What is Creativity, and, can AI be an Artist? – A response to Sean Dorrance Kelly

Scrolling through the #Aesthetic tag on Twitter I came across a link to an article titled: “A Philosopher argues that an AI can’t be an Artist”. Despite the click-baity “you’ll never know what this guy has to say…” title, I nonetheless still clicked because I disagree so vehemently to the idea that its not possible for AI to be an Artist – and more specifically, whether it can be creative. And sure enough, that is what this post will be about; dissecting and picking apart what creativity really means and unearth why people such as Sean The Philosopher here seems so deeply intent on preserving that quality solely for humans.

The preliminary point i’d like to make is despite my acceptance to the idea that AI can be artistically creative doesn’t mean I think AI, up until this point, has been so or is. For example, the article opens with the iconic image of recent years a ‘painting’ created by AI algorithms called GANs by Parisian art collective Obvious and despite its flatness characteristic of all digital art trying to emulate or replace painting, it looks like a baby-faced Rembrandt self portrait created from a free-to-play App painted with a chubby finger. Yet quite obviously, my sympathy lies in not what it has created but the remarkable creative act itself.

What’s most suspect about the article is the self-quoting epigram used to begin with: “Creativity is, and always will be, a human endeavor”. Throughout history there have been attempts at distinguishing the uniqueness of humanity to the rest of the universe and this strikes me as adding to that tradition. It smells of a passive-aggressive quasi-essentialist argument for what it means to be Human by resorting to the only thing that’s left for us, Art and Creativity. And any attempt via either Animal Psychology or growing developments in Artificial Intelligence will only further diminish the image of what little uniqueness we have. In fact, Sean further reveals his insecurities in the very last paragraph; for, “If we allow ourselves to slip in this way, to treat machine “creativity” as a substitute for our own, then machines will indeed come to seem incomprehensibly superior to us”.

Sean is right when he says, “creativity is not just novelty. A toddler at the piano may hit a novel sequence of notes, but they’re not, in any meaningful sense, creative”. This illustrates an important distinction lying within creativity – the doing and being. Although not creative, the Toddler hitting the piano is nonetheless acting creatively – participating in creativity.

Sean then continues to say creativity is historically bounded; a community has to accept them as creative. And goes on to consider the ways in which AI will be predicted to eventually surpass human intelligence in becoming “super intelligent”. And as a result, ponders whether just like intelligence, will creativity – a subset of intelligence – too succumb to be over taken by something super creative? His answer is an unabashed “no”. But why? Because “to say otherwise is to misunderstand both what human beings are and what our creativity amounts to”. Can it be fair to say that, for Sean, to be human is to be creative?

He even goes on to nearly undermine his own argument by saying that it is “entirely possible” that AI will be so vastly superior anything they do we will “naturally” attribute creativity to them. Yet for Sean, it would be the denigration of the human for bestowing the machine with creative gifts rather than acknowledging the gift itself. And further, despite being “entirely possible”, it is “mythmaking” to speculate about the wondrous things AI can do without a “reasoned argument” for technological possibilities. It seems then fruitless at this point to continue, since we both agree that AI at this moment in time has yet to showcase the capacity of the kind of creativity we would like it to have. But let’s move forward.

Sean starts to provide the meat to his boney sketch of creativity. Regarding Music, why someone like Schoenburg is a creative innovator is not only because he is able to provide a new vision of the future through his work but because the people/audience are accurately able to decipher this work into a correct interpretation. And yet, if the creative genius of Schoenberg was only posthumously and communally discovered, how and in what ways are we to verify the ‘correct’ interpretation? A retroactively constituted creativity. The point here for Sean is simply that there can be no correct interpretation to the vision of the Artist if the Artist has no vision to begin with because it is not human. Reasons being that any greatness or creativity that may come from AI is more to do with the fact that it has been appropriately programmed to do so – following some “arbitrary act or algorithmic formalism” – and can thus not accept it as vision.

