The year 2022 was the year that AI-generated images went viral. You may have come across very realistic but suspiciously improbable images online, for example, of an astronaut riding a horse in space, or an avocado acting as a seat.
Numerous new generators, including Dall-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion, offer anyone with an internet connection the chance to create their own weird ghosts just by typing a “command prompt” for artificial intelligence. (For example, “Astronaut on a horse on Mars.” Or “Mark Rothko Abstract Expressionist oil painting” for this article – yes, the picture above is not a real Rothko.) The possibilities were endless, the opportunities for the meme to make—infinite.
It should come as no surprise that many artists who have devoted their lives to honing their skills are somewhat upset by this latest cut. Will companies continue to hire designers when they can produce prototypes for free? Will budgets stretch to include animators if their hands can be mimicked from a simple text description? Advocates of artificial intelligence have insisted that creators have nothing to worry about and can adapt their processes to incorporate or work around technological advances, just as modernists did with the invention of photography.
But if those historical greats were living and working today, would they have their backs too? And can a computer hope to reproduce the emotional depth that gives great art its appeal and meaning?
To find out, we set up a challenge for three art experts: Bendor Grosvenor, art historian and host of the BBC’s Lost Masterpieces of Britain programme; JJ Charlesworth, art critic and ArtReview editor; and Pilar Ordovas, founder of the Mayfair gallery Ordovas. Each was invited to look at pairs of artworks of similar style and period via Zoom to see if they could tell which one was produced by a machine. All three admitted that they found it more difficult than expected…
nineteenth century landscape
Bendor Grosvenor “When confirming the accuracy of a painting, composition is often the last thing I look at, after brushstrokes and conditioning. It looks like New Zealand on the left, the cows are a bit bored and the lawn isn’t painted very well – but I quite like the way the light falls on the hills. There is something in the picture on the right that looks too good to be true. A Constable has bright, contrasting clouds, and the winding river reminds me of the French Barbizon school. If you asked a computer to make a Police Officer, it would probably come up with that.”
Decision: TRUE “I actually think the AI image is pretty impressive. It’s like a mix of Corot and Constable. I can’t even draw a smiling face, so take my artistic contribution with some skepticism, but I’d say it needs a figure or a small boat to give it a focal point.
J. J. Charlesworth “Landscape can mean many things from many places, and then there is the question of whether the landscape is good. In the picture on the right, there’s something a little messy around the edges, and I’m not sure where the river is going… The one on the left seems reminiscent of the great American landscape painters. The foliage out front is odd, but there’s a damp haze in the mountains, cows, and a rocking little ship. My hunch is that the one on the left is real by a very traditional painter who understands the codes of the genre.”
Decision: TRUE “Modernist artists gave priority to compositional consistency with a degree of lyricism. It’s easy for critics to notice that someone is doing it badly, but the machine doesn’t notice it. The tree in the middle is clumsy and I don’t know if an artist interested in putting together a painting would do that.”
Pilar Ordovas “In real life, I would always look at the surface and paint application and never judge a work of art from a Zoom view. The one on the left doesn’t look real to me but still, I’m sure there is a scene like this somewhere in the world. With the right I can feel the water, the trees and the air, whereas the picture above looks flat and pixelated to me, so I think it’s fake.”
verdict: wrong “Normally, I don’t comment on a painting without seeing it in real life. I look at the picture on the right and think of Corot and a few other artists, so that’s what’s been done, right?
BG “Even if these were two real works, I wouldn’t know where to start. I can’t find anything interesting to say about either of them. One extremely famous thing I should probably know but I am very bad at abstract art. I would have preferred the AI one with the wavy one on the left because I feel like there’s something a little digitized in some of these scratch marks on the right. The picture on the right feels like its product… ah, I don’t know! Yes, I will stick to the one on the left being AI.”
Decision: wrong”The right one is better for me than the left one. I don’t really have anything like that on my wall but if you could give me a choice, I would actually choose the AI one. There’s something pretty cool about the colors and shapes, a little bit like Ben Nicholson.”
JC “Abstraction is strictly unconventional and not dependent on figuration, so you need to evaluate each on its own merits. Actually, the one on the left has more variety, the placement of these scratch marks, which is quite complex… Putting it that way, I find myself much closer to it. Items talk to each other more so there seems to be a reason. The picture on the right is nice enough but has less structuring principles, so if it was made by a human, I wouldn’t care too much about it.”
