A collector’s guide to AI and generative art

Everything you need to know about the iterative, code-based works taking over the digital art space

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What is generative art?

Generative art refers to works made using algorithmic codes or mathematical formulas. The generative artist confers either partial or complete decision-making to an autonomous system.

Generative art can be traced back to modern avant-garde art movements of the 1920s and ’30s, from Dadaism to Surrealism, that engaged with chance, unpredictability and automatic processes. By the 1960s, scientists and engineers who had access to powerful computing facilities explored the power of coding to produce visual outputs.

Refik Anadol (b. 1985), Living Architecture: Casa Batlló, minted on 11 April 2022. Non-fungible token. Sold for $1,380,000 on 10 May 2022 at Christie's  in New York. © Courtesy of Refik Anadol

Over time, with the development of new technologies, artists have used increasingly complex autonomous systems to produce works. Today, generative artists commonly use the programming language JavaScript to create mind-bendingly intricate patterns and iterations. Others have engaged machine learning to generate AI works.

What’s the difference between AI and generative art?

Generative art is an umbrella term for code-based art, and AI falls under that umbrella because it uses code. While generative artists employ explicit programming instructions to produce a controlled set of outcomes, AI artists train an algorithm on a dataset so that it can produce artworks with its own parameters. Stylistically, generative works typically have a geometric, pattern-driven look, while AI works are much more varied and unpredictable.

Many AI artists employ algorithms called Generative Adversarial Networks, or GANs, which train on datasets of existing images to generate original visuals with realistic characteristics. The release of machine-learning models like OpenAI’s DALL-E, have brought AI-generated art to the masses, allowing anyone to collaborate with artificial intelligence to produce unique images.

Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy, 2018. Generative Adversarial Network print on canvas, published by Obvious, Paris. 27½ x 27½ in (700 x 700 mm). Sold for $432,500 on 25 October 2018 at Christie's in New York. © Courtesy of the artist, Obvious

In 2018, Christie’s became the first auction house to offer a work of art created by an algorithm. The AI-generated work, Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy, was created using GAN. Since then, Christie’s has expanded its offerings in the category; in 2022, the auction house launched Christie’s 3.0, an on-chain platform dedicated to exceptional digital art.

How does generative art relate to NFTs?

While generative art predates the development of non-fungible tokens by several decades, in recent years NFTs have become a popular digital method to securely store and sell generative works of art. The algorithm comprising the artwork is associated with the token stored on the blockchain.

In 2018, Christie’s first-ever Art+Tech Summit took place in London. Each of the 300 attendees’ gift bags included a complimentary 1/1 NFT by the artist Robbie Barrat, who was commissioned by SuperRare to create 300 unique works. As many in the audience were new to NFTs, only 12 of the works from Barrat’s AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 were ever claimed, making the so-called ‘Lost Robbies’ extremely rare and collectible.

Who were the pioneers of code-based art?

In 1965, the German mathematicians Georg Nees and Frieder Nake exhibited some of the first graphics generated by a digital computer in Stuttgart.

The Hungarian computer programmer Vera Molnár was another important pioneer. In the 1960s she used a plotter to produce computer graphics at a research centre in Paris, and  has continued to produce influential digital works to the present day. She was recently featured in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982.

In 1969, the Abstract Expressionist action painter Manfred Mohr began using his drawings as a base to experiment with computer-generated art. He has become recognised as a leader in software-based art, with works held in the Centre Pompidou and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Another forebear was the conceptual artist Sol Lewitt, who pioneered instruction-based art. His conceptual ‘Wall Drawings’ — begun in 1968 — comprised sets of directives from the artist that were to be executed by someone else. These instructions provided the code to generate the drawing on the wall.

In 1973 the artist Harold Cohen created AARON, a computer program that could paint and draw, one of the first instances of AI art.

What was Net Art?

In the wake of the Internet, a new generation of artists trailblazed the genre of Net Art in the 1990s and early 2000s. Net art combined the power of computing with the interconnectivity of the World Wide Web. Works took many forms including scripts, lines of code, websites, algorithms and search engines, existing natively on the web, they shared a collective, collaborative spirit. Many artists who came out of Net Art remain more active than ever in the digital art world.

