If M was going to be a true artist it needed to learn about life. I figured nudes would be the place to start. If it was going to be a mirror of my mind, a true reflection of my artistic self, then it was going to start from a fairly horny baseline.
For several years there, as a teenager first learning how a paintbrush worked, I was driven more by dreams of coming into possession of my own groupies than any noble idea of contributing to the canon.
It’s not my fault. I was hardly the first to have that idea. If you look at the Western canon – the works of art that have been collectively decided by posterity to be the most resonant and important artworks of each age – one will find posteriors. Asses, millions of them, and tits too, of course. Some wangs, but comparatively few, and they were modest.
The Church, who paid for most of the art in the renaissance, had very strict rules about presenting a schlong. An artist will always have to work within the confines of what they have to work with. To find a line between the fashions of the day, dictated by the patrons, and trying to find something worthwhile.
You can guarantee that when Michelangelo unveiled his David, there was some cardinal standing up the back of the room complaining that the dick was too big and the sling was too small.
But nudity never goes out of style. The oldest surviving artwork is a nude. The Venus of Willendorf, 11.1cm tall, roughly 27,000 years old, she looks fantastic for her age. Carved from limestone, huge breasts, wide hips, no face to speak of. Some archaeologists think that it might be a self-portrait, based on the way the body is proportioned, of how someone thought the body would look if they’d never seen themselves in reflection.
Then it was the Greeks and the Romans – the horniest empires to ever span Europe – warmongers who conquered the known world and left behind their erotica.
They couldn’t get enough of it. Temples, brothels, plates – painting a dingus on any surface that could hold paint. One of the bodies mummified in ash and frozen for all time when the volcano buried Pompeii was found wanking the moment he died. The expression on his face was blissfully unaware of what would happen microseconds later.
What a time to be alive.
The men in those pictures – buff, muscled, hung, strong limbs and rock-hard abs – were idealised. People didn’t look like that, not even back before the advent of cheeseburgers. They were meant to be depictions of the gods, impossible physical specimens. Somehow, that remained the physical standard for male beauty through the ages.
In the portraiture of the renaissance, those same bodies turn up again with Donatello’s bronze of David; the full-frontal male nude made the canon. From there, it was inescapable, the ideal male body was decided. Perhaps the greatest triumph in marketing the world has ever known, and the brand stuck – the same washboard abs and chiselled features, stretching from the Roman Forum to Michelangelo to Magic Mike.
The female standard of beauty shifted with the times. During famines, the Rubenesque were in vogue. In times of surplus and the bloated end of empires, thin women with time for exercise and skincare came into fashion.
Whatever body-type and face was hard to achieve and maintain became the most desirable, and we see that reflected back at us in art through the ages. As always, it’s because those things were rare. Sex, sexuality, is an asset, just like any other. The market is driven up by scarcity, down by glut.
I figured that this far into its ‘life’, M would be about as smart as a teenager. Which, for me, meant being, basically, lobotomised by horniness.
Sex was what obsessed me. Sex. To be more accurate, in the absolute absence of sex, pornography.
That too, has lost its appeal as it has lost scarcity in the modern world. There’ll never be another generation that had to learn about the birds and the bees from a magazine. You can find everything you want to know about sex in the blink of an eye. Even if you don’t want to – try Googling ‘fist’ and seeing what comes up in the first page results. It’s all so common, and so boring.
No, it turns out nudes are not very interesting, or at least not for very long. I wasn’t going to produce a great work of art by showing M gigabytes of erotica and telling it to paint me something. I know because I tried it.
As it happens, if you want to gather millions of data points on a particular field of human endeavour, nudes are probably the easiest to source. So, as the first step in M’s education – I collected reams and reams of the stuff, and fed it to M.
Turns out the result is not particularly erotic. It’s… unpleasant; just blurs of flesh with this occasional erogenous organ rising from the murk like a swan’s neck from a lake. It’s something you might stroke your chin to, but not necessarily your penis.
You don’t want to see it. Trust me. I’m not sure what sort of personality M was developing, but it seems to take a fairly dim view of human sexuality. And honestly, fair enough. If anyone stopped and really thought about sex for more than a minute, the entire institution would grind to a halt.
At first I was dismayed what M had given back when I asked it to paint a nude, but the longer I stared at those disturbing stretches of skin, I started to understand something.
Of course, that’s what a machine would start to paint if asked to paint a human. They would start with the body, with the component parts. If asked to paint a clock, I would start with the casing, work out where the gears and levers go.
As anyone who’s been in a life-drawing class knows, if you stared at a naked human long enough, it loses all sense of the erotic and the mysterious. A person becomes a construction, an unlikely, cobbled together, sack of spare parts. We aren’t meant to look at ourselves so closely. Self-awareness doesn’t come naturally.
That’s how we learned to draw nudes in art school. We’d start with the bones, then move to the anatomy, studying Leonardo’s flayed figure with all the musculature and attachments, and then move on to the live model.
Maybe that’s what the human body is when unshackled from lust and hunger. It could be that M sees something we can’t, that the human frame is no more precious or taboo than a used Toyota. A reliable but ultimately unglamorous vessel to carry us around. Why should a machine look at us and think we are beautiful?
