A critical humanistic look at the artificial visual culture of the future

The growth in artificial intelligence and synthetically generated images today requires us to put on our humanistic glasses and analyse the impact of technology on our visual culture and identity. So says Associate Professor Lotte Philipsen, who as art historian has researched the relation between art, images and technology.

By Jesper Bruun

On 5 January 2022, the photography news site PetaPixel put the first portraits ever to have been generated completely by artificial intelligence up for sale – pictures of completely realistic faces, where the buyer does not have to worry about the model’s rights, royalties or GDPR rules. The pictures were created by Germany’s leading stock photo agency, Smarterpix, which is owned by PantherMedia, and the tech company VAIsual. Both companies argued that artificially generated photos are the future of the stock photo industry, and that five to 10 years from now up to 95 per cent of all stock photos will be artificially generated:

“It is time for the stock photo industry to venture into new territory, and pictures generated by artificial intelligence will soon be a standard element in the industry,” said CEO of PantherMedia Robert Walthers to PetaPixel back in January.

At the Department of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University, Associate Professor Lotte Philipsen is researching this very topic: that artificial intelligence is taking over an increasing part of the production of images and art and the impact hereof.

Seamless visual culture

Artificial intelligence is here to stay. The technology is being incorporated into more and more aspects of our everyday lives and is used increasingly within i.a. the photo, image, video and art industries in the form of e.g. filters, image recognition, CGI etc. E.g., in 2021, Bornholm.nu introduced the artificially generated news presenter, Bridget, who reads the news aloud just like a regular human presenter, and so far the industry of artificially generated movable faces reached its zenith when the popular culture series The Book of Boba Fett in 2022 introduced a familiar face from the Star Wars saga with completely realistic gestures.

Does this growth in artificial intelligence change our understanding of images? How does it affect our visual culture and our underlying ideas, references and perception of images? Why did Bornholm.nu want a synthetically generated female presenter with long, brown hair, a tan and floral shirt? Would not they have been just as well off with a cartoon character presenting the news?

In January 2022, PantherMedia started selling its first portraits to have been generated completely by artificial intelligence via the stock photo site Smarterpix. See examples of these portraits here. They are the first images generated completely by artificial intelligence to be put up for sale.

“We rely on pictures to understand and generate knowledge about the world. We surround ourselves with a seamless visual culture that never causes us to pause and think; but pictures are much more powerful than you would think,” Lotte Philipsen says and adds:

“There are some rather fixed stereotypes connected to existing image discourses, and that is rather interesting. What are the cultural traditions embedded in these new image technologies? It is important that we explore how these new technologies affect our visual understanding and which cultures they generate,” she says.

"Brøndgade, Sankt Jørgensbjerg"

Lotte Philipsen was born in Aarhus and grew up in Hørning. Her father was a chemist, and her mother a geologist, and as a baby, Lotte would nap in her pram the University Park while her mother attended lectures. She developed an interest in art theory early on. As a child, one of her school mates told her about a painting which had been sold for ‘a huge amount of money’. A painting which, according to the boy, was little more than a red square. This made young Lotte conclude that art must have a hidden value, and this strange value aroused her interest in art, which continued throughout primary and lower secondary school. She recalls how as a young teenager she would visit art museums and study the work of great artists. One piece in particular caught her eye, namely a painting by artist Laurits Andersen Ring from Zealand, who i.a. was one of the Danish pioneers within social realism.

The painting is titled “Brøndgade, Sankt Jørgensbjerg”, and Lotte Philipsen clearly remembers how this particular painting lured her in and made her ponder art – even as a young teenager: “There is no obvious motif in this picture, just a street and some houses. It is a grey, muddy and dull scene – not at all the celebration of the Danish countryside of the Danish Golden Age. The sun is not even shinning in this picture. But it is extremely well painted. It struck me as different – both the fact that someone would exhibit a picture such as this one, and that someone would want to paint such a scene. It made me think about the underlying ideals of art vis-à-vis the immediate impression,” she says.

Open house at Art History

In upper secondary school, Lotte Philipsen continued to be interested in art. Her arts teacher contributed to arousing her – and the rest of the class’ – interest in the subject: “He first thing he did was kick in the door and say: ‘We will not be making ashtrays or pretty things in my classes. We will concentrate on what shocks people.’ He tore apart my childhood thoughts on art, I think, and he was really good at taking the subject seriously, showing us some pretty cool works of art and taking us to some interesting places.”

But towards the end of upper secondary school Lotte Philipsen still did not know what she wanted to do after graduating. Perhaps art history just is not the obvious choice when you have the natural sciences in your blood. A friend invited her to an open house event at Art History at Aarhus University. She had not planned on going, but her friend persuaded her to come. 

“I had no idea you could study art history, but from the moment I set foot in the department, I thought: ‘Wow, this is where I belong,’” she says.

At first, Lotte Philipsen had to get used to life as a student. Before enrolling at university she had worked as a manager at McDonald’s and she was therefore used to working fast, receiving lots or orders and keeping several balls in the air at a time. Suddenly, she had to get used to a much slower pace of contemplation:

“I thought: ‘My God, everything is so slow-paced.’ And at the first study group meetings I was confused to learned that all we did was sit around talking,” she says. Suddenly, she had to use the analytical part of the brain. But she soon settled down and had no doubts that this was the right place for her.

Fellowship: Time for research

Lotte Philipsen completed the six-year MA programme in Art History and graduated in 2003. Before starting her PhD project in 2005, she worked as an instructor at the university for two years.

“At the time, I did not know whether I wanted to become a researcher. Research in the humanities is a tough business, and I was not interested in doing a postdoc or applying for scholarships for the rest of my life,” she says.

Her PhD focussed on the globalisation of contemporary art, and soon after completing it she obtained a postdoc position. But then, after a couple of years as a postdoc, her life took an unexpected turn.

“I was lucky to get a three-year Jens Christian Skou (JCS) Junior Fellowship at the then newly established Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies[M2]  (AIAS). I was the first fellow to get an office in the building, and it made a huge difference to me, my research and my career.”

JCS Fellowships are awarded to researchers at Aarhus University who strive to explore innovative, high-risk topics within their field of research. And this was important to Lotte Philipsen, who was researching contemporary art and new technologies – a subject that called for more humanistic attention.

“In short, the scholarship gave me time to do research. I did not have to worry about administration, teaching, academic regulations or timetables. I was free to do research – free to immerse myself in and nerd out things I otherwise may not have had time for. Also, the research environment at AIAS made a great difference. Suddenly, you are part of an international environment including researchers from all over the world and different subject areas – that is, radically different subject areas. And that is great, because it gives you a new perspective on your work, and you get to talk to people with a fundamentally different view of the world, which is really inspiring. It is only healthy to see how other people work,” she says.

This insight proved important to Lotte Philipsen, who considers it a prerequisite for working on topics outside your own subject area, which is what she was doing. There is no natural connection between new technologies such as artificial intelligence and art history, and this new insight would prove immensely important to her.

“Also, it was a huge recognition. It was vital to my career at the time, and there is no doubt that it has been played a key role in bringing me here. Generally, I do not care much for recognition and that sort of thing, but my Skou fellowship really meant a lot to me,” she adds.

Lotte Philipsen completed her fellowship in 2016 shortly after applying for an associate professorship at the department where she has been ever since.

The era of artificial intelligence

That brings us to the present, where Lotte Philipsen has just received a DKK-2 million AUFF NOVA grant. The aim of the project is to adopt a humanistic approach to image cultures and image practices in this era of artificial intelligence.

And this is important work, she believes. Unfortunately, humanistic research rarely gets a chance to explore this topic:

“Very few humanistic projects focus on artificial intelligence and images, but our visual identity is changing just as fast as the technology. Therefore, we need to support humanistic research that can help us grasp the cultural implications of the technological development, which is becoming more and more prominent in virtually all parts of society,” she says and continues:

“The images we surround ourselves with are embedded in our visual culture. Everything from the way we dress to our design of urban spaces. Stock photos are just a small part of the visual culture we surround ourselves with, but the fact that the industry seems to be headed towards completely synthetic production is vital. In the old times, an artist would observe the world and then reproduce a scene on the canvas in accordance with the visual matrices of the age. Artificial intelligence does not observe the world. Instead, it is made to process thousands or millions of image files in order to ‘learn’ the image characteristics it will use to generate new images. How does this approach differ from the old one, and how does it affect our way of understanding and creating image-based realities? And which image cultures are mediated by which technologies? Here the humanities – especially an image-based field such as art history – can lend a helping hand in understanding the visual matrices of the new technologies,” she says. 

Lotte Philipsen’s AUFF NOVA project is titled ’New Visions: Image Cultures in the Era of AI’ and will run from 2022 to 2026.

It is important to apply a critical, humanistic perspective on image cultures and image practices in this era of artificial intelligence. So says Associate Professor and Art Historian Lotte Philipsen: “We surround ourselves with a seamless visual culture that never causes us to pause and think; but pictures are much more powerful than you would think,” she says.