Technology in The Arts: Tech’s Ultimate Challenge?

POSTED BY   Will Darbyshire
1st February 2017

I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. 

– John Berger, 1926-2017


Technology is conquering the world. There are very few workplaces, industries or tasks which some form of tech is yet to disrupt. But there is one test not yet passed; is the act of creating art the ultimate challenge for technology?

Creativity is at the root of the human condition. It is something that some people are gifted with, while a special few are cursed;  cursed to be the middlemen between the soul and the brain, the translators of conflict. They are responsible for ensuring that the lessons of the past are never forgotten.

Technology in the Arts: Heart or Mind?

The human brain is a machine like no other, the one that invented the whole idea of art. We discovered and standardised the notes of a musical scale and invented stories of wild lands to explore what we feel in ours. Since the advent of technology, it has never been explored as a replacement for the human mind, but rather a tool via which we can execute ideas. Now, with the rise of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, it seems that we have grown tired of just using tech to help us, now we’re looking for ways that it could replace us.

Interest in AI from the art world has increased in recent years, to the point where the Tate Britain (the most traditional of London’s lovely pair of Tates), whilst looking for a way to engage so-called Millennials, launched their 2016 1K Prize. Exploring the use of technology in the Arts, particularly visual arts, creates a conflict; how can we get excited by machine-bred creativity when, as Tony Guillan, multimedia producer at the Tate, asked, ‘Is there anything more human than looking at art?’

The winning artwork in the 1K Prize 2016 is called Recognition, from Fabrica.  The AI software scans 1000 news images a day and tries to match them with the Tate’s archives, spanning centuries of artwork. When a match is made, Fabrica say, we are shown the differences between our world today and that of the past.

Deus Ex Machina

Who actually wants this to happen? Who wants their art created by a machine? After all, while we are happy in our attempts to ‘reduce creativity to computation, the lay mind is fundamentally disturbed by the prospect of creative machines.’ Despite this, one of the world’s biggest companies are already deeply involved in this art and AI alchemy.

Google’s Magenta project was set up to answer the questions; ‘Can we use machine learning to create compelling art and music? If so, how? If not, why not?’

The last two questions are the vital ones. Visual art is a medium dependent on the eye. Our technology is already good at recognising, identifying and replicating that which appears before us. For me, personally, the technology that went into the first photograph ever taken is more mind blowing than today’s digital camera. There is a lot that we can already do with technology and images, be it creating or editing. But machines are less capable, so far, when it comes to learning and replicating musical melodies.

Music and Technology

Yes, music and technology have always had a healthy and productive relationship, from the Fender Stratocaster through to ProTools. However, all of this tech has been built to be used by a human musician. Now, with projects like Magenta, we are seeing experiments into creating Machine Learning tech that can compose original melodies, harmonies and, eventually, symphonies.  

ALYSIA is another piece of tech using computers to compose melodies. If you have lyrics but no tune, ALYSIA ‘associates each syllable with a musical note. It chooses the pairing based on features including the syllable’s position in the word and how it will fit with the previous five notes.’  The software can then offer the ‘musician’ a multiple choice of melodies for each section of the song.  We’re still a long way off though, and one critic states, unsurprisingly, that ALYSIA’s compositions contain an ‘almost annoying lack of harmony’.

And herein lies the problem. Machine Learning and AI are showing promise in analysing and imitating the practices of music composition and visual art production. We already know that tech can produce basic paragraphs of text, just so long as it has a pre-programmed template to follow. but how far along are we when it comes to the very root of all art: storytelling?

Art and Storytelling

All art is storytelling. Music is no more than a series of questions and answers, painting is an attempt to regale a story in one captured image and the novel is a human endeavour to take the reader out of their own world and into another, in order to return again, safe but changed.  AI and Machine Learning have proven themselves perfectly capable of ‘weak creativity’ – that which simply requires an imitation algorithm.  Some very basic storytelling, based on structure templates and keyword generators is possible, but anything greater requires ‘strong creativity’, something which, as of yet, machines have struggled with.

Take the novel as an example. A machine could easily compose a formulaic locked-room murder mystery based on a plot template, a selection of character names and indications of their personality types, combined with a list of things that a person like that might say or do in certain, pre-programmed, situations. That is ‘weak creativity’. ‘Strong’ creativity is essential for composing original pieces of work and expressing the human condition in ways that it has never been done before. Until then, all attempts will be done in vain.

‘Strong’ creativity is essential for composing original pieces of work and expressing the human condition in ways that it has never been done before.

It is inevitable that technology in the Arts is coming, and while there are certain aspects of this which should be encouraged, the actual composition and creation of art by machines raises two very simple questions:

Who the hell wants it and why are people trying to make it happen?

Two more: where is the value and where is the human endeavour? The image of your late wife sat at in the kitchen while you paint your memory of the gingham tablecloth, remembering how it felt under your fingers?  The beauty of art is that it reflects life back at you, either confirming that which you already knew or challenging you to see it differently. No tech can do this, not if it hasn’t lost a parent, fallen in love and seen the moon reflecting from the river and onto the bedroom wall.

Berger hit the nail on the head when he said, ‘I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it’. The whole point of art is that it is a mystery. There is no science that can tell us how it’s done, why some people can tell stories and others can’t.  Nor do we know why it can affect different people in such vastly different ways. So if we don’t even know how we do what we do, and there are no rules as to what moves one person to tears and another to act, then there is no template or algorithm to feed the machines in the first place.

The very root of the arts, storytelling, is not something that needs disrupting


Technology is saving the world because technology is nothing more than problem-solving. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will no doubt create ways of keeping us alive for longer, or make our world cleaner and more healthy, but the very root of the arts, storytelling, is not something that needs disrupting. I’m unsure why we’re even trying to initiate technology in the Arts. If we take away that which has ‘judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered’, what do we really have left?


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Technology in The Arts: Tech’s Ultimate Challenge?

Will Darbyshire

Will is Content Strategist with The Digital Marketing Bureau, writing on all aspects of tech. Will specialises in writing interviews and profiles, as well as all things PropTech.

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