Considered to have one of the best collections of drawings and prints in the world,” says, the Albertina boasts “a large collection of works by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), a German artist who was famous for his woodcut prints and a variety of other works.” Here on Open Culture we’ve previously featured the genius of Dürer as revealed by his famed self-portraits. We’ve also featured visual exegeses of the art of Vienna’s own Gustav Klimt as well as Edvard Munch, two more recent European artists of great (and indeed still-growing) repute, works from both of whom you’ll find available to download in the Albertina’s online archive.

Those interested in the development of Dürer, Klimt, Munch, and other European masters will especially appreciate the Albertina’s online offerings. As an institution renowned for its large print room and collections of drawings, the museum has made available a great many sketches and studies, some of which clearly informed the iconic works we all recognize today. But there are also complete works as well, on which you can focus by clicking the “Highlights” checkbox above your search results. To understand Europe, you’d do well to begin in Vienna; to understand Europe’s art — including its photography, its posters, and its architecture, each of which gets its own section of the archive — you’d do well to begin at the Albertina online.


Related content:

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136 Paintings by Gustav Klimt Now Online (Including 63 Paintings in an Immersive Augmented Reality Gallery)

Explore 7,600 Works of Art by Edvard Munch: They’re Now Digitized and Free Online

30,000 Works of Art by Edvard Munch & Other Artists Put Online by Norway’s National Museum of Art

Take Immersive Virtual Tours of the World’s Great Museums: The Louvre, Hermitage, Van Gogh Museum & Much More

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Brilliantly Nightmarish Art & Troubled Life of Painter Francis Bacon

The paintings of Francis Bacon continue to trouble their viewers, not least those viewers who try to slot his work into a particular genre or movement. Bacon rose to prominence painting the human body, hardly an uncommon subject, but he did so in the middle of the twentieth century, just when abstraction had achieved near-complete domination of Western art. Though his work may not have been deliberately fashionable, it wasn’t straightforwardly realistic either. Even as they incorporated humanity, his artistic visions twisted it out of shape, often in complicatedly grotesque or bloody ways. What could have inspired such enduringly nightmarish work?

That question underlies Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence, the 2017 BBC Two documentary above. Some answers are to be found in the painter’s life, whose fragile and asthmatic early years were shadowed by the formidable presence of the elder Bacon, a Boer War veteran and racehorse trainer. As Bacon’s friend and dealer Lord Gowrie says, “His father got his stable boys to whip him, and I think that started one or two things off.” Like many studies, the film draws connections between Bacon’s harrowing artworks and his even more harrowing sex life, conducted in shadowy underworlds at great — and to him, seemingly thrilling — risk of physical harm.

Bacon proceeded down his long life’s every avenue in the same deliberately reckless manner. As with men, money, and drink, so with art: he would gamble everything, as another interviewee puts it, on the next brushstroke. His impulsive creation often preceded equally impulsive destruction, as evidenced by one assistant’s memories of following the artist’s orders to destroy a great many paintings that would now command serious prices at auction. When Bacon realized what he needed to paint — a process that began with a youthful trip to Paris, where he first encountered the work of Pablo Picasso — he knew he could accept nothing else.

Those paintings attract ever more intense critical scrutiny, an enterprise that has recently produced Francis Bacon: A Tainted Talent, the four-part documentary series just above from Youtube channel Blind Dweller (recently featured here on Open Culture for a video essay on Jean-Michel Basquiat). Almost wholly untrained in the classical sense, Bacon developed not just a distinctive set of techniques for making visible his tantalizingly appalling inner world, but also kept refining those techniques to make his work ever less outwardly shocking yet ever more affecting on subtler levels. In his lifetime, this made him the highest-paid artist in the world; more than thirty years after his death, he remains a movement of one.

Related content:

Francis Bacon on the South Bank Show: A Singular Profile of the Singular Painter

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The Revolutionary Paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Video Essay

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Behold a Secret Gallery of Art Created Using Discarded Gum on London’s Millennium Bridge

Throughout history, determined artists have worked on available surfaces – scrap wood, cardboard, walls…

Ben Wilson has created thousands of works using chewing gum as his canvas.

Specifically, chewing gum spat out by careless strangers.

