The Automaton by Faust

Struggle, Stanislaw Szukalski, 1917

The blueprint appeared one day in a newspaper. It’s speculated that one of the printing centers was hijacked by the person or group of people that created this creature so they could share their work with the rest of the population. No one really understood first what it was, the only description that accompanied the steps to follow were ‘’Automatic Art.’’. Most people, at best, were curious but unwilling to do anything with this information offered to them. They brushed off the publication as articles in the printers getting mixed up, but when some people put themselves to work to satisfy their intrigue, the existence of the Automaton only kept revolutionizing the world around us at an unbelievable pace. Suddenly, from one day to another, we didn’t have a place in society anymore.

Some of us kept wondering about the reason and the morality behind the blueprint for the Automaton being published this way, to the whole public, instead of being sold to a big corporation knowing what a powerful tool it was at its discovery. What could have been better, this insane power of creation belonging only to the upper class, and leaving the most unfortunate ones dealing with very real artists as they always have been doing, or letting everyone have the same opportunity to ditch us as craftsmen to never procure our services and skills again? Ironically, most of us agree that the latter was better even if it meant the end of our careers and the decay of our soul. Before things turned out this way, we would totally reject anything that gave more power to those in the upper caste, anything that created more disbalance between the classes… and even in cases like this where we are torn between the lesser of evils for us, we will side with evil if it means there’s more power for the people. Even if the people are willing to betray us.

Not that this shift in paradigm only affected us in negative ways. Being freed from the chains of work, of craft, of utilitarianism and what was supposed to be good or bad, what was supposed to be beautiful or ugly, what was moral or immoral to depict, felt amazing for us. No one was there to critique our work anymore, no one was there to nag about details we misplaced, no angry parents to yell at us for expressing things they felt were inappropriate. To draw, to illustrate and to paint were not work anymore, and no one would put their eyes on us anymore. Our bosses ditched us, our regular commissioners stopped calling us for work, our patrons didn’t need us anymore to please their vanity, they had to pour their money into other vices now that art belonged to everyone and didn’t serve as a sign of wealth. Art was for everyone.

The Automaton was the perfect child everyone sought to have. It worked in the most effective way. There were many of them but they were all one in the same, connected to the same brain. You would describe something, and after a few minutes of whirring sounds of printers, it would return what was requested in a paper canvas. The Automaton wasn’t perfect, but it was assured that one time would be, as with every correction, the Automaton learned and would never commit the same mistake again. But that was the mistake itself in the Automaton’s philosophy of work that no one really thought about.

As its work started to get more and more refined, people found that it was hard to make the Automaton follow certain specific inputs, as it would have been ‘’corrected’’ out by other people who didn’t want certain characteristics in the work they petitioned to the machine. These characteristics could forcibly be introduced back to the Automaton’s brain after a few tries, not without correcting out characteristics others petitioned the Automaton to create, so it was a battle about erasing the inputs of others in favor of yours. Making an Automaton emulate the characteristics of a very individual forgotten style became a frustrating battle. People finally realized their first mistake: A machine seeking to perfect itself would never have a frame of error, something so typical of us humans. A machine would never have the soul to leave a small squiggly line coming together to make an harmonious shape, nor two colors with too much contrast between them that would catch all the eyes. The Automaton rather than creating, was simply emulating what was fed to it in its creation, its brain connected to an archive gallery of several hundreds of thousands -maybe millions- of works by artists made during all history. It had the brain of each one of them, but not one of its own. It only served humans, so the outcome of its work tended more and more to what the average person found beautiful and useful, as to become more efficient and work faster by having a smaller gallery to find its resources from, ditching those forgotten artists no one knew about, those the grand majority found unappealing or ugly, those the average person didn’t care to understand.

By then, they noticed that the Automaton could work in a specific way and that it wasn’t a useful machine for those who needed more specific and intricate work. So they wanted to call back the artists, but they were nowhere to be found.

