As you might have heard, recently, the robot Sophia — created by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics — sold a self-portrait she, or it, had made for US$700,000. Sophia has appeared at various conferences and has been seen in the media over the last few years. And, in 2017, Sophia “became the first robot to be granted citizenship rights when Saudi Arabia declared the robot an official citizen,” notes InceptiveMind.
Sophia’s self-portrait doesn’t break new ground. It isn’t really different to anything created by humans. And — pushed to its limits — perhaps it is unlikely that static, two dimensional will develop in radically new ways.
But robot-created art throws up new questions about creativity and self-expression. Although a lot of traditionally-minded people don’t like Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, or any other art movement of the twentieth century, with the invention of photography — and with photography becoming at once highly accessible and considered an art form — painting could no longer produce variations of likenesses of the real world.
The Impressionists were inspired by Japanese woodblock prints. Surrealism turned to psychology, hypnotic techniques such as automatic drawing, alchemy, and magic. Picasso drew from African tribal art.
Perhaps, most famously, Picasso took a bicycle seat and handlebars and put them together to create his sculpture “Bull’s Head” (1942), in effect, returning art to something archaic and more in line with prehistoric cave art than the era of the camera and the silver screen.
Our own time is one of creative decline (at least among the general populace — younger people, especially). We can consume whatever we want, any time we want it. If we want to express ourselves we can join the herd and go onto social media and denounce whoever is being denounced today in the Two Minutes Hate. There is no need — and little desire — to create.
By “need,” here, I mean that there is no material need. However, there is a greater need, which we often overlook. And that need is spiritual. Sophia can create art for us. But she cannot express, from experience, how it feels to be human, with our desires, fears, love, bravery, and overcoming of personal limitations. And nor can robotics express our sense of being a part of history or our sense of mortality.
You are probably aware of occult artists Austin Osman Spare and Rosaleen Norton. I have mentioned esoteric artist Hagen von Tulien before. And you might also be familiar with the mystical art of Alex Grey. Outside of the world of the esoteric, Jonathan Pageau is a contemporary Christian artist, creating wood-carved icons. There are also a number of contemporary Muslim artists, working especially with calligraphy. And crossing the borders of architecture and art and the ancient and the modern is Jordanian architect and designer Abeer Seikaly.
When things are done for us, we fall into the trap of believing that we don’t need to do it for ourselves. In New York, where I live, I’ve met plenty of people (men and women) who order food every night. Some of them — men and women — don’t actually know how to prepare a meal.
Over the last century, we, in the West, came to see mass production as a sign of quality. Hand-inlaid wood doesn’t mean anything to most people, who would prefer plastic. But, beyond the materials of mass production, which we’ve come to fetishize (sometimes, literally — think PVC boots and latex), it is, of course, the logo that has come to be meaningful. We identify with the brand name and seek to express ourselves by purchasing the products of those brands that we think represent us (think of the radical, Hippie stance of Ben and Jerry’s, which is owned by Unileaver). Even the robot Sophia is a brand.
Yet, when things are done for us, we end up losing something. And, if everything is done for us, we entirely lose touch with who we are. Or we can never progress, in our personal evolution, in the first place.
Instead, when things are done for us, we have to look deeply to see what’s missing.
Picasso realized that, in the age of the camera, there was no longer any place for highly realistic art. He, instead, worked to represent the primal. In the age of robot-created art, there may be no place for highly technical art. What we will still need, however, is art that speaks of the human soul. This is something that we can all create in some small way.
In my researches into various esoteric organizations and movements, I have seen a great deal of art. The most boring is always the manufactured art. What has always caught my attention is the art of the amateur or outsider artist. They have some particular idea that they want to express. And they often create art because they love something — something that they feel themselves to be a part of. That can’t be replicated. And such art — amateur, though it is — remains inspiring centuries after it has been created. Many of these amateur and outsider artists would never have believed that their art would be in books and museums a century or so after they created them. Undoubtedly, most were ridiculed in their time by professionals. Yet, their art has grown in importance, and is admired a century or so after their death.
Today, we are very shy about creating. We always think we won’t be good enough. We compare our work to the mass-produced. Our music won’t be as good as music produced by a multi-billion dollar music label. Our art won’t be as good as that of an artist with a dozen assistants that create it for them — before it’s shipped to a major art gallery and purchased as an investment. Don’t give in to that kind of thinking.
Instead of comparing yourself to the mass-produced and the heavily marketed, embrace your own humanity, your flaws, struggles, aspirations, and dreams; draw, paint, write a poem, write a novel, or create music. Cultures are born from creative acts, especially literary. And if you create something, you might be surprised who — and how many people — you inspire, now or in a century’s time.