His work has become a defining featuring of London’s Millennium Bridge, a modern structure spanning the Thames, and connecting such South Bank attractions as Tate Modern and the Shakespeare’s Globe with St. Paul’s Cathedral to the north.

A 2021 profile in The Guardian documents the creation process:

The technique is very precise. He first softens the oval of flattened gum a little with a blowtorch, sprays it with lacquer and then applies three coats of acrylic enamel, usually to a design from his latest book of requests that come from people who stop and crouch and talk. He uses tiny modelers’ brushes, quick-drying his work with a lighter flame as he goes along, and then seals it with more lacquer. Each painting takes a few hours and can last for many years.

Unsurprisingly, Wilson works very, very small.

For every Millennium Bridge pedestrian who’s hip to the ever-evolving solo exhibition underfoot, there are several hundred who remain completely oblivious.

Stoop to admire a miniature portrait, abstract, or commemorative work, and the bulk of your fellow pedestrians will give you a wide berth, though every now and then a concerned or curious party will stop to see what the deal is.

Wilson, who works sprawled on the bridge’s metal treads, his nose close to touching his tiny, untraditional canvas, receives a similar response, as described in Zachary Denman’s short documentary, above:

They make think I’ve fallen over and they may think I’ve had a cardiac arrest or something, so I’ve had lots of ambulances turning up…I’ve had loads of police.

His subjects are suggested by the shape of the spat out gum, by friends, by strangers who stop to watch him work:

I’ve had to deal with people memorializing people who have been murdered. People who have been so lonely, or remembering favorite pets; people who are destitute in all sorts of ways. It goes from proposal pictures, ‘Will you marry me?’, to people who I drew when they were kids and they now have their own kids.

Like any street artist, Wilson’s had his share of run ins with the law, including a wrongful 2010 arrest for criminal damage, when a crowd of schoolchildren who’d been enthusiastically watching an itty bitty St. Pauls taking shape on a blob of gum witnessed him being dragged off by his feet. (He asked if he could finish the picture first…)

He may not get permission to create the public works he goes out daily to create, but he contributes by clearing the area of litter, and as he points out, painting on discarded gum doesn’t constitute defacing anyone’s actual property:

Technically in one sense, I’m working within the law …if I paint on chewing gum, it’s like finding No Man’s Land or common ground. It’s a space which is not under the jurisdiction of a local or national government.

See more of Ben Wilson’s work in his online Gum Gallery.

Photos in this article taken by Ayun Halliday, 2022. All rights reserved.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How a Simple, Bauhaus-Designed Chair Ended Up Everywhere Over the Past 100 Years

If you don’t believe chairs can be art, you’ll have to take it up with the curators, gallerists, collectors, architects, and designers around the world who spend their lives obsessing over chair design. Every major museum has a furniture collection, and every collection displaying furniture gives special pride of place to the radical innovations of modernist chairs, from early artisan creations of the Bauhaus to mass-produced mid-century chairs of legend. Chairs are status symbols, art objects, and physical manifestations of leisure, power, and repose.

Who could forget Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic lounge chair, Arne Jacobsen’s “Egg,” the elegantly simple side chairs of Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, or even the more recent corner office staple, the Aeron Chair — the Herman Miller original that has been part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection since 1992? “In chairs more than in any other object, human beings are the unit of measure,” says Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli, “and designers are forced to walk a line between standardization and personalization.”

Artist Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus designer, architect, and instructor, applied more than his share of innovative ideas to a series of chairs and tables designed and built in the 1920s and 30s. The most iconic of these, from a design perspective, may be the “Wassily,” a club chair-shaped contraption made of steel tubing and canvas straps. (The chair acquired the name because Breuer’s Bauhaus colleague Wassily Kandinsky so admired it.) One rarely encounters this chair outside the environs of upscale furniture galleries and the finer homes and waiting rooms.

Breuer’s Cesca, however, the Wassily’s smaller, more utilitarian cousin from 1928, seems to show up all over the place. Also called the B32 (with an armchair version called the B64), the Cesca’s one-piece, steel tube design was, like Breuer’s full line of Bauhaus furniture, inspired by his experiments in bike-building and interest in “mass production and standardization,” he said. Unlike the Wassily, which might set you back around $3,300 for a quality reproduction, a Cesca comes in at around 1/10th the price, and seems ubiquitous, the Vox video above points out.

