Framing and Back-Stories

Our appreciation of a work of artistic creativity is often heightened by our knowledge and appreciation of its fascinating backstory, if it has one. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is constantly name-checked as the world’s most famous painting, and though it has always been greatly admired for its technical virtuosity, the painting’s elevation to the pinnacle of art history is a relatively recent development, one that owes as much to melodrama and international intrigue as it does to any artistic considerations. The painting earned its permanent place in the public consciousness with its theft from the Louvre in 1911, not by sophisticated art thieves but by an Italian janitor who hid the painting in a closet before smuggling it home under his coat. (At one stage even Picasso himself was briefly considered an unlikely suspect. “Great artists steal”, after all.) The thief had patriotic intentions for his crime – he wanted to repatriate the Italian masterpiece back to Italy, where he felt it really belonged – and was caught while trying to sell the painting to the Uffizi in Florence. People only fully appreciate the value of an object (or another person) when it is gone, and so it was with the Mona Lisa. The publicity surrounding its sudden loss and joyous return cemented the painting in the affections of many who had never before given it a second thought.

The backstory of a modern artwork – the story of the work’s genesis, its themes and its influences – is typically concocted by the artists themselves. But these creation myths are not the most reliable of narratives, and may be as artfully constructed as the works they attach to. Yet in this way, each backstory offers another vehicle for linguistic creativity – “a lie that tells the truth” in the words of Picasso – to complement the creativity of the artwork that it embellishes. So our appreciation of Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, to take a famous example, is greatly enriched by the backstory of its genesis in a dream, which also ruefully tells of how Coleridge was stopped from committing the whole of the dream to paper by a caller from Porlock. Part anecdote, part explanation and part mystification, an artful backstory pulls into sharp relief the conceptual conceits that unpin a resonant work. Given the significance of backstories in human art, computer scientist (and PROSECCO member) Simon Colton argues that computers should also invent backstories for their own generative efforts, so they too might be appreciated as real art. By showing an articulate understanding of the influences that shape its outputs, and of how the result could have been very different if different choices had been made, a computer can lay claim to truly owning its outputs. Colton refers to the invention of a compelling backstory as the framing of a computer-created work. In this way, a system for generating paintings, music or poems might work hand in hand with another system that generates creative linguistic backstories for these outputs. Different systems with complementary generative abilities could thus work together, to collectively overcome the perception of mere generation that might otherwise attach to these systems if they were to operate in isolation.

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