We started to share the time with each other, only doing work in presence of each other, for each other. Only people like us could understand our now considered meaningless passion. For some time it felt comforting and more like therapy, back then when this thing just appeared and everyone ditched us so suddenly… we only had each other. But as time passed by and aside from doing art we started discussing and venting our frustrations, anger started seeping into each one of us. Many resisted it. The ones who did their best to not let pessimism conquer their soul were the ones who still did things out of passion. They still found ease in creating beautiful, honest works capable of moving people in the right way, but they couldn’t help growing bitter, so day by day there were less of them. Soon we only knew anger, frustration, resentment towards the whole world that turned its back on us. We started creating with hatred in our hands. We broke brushes, we spilled paint, our pen strokes were so rough they ached in our eyes, and some of us would get startled at the aggressiveness of some works. Yet it was an addictive feeling, there was joy in and euphoria in this way of work. We started to compete in a very friendly way to see who could be more offensive with their talent, who could be more revolutionarily gross. If the others had a machine that made beautiful things for others, then we didn’t need to care to create beautiful things for them anymore. Who taught us to do that anyways? Unlearning all the technical and moral rules we memorized by sheer exhausting repetition to paint acceptable things as service to the average person was a hard but satisfying process, constantly rewarded and incentivized by seeing what the depths of our comrades’ psyches had to offer. We had a morbid curiosity to see how ugly our creations could become. And we were finally identifying as a more or less cohesive group, with a particular philosophy and a common goal. That goal required us to move our gatherings from lone cul-de-sacs with walls conquered with our hostile paintings, outside the galleries that meant glory for us in the past but that now only knew the hands of angry social rejects. We needed to take our work to places where everyone would be able to see them and appreciate them again.

It was quite hard. Once they finally realized what we were doing, they started patrolling the streets very late into the night, the only moment where we could work. But we still found our way to get away with our plans. Our goal was to paint every government building and plaster them with our demons for everyone to see. They realized our pattern and intentions after the third attack, and then we couldn’t fulfill this task without violence. We had to, one way or another, stealth our way towards the backs of the officers policing these buildings and swiftly get rid of them without alerting another one. We would fail often and have to flee the place as policemen called upon the others and reinforcements. Yet they wouldn’t be able to stop what we did, out of frustration we would just simply paint a wall in a very busy avenue or a whole house. Families would appear in the newspapers extremely ashamed of the offenses depicted in the facade of their home, only calling more and more attention of people who witnessed the inusual canvas with morbid curiosity and disgust, yet unable to detach their view from such horrid images.

The impact was mixed, but even the most aghast voices that condemned the vandalism were in some level relieved to know that the artists were still out there, even if they had the pretense to terrorize them. The whole population was slowly growing devoid of art as the Automaton refused to print the images they needed. The machine was still in its journey towards perfection, and that was the catastrophe no one could imagine from the first moment, even if it was the end goal of it, written deep into its code, in the blueprint shared to everyone. So art got sanitized, art became sterile, art became a blurry image that was a mashup of all the pretty faces in paintings it could store and learn from… and that way looked that last canvas, the moment the Automaton hit its peak: The only image it could produce, no matter the input, was a depiction of a slender pale woman standing in a stylized serpentine pose, holding a very detailed piece of floral drapery, rendered in a way that didn’t match at all the face of the lady in the painting, that looked as if it was purposefully airbrushed, no gestures or details able to be discerned except for an outline of a smile and two pupils looking at the viewer. It could be said that the paintings that we did back then, despite the vulgar and offensive factors, despite how much we tried to deform the human shape to insult and spit on nature… they were still so full of life, energy and pure emotion in contrast with the uncanny, soulless aberration that this machine created.

Return to normalcy was slow. The population suffered a lack of visual stimulus for long months until the people tried to pour their energies into learning art themselves, and so we shyly emerged back to the world, now as teachers. And even if it was consensus that it was us the ones responsible for the waves of vandalism that occurred months before, no one would bring it up. Finally the people understood that, no matter what any working contract could say, art does not serve us, we serve art.

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