Although I agree in some respect, my contention lays more with how he defines creativity as an act of vision in the first place that must be acknowledged in the manner in which it was conceived. And to my mind, this is an argument for a kind of intentionalism. That creativity lies in what the creator visioned or intended and must be known as such. The simplest argument I have against it is that even the Artist themself does not know the kind of vision or intention which their work fully assumes. Or put differently, the work and experience the Artist does produces always exceeds and goes beyond the boundary of what they originally intended. Thus it is really only arbitrary and one additional factors among many others that we include the artist into the way we go about interpreting the work. Intentionalism ignores the external aspect to the creative production itself. An Artist don’t intend the way politics are going, the way economy is playing out, or what society is like, and the attitude they have therein; they can only peripherally respond to it and be apart of it. She would have to assume God-like status to be able to accurately manipulate every aspect of Life to properly achieve a vision that can be responded to. As Graham Harman likes to say, the reality of the object withdraws from the surface level qualities which are perceptively attached to it.

Its unsurprising Sean would use Music or Mathematics as examples because they are easiest to defend authorial intent. Composition in a way becomes a word used to justify any act of creativity which curates and exhibits a body of work that is created out of an assemblage that have yet to been previously curated. To Compose music or a painting or a film etc is to creatively and inventively curate/organise/ pre-existing materials in a way that has not been achieved previously. Creativity begins with innovation. It might be even to suggest that the Director of a film is not the sole individual to provide a creative work. There are hundreds of people collaborating that goes into producing a film. Yet would it be crazy or mad to suggest even that even non-human objects too also contribute to the effectiveness of the creative vision that cannot so easily be attributable to the individual alone even if that person is a pianist? That, despite one’s efforts in tuning the piano to one’s liking, adjusting the stall, and playing with a nice open room, there are additional elements that are actively contributing, affecting, how the music is playing out and how it is responded to. Just in the way the weather and humidity can change causing one’s fingers to swell, even stiffen, and so too the keys. Or if it is played at night which allows Phantom of the Opera to be that much more influencing emotionally. Or even in the very attitude of the Pianist herself which is affected by the daily rituals of life. The point to this speculative understanding of what it means to be a creative experience is that there is whole ensemble of affects that contribute to the way any work plays out, a whole vocabulary to the artwork that isn’t solely attributed to the inner grammar of the artist, which means Intentions has to contend with this very issue.

There are some other examples concerning games, physics and science (Harvard professor alert!) that I don’t feel necessary to attack because I don’t think they are worthwhile. But please, see for yourself. See Link Below: 

I could suggest that the difference in conceiving Creativity is a difference of degree and not kind. Because I agree wholeheartedly with Sean when he says, “Creativity is one of the defining features of human beings. The capacity for genuine creativity, the kind of creativity that updates our understanding of the nature of being, that changes the way we understand what it is to be beautiful or good or true—that capacity is at the ground of what it is to be human”. To reiterate, creativity is what introduces us into conceptualizing and interacting with what is the seemingly familiar as the unfamiliar. And what is more familiar to us than ourselves? Creativity is to take ourselves outside ourselves. To enjoy an experience we don’t think we own. And yet nothing to me suggests AI or anything else for that matter is not capable of producing those kinds of moments.

Creativity for me thus far is defined in three terms: What it is, what it does, what it achieves.

What it is is innovation. What it does is self-other. What it achieves is elicit an experience that transcends the situation of the interaction between subject and object and is marked by an ability to create a metaphoric experience that cannot be reduced to down to either the object or concept alone – a kind of dualism. The Artwork is a self-othering object because it takes you away from the literal evaluation of it yet cannot be fully eradicated – nor be replaced without changing – by the metaphor which it summons. It is neither object (self) or Metaphor (other), but the necessary connection that combines and constitutes the experience via their connection. Artworks don’t exist in vacuums. They are objects situated in context-specific environments that influence the effect of the work. We must contend with the environment an artobject is produced in and the way it is produced in order to fully assess its being.