In the early 2000s, Rafael Rozendaal created and sold works in the form of websites. Today he is one of the most recognised digital artists. His ‘Abstract Browsing’ series uses a plug-in created by the artist to abstract the information on a website into geometric units of colour.

In 2001, Casey Reas and designer Ben Fry co-developed Processing, an open-source programming language for the visual arts that is used by many digital artists.

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Joshua Davis (b. 1971), the V01D / 027-007, minted on 7 March 2023. Single-channel video and non-fungible token. 00:02:22 minutes (1440 x 2560 pixels). Estimate: $14,000-17,000. Offered in The Next Wave: The New York Edit on 12-19 April 2023 at Christie's online

An influential new media artist, Joshua Davis is perhaps best known for praystation.com, his website where he housed digital artworks and experiments. It was the first to offer open-source Flash files and in 2001 was awarded the Prix Ars Electronica. His work has been inducted into the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum and collected by Beeple.

Which characteristics make a generative artwork more covetable or valuable?

While a work’s statistical rarity is one metric, in the digital art space, buzz on Twitter and Discord servers also plays a key role in determining how sought after a particular artist is. It’s a fast-paced arena, where discussions and trends move quickly in real time. Good collectors don’t follow the trends — they set them. Since transactions are all publicly recorded on the blockchain, the community also pays close attention to what major artists and collectors, such as Beeple and Cozomo de’ Medici are acquiring.

Some of the most buzzworthy generative artists in the digital art space today are Tyler Hobbs, Dmitri Cherniak and Emily Xie.

Another defining feature of the digital art market is the close relationship between artist and audience — artists receive real-time feedback and interact directly with their fans. While more digital artists are becoming represented by galleries, most still play an active role in promoting and selling their work.

What is a plotter?

A plotter is a machine that can draw vector graphics. Vera Molnár and others used plotters to create some of the earliest generative artworks in the 1960s and ’70s. At that time, plotters could produce line drawings faster and at a higher level of quality than printers.

Tyler Hobbs (b. 1987), Fidenza #724, minted on 11 June 2021. Non-fungible token. JPEG: 2000 x 2400 pixels; print: 49¾ x 41⅞ in (126.5 x 106.4 cm). Sold for £365,400 on 28 February 2023 at Christie's in London. © Courtesy of Tyler Hobbs

More recently, the artist Tyler Hobbs employed a plotter in creating a physical painting to accompany his famed Fidenza digital generative works. Hobbs used a programmable robot to draw output #163 of the series. He then painted over the rendering in gouache with his own hand.

What is Art Blocks?

Art Blocks is an Ethereum-based NFT platform where artists can use creative code to generate varied, original artworks directly on the blockchain. The artist develops a system for the creation of a set of works, and Art Blocks introduces randomness into the algorithm. While a particular project will have consistent elements and repeating motifs, each purchase triggers the minting of a unique on-chain work for the buyer.

Some of the most sought-after projects on Art Blocks are Tyler Hobbs’ Fidenza and Dmitri Cherniak’s Eternal Pump.

What is post-photography?

Post-photography refers to a new genre of image-making that combines analogue photography methods with digital manipulation. The capability of artificial intelligence to uncannily mimic actual photography, blurring the line between real and fake, has opened up profound ethical questions as well as entirely new artistic possibilities.

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Roope Rainisto (b. 1979), Swan Dive, minted on 11 March 2023. Non-fungible token. Offered in The Next Wave: The New York Edit on 12-19 April 2023 at Christie's online

One of the pioneers of post-photography is Roope Rainisto, whose images tease the boundary between the real and virtual in provocative ways that challenge the viewer’s perception.

How can I display digital works of generative art?

There are myriad ways to show off digital artworks both online and IRL. Some choose to exhibit digital works in the real world using screens. Experts note that at this juncture the best displays are often out of reach for the general consumer, but as technology advances, they should come down in price.

Many digital artists produce stunning physical works to accompany on-chain tokens, including prints, sculptures and paintings. And the demand for tangible assets for display remains high among collectors.

There are also increasingly attractive and sophisticated digital options, where a collector can connect their wallet to a platform and create an immersive gallery in the metaverse, with almost endless ways to customise and curate a bespoke space. Some of the most popular platforms include Spatial and OnCyber. The 6529 Museum of Art has one of the largest and most valuable NFT collections in the world, with a particular focus on generative art — open 24/7 for virtual browsing.

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