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The Rise of AI Art: What Does This Mean For The Art Market?

· Art Market

In 2018 the art world was taken by storm when a new medium entered the market. Portrait of Edmond Belamy, by Paris-based Obvious sold at a Christie’s auction for $432,500. However, the unconventional portrait wasn’t of a specific person, it hadn’t been made by a famous artist, in fact, its creator wasn’t even human; the work was entirely conceived and created by artificial intelligence. Since then, the art market has been flooded with a new wave of AI artworks.

Art galleries, collectors, curators and artists have been wondering how to respond to this new, and at times worrying, medium. What will it mean for traditional methods of art? How can it be sold? And, perhaps most importantly, is the role of the "human" artist now obsolete? Our experts have examined the origins of AI art, its current position in the art market, and the future of the medium, so that you, as an artist or gallery, can respond to this artificial-art-revolution.

How artists have embraced AI art

Cynics within the art world have thus far been fairly critical of AI art. With programs such as Dall-E2 and Wombo AI being free and almost instant to use, there is no "technical" skill involved. In that way, anyone with internet access and some imagination could become the modern-day Matisse. If you wanted to see a picture of U.S president Joe Biden in British supermarket Tesco, you could. But this doesn’t really constitute "real" art.

Joe Biden in Tesco, an AI art series in three styles - left to right: realism, cartoonist and daydream © Dream by Wombo

However, certain acclaimed artists are incorporating the medium into their portfolio. Award-winning artist Mario Klingemann, for example, created Memories of Passerby I, one of the first AI-generated works to go on sale. Equally, London-based Anna Ridler used machine learning in her 2019 work Myriad (Tulips). However, as Kilingemann explains: 

"The art of that piece is the code and system, rather than the work itself - representing an important historical and conceptual landmark in the history of the art market."

Mario Klingemann, Memories of Passersby I, 2018 © Sotheby’s

The use of artificial intelligence in the design world

Not only is artificial intelligence being used in the fine art world, but also by prominent players in the design scene. World renowned Zaha Hadid Architects have employed AI in the design and building of Bee’ah’s new company headquarters in the United Arab Emirates, incorporating the software to create a building symbiotic to its surroundings. Design icon Philippe Starck released the AI chair for Kartell in 2019. The chair was designed entirely by artificial intelligence to provide the most ergonomic, comfortable piece of furniture - or at least according to a computer. Having seen such giants in both the art and design worlds employ AI in their work, it is clear that it is here to stay and its presence will only increase. However how do you, as an artist or gallery, respond to this?

The Bee’ah headquarters, UAE, a project conceived with the help of artificial intelligence © Hufton+Crow, Zaha Hadid Architects.

AI art and the market: How should you respond?

With AI art beginning to take a fairly prominent place in the art world, the art market is understandably beginning to embrace the medium and discovering ways to exhibit and sell this new form of creative expression. In terms of galleries, an increasing number of artificial art exhibitions are emerging around the world. In 2019, the Barbican in London introduced its exhibition AI: More Than Human, highlighting the power of artificial intelligence in the art world. In September 2022, AI art generator UnrealArt hosted a pop-up exhibition in Amsterdam. It allowed members of the public to explore the boundaries of creativity and technology through showcasing a constantly evolving reel of AI-generated artwork.

Portraits, an exhibition by UnrealArt of entirely artificially generated portraits © Unreal Art, Boring_Crypto.

However, these preliminary exhibitions were met with cynicism from critics, collectors and curators, with journalist Jonathan Jones claiming in the Guardian that he'd seen "more self-aware ants", and that the exhibitions were considered gimmicks. It seems that AI art still has a way to go before being accepted on the same plane as more conventional methods, however this is still a step in the right direction. It is likely that in a few years a stronger presence of AI artwork may be seen in more exhibitions and even art fairs.

In terms of sales, a seemingly unlimited supply of beautiful and exciting images poses a possible goldmine for the art market, and certain galleries and marketplaces are wising up to the economic potential of AI-generated art work. AI art generator and gallery AI Art Shop has opened up a marketplace on their website, selling curated collections, Expressionism AI, for example, of entirely artificially created works. Each unique piece is sold in the region of $45 - $70, with the option for the work to also be made into an NFT. Art market stalwart Saatchi also represents the "gallery" on its Saatchi Art Marketplace, selling the images for around $700. Clearly, there is money to be made in this market.

AI artwork by the company AI Art Shop for sale on Saatchi Art Marketplace © Saatchi Art

Man vs Machine: Will AI art replace real artists?

Whether you are a curator or a collector, an artist or a gallerist, there is one question on everyone’s lips in the art market: will AI art replace the need for real artists? Like with any technology, there is an element of fear attached to it, however software that can replicate a Van Gogh or mimic a Monet at the press of a button, poses a potential threat greater than ever before. In a study conducted by AI artist Ahmed Elgammal for Rutgers University, he found that 75% of people could not tell the difference between works created by artists, and those created by artificial intelligence. A worryingly high figure. On an aesthetic level it seems that AI can replace, or at least match, art made by humans.

The Stanford University Campus by AI Van Gogh, highlighting the accuracy with which AI can replicate master artists © Medium

However, art is far more than just an aesthetic trade. It needs to touch your soul, to evoke an emotional reaction just as much as it does a visual one. Beauty and emotion in art come from its context, its critical position in the world and its relation to what is around it. Dall-E2 and Wombo may create works that are aesthetically beautiful, but in essence they are using technology to create something pretty; it is effectively an advert for the software. For art to really be "artwork", it needs to resonate with the viewer and relate to a context external to the work, something which an isolated AI-generated artwork is unable to do.

The merge of human creativity and computer technology seen through the artist Sougwen Chung © sougwen.com

When it comes to AI work being sold, it is not perhaps the work itself that justifies the artistic merit of the piece, but rather the artist’s story, their manipulation of the software and the contextualisation of the work in the climate of today that allows a "pretty picture" to transcend to the level of "artwork".

So, to summarize, don’t think that AI will replace the jobs of artists, or that suddenly everyone can out-create the greats. Human interaction and human stories are what are required to make AI art, art.

How can the art market embrace artificial intelligence, rather than fear it?

Instead, as an artist, it is easier to imagine artificial intelligence as a tool that will help you, rather than a tool that will replace you. As academic and author Valentin Schmite points out:

"AI is a tool. It replaces the artist only so much as a camera replaces a photographer. There are creators behind it"

Instead, algorithmic models can be used to inspire artists, generating fresh, new and surprising outputs, images that one may never have imagined. Photographer and English teacher David R Murson likens using AI software to teaching young students:

"It is trying to understand a text prompt and communicate back to us what it sees, and it just kind of squirms in this amazing way and produces things that you really don't expect."

From this, artificial intelligence can give artists new ways of thinking and new ways of creating, rather than replacing your jobs completely.

AI is giving artists new and exciting visual inspiration, Sofia Crespo, Neural Zoo, 2018-2020 © Sofia Crespo

Artist and AI: A symbiotic relationship

Embracing new technology is always daunting, and a technology that purports to replicate or even replace the role of artists, is even more so. However, we could see artificial intelligence within the art world as something to embrace, rather than something to fear. It has allowed experts in the world of art and design to create new and exciting works, whilst inspiring future generations of artists with ideas one could only dream of. The art world is constantly evolving, and with each new evolution an element of shock is expected. Take for example the change from Realism to Impressionism, from Cubism to Surrealism, or from Pop art to Conceptual Art… With each new generation comes a new form of artistic expression reflecting the greater cultural, social and political climate of that time. AI art is no different, and the art market is now at the helm of (perhaps) the most exciting and diverse art movement to have ever been seen.

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