What Artificial Intelligence shows us about understanding art

I had a great introduction to this topic in a conversation I recently had with the great potter blogger Whitney Smith. In one of her comments to a post on her blog she included a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe that got my brain working. The quote was:

“I don’t very much enjoy looking at paintings in general. I know too much about them. I take them apart.”

This rang familiar to me, not so much in my pottery experience, but from a situation that taught me the difference between following your head and following your heart….. My own experience with “knowing too much” came when I was still in Philosophy grad school. I had read so much technical writing that I could no longer read without analyzing, whatever it was. That meant fiction and all other non-serious writing was wasted on me. I had grown up an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, but after so much breaking apart of other writers’ thoughts I couldn’t stand the frivolous nature of pure story telling. It was ruined for me…..

Its possible that my break from Philosophy had something to do with rejecting this attitude, but the interesting thing was that the first book I picked up post-philosophy was Alice in Wonderland, the most absurd and nonsensical book I could think of. And I was saved! I’m back to reading for fun, and I can finally look back with amusement at how serious I once was….

The difference turned out to be that when all I knew was what was being said, and I could break that apart and judge how well the ‘what’ was executed, how well it hung together with other things, its own internal consistency, and also simply how well it measured up to other known facts, well, that was a pretty impoverished and incomplete understanding. How could I like anything that inevitably was so obviously inadequate? How could I like the things that I knew so much about, technically, that they always had some flaw or area of coverage that failed in some fundamental way?

I imagine that is what O’Keeffe was saying too. Knowing too much about paintings, taking them apart, is not a good recipe for enjoying them…..

Which brings me to artificial intelligence. This morning I read a nice essay by a neurologist who through some bizarre coincidence bears the same name as my Philosophy major professor who was also interested in human cognitive abilities and artificial intelligence.

In the last several years, a poker-playing program (Cepheus) developed by the computer science department at the University of Alberta has consistently outplayed the world’s best heads up limit hold ’em players. What makes this conquest so intriguing is that the computer isn’t programmed in advance to play in any particular style or have any knowledge of the intricacies of poker theory. Instead it is an artificial neural network with a huge memory capacity (4000 terabytes). It plays and records the outcome of millions of trial and error simulations, eventually learning the optimal strategy for any given situation. It does so without any knowledge of the game or its opponent, or any of the subtleties that inform the best human players. It is completely in the dark as to why it does anything.

In other words, simply as a technical exercise Cepheus can decide what works, what doesn’t, and choose between them. It cannot tell you why it should do this, simply that some things add up and other don’t. It could take apart all the various options and sort through them to find the optimal outcome. Very proficient, indeed!

When we look at art that we know inside and out technically we can analyze how well crafted it is, how well executed it is, how well designed it is, how consistent it is with its own values, and the truth is that very few things in art do all of those things well. If THIS is what we understand about art, then no wonder we sometimes suffer from knowing too much. How can anything match up to the sublime mechanical ideals in our mind?

So how is it that Alice in Wonderland saved me from creative despair? The simple answer is that not everything is meant to make sense. Not everything is meant to be judged in this way. Not everything even cares about the values of an analytical mind. And that has to be okay. Art is not always some rational whole that fits together perfectly, can be taken apart like a clock to display the inner workings of its logic. Rather, art is often an accretion of things that have no prior reason for being thrust together, that add up simply through happenstance and innovation, through blind luck and serendipity. If you break those things apart no wonder you will be disappointed by the audacious absurdity. Things fit together in art because we made them so.

The one thing that the technical breaking apart of facts about some work of art does not always do, or do well, is answer the question “Why?”. If you measure some heavy poorly thrown pottery against the standards of craftsmanship, of course it fails, and of course you have a reason not to like it. You know too much about the technical side of pot making to condone its slipshod methods and execution.

But what if its not about this ‘craftsmanship’ thingy so many of us are obsessed with? Contemporary artists have long since lost fanatical fascination with the ideals of craftsmanship. One of the trends in pottery these days is boring boring shapes that are simply the canvasses for some sort of decoration. A cinder block wall can hold a painting as well as a sheet of paper. Straight and relatively smooth seem to be all that is required….. And while I personally lament that not more interest is taken in pure form these days, obviously many artists have different values and hold decoration as superior to form, profile, and design sophistication. What serves decoration better than simplicity?

