12/29/21

This is the description for an undergraduate course on A.I.-generated art. I developed and was scheduled to teach it for the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU this fall, before I took my current position at Villanova.

Link to the reading list: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ACXMUNQ62Bg5EhMUsrpSBr8sgOkEBcV8sPf-TwBz3ZY/edit?usp=sharing

Scholars and artists have long asked if creativity is the exclusive provenance of human beings. If it is, then the ability to make art might be considered a definitive feature of the human species. If it is not, we are urged to reconsider a range of normative assumptions about creativity, cognition, and agency. Today, technologies of artificial intelligence (A.I.) are understood to produce objects of artistic merit. This course explores the rise of A.I.-generated art through frameworks from aesthetics, ethics, and political theory.

We begin with materials which predate the rise of machine learning and A.I. These include readings from nineteenth and early twentieth-century philosophy. As a basis for class discussions on creativity and the mechanics of computation, we examine foundational scientific literature on computability and cybernetics. Moving forward in time, we explore the earliest examples of art made with computational methods, including textile machines and analog synthesizers. We then proceed to artworks where A.I. is credited with partial or sole authorship. These include paintings, photographs, musical compositions, essays, poems, film scripts, virtual reality environments, and genre-defying objects. Addressing each work in context, we read statements from creators when available. These cases exemplify and confound theoretical arguments on the ethics, aesthetics, and politics of A.I.-generated art.

Lively, seminar-style participation is central among our activities. Throughout the semester, we hold structured debates on unit-specific topics. Students also routinely contribute posts to a collectively generated blog. These posts address specific technologies, artworks, thinkers, and concepts. As a midterm or final project, students select one work of A.I.-generated art not discussed in class and identify links between it and one or more conceptual issues raised in assigned material and/or class meetings. Such issues include but are not limited to: the ethics of production and ownership; the presence or absence of authorial intent; distinctions between inherent talent and learned ability; the labor of creativity; algorithmic discrimination; the difference between art and craft; cultural, scientific, and political definitions of “humanness”; nonhuman cognition, consciousness, and interiority; theoretical counterpositions of creativity and rationality (e.g. critiques of instrumental reason). In addition to the written submission, students deliver a class presentation which introduces the work and summarizes their analysis.

Two other options will be offered for a midterm or final assignment. One is a traditional paper which pursues an original research question. Second is a creative project, which may take the form of a digital program, website, or non-digital artwork. For example, a student may write a function to generate poetry based on twentieth-century modernist literature corpora, or use neural network programs to create a series of A.I. “paintings.” The project must include a statement highlighting its connection to course concepts. In addition to the above, students take two quizzes comprising short-form, open-ended essay questions. Grades are determined by participation, assignment submissions, and quizzes. Special focus will be placed on students’ ability to connect examples of technology and art to ethical and political questions. Guest lecturers include technologists, artists, and scholars who employ and/or study machine learning tools.

+ accompanying image (from A.I. curio bot)

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