No, it’s still not cheap, but Breuer’s rattan chair design is widely beloved and copied. “The cantilevered cane-and-chrome chair is all over the place,” Vox writes, “in trendy homes, in movies and on TV shows, even tattooed on people’s bodies…. [This] somewhat unassuming two-legged chair is the realization of a manifesto’s worth of utopian ideals about design and functionality.” It satisfies the school’s brief, that is to say, for the utilitarian as utopian, as Breuer himself later commented on his design:

I already had the concept of spanning the seat with fabric in tension as a substitute for thick upholstery. I also wanted a frame that would be resilient and elastic [as well as] achieve transparency of forms to attain both visual and physical lightness…. I considered such polished and curved lines not only symbolic of our modern technology, but actually technology itself.

Learn more about the practical, comfortable, beauty of the Cesca — and the ideals of the Bauhaus — in the video at the top. Learn more about the chair’s designer, Marcel Breuer, in this online MoMA monograph by Christopher Wilk.

Related Content: 

How the Iconic Eames Lounge Chair Is Made, From Start to Finish

Download Original Bauhaus Books & Journals for Free: A Digital Celebration of the Founding of the Bauhaus School 100 Years Ago

The Women of the Bauhaus: See Hip, Avant-Garde Photographs of Female Students & Instructors at the Famous Art School

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How German Artist John Heartfield Pioneered the Use of Art as a Political Weapon, and Took on Hitler

The story of artist John Heartfield — born Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld in Berlin in 1891 — begins like a German fairy tale. In 1899, his parents, ill and poverty-stricken, abandoned Helmut and his three siblings in a mountain cabin at Aigen, near Salzburg. The hungry children were discovered four days later by the mayor of the town and his wife, who took them in and fostered them. Meanwhile, their uncle, a lawyer, appeared with a trust from their wealthy grandfather’s estate to fund their educations.

Helmut trained at several art schools in Germany, eventually arriving at the School of Arts and Crafts in the bohemian Berlin of the 1910s, where he abandoned his dream of becoming a painter and instead invented hugely effective anti-war propaganda art during World War I and the rise of the Nazis. As The Canvas video above explains, Heartfield’s work pointedly encapsulates the “anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist” attitudes of radical Berlin Dadaists. He was “one of Hitler’s most creative critics.”

Herzfeld began his anti-war art campaign by anglicizing his name to counter rising anti-British sentiment at the start of World War I. As John Heartfield, he collaborated with his brother, Weiland, and satirical artist George Grosz on the leftist journal New Youth and the revolutionary publishing house, Malik Verlag. After the war, they joined the German Communist party. (Heartfield “received his party book,” writes Sybille Fuchs, “from KPD leader Rosa Luxemburg herself.”); they also became “founding members of the Berlin Dadaists,” developing the photomontage style Heartfield used throughout his graphic design career.

John Heartfield, War and Corpses, the Last Hope of the Rich

“Photomontage allowed Heartfield to create loaded and politically contentious images,” the Getty writes. “To compose his works, he chose recognizable press photographs of politicians or events from the mainstream illustrated press…. Heartfield’s strongest work used variations of scale and stark juxtapositions to activate his already gruesome photo-fragments. The result could have a frightening visual impact.” They also had widespread influence, becoming an almost standard style of radical protest art throughout Europe in the early part of the 20th century.

On rare occasions, Heartfield included photographs of himself, as in the self-portrait below with scissors clipping the head of the Berlin police commissioner; or he used his own photography, as in an unglamorous shot a young pregnant woman behind whose head Heartfield places what appears to be the body of a dead young man. The 1930 work protested Weimar’s anti-abortion laws with the title “Forced Supplier of Human Material Take Courage! The State Needs Unemployed People and Soldiers!”

John Heartfield, Self-Portrait with the Police Commissioner Zörgiebel

Heartfield’s direct attacks on state power were allied with his support for worker movements. “In 1929, following ten years of activity in photomontage and publishing,” The Art Institute of Chicago writes, “John Heartfield began working for the left-wing periodical Worker’s Illustrated Magazine (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung [AIZ]).” This weekly publication “served from the first as a major organ of opposition to the rising National Socialist Party.” Heartfield’s provocative covers mocked Hitler and portrayed the power of organized labor against the fascist threat. He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1931 under the magazine’s auspices and gave photomontage courses to the Red Army. His style spread internationally until the lifeless propaganda painting of Socialist Realism purged modernist art from the party style.