We are born wrinkled, tiny, helpless, slimy. A baby looks more like some kind of dehydrated tuber than the apex predator of the planet. Then we grow and expand into awkward, graceless teens. Then callow youths, where – if we’re lucky – we’ll enjoy a few years of aesthetic glory in which we are actually, truly, objectively beautiful. But, of course, we are all too young to understand that and appreciate it at the time. And then it’s over. Why try and explain that to a robot?
I tried to make it easier on M. If it couldn’t make sense of the amorphous mess of humanity, perhaps it could learn beauty? With narrower ambitions, maybe it would produce something more valuable. If it couldn’t grasp lust, perhaps it could get its head around aesthetics.
One face. Surely it could get its mind around drawing one face. So I went looking for a face to reproduce, a nice, crisp photo of a beautiful woman. In the end, I didn’t have to look far.
On the work website, which popped up every time I opened my computer at work, nestled under the ‘Who We Are’ tab, was a listing of the creatives employed at the agency along with a little pitch about what they brought to the team. There I was, my old headshot, taken years ago when I started, and somehow never updated.
I scrolled down, considering and dismissing the portraits, until I reached Ben’s – still on the staff listing. The only photo where he wasn’t even attempting to smile, just staring stonily at the camera. The day they took that photo, I remember teasing him mercilessly about it, and I felt another little twinge. I scrolled on, landing, finally, on The Boss.
She was, it has to be said, gorgeous. She’d been a model (I think I mentioned, before she was my colleague) and then my manager. Not that I spent my days fantasising about girls in the office, but I did have eyes in my head, and she wasn’t a bad place to rest them on.
Her headshot on the website was perfect, exactly what I was looking for, clean, centred, staring down the barrel of the camera. Better yet, I could get hundreds more. She’d been (like I said) a model, and so there were hundreds of photos of her. All over the place, same features, same expression. Eyes bright in the camera flash, auburn hair burning in backlight; an already elfin face airbrushed into something more perfect than human – an impossibly sexy red pixie.
I scooped them all up, just going from one stock photo archive to the next. Downloading them in bulk, until I had dozens and dozens of photos of The Boss – laughing at salad, playing tennis, sprawled in negligee over a streetlamp for some long-ago photoshoot in Harajuku – and fed them to M.
Not bad. Not beautiful exactly, but there’s someone for everyone, I supposed. I began to worry if I had already warped M’s mind by overloading it with nudes.
After some time to reflect, I began to realise what the problem was. I was trying to instruct M in an artistic canon that had been entirely shaped by patriarchy. Thousands of years of art, millions of lives, and billions of dollars invested in dudes trying to get to some kind of artistic truth, and none of them could think of a better idea than a naked lady.
For a good chunk of the last millennium, every artwork was made on a canvas stretched between the high aesthetic and the rank horniness. The puritanical tides that rose and receded with the world’s great religions tried, to stamp out sexuality; and failed time and again. Jerusalem, the Vatican, Mecca, they’ve all had a crack. But none of them could actually take all the sex out of art. That didn’t happen until New York City in the 60s.
Warhol ruined it for everyone. I was looking at some of the bizarre nudes M served up, trying to figure out what they reminded me of, when it hit me, a long buried memory from art school. Here’s the 1968 Poster for the first English screening of Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls. The poster was designed by Alan Aldridge, and, as you can see, a woman’s body becomes a tenement building. A hotel, a surreal, rented amenity full of leering faces but no joy in the erotic. For my money, I’d nominate this moment as the one that advertising began to spin its web in the whole concept of art. To slowly suck the husk dry over the next half century.
Image Source: Wikipedia
It’s a short walk from Magritte to Warhol to Kardashian to Onlyfans. Capitalism – at the pointy end of the American Experiment – finally did what the puritans could not achieve with all their faith and fortitude. It took all the fun out of sex and all the beauty from the nude. But still found ways to make money off of it.
That’s the point of advertising, of course. Billion-dollar industries built around the erosion of female self-esteem. If every woman in the world got a good night’s sleep and woke up feeling good about themselves, western civilisation would collapse overnight.
So what happens when the artist has no gender? Not just non-binary or asexual, but born completely devoid of the concept. M might be the first artist to exist entirely free of the male gaze – neither guilty of it nor reacting against it. The more of the series M churned out, the more it continued to surprise me. I was almost proud. M would appear to be a feminist. Or at least not to be able to grasp objectification.
At the same time, it clearly didn’t understand the poetry of the body. The expressive way we move an arm or fling a leg over a chair. What the way we move in the world says about us. It’s this that allowed Rodin to capture the essence of a kiss in the coiled muscles of his lovers.
Look at Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring with her lips parted just so, and centuries of people trying to figure out what she was about to say.
The Greeks understood the human body as a medium. They knew it in a way that’s never been reproduced. It’s what made them great. M doesn’t understand it. Not at all. If I were going to find a way to make M understand humanity, I would have to find another way. I’d have to give it something of myself. I would have to find some other way to inspire it. What I landed on wasn’t very nice. What I did to M wasn’t very nice, but it was necessary. What the things I did inspired M to create…well…you’ll see. We were just getting started.