The Painter and the Chatbot: Artificial Intelligence and the Perils of Progress – The
Some four hundred thousand visitors pass through the wrought iron gates of the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague each year, most of them, we may safely presume, with the intention of viewing the institution’s most prized possession: Johannes Vermeer’s Meisje met de parel, or Girl With a Pearl Earring. The seventeenth-century painting, one of the crown jewels of the Dutch Golden Age, hangs against a green-papered wall in Room Fifteen, invariably surrounded by a swarm of museum-goers, attracted to the work like houseflies to a honey pot. A typical viewer will find a suitable vantage point and pause for a few moments, registering the girl’s exotic turban and the famous dangling drop pearl, so large that surely it must have been an imitation, forged in Venice out of powdered glass, silver, and egg whites. More noteworthy still is the subject’s expression, suspended somewhere between surprise, pleasure, and mounting alarm, an enigmatic visage surpassing even that of La Gioconda. Take it all in, maybe snap a picture — no flash, please — and then move on to the gift shop or the Brasserie Mauritshuis.
Those with more patience, or sharper elbows, will endeavor to get closer to the eighteen-by-fifteen-inch painting, and the time and effort will be repaid with a greater depth of understanding of Vermeer’s masterpiece. Now coming face to face with the anonymous sitter, the visitor can better appreciate the obsessive attention to detail that made Johannes Vermeer unique in the annals of European art history. Witness the infinite recess of the dark background, produced by a layer of bone black and charcoal black, and another layer of weld, chalk, red ochre, and indigo, further treated with a transparent glaze of green paint. Witness the dabs of vermilion and carmine on the girl’s glistening, parted lips, and the moistness of her doe eyes. Witness the broad, confident brushstrokes evident in the winding cloth of her ultramarine turban and the heavy folds of her yellow cape. Lean in even more, coming as near as gallery attendants and vibration sensors will allow, and you can spot the minuscule patch of lead white impasto on the renowned pearl, the result of a single virtuosic flick of Vermeer’s wrist in 1665, reflecting the same band of light that rakes across the sitter’s forehead, moistened lips, and golden scarf.
Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, with her iconic, inscrutable, dreamlike gaze, has long attracted crowds and has inspired art historians, novelists, and filmmakers alike, but in recent months she has garnered a different kind of attention. In October 2022, climate protesters affiliated with the Just Stop Oil Campaign doused the painting with tomato soup, while another activist attempted to glue his head to its protective glass — puerile and potentially destructive stunts that resulted in several entirely justified arrests for “public violence against goods.” A few months later, the work was loaned out to a Vermeer exhibition at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, leaving a yawning Girl With a Pearl Earring–shaped hole in the Mauritshuis. To fill the gap, the curators put out a call for temporary replacements in the form of a “create your own girl” competition, and the response was enthusiastic, with 3,482 entries submitted by the general public, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, crochet pieces, and mixed-media works. The majority of the #mygirlwithapearl submissions were executed with tongue firmly planted in cheek — a stalk of corn with a pearl dangling from one of its kernels; Vermeer’s girl replaced with a cat, a rabbit, or an oyster; a reproduction of the original emblazoned with a Barbie logo; and so on. A jury of judges selected five of those works to take the place of Vermeer’s original in the museum’s second-floor gallery. Given pride of place, in the central position, was Julian van Dieken’s A Girl With Glowing Earrings.
What began as an innocent attempt to pass the time while the star of the Mauritshuis collection temporarily decamped to Amsterdam soon turned into something of a public relations debacle, as it was revealed that A Girl With Glowing Earrings was actually the product of Midjourney, a generative artificial intelligence program that creates images from natural language prompts. Julian van Dieken, whose contribution to the work entailed subscribing to Midjourney, typing in a prompt, and touching up the resulting image on Photoshop, proudly announced on Instagram that “My AI image is hanging in a museum. In the Vermeer room. At the same spot where the ORIGINAL Girl with a Pearl Earring usually hangs. Yes literally. And yes, I’m serious.” Other artists were less thrilled. The Amsterdam-born painter Eva Toorenent, head of the European Guild for Artificial Intelligence Regulation, found it “bizarre” that so august an institution as the Mauritshuis would give an AI-generated work pride of place in its Vermeer gallery: “That is quite something. With this, the museum is actually saying: we think this is okay.” Others, like the Colorado-based Julia Rose Waters, felt that the Mauritshuis decision had “pushed out another artist who devoted real time to building their creative skills in favor of machine-created art.” A spokesperson for the museum responded: “We purely looked at what we liked. Is this creative? That’s a tough question.” The “starting point,” the museum leadership maintained, “has always been that the maker has been inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s world-famous painting. And that can be in the most diverse ways in image or technique.”
But what of Julian van Dieken’s — or perhaps we should say Midjourney’s — Girl With Glowing Earrings itself? It goes without saying that the derivative work is vastly inferior in every way to the original. The sitter, if we can call her that, is lifeless and spiritually inert. There isn’t the slightest hint of movement, the girl’s eyes are vacant, no breath escapes from her mouth, no saliva glistens on her lips. She is photorealistic, but this only confirms her origin in the Uncanny Valley. A Girl With Glowing Earrings presents no enigma, other than why the Mauritshuis would choose to showcase an AI-generated work so prominently in its esteemed collection, alongside works by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, Hans Holbein the Younger, Frans Hals, and other luminaries of the Northern Renaissance and Dutch golden age. The bland image has no value. It means nothing. Unlike Vermeer’s original, with its thickly laid impasto and confident brushstrokes, van Dieken’s submission is completely smooth, and not just as a result of its digital format. The girl’s skin is smooth, her textiles are smooth, her glowing earrings are smooth. The Korean-born, Berlin-based philosopher Byung-Chul Han, in his 2015 treatise Saving Beauty, decried the modern obsession with the smooth:
The smooth is the signature of the present time. It connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhones, and Brazilian waxing. Why do we today find what is smooth beautiful? Beyond its aesthetic effect, it reflects a general social imperative. It embodies today’s society of positivity. What is smooth does not injure. Nor does it offer any resistance. It is looking for Like. The smooth deletes its Against. Any form of negativity is removed.
A Girl With Glowing Earrings is a vaguely pleasant nonentity. She does not, in and of herself, pose any questions, make you vaguely uncomfortable, provoke you, or make you wonder what she is about to say or do. She is simply there for you to glance at in your Instagram feed and click “like.” To see it hanging precisely where Girl With a Pearl Earring once hung is genuinely jarring, and, as Eva Toorenent put it, even bizarre.
The art community’s negative reaction to Julian van Dieken’s exhibited work is but one instance of the growing backlash against AI. A similar scandal arose in Korea in late 2022 after Yukiko Matsusue won a Korean Literature Translation Institute award for her rendition of Gu A-jin’s fantasy occult thriller webtoon Mirae’s Antique Shop into Japanese, which she accomplished using Naver’s AI translation system Papago, much to the chagrin of her fellow flesh-and-blood translators. (The rules of the contest have been rewritten to exclude the use of “external help,” though the translator who has never employed the services of Google Translate or DeepL is free to cast the first stone.) While professional translators worry about being made redundant by increasingly sophisticated machine translation services, voice actors are also an increasingly endangered species, with Apple launching a catalog of audiobooks with AI voice narration, ostensibly as a way of “empowering indie authors and small publishers,” while sidelining dues-paying members of the Screen Actors…