AI 'Finishes' Famous Painting, Missing the Point

Keith Haring's 'Unfinished Painting' is a commentary on the AIDS epidemic
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 21, 2024 3:20 PM CST
Firestorm Ensues After AI 'Completes' Keith Haring Work
This 1983 file photo shows the late pop artist Keith Haring in his Broome Street apartment in New York.   (AP Photo, File)

AI has seen great advances in the last several years, but reading the room isn't one of them. After an X user posted an AI-generated rendering claiming to "finish" a painting by the late pop artist Keith Haring, critics are once again questioning the ethical boundaries the technology continually pushes, reports Hyperallergic. (You can see the before and after of the artwork here.) The original work, titled "Unfinished Painting" packs some hefty emotional symbolism. Haring created the painting in 1989, a year before he died of complications due to AIDS. In it, a pattern of designs in his signature style starts in the upper left corner in purples and black, but is abruptly cut off except for a few paint drips streaking down the white canvas.

The painting serves as a commentary on the loss of those whose lives were cut short during the HIV/AIDS crisis—Haring included—and what is left blank does the heavy lifting in that message. Responding to a 2023 tweet from artist Brooke Peachley in tribute to "Unfinished Painting," @DonnelVillager wrote, "The story behind this painting is so sad! Now using AI we can complete what he couldn't finish!" next to the generative AI image. The backlash was fast and furious, with the hot reactions pushing X's algorithm to make the tweet go viral (with 30 million views at the time of this writing). Responses varied from distaste and anger to props for "baiting" people for a reaction. Peachley says whether it's bait or not, the post was disrespectful.

"Not only does 'completing' the painting completely negate it of its original meaning, but spits on the tens of thousands of queer individuals who lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic in the '80s and '90s," she tells Hyperallergic. Donnel tells NBC News the tweet was meant to be funny, and later posted a missive on YouTube to "set the record straight." Most of the six-minute video recaps how others interpreted and reacted to his post, and he continued to assert it was done in humor. Donnel ended the video by noting, "I wasn't even the first person that did this" while flashing an image of an Instagram post with a different AI generative image of the painting.

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Whether or not Donnel intended to generate more conversation on generative AI's relationship with art, the move was bound to spark a reaction. Artists have filed lawsuits against companies for using their work to train AI models, testing the bounds of copyright infringement. Haring was one of the 16,000 visual artists believed to be used to train AI generator Midjourney's models after a list leaked online. "Generative AI is hurting artists everywhere by stealing not only from our pre-existing work to build its libraries without consent, but our jobs too, and it doesn't even do it authentically or well," Peachley says. (A comedy special featuring the late comedian George Carlin was derived from AI.)

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