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What Does the Rise of A.I. Models Mean for the Field of Generative Art? NFT Artists and Curators Weigh In

The overall NFT trading volume is down no less than 97 percent compared to the peak in 2021but the horizon of crypto art can claim one bright spot: the medium of and market for generative art.

On Dec. 1 at Art Basel Miami Beach, the form takes the spotlight at Tezos and Fxhash’s exhibit, “Performance in Code: Deciphering Value in Generative Art.” Emerging generative artists such as Ivona Tau and Tyler Boswell will be featured, and visitors can punch their own generative NFTs.

The exhibition follows the opening of Refik Anadol’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where generative art gets a large museum showcase. On display are the artist’s latest data-driven architectural installations, created by feeding data from MoMA’s own archives — everything from Hans Haacke’s photographs to paintings by Cézanne and Van Gogh — into code that generates random-based waves and geometric shapes.

Such institutional recognition follows respectable, if cautious, market interest. During 2022, major auction houses Christies, Phillips and Sotheby’s have held generative art sales, with the latter’s auction raising a total of $2.3 million in April. Art Blocks, the platform founded by Erick Calderon (aka Snowfro) that has been largely responsible for popularizing on-chain generative art, is also performing remarkably well despite the crypto bear market: its market cap as of September 2022 more than $841 million.

But even if generative art could weather the teetering NFT market (the plunge fueled lately by The spectacular crash of FTX), the recent mainstreaming of AI technology could portend further shifts in the field.

Vera Molnar, (Dis)orders (1974). Thanks Phillips

Generative art emerged as early as the 1960s, spearheaded by pioneers such as Vera Molnár and Herbert Franke, who used systems-based design thinking to design random and iterative works. The form has found new life on the chain with practitioners such as Snowfro and Dmitri Cherniak deploying creative coding and algorithms to generate variations with each coin of a smart contract.

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“What these artists all have in common,” said George Bak, a collector and art consultant, was their “unwavering commitment to chance and control, a kind of cybernetic serendipity.” According to Bak, who hosted a generative art auction at Phillips earlier this year, the form remains one of the least understood and appreciated genres of new media art. While the market may be slow to embrace generative art, he added, institutions have not.

But lately, the emergence of AI generators like DALL-E from OpenAI have made generative art newly accessible –and even acceptable. In front of Janek Simon, the Polish artist whose Synthetic folklore project saw him use AI to reinvent different ethnic traditions, the new AI models are a game changer.

There are at least two eras in generative art: before and after AI,” Simon told Artnet News, pointing to AI programs like DALL-E, Half way through the journeyand Asynchronous artwith which he experimented. But wwhat actually makes AI art interesting, he added, is “not just projects that use glitches and cheap features. If you really want to dive in, AI and generative art, you have to learn how to code.”

Refik Anadol Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams at Galerie König, Berlin.  Photo: Roman Maerz.

Refik Anadol Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams at Galerie König, Berlin. Photo: Roman Maerz.

Because generative artists like Simon are attuned to cutting-edge technology, they are also hesitant to view AI as a threat to human creativity or artistry. “It would be super hard for AI to come up with an idea like putting a urinal on a plinth,” he said, referring to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 readymade, Fountain.

Cherniak, whose latest generative art collection was created in collaboration with the estate of László Moholy-Nagy, repeated that feeling. “I think we live in an increasingly technical world, with increasingly powerful technological tools, and humanity will always exhibit some form of creativity,” he told Artnet News. “It makes perfect sense to me that as these tools become more accessible and the general public becomes more technologically inclined, they would use automation and code for creative pursuits.”

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With or without market interest, it seems, the field of generative art is evolving rapidly, aided by a plethora of new tools and software. In addition to Anadol’s showcase at MoMA, Pace Verso, the Web3 arm of Pace Gallery, has a large number of generative top artists through the collaboration with Art Blocks. Most recently, in October, the pair released Loie Hollowell’s first NFT project, a set of 280 generative sculptural abstractions.

These developments, in addition to an institutional boost, could likely clear a long-term path for digital arts and NFTs. “The machine offers opportunities to find new forms of expression that the artist adapts based on their vision,” said the digital art curator Alexandra Artamonovskaya. “For some, the machine is like the brush, while for others, the token is the medium – the canvas for creation.”

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