This has Happened Before
How AI echoes 19th-century painting and Impressionist movements
By now, you have probably all heard the news of a photographer refusing a photography prize because of entering an AI-generated image. It is a confusing time, to say the least. But it is not the first time we’ve been in a situation like this. The history of art has gone through several similar phases of transition, and we should be happy to live amidst one of them because these are the most exciting times to be alive.
The 19th century is perhaps the most exciting period in art history. In 1838 photography was independently invented in at least five different labs around Europe and its implications were more profound than most people were aware of at the time. For the first time, there was a mechanical process that could objectively capture the likeness of reality in a way that a painter’s hand never can. A single photograph of your late mother has stronger gravity than ten thousand paintings. (more about it here)
Now what would your position be if you were a portrait-oriented painter? You would be outraged, and many painters of the time were. They did everything they could to discredit photography. Photographers tried to prove them wrong, first by imitating traditional painting and secondly by establishing their own artistic language.
But this is not an article about photography because we’re not covering the whole story here. It is also about painting. Because when a new generation of painters arrived, those who were generally born after the invention of photography (and took it for granted), the resulting works were just as disturbing.
This new generation clearly understood that if painting is to survive, it has to let go of the principles of academism and realistic painting. They started experimenting with different techniques, focusing on the mood or the impression rather than the physical likeness of the scene. To do that, they had to invent novel techniques of painting and brushwork, and the more they pushed down this line, the more abstract their works became.
They tried to enter the traditionally prestigious exhibitions like The Salon but to no avail. Eventually, they had to establish their own salon, the Salon des Refuses, where they were mocked and laughed at. But with time, they won, and at least some lived long enough to be vindicated and celebrated as historical artists.