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22 February 2023

At MoMa, I saw an artwork that moved me – made by a machine

Refik Anadol’s Unsupervised is a glorious introduction to art by artificial intelligence. Plus: the rise of cultural Russophobia.

By Andrew Marr

The art lover trawls galleries, endlessly hoping to be surprised and even overwhelmed, or at any rate to find something new. When it happens, it’s rare enough to make you want to shout. I found it in MoMA, New York City’s cathedral of modern art, in its atrium, en route to see the Matisse and Picasso upstairs. There’s a large screen on which a giant, multicoloured artwork is unfolding and endlessly morphing into new drawings, with washes of rich colour, and sophisticated crosshatching in opulent forms. It’s as if a titanic hand with sensitive fingers is at work in front of you. When I arrived there was a crowd, gaping, attentive, very still.

Video art? No. That became boring and repetitive decades ago. This was different – and, perhaps, for artists, ominous. It’s called Unsupervised and is by the Turkish-American artist Refik Anadol. I say “by” – but not quite. To quote from the gallery, Anadol “trained a sophisticated machine-learning model to interpret the publicly available data of MoMA’s collection. As the model ‘walks’ through… this vast range of works, it reimagines the history of modern art and dreams about what might have been – and what might be to come.”

Unsupervised is art created with artificial intelligence (AI), which is feeding on art history. All I can report is that it is jaw-droppingly good. Picasso and Matisse would have been ecstatic. We are just starting to think about what AI means for a wide range of jobs, such as the production of musical scores, journalism and education. But if this art lover had lazily imagined art – the last absolute redoubt of the human imagination – was beyond AI’s reaches, what I saw at MoMA ended that illusion in a glorious flash.

A tale of two cities

In the cultural rivalry between London and New York City, London wins in its architectural origami, parks and food. But New York City remains the art capital of the world. It’s not just the great museums, but the vibrancy of the commercial galleries.

London has nothing like the throng of busy, cutting-edge spaces around Greenwich Village in Manhattan. If Cork Street in Mayfair once hoped to grow into something similar, dreary flat developers have destroyed that possibility. London’s Bermondsey is on the up, but it is still tiny. Above all, the capital’s economy has more or less expelled rising artists who need studios. But over a few hours in Greenwich Village you can catch up with two dozen contemporary talents. A few, such as our own David Hockney, are familiar.

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A tour of the area confirms that representational art is back and now, even in the city of Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns, overwhelms abstractionism. I found a wonderful painter from Missouri called Demarco Mosby, while the work of YZ Kami is glorious. But much of what was on show was grimly derivative and satirical without an ounce of humour. If this goes on, art schools may have to teach drawing again. Back to Hockney.

[See also: Edward Hopper’s city of still lives]

The rise of cultural Russophobia

The Ukrainians are rejecting Russian culture. Ballets are apparently being stripped of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and the Russian novelists are being pulped for egg boxes. You can understand why – sadly, this happens in wars, as with the obliteration of German-sounding names and the hounding (pun intended) of dachshund dogs during the First World War.

And yet Russia has a good claim to be, overall, the finest European culture of all – if you take in writing, music, architecture, painting, the lot. I am reading War and Peace yet again. It is a book of such wisdom and beauty. We all need Tolstoy – and Chekhov, Shostakovich and Grossman.

Mind you, this isn’t necessarily true of Dostoevsky, a much darker and more nationalistic writer. I was talking about this recently with the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Unfortunately, on the radio he was hard to understand because of serious dental problems. He is not known for his woke sensibility and reported that his wife peered into his jaw and said: “Slavoj, your mouth looks like Dresden in 1945.”

The scent of history

One final New York City thought. Thanks to the cleaning up of old film and to CGI we are accustomed to seeing how our urban spaces would have looked a century ago: hyper-realistic versions of Victorian London, Belle Époque Paris, early 20th century Manhattan. But we don’t know how they smelt. This thought was provoked by the ubiquitous smell of cannabis in New York City, which was legalised by New York state in 2021. I find it acrid and much prefer the scent of pipe tobacco, which has vanished. But smell is a reality: watching images of our more formally dressed ancestors in hats and bustles, we must imagine the reek of their less-washed clothes and bodies too.

[See also: The rackets of New York]

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon