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This Portrait Is Reminiscent Of A Rembrandt But Artificial Intelligence Created It


A new portrait going on the Christie's auction block Thursday may be reminiscent of a Rembrandt, but it's actually the work of artificial intelligence. It's called "Portrait Of Edmond Belamy." The work was created using an algorithm, and it might fetch around $10,000. Computers making art is nothing new, but a computer creating a portrait that's being auctioned by such a prestigious art house - now, that is new.

Art appraiser Erin-Marie Wallace has been following the buzz around the upcoming sale, and she joins us now to talk about how the art world is taking all this in. Welcome.

ERIN-MARIE WALLACE: Thank you. A pleasure to be here, Ailsa.

CHANG: How controversial is this in the art world for a painting to be painted by a non-human and then auctioned off like fine art?

WALLACE: Well, I think every couple generations, you have something that happens that begins to redefine what we consider art. You can go back to the early 20th century, and you can look at the urinal by Marcel Duchamp where he literally took a men's urinal and hung it on a wall, right? And this completely shattered what people thought of as art. We're redefining what art actually is for the 21st century, so I don't think that it is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I think these things happen again and again. We are redefining what we consider art within our historical context.

CHANG: That is so fascinating. But it does raise the question of how do you price a painting that is not the product of a human - because usually - I'm no art expert, but usually, the way I understand it, things like technique and the uniqueness of a piece of work - those are the factors that drive the price in art. So how do you price art where those things don't really apply?

WALLACE: Well, they still apply. But let's add to that. Let's add to that the marketability of a painting. Let's add to the hype that's created around a painting or any work of art really. I tend to think that the whole thing is orchestrated from go. They knew exactly where they wanted to price it in comparison with where they wanted to sell it via Christie's. All are within the same wheelhouse in terms of number.

CHANG: And does that orchestration deplete the integrity of the artistic process, the rollout?

WALLACE: My opinion is no because I don't think it is up to any person to define what art is or what art is valued at. I feel that art is valued at what people are willing to pay for it.

CHANG: So who is the artist in this case? Is it the coders who wrote the algorithm? Is it the algorithm, or is it the machine?

WALLACE: Oh, the artist has to be a little bit of all of those. Original artist ownership, I do believe, is split between the programming, the coders, the collective and maybe even a little bit of a nod to Christie's for helping to create the frenzy around it.

CHANG: And given that there has been some deliberate frenzy built around this, if this painting were created by a human, do you think it would have the same attractiveness? Would it garner the same price?

WALLACE: No, I don't think so. I really don't think so. I think in terms of art, the things that matter the most are the firsts, and this is the first time an AI-generated artwork has gone to a major auction house to be auctioned off. And so this is a first. It is the absolute first time this has ever happened. Because this is a canvas print, it is absolutely possible that the collective could decide to release it in a smaller, limited and numbered edition after the sale. I don't believe that those will be valued as high as this particular one because this is the first.

CHANG: Erin-Marie Wallace is the CEO of Rare-Era Appraisals just outside Washington, D.C. Thank you very much.

WALLACE: Thank you so much. A pleasure, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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