Off the Mark

Imitation is not inspiration. Inspiration only can give birth to a work of art.

― Albert Pinkham Ryder

Hyperallergic asks, why do AI-generated portraits, such as those produced by the website AI Gahaku, fail?

AI Gahaku filters your photo to create a “masterpiece” in seconds.

But the results fall short of 19th-century realism—always.

Hyperallergic suggests the reason lies in the past.

In the 19th century, Hyperallergic says, “the bourgeoise is in full possession and awareness of its power,” a self-regard that propels it to demand specificity in portraiture.

“The desire to pursue factual reality in art mirrored the desire of the middle class to highlight the values that made it a very different social group in comparison to the nobility,” Hyperallergic says.

Aristocrats didn’t care to be captured as individuals. Their grasp on power had nothing to do with merit.

But the middle class felt otherwise.

“The middle class was interested in the qualities that made artisans and merchants powerful figures in society, that is, their personal character and self-determination.”

Details—the visual clues in a portrait to the sitter’s status and self-worth—became de rigueur.

“What’s portrayed are not only the physical features, but also the psychological dimensions of the individuals,” Hyperallergic says.

Masters of the telling detail, 19th-century portrait painters were less like craftsmen than shamans.

“If the 19th-century artists who painted realist portraits were asked to play this mediating, almost magical role, how could such a difficult creative task should be carried out well by an AI? It cannot.”

AI always falls short, because today’s viewers still demand telling details.

Today’s viewers “still fall for the idealized and nostalgic aspects of these images, full as they are of elegantly dressed men and women.”

But AI can’t handle those details, Hyperallergic says.

“Developers who train AIs to analyze and replicate the recurring visual qualities of 19th-century bourgeois portraits only imitate that style.

“Essentially, they copy the style, but lack the crucial substance.”

AI fails because developers can’t think like 19th-century painters—or their patrons.

Developers don’t know “most of the bourgeois portraits made at the time show a very selected group of sitters and weren’t meant to be on display in public galleries and museums,” Hyperallergic says.

“It’s only our contemporary sensibility and approach to the art of the past that lets us look at the portraits of that societal group as just another visual style that doesn’t carry any political value.

“We miss so much when we think of this imagery as just one filter among many others to choose from when we upload our picture into an AI app.”

Above: Robert Francis James by AI Gahaku, 2021. Digital. Miss Frances Sherborne Ridley Watts by John Singer Sargent, 1877. Oil on canvas.