Ruthless Expressionism, 2022. Watercolour and gouache on paper, 45 x 52 cm
Ignacio García Sánchez: Portrait of the artist as a machine
From May 18 to September 8, 2023
«Until today, a certain amount of manual labour was still necessary, but from now on the device will work entirely on its own.»
«Imagine a machine capable of producing what it senses».
Our relationship with technology is as ambivalent as that we maintain with work’s concept: it can free us from biological and environmental constraints, but it can also alienate us, making us dependent on dynamics that come to govern our behaviour more severely than any natural cycle. The same machine can serve as a control tool and an emancipation tool at the same time. Untangling both aspects is often only possible once their effects are so obvious that they seem irreversible.
Picture: Raúl Belinchón
Aristotle already sensed the emancipatory potential of technology applied to labour. He claimed that slavery could be abolished in the unimaginable event that machines capable of performing the same jobs as slaves would come into existence. Only then could slaves devote their time to nobler tasks. Marx, in his Fragment on Machines, suggested that machinery designed to increase owners rate of profit could serve socially more advanced purposes if it were in hands of workers. John Maynard Keynes predicted that, thanks to increased productivity, by 2030 we would work three hours a day and spend the rest of the day on more pleasurable activities. By the same time, the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon projected a distant future in which humanity would have been totally liberated from work by machines. Today, part of the accelerationist movement still aspires to realise the same dream.
Picture: Raúl Belinchón
Keynes was right about productivity of machines, but the time spent on work by humans has not been reduced since then, on the contrary. Automation, which covers more and more professional fields, is perceived by workers as a threat rather than an opportunity. Some professions are more likely to be performed by robots than others, and these are arranged in regularly updated lists. While certain routine activities appear at the top, while those involving greater doses of empathy, intuition and creativity are at the bottom, advances in fields such as machine learning are rapidly multiplying the areas that can be digitised. Alongside psychoanalysts, philosophers or social workers, we artists still believe we are irreplaceable, the last human bastion against the machine.
In the last century, artistic avant-gardes of different natures shared their faith in machines as the materialisation of human progress. While Marinetti in Italy praised the beauty of the machine as opposed to that of the classical canon, the Russian theorist Boris Arvatov advocated the integration of art into industrial production to the point of merging both fields into a single type of work, as beautiful as it is socially useful.
The Corinthian Recorder, 2022. Watercolour and gouache on paper, 54 x 73 cm
Today, machine-produced «art» relies on the power of artificial intelligence to process vast quantities of images and recombine them according to guidelines introduced by human programmers. Increasingly complex and sometimes disturbing results are being achieved, although for the moment, rather than as art works, these products should be described as exercises in selecting and editing from pre-determined material. It still seems unlikely that a computer alone could produce such an extraordinary work that would go beyond the conventions of its time.
But, after all, couldn’t we say the same of almost all human creators? Isn’t the remixing of external impressions the basic procedure used by any artist? Moments of radical rupture with the environment visual baggage are exceptional: the way most artists work consists of a recombination of elements that can sometimes result in something that is not found in the original separate references.
Picture: Raúl Belinchón
What differentiates us from machines are psychological characteristics such as intentionality, desire and self-reflective awareness. Any creative process is motivated by and inseparable from these human particularities. To make art it is not enough to solve a given problem or to reach a quantifiable goal: each artist invents the problem he or she wants to work on.
If the incommensurable qualities of art clash with the limits of computational thinking, perhaps there is another important aspect that machines can imitate without the need to replicate the intricacies of our mind: humanity’s limitless capacity for error. Paul Virilio insisted that technology cannot exist without the possibility of accidents. If we accept this idea not from a negative angle, but as a factor that would humanise machines, the disruptive potential of mistakes would expand the space for fantasy. The machine’s inability to understand the motivations and replicate the impulses of a human artist could lead to failed and unrepeatable works, surely more interesting than any copy of a «grand master’s» style.