Monday, March 26, 2018

AI Art and Dwindling Human Experience

Scientists at Rutgers University are programming AI to create art. After AI programs viewed thousands of artworks they were tasked to create Abstract Expressionist images. The images generated by the AI were then shown next to real artworks from Art Basel, one of the most prestigious art fairs in the world. People were then asked to differentiate the AI images from actual artworks by human artists. Long story short, viewers correctly identified the works by real artists more often than the works by AI. Yet, often, the AI images were indistinguishable from the images by real artists.

But then, “respondents were asked to rate how intentional, visually structured, communicative, and inspiring the images were. They 'rated the images generated by [the computer] higher than those created by real artists, whether in the Abstract Expressionism set or in the Art Basel set.'”

The catty part of me wants to question whether AI images looked more like real art, or Art Basel images looked less like real art? Art Basel is a bit of a carnival and lots of bad art is raised in stature by being seen with the good art. But, this is not the point of the article, nor is it the point of what I am most concerned about – meow.

This incident is one more step down a road that we have been traveling quietly for many decades, maybe even centuries. It is the devaluing of the human experience.

Of course, humans are the pinnacle of development - as far as we are concerned. So, of course, we would be the standard against which AI would be measured. AI is very beneficial in situations in which it helps humans to compensate for disabilities and deficiencies or makes a task easier and safer. But there is another side to AI - creating an alternative to humans.

It is interesting that all the articles I have been reading focus on the timeline for improvements to the AI. They ask where is AI on the road to developing true imagination and how long will it take to be indistinguishable from human creative thought? But none of them ask what the impact is on humans. What happens to humans if a completely separate entity is created that makes human expression no longer unique, or necessary?

As someone who is engaged in expressing his human experience through his art, I always find it puzzling when people want to disregard the human experience. We see this continually in the world around us. We have fake news that is not based in human experience, but manipulated messaging. We have Facebook friends and communities instead of investing in personal relationships and engaging in local human communities. We watch other people's (fictional and non-fictional) experiences on television instead of creating our own. We have alternate reality machines that can put us into a completely convincing alternate world. On top of that, we do a lot of self-medicating via alcohol and drugs. It is as if we don't want to be here. As if we don't want to be ourselves.

I know life is hard for many people and I don't want to make light of that. My life, at times, has been very difficult. But I relish the personal experiences of raising a daughter, being involved in my friend's lives, and being intimate on many levels with a partner.  I enjoy having a mother and sister that live close so we can share new experiences while reminiscing about old. I enjoy creating something on a daily basis. And I appreciate the eventual results of wrestling with the difficult times.

Now, to see an AI program creating “art” is one more example of negating these human experiences and there expression. Yes, Mark, but people find the AI images more engaging. Doesn't that make the AI art more valuable, This is tantamount to saying news sources are credible because they have stories that appeal to your opinion on issues. We have flipped the dynamic of human experience. Instead of observing the world around us and growing from its alternating between challenging us and supporting us, we expect to impress our opinions onto it so our reality is not challenging. What we are doing is creating a small homogeneous bubble around ourselves thinking it will protect us from pain and struggle. My friend, Barbara McAfee, in her book Full Voice, asks the question, “when did we decide that being anything less than our full selves would make us safer?” It's a great question.

My human experience is not so objectionable that I want to continually run from it. Society-wide, that approach is a race to the bottom, a marathon to a world that will not allow us to reach the finish line. I am trying to live in a world where we value the expression of our full selves instead of leaking our self-loathing into objects meant to replace us instead of amplify us. I want my life to be an oil painting of substance instead of an empty illustration of what I had hoped for.

So, for the foreseeable future, I will keep painting, putting my experience into canvas and panels. I believe that art is an object. It is not an image. Artists imbue their substrate with an energy that lives on and emanates into your home when you hang it on your wall. Then, you add your energy to the art by interacting with it on a daily basis and providing a deeper experiential meaning. In the end, the work has been a conduit for energy and intention, for building memory and knowledge, for sharing experience and meaning, for weaving together the strands of humanity that create a better self.

At some point we will have to put away our AI, our toys, and our distractions and value our experiences, expressions and who we are at our core, if we are going to make it to that finish line.


Here's another interesting article about the history of AI paintings, which have their beginnings in 1973:

To see my non-AI paintings, visit

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Sinkside Compost #9

Oil paint on panel
8" x 16"

The ninth painting in a series of the container next to my sink where I place my food scraps before taking them out to the compost bin. To purchase this painting or to see the rest of the series, click here.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What's Happening In the Studio - March 12, 2018

So much has been happening in the studio this month that I only have time to share some of it with you. First, what's that up there? That is a photo of my table where I am painting small guache paintings. Guache are basically opaque watercolors. You can paint in layers like watercolors, but you can also go thicker and paint over things you painted previously. It is a nimble kind of paint.

I have begun painting small images on paper for a project I will be doing with artist Gregory Graham. We are each producing guache paintings and will be having an online auction this summer of these pieces. I will share more with you about themes and individual paintings as they develop. But in case you are wondering, yes, that is the beginning of a painting of the danish competition at the Minnesota State Fair.
I am continuing my series of paintings about food obsessions. This one will be titled I Hate Myself for Loving You. Yeah, you know what I'm talking about.

