The GardenA blog by yours truly

What does AI make of the Gods?

I recently bought 1000 images鈥 worth of credits on DreamStudio 鈥 a machine-learning-powered art generator 鈥 on a whim and, after the requisite 鈥淏oris Johnson taking a bath of baked beans鈥 joke entries, i thought it would be an interesting test to get it to generate some images for my shrines (on- and offline).

Four images of god. From left to right: a stone carving resembling Zeus, a tapestry with a four-armed figure draped in green robes, fire reaching into the sky with a nebula in the centre, and a stone carving by the seaside resembling the face of Jesus of Nazareth.
Just typing in 鈥淕od鈥 brought a fascinating cavalcade of interpretations 鈥 some clearly Hellenic, some Christian, some taking more inspiration from the dharmic faiths, and the occasional completely abstract depiction.

My motivations were twofold: first, due to copyright constraints, all of the icons adorning these shrines were either old baroque paintings or freely-licenced photos of even older marble statues, which didn鈥檛 necessarily represent my mental image of the Gods鈥 appearances 鈥 a topic which, of course, will vary massively from artist to artist and culture to culture. Second, i thought it would be a fascinating experiment to see how this machine learning algorithm, which has taken in hundreds upon thousands (perhaps millions; i鈥檝e not checked) of images, views the Gods in its latent space. Just as it has a prototypical idea of a 鈥渄og鈥 and a 鈥渃at鈥, surely it also has one for 鈥淕od鈥 and 鈥Dionysos鈥.

Hestia in a toga leaning on a pillar near a hearth, with a halo-like glow emanating from Her head

As is tradition, we begin this article with Hestia (although Her portrait was actually the final one to be generated). On the broad strokes, my computer collaborator knocked it out of the park 鈥 but a closer look reveals some glaring imperfections in the face and hands, a theme which we鈥檒l be seeing a lot of (and which i sometimes managed to harness to my advantage).

Apollon 鈥 a lithe, youthful, Caucasian man with waving blonde locks of hair 鈥 reaches up towards the heavens in front of a hilly valley

I should note that i鈥檓 not just feeding it theonyms with no added context: the programme works best if you help it along to your goal with a heaping of adjectives and descriptors, say, to tell it that this is indeed meant to be an artwork (鈥4K ultra HD鈥, 鈥渢rending on ArtStation鈥), the details of the pose and background you want (鈥渂londe hair鈥, 鈥渞aising His hand to the sky鈥), or the style and artists you want it to take from (鈥渂aroque painting by Thomas Cole鈥, a prominent painter of beautiful, well-lit landscapes). If you calibrate it just right, it can make some genuinely beautiful stuff, like the above picture of Apollon (which i did, admittedly, have to manually touch up to get rid of a prominent Habsburg chin).

G忙a, framed by Celtic knotwork, as a green-skinned, bare-chested woman with leaves for hair

It may be an immensely powerful tool, but DreamStudio can also be rather prudish. It blurs out any images it thinks might contain the utterly offensive sight of the genitalia with which we are all born, which can be a real problem if the relevant pictures it鈥檚 learnt from are all Greek and Roman statues 鈥 not exactly works known for their nether modesty. The detection software isn鈥檛 perfect, though, and sometimes, like in this portrait of G忙a, it lets a few slip past (perhaps because of the greenish tone with which i instructed it to portray Her skin).

Hermes as a swarthy young man wearing a three-feathered crown, fleshy wings emanating from His sides

The algorithm sometimes has issues with more complex prompts, for it is just a machine, and doesn鈥檛 actually understand that 鈥渂all on top of a red box鈥 means that the ball indeed should be on top of the box, as opposed to by its side, beneath it, or fused together in a horrific amalgam. These troubles somewhat manifested themselves in the above portrait of Hermes; the winged cap He is traditionally depicted with has transformed itself into both a crown and a hulking pair of soaring, fleshy wings emanating from His shoulders, and the recognisable caduceus has been reduced to a bamboo stick by His side.

Perhaps it鈥檚 just the style i instructed it to paint in 鈥 sixteenth-century European paintings aren鈥檛 renowned for their diversity 鈥 but DreamStudio also has some real trouble with darker skin tones. You can cry 鈥渄ark skin, dark bronze skin, dark skin, dark skin, dark skin, black鈥 all you want, but the only thing that can consistently get it to generate anything a shade below the average Spaniard is 鈥淎frican American鈥, which tends to bring along a heap of other associated physical changes besides just skin tone. (I have to say, i don鈥檛 particularly envision Hermes as the eponymous Futurama character in my head.)

Hermaphroditus as an androgynous, twinkish fellow with three arms, laying down by a pond in a bed of leaves

It also has quite some trouble with arms and legs. Originally, i thought of its odd morphings and multiplications as a bug to be stamped out, but i came to see them as a feature, representing the manifold, varied aspects of the Gods, their omnipresence, transcending the limits of human form. (This is also why the Hindus do it, if i recall correctly.)

I would have rather the above portrait of Hermaphroditos been slightly more, ah, gynomorphic around the chest, so to speak, but i鈥檇 been trying to get a decent pose for what felt like an hour and i didn鈥檛 feel like fighting the blur anymore.

Dionysos as a three-legged and -armed bearded man, overweight but muscled, covered in flowers

So then 鈥 it鈥檚 a bit off in places, and lacks the leopard-skin toga i would have liked, and lord knows what the objects He鈥檚 holding are meant to be, and it turned out the computer really, really, struggled with the basic concept of a faun or satyr鈥檚 legs, but we end this post with DreamStudio鈥檚 interpretation of an icon of Dionysos, framed by some beautiful landscape.

Navigating through the neural net鈥檚 knowledge and limitations has been a fascinating, illuminating exercise, which has left no doubt in my mind that 鈥AI art鈥 is, indeed, just that: art. It seems to me much more comparable to something like photography than painting: rather than doing the hard work by hirself with brush strokes and pencil lines, the artist guides hir computer collaborator through latent space, pressing 鈥渃lick鈥 when sie finds something appealing. One can only hope the Muses would approve.

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