Verdict: true “The idea of a very difficult and coherent logic in this genre is important. Most abstract paintings arise from a discussion in the artist’s mind about what is essential rather than arbitrary. The one on the left looked more ingenious but could be simulated because he saw too much Cy Twombly.”
PO “I’m not sure about the shapes and lines in the picture on the left, but it makes me think of very old Pollock, albeit less colorful. The one on the right may relate to the early work of some abstract expressionists or perhaps Tancredi and some Italian artists of the 1950s and 60s. I’m sure AI is looking at these existing studies to create something based on them, but I’d still say the one on the right is real.”
verdict: wrong “It’s much harder to pinpoint what feels wrong when it’s not done by a specific artist you know very well. You look at how they worked with a particular artist at a particular time, their color, their composition, and how it should make them feel. If it could be any artist, it’s a bit random.
Dutch still life
BG “The apple plate on the left looks like an Adriaen Coorte – quite sophisticated and I love the reflection on the plate. The flowers look pretty basic and the petals don’t do much, but I think you’re playing a little trick with me here… because you can get some pretty bulky looking still lifes from that era, and that’s part of their appeal. That’s why it’s so hard! The picture on the right is full of what you’d want to describe as missing: the tablecloth looks like a folded piece of cardboard. However, I think it might be real because I can see cracks on the surface that I didn’t think the AI would put there. If so, very, very clever.
verdict: wrong “Really? Wow, I didn’t know you could do that. That’s great.”
JC “The right one looks familiar. You get overly stylized flowers in many still lifes. The tasteless apples or pears on the left, whatever they are… I think it’s a pretty clumsy idea of which side to put the red on, and I find them pretty lifeless and dull. Too bad for the reflection on the plate. over-care has been taken, the coloring looks wrong, and I’m not sure why the leaves are so rotten. It could have been an artist that no one bought much because it was depressing. On abrupt judgment, I tend to say it’s fake.
verdict: wrong “Well, there are several alarm bells. There is a somewhat confused moment when the red flower on the left curls up from a branch that seems to merge with the blue one. These paintings were aimed at realism before the existence of photographic realism, therefore, there is often a peculiarity in pre-photographic painting.
PO “The picture on the right looks more like a Dutch still life with flowers to me. Colors are not quite accurate but can be a terrible reproduction. The one on the left looks more Spanish to me than Dutch. The imperfect leaves on the pear are really good, like the shadow on the plate, so I think it’s real. Still lifes are all about symbolism and the fragility of life, withered leaves are kind of eaten. It’s more about what the artist would be interested in back then.”
Verdict: true “The work on the right feels devoid of all the meaning you would expect to see in this period. A still life is not just a beautiful flower or fruit vase, it is emotionally charged. In abstract art, things are much more haphazard, so it can be harder to judge.”
the impressionist scene
BG As far as I can see, the picture on the left is quite spontaneous and creative. I can see it sketchy and the inside of the canvas is visible whereas the one on the right looks a bit shiny. I’m a little suspicious of the pavers, they look like trees – or lampposts, is that a lamp post? – far right… I want to say that the image on the left is real, but who is the woman talking to? It looks like a stain. I would prefer it to be man-made just because it feels a little rougher and more ready.
Verdict: true I should have known what a Manet looked like but at least I realized it was made by a human! The picture on the right is too good to be true, as if the computer is trying a little too hard to make a Pissarro or something like that.
JC The one on the right is very regular, the depth is a little obvious, and the trees seem very repetitive to me. It feels more like an image that understands 3D modeling than it looks. The one on the left has all the strange inconsistency of impressionist preoccupations – blurred distance, indifference … These are human values that give them a certain poignancy, and I do not understand it in the other. Typically, the street scene was about time, space, and boredom, but this feels ordinary to me, no attention to anything, and a pretty mundane mood.
Verdict: true Creating a sense of attention is not just a matter of understanding the figures and arranging them formally, but there are also quite abstract issues such as mood, place, and emotion. That doesn’t mean it can’t be an image created by a Manet-trained AI.
PO With Impressionism, the surface would tell you everything. However, in the work on the right, the colors seem too distant to me and the whites are really very white. You can hardly see the faces in the foreground. Sometimes you get strange colors in avant-garde art, but they make sense and carry emotion. It has no depth and the numbers look a bit choppy. The composition on the left is very different. The AI mimic may be pastel, but there’s something that just sounds right.
Verdict: true It’s interesting that in the picture on the right, the two figures in the front are almost faceless, but in the picture on the left you see a face, so it feels human. Surprised, I thought these comparisons would be more obvious, but in some cases it didn’t happen at all.