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Surrealism in the Age of AI


In 1924 the French poet and critic André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto. The 4,000-word document marked both the birth of the eponymous movement and the moment when its dogmas were codified, effectively laying the groundwork for the countless derivations of the form that would follow—in the 15 years before World War II, certainly, but also after, up to, and including today. The Surrealist movement may have waned, but its ideas have not.

Now, exactly one century removed from the genesis of this art form, we find ourselves contending with the emergence of another: art made by artificial intelligence, or AI. In all kinds of little ways, the latter feels eerily evocative of the former. Like Surrealism, AI art is automatic and disembodied, at home in the space between language and image. Its schemes are described as dreams, and one of its prominent programs is named after Salvador Dalí. Even the idea of an invisible electronic apparatus that transforms ones and zeros into bizarro images sounds like something a Surrealist would cook up.

It is an imperfect analogy, but it may also be an instructive one, particularly as we wade through the moral and legal repercussions of AI and the ambient anxiety that it will replace art as we know it. Can looking at the past reveal something about where the future of this form is headed?



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