Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | The special role of arts in the day and age of machines

From cave paintings during the stone age to subway graffiti in today’s cities, the arts have consistently borne witness to the complex journey of human progress. The ability to appreciate and create beauty in various forms sets us apart from other living species and machines—it is what makes us human. The 6th century Sanskrit poet Bhartrihari, in his Neeti Shatakam, opines that a person devoid of poetry, music and arts is veritably an animal. A thousand years later, the bard, Shakespeare, in The Merchant Of Venice, similarly derided “the man who hath no music in himself" as someone fit for treason and not to be trusted. In more recent times, when Winston Churchill was asked to cut government spending on the arts during World War II, his purported response was, “Then what are we fighting for?"

Art is much more than the display of a skill; it is a way of imaginatively exploring and responding to social situations, political crises and technological innovations. Whether it is Picasso’s Guernica or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, an impassioned work of art or literature carries within itself the capacity to explore and expose the status quo, in this case the brutality of war.

Movements like Cubism and Abstraction have held a mirror to the changing face of our civilization—the atomization of the individual and the fragmentation of life itself in the mechanized 20th century.

At the centre of changing technology and altering art forms stands the human being, whose own technologies of the self are constantly and continuously transforming.

In a changing world of data, Artificial Intelligence and autonomous machines, the arts are of greater significance than ever before. The culture of instant gratification and shortening attention spans are at odds with deep, reflective and purposeful consideration of problems facing our world today.

Harvard University’s former president Drew Gilpin Faust boasts of an arts history class at Harvard where students are compelled to gaze at a painting for three straight hours. It’s not difficult to imagine the impact this would have on fast millennial minds.

John Hennessy, the iconic former president of Stanford University, in an address to Stanford’s academic council, emphasized the role of the arts, interwoven with other disciplines such as technology, in helping students think creatively and imaginatively in solving complex problems.

What used to be STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) is now STEAM (with arts having been added).

The arts can motivate thinking that is non-linear, breaking stereotypes and existing paradigms. Research conclusively proves that achievement in academic, social and emotional spheres are all encouraged by the practice of arts.

Recent years have seen the emergence of new media for creative expression, just as photography blossomed as an artistic medium in the last century. Virtual reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence have to be seen as instruments that help extend the artist’s or writer’s imagination, just as the camera did. They do not supplant it. New media works occupy a pride of place in many art biennales and other such festivals.

In fact, we contend that most of these genres learn from each other under the shadow of technological innovations. Our inner mechanisms as human beings are constantly getting tweaked with changing environmental stimuli. It is art, cinema and literature that finally help us to understand deeply our shifting moral compass and steady our inner landscape.

Creating VR scenes and storyboards, for example, provides more degrees of freedom for artistic expression.

As with art in any medium, these can be used to create a greater sense of empathy and understanding of the other. For example, a VR simulation of life in a refugee camp can have a great impact on forming public opinion on whether a country should accept refugees.

Finally, we cannot ignore the inevitable question of whether machines can appreciate and produce art. It is fair to say that machines have stepped out of their dark ages into their age of renaissance.

Google’s project Magenta has already written a song by itself, without any human input. It developed a taste for music by studying thousands of popular tunes, and taught itself how to create a new tune.

Aiva (acronym for Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist) is the first machine to be recognized as a composer by a music society, the 150-year old SACEM in Paris.

Ahmed Elgammal, a computer scientist at Rutgers University, has created an algorithm to produce original paintings, based on an aesthetic it develops by studying thousands of paintings of different artistic styles. In a blind (poor pun intended) test with human subjects, he found that the paintings produced by his algorithm were preferred over paintings produced by human artists, including several from Art Basel, one of the top art shows in the world.

The implications of machine-created art and new media are complex and several. But one thing is for sure—it will add to the richness of the universe of the arts, which humans can enjoy and appreciate.

The arts have been an integral and defining part of the human journey. Whether we lived in caves or plan to colonize Mars, the arts represent the essence of humanity.

Kapil Viswanathan & Sangita Jindal are, respectively, vice chairman of Krea University and chairperson of JSW Foundation

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