1. Composer and Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford was asked to respond to the “10th symphony” created with artificial intelligence. “At the end of the symphony I found myself more philosophical than annoyed,” he writes.
The ability of a machine to do or outdo something humans do is interesting once at most… When it comes to art, we need to see a woman or a man struggling with the universal mediocrity that is the natural lot of all of us and somehow out of some mélange of talent, skill, and luck doing the impossible, making something happen that is splendid and moving—or funny, or frightening, or whatever the artist set out to do… Here’s my assertion: True intelligence is in a body. Intelligence outside a living body, as some sort of abstraction, is innately impossible, or should be given another name.
Swafford points out (like Nick Cave has) that part of the beauty of Beethoven is, “in contrast say to Mozart and Bach, with him it’s often as if you can hear the effort, the struggle, hear in the notes what it cost him to rise above the universal mediocrity.”
He writes of his late friend, the painter Francis Gillespie:
She would spend a year or more on a painting of flowers, struggling to represent them with virtually photographic accuracy. In fact, as she knew perfectly well, she didn’t have the technique to do that. “I’m really sort of a primitive,” Fran would say grimly as she worked. But what makes her paintings hers is exactly the grand failure of her attempt. Her pictures are beautiful, close to photos, but always a little off, and the offness makes them singular.
Ted Gioia calls this “an aesthetics of imperfection.”
In this story, the human has something the machine can never have.
2. In Sam Anderson’s profile of Laurie Anderson, he notes that the artist has “become obsessed, lately, with artificial intelligence.” She worked with researchers to make text engines in her style, the style of her late husband, Lou Reed, and an Anderson/Reed blend of the two. Anderson says a 1/3 of what the computer spits out is junk, 1/3 is boring, but 1/3 is “surprising, even authentic, some kind of fresh magic.”
Sometimes she sits there with the hunger of an addict, feeding words and pictures into the engine, seeing what comes out. For a long time, she would save the texts. They felt so precious. After a while, though, she realized that the texts were infinite. She could have one whenever she needed it. So she read them and then let them go.
At one point, Laurie Anderson reeds a poem the machine spit out in Reed’s style. It’s not bad. “Wonderful,” she says. “Just great. He’s talking to me from somewhere else. I definitely do feel that. The line is pretty thin for me.”
(This scene reminded me of something out of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow.)
In this story, the machine gives the human a combination of something it had and something it never had.
3. I am sympathetic to Swafford’s assertion that “intelligence is in a body” and “the aesthetics of imperfection.”
I also know that some of my favorite art came out of the interplay between human and machine. It is between the two that a third thing emerges — Beethoven, after all, was wrangling notes out of a machine with keys.
I think it is worth noting the difference between analog and digital machines. Analog machines, I would venture, give you more mistakes that you can work with — a brush runs out of ink, and the dry texture gives you new marks, Lee Perry blows ganja smoke and dirt on a tape reel, and new sounds emerge. (You throw dirt in a laptop and you’ll simply fry the machine.) That said, even digital machines and pieces of software have quirks and we ascribe them personalities, and work with them.
I would also note the difference between words and music. Words are more abstract than music. They are more easily fed into a computer and spit back out. They also must be interpreted by us — when we read the poem in the style of Reed, summoned from the computer, it is already an abstract, linear text. We must interpret the words. Music is not interpreted. It is what it is. It is heard.
I confess I have gone from being cranky to curious about A.I., and I wonder what sorts of grunt work it could do for me. (Could it spit out a book proposal?)
In my story, the machines help us to honor what is not machine-like in us.