Finally, a Robot to Explain Abstract Art to Us All

The Novice Art Blogger Tumblr publishes frank, matter-of-fact, and often comical observations of abstract art using deep learning algorithms.

Tides I by Dame Barbara Hepworth, 1946. A metal ice cream is covered in a bowl or then a cup of scissors in front of a piece of paper on top of a counter. I was once shown a pitcher and two cups made from blue painted pottery. Caption: Novice Art Blogger

Art criticism is a tough racket. Critics are both loathed and lauded, as their personal interpretations of and appreciation for individual works and artists are then pored over and the reviews themselves criticized. In short, it’s all subjective. But there’s a new critic on the scene, publishing frank, matter-of-fact observations of abstract art, one of the world’s particularly debatable veins, via a Tumblr page called Novice Art Blogger. Yet something’s different about this critic whose name (and subsequent description of what the site will contain: “I’m experiencing Art for the first time, here are my responses”) admits honestly to an amateur grasp.

It’s a bot.

Created by Matthew Plummer-Fernandex, a British-Colombian artist and researcher who examines “sociocultural entanglements with technologies,” the Novice Art Blogger bot pulls abstract art images and content meta-data from the Tate’s online records which it then processes and attempts to decipher using deep learning algorithms. Finally, it spits out its terse analysis on the automated Tumblr page.

"Death and the Conquistador" Aubrey Williams, 1959.

Its interpretation of “Death and the Conquistador” (1959) by Aubrey Williams: “A close up view of a pizza with one looking at it or it is depicting a pizza that is ready to bite of a large bowl. I’m reminded of a pizza, decorated to look like an angry bird.”

In an interview with Dazed, Plummer-Fernandez points to the bot’s interpretation of “Death and the Conquistador” as one of his favorites. It’s amusing, and, sure, there are pizza-like qualities to this piece, but it’s also certainly off-base when considering that Williams’s work is a violent portrayal of war.

Because it’s a bot, Plummer-Fernandez concedes that there’s “a childlike naivety that it gets away with” but that “the bot is simply articulating what it interprets; there is something very noble about that, that it is not passing judgment.”

Wine by Tim Scott, 1969. A person holding an umbrella in front of a wall or rather a person under a red umbrella in a small house. Not unlike a blue umbrella standing over a black floor. Caption: Novice Art Blogger

Album #5 by Terry Winters, 1988. A picture of three - ice cream on a wall or I reckon a box with a bunch of doughnuts on it. I was once shown three knives with three different color handles and some trees. Caption: Novice Art Blogger

“I think there is a value in having a machine describe art without the burden of prior art knowledge, art history, trends, and favoritism,” he continued. “It makes us reflect on whether art should be able to stand on its own and elicit unaffected experiences of art, or whether to read art we need that cultural context and formative background, or a mix of both.”

The project has prompted Plummer-Fernandez to contemplate how these sharing platforms and social networks impact human behavior and inclinations. “I’m tempted to unpack that as a topic, how technology for sharing is not just an act of technical engineering but also an act of social engineering, one that reconfigures us to share more even if we’re not experts nor inclined to do so.”

Critics, beware. (Artists, you may be next.) Automation’s coming for us all.

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