And knowing what I know about form, profile, and design sophistication I could be seriously put off by pots that didn’t subscribe to these ideals. But the thing I am lacking in that presumptuous analysis is the ‘Why?’ question. And when we understand that the why of things is often still a mystery, the ‘what’ of being expressed is no longer all that matters.

The point of mystery is that it defies our cold blooded analysis. And there is joy in that. Its the unexpected thrill of seeing my teacher’s name on an article he could have written, but discovering it was someone else. Surprises like that, like Alice in Wonderland, are an important part of life’s adventure. Is it a surprise that often this is precisely the joy of making art? That expression itself will lead us to new discoveries? That making itself is a question of “What things are possible?” and “How could it look if I did this instead?”?

So with pottery we can face the same issue. I still surround myself with as many new examples of pottery magic as I can, and I have not lost that sense of wonder that charms. I am continuously amazed at what other artists do, confounded at why they do it this particular way. Its a challenge and an inspiration. The stuff I don’t like or don’t understand doesn’t bother me because I know I am just not getting it like the maker intended. They are speaking some other language, and the meaning of the words is obscured…. Or, I simply don’t care about what they care about. That’s okay too.

I’ll end with another quote from neurologist and alternate universe Bob Burton:

I confess to a bias for those minds that rely on scientific evidence and critical reasoning for those questions that can be answered empirically while simultaneously retaining a deep appreciation for the inexplicable, mysterious and emotionally complex — the indescribable yet palpable messiness that constitutes a life. For the latter, our value added isn’t in any specific answer, but in the deeply considered question. In the end, it will be the quality of the questions that will be the measure of a man.

Things to think about……

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Artificial Intelligence shows us about understanding art

  1. gazooza says:

    Let’s imagine a future 3D ceramic printer, with an AI and something like that 4000TB of memory. We feed it every image of every pot we can find (or let it scan the web to find them for itself). Perhaps there’s a related AI system for applying glaze, and another for dictating the parameters of the firing. [For example: Left-front firebox, 36 hour firing, half day soak at ∆11, mixed hardwoods, slow cooling.]

    As people who know enough about pots to analytically “take them apart”, is there any chance we would appreciate the results of this machine’s output, as we would if a human had made a similar pot? It’s tempting to believe we wouldn’t — that it would obviously seem like a shallow pastiche.

    But what if we didn’t know it was by a robot? It might seem like a sensitive intermingling of influences. Maybe we would even like it? And then, how would our judgements change when we found out it wasn’t by a person — that there was no human creative intelligence behind all those whys?

    If Ruby the elephant can fool Willem de Kooning, what happens to the future of pots once AI and robotics join the party? “That’s a damned talented elephant!”

    “…the indescribable yet palpable messiness that constitutes a life” — indeed!

    • Indeed!

      The interesting thing about meaning is that we invented it 🙂 But that doesn’t make it less ‘real’, just ‘human’, as far as we get with it. And there are at least two sides to it: the meaning that is put into things and the meaning that is taken out. No wonder we miscommunicate so often! Unless there are rules for interpretation agreed upon is there even a basis for understanding at all? And unless those rules are caught up in a network of other agreed upon ways of conducting ourselves (grammar and life) how could we even be sure that the meaning intended was the meaning received? Things can LOOK meaningful without saying what we think they say. That is the difference that intention makes…. Just ask de Kooning! 🙂

      Humans will forever be ‘fooled’ if we continue to see faces in clouds, remember sunny days with a waft of fresh air, and connect fabulously unfamiliar dots with the ever hopeful adventurism of finding meaning in the world. Thank the lucky stars that we ARE fooled so easily! The problem comes when we feel we are peering into the true nature of things. What does it even mean to say that an elephant is ‘talented’? Aren’t we just imposing our own miserable dot connecting to make sense? Isn’t it poetry rather than science? What did I mean by “miserable dot connecting” even? More poetry, obviously…. Don’t we need to do a better job understanding of the poetics of meaning? The actual jobs done by specific words used in specific ways?

      Maybe the issue is that “Why?” isn’t answerable in the same way as “What?”. They both look like equivalent sorts of questions, but the appearance hides a deeper difference than merely three letters in two words can easily announce. Not all questions are equal. Not all words are the same sorts of tools…..

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