Here is the first layer of paint blocking out the big shapes.
After a several month layoff, I have started painting my Sinkside Compost container again. After completing ten paintings of the container in 2017, I already have two completed in 2018. Here is a recent quote from a fan:

"In my opinion the compost pictures Mark Granlund makes are not only well crafted and composed, but they also tell a story about how we eat. Mark is able to make art from the edge of his sink with as much heart and thought as any contemporary artist does with sweeping landscapes of farm fields."
 - Brett Olson

Below is Sinkside Compost #12

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Obamas, Neanderthals and Art

There were two major news stories about paintings this last month. First, it was fun to see paintings being the center of nation-wide media attention with the release of President and First Lady Obama's portraits. The first African-American couple in the White House had their portraits painted by African-American artists, the first to do presidential portraits. The artists are Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley.

To begin with, these paintings are meaningful on that level alone. Even if these were the same type of portraits as their predecessors, these would have additional meaning because of who the artists are and who sat for them. But, in addition, each of the artists took the portrait format in unconventional directions, which fits with their previous works but not previous presidential portraits. They were chosen by the Obamas precisely because they would bring new life to a rather formal and predictable tradition.

President Barack Obama's portrait was painted by Kehinde Wiley, an artist who for many years has been painting African-American people in what would be considered traditional depictions of the aristocracy and the gods. They are very dramatic and often very large.

Although President Obama's portrait certainly stands out amongst the portraits of previous presidents, it doesn't "wow" me. Mr. Wiley has always shown a great ability to paint hands, and I love the President's hands in this portrait. Real bone and sinew under the skin with amazing tonality. The rest is convincingly painted, but to me seems a little more flat, a little less lively than the hands.

That said, paintings can be a completely different experience in person and I would love to see these in person.

Michelle's portrait is painted by Amy Sherald. An artist that has just recently returned to her painting after dealing with family illnesses, including her own, for many years. Ms. Sherald's portraits tend to the minimal in emotion and composition. She paints her subject's skin in greys and does not create lifelike likenesses in terms of detail. Her subjects are simplified, becoming almost interchangeable from portrait to portrait. The dress is a very important part of this portrait compositionally and in terms of meaning.

The dress is large, First Lady Obama could be sitting on a high stool underneath it. The colors and patterns represent different ideas. But, quite frankly, I read about them and immediately forgot and didn't care. Really... I read a very nice, rather long, article about what Ms. Sherald tries to achieve in this work, but if I have to read that much to understand what an artist is doing symbolically, I just don't care. As an image, I really like the painting. I like it better than her husband's. The solid colors are soothing and reassuring. The portrait is strong and depicts someone who is nobody's fool, yet there is an elegance to her. I think the portrait, within Ms. Sherald's style, captures Michelle, but it is a somber side of her.

These portraits will break the tradition of the staid traditional presidential portrait, which is good for art. It gets to a point with certain genres where the artists are no longer taking chances and being human, but become a factory trying to meet expectations. A shaking up of ideals is good for art and for people. It challenges the status quo and pushes us to consider things that have become Cannon. Limiting our idea of what is "right" to what is acceptable never leads us to our full selves, never leads us to something that makes us better humans.

As could have been predicted, there are people who do not like the portraits simply because it is the Obamas. When it comes to the Obamas, there are some people that will never be happy. Many of them are racist and don't want to accept that a person with dark skin can be their equal... or even their superior. They can't accept that this country is only as great as it is because of the labor and sacrifice of African-Americans. Somehow they think this is a challenge to their own contributions and turn around and do nothing but belittle and deflect the accomplishments of people with darker skin.

Another art story out this month is about cave paintings in Spain. Three caves were discovered to have paintings on the walls that predate Homo sapiens' arrival to the peninsula. This means that they were painted by Neanderthals. Until now, Neanderthals were considered to be cognitively inferior to Homo sapiens and there has been no known example of Neanderthal art. But the art in these caves, in particular in that they have some complexity to them, show that Neanderthals may have had the same cognitive abilities as Homo sapiens. These paintings pre-date any art by Homo sapiens by 20,000 years.

Cave painting in Spain

One of the things that I love about life is that, through art, not only can we challenge our understanding of people today and set the future in a new direction, but we can also make discoveries from thousands of years ago that can change our understanding of the world. Until now, it was thought that Neanderthals went extinct because they were not as smart as Homo sapiens. For hundreds of years we have had this negative view of Neanderthals simply because we "won" on evolutionary terms. We have turned Neanderthal into a derogatory name for someone who is dumb and brutish. Other studies are also coming out showing that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred more than previously thought. Wouldn't it be like Homo sapiens to have inherited our culture and refinement from the Neanderthals and then turned around and belittled them and gave them a dirty name?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Blue North, Oil Painting

Blue North
Oil Paint on Canvas
36" x 60"
This is a painting of islands on Rainy Lake, near International Falls, Minnesota. I - Falls is known for being one of the coldest places in the continental United States. That's during the winter. During the summer, it is a beautiful spot with clear light that creates intense colors and dramatic tones. When painting, I often think about Picasso's comment that all surfaces have energy. This is expressed in a painting through brushstrokes and color. I take this comment by Pablo to heart, not just about painted surfaces but also about real-life surfaces. All surfaces have an energy that radiates from the essence underneath. Originally, this painting had a smooth sky transitioning from light to dark blue.
In this instance, the painting looked more like a photograph might, a realistic depiction of the landscape. But to me, the sky did not seem to have the energy that the sky should. And it didn't stand a chance against the energy in the water. There is far more to the skies of Rainy Lake than simply going from light to dark. I started to put small strokes, like in the water, in the sky but it didn't feel right. Then I started painting in the larger flat strokes and the energy started to come. In person the layering of the paint gives a glow and intensity to the color, like the sunlight creates in the North Country.

More work, to view and purchase, is available at my website: