17, Mar 2023
After Sending ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ Out on Loan, the Mauritshuis Has Hung an AI Facsimile in Its Place. Fans Are Not Happy

The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum may have loaned out its greatest treasure, Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), to a once-in-a-lifetime Johannes Vermeer exhibition up the coast, but that doesn’t mean the room that usually holds the masterpiece is empty. Currently on view in that gallery, in fact, are five interpretations of Vermeer’s instructable portrait, all created by art fans.

Well, sort of. One of the imitation Vermeers was actually generated by AI—and its inclusion in the state museum has caused quite a stir.

The piece, called A Girl With Glowing Earringswas submitted by German AI artist Julian van Dieken through an open call for Vermeer substitutes launched by the Mauritshuis last month. Created with the AI ​​program Midjourney, the portrait forgets the soft light and muted palette of the original for a sharp, synthetic look that turns Vermeer’s iconic figure became a yassified version of itself.

“One of the most famous paintings in history is literally being replaced by one of my AI images,” Van Dieken wrote on Instagram. He called the honor “crazy” and “completely surreal.”

Others didn’t agree. In the Mauritshuis’s own Instagram posts introducing the open-call entries selected for inclusion in the museum, commenters decried Van Dieken’s piece and other AI-assisted submissions.

“Such a shameful decision for a museum of all things to feature AI-generated images,” wrote one user. “Are you unfamiliar with the legal and ethical issues with the technology as well, or is it a case of pure disregard for actual artists all around? You have shown you can’t be trusted by taking care of and upholding human cultural heritage.”

“Oh yes a lot of amazing artists and between them ai imposter which did literally nothing generating their ‘art,’” commented another.

Representatives from the Mauritshuis did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a museum spokesperson told them De Volkskrant that those in charge of selecting submissions did not consider the ethical questions of including an AI artwork. ‘We purely looked at what we liked,’ the representative said. “Is this creative? That’s a tough question.”

The Mauritshuis launched its My Girl With a Pearl open call last month, soliciting temporarily Pearl Earring substitutes made from any medium. Nearly 3,500 portraits were sent in, many quite liberal in their understanding of the prompt. Vermeer’s subject was reimagined as a dog, a dinosaur, and an elephant; she was depicted as an onion and an ear of corn. Some made her out of buttons or beads; others turned to stick figures and photographs. At least one “artist” just submitted a picture of Spongebob Squarepants.

Of these submissions, the museum selected 170 to display on rotation in a digital frame, while five others—including Van Dieken’s—were printed out and mounted on the wall.

If the online backlash to A Girl With Glowing Earrings tells us anything, it’s that the vertiginous rise in AI art’s popularity has left little room for shades of gray in the debate over technology’s role in “traditional” institutions. Van Dieken’s own story suggests as much.

In his post, the artist explained that his Instagram “account had exactly 20 followers at the beginning of October 2022. Now, 4 months later, there are not only more than 1,200 times more than you here, but there’s also an image I created with Midjourney… hanging in one of the most prestigious spots in the world.”

That may but be true, but looking at Van Dieken’s other artworks suggests that his overnight success may have more to do with the concurrent boom in AI interest than he does with his own artistic talent. Take a look, for instance, at his portraits of Yoda rode the subway, Voldemort in therapyand “Benedict Cumberbatch holding [a] cucumber with [a] patches.” He also previously described Mark Zuckerberg with a pearl earring.

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