Unfortunately for Heartfield, and for Europe, the German left failed to present a unified front against Nazism as the KPD also became increasingly dogmatic and Stalinist. The artist and the editors of the AIZ were forced to flee to Prague when Hitler took power in 1933. (Heartfield reportedly escaped a “gang of Nazi thugs,” writes Fuchs, by leaping from his balcony in Berlin). In Czechoslovakia, he continued his counter-propaganda campaign against Hitler through the covers of the AIZ. When the Nazis occupied Prague in 1938, he fled again, to London but never stopped working through the war. He would eventually return to Berlin in the early 1950s and take up a career as a professor of literature.

Heartfield is a complicated figure — an overlooked yet key member of the German avant garde who, with his brother Weiland and artists like George Grosz revolutionized the media of photography, typography, and printing in order to virulently oppose war, oppression, and Nazism, despite the dangers to their livelihoods and lives. You can learn more about the artist’s life and work at the Official John Heartfield Exhibition site, which features many of the collages shown in the Canvas video at the top. (See especially the feature on Heartfield’s relevance to our current moment.) Also, don’t miss this interactive online exhibition from the Akademie Der Künste in Berlin, which controls the artist’s estate and has put a number of rare photos and documents online.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Damien Hirst’s NFT Experiment Comes to an End: How Many Buyers Chose Digital Tokens Over Physical Artworks?

Damien Hirst is into NFTs. Some will regard this as a reflection on the artist, and others a reflection on the technology. Whether you take those reflections to be positive or negative reveals something about your own concept of how the art world, the business world, and the digital world intersect. So will your reaction to The Currency, Hirst’s just-completed art project and technological experiment. Launched in July of last year, it produced 10,000 unique non-fungible tokens “that were each associated with corresponding artworks the British artist made in 2016,” as Artnet’s Caroline Goldstein writes. “The digital tokens were sold via a lottery system for $2,000.”

Hirst also laid down an unprecedented condition: he announced “that his collectors would have to make a choice between the physical artwork and its digital version, and set a one-year deadline — asking them, in effect, to vote for which had more lasting value.” For each buyer who chooses the original work, Hirst would assign its NFT to an inaccessible address, the closest thing to destroying it. And for each buyer who chooses the NFT, Hirst would throw the paper version onto a bonfire. The final numbers, as Hirst tweeted out at the end of last month, came to “5,149 physicals and 4,851 NFTs (meaning I will have to burn 4,851 corresponding physical Tenders).” Hirst also retained 1,000 copies for himself.

“In the beginning I had thought I would definitely choose all physical,” Hirst explains. “Then I thought half-half and then I felt I had to keep all my 1,000 as NFTs and then all paper again and round and round I’ve gone, head in a spin.” In the end he went wholly digital, having decided that “I need to show my 100 percent support and confidence in the NFT world (even though it means I will have to destroy the corresponding 1000 physical artworks).” Perhaps this was a victory of Hirst’s neophilia, but then, those instincts have served him well before: few living artists have managed to draw such public fascination, enamored or hostile, for so many years straight — let alone such formidable sale prices, and not just for his stuffed shark.

“I’ve never really understood money,” Hirst says to Stephen Fry in the video above. (You can watch an extended version of their conversation here.) “All these things — art, money, commerce — they’re all ethereal,” ultimately based on nothing more than “belief and trust.” Returning to the techniques of his early “spot paintings” — those he made himself before farming the task out to steadier-handed assistants — and minting the results into unique digital objects for sale was perhaps an attempt to get his head around the even less intuitive concept of the NFT. All told, The Currency brought in about $89 million in revenue. More telling will be the price of its tokens on the secondary market, where they’re changing hands at the moment for around $7,000: a price impossible properly to evaluate for now, and thus not without the thrilling ambiguity of certain modern artworks.

via Artnet

Related content:

What are Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)? And How Can a Work of Digital Art Sell for $69 Million

Brian Eno Shares His Critical Take on Art & NFTs: “I Mainly See Hustlers Looking for Suckers”

The Art Market Demystified in Four Short Documentaries

Mark Rothko Is Toast… and More Edible Art from SFMOMA

Damien Hirst Takes Us Through His New Exhibition at Tate Modern

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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