History’s Most Creative Paintings, As Picked by a Computer

Some masters got snubbed

The Scream
The algorithm ranked the "The Scream" by Edvard Munch as a highly creative work of its time. Edvard Munch, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Computers have entered the art world and brought with them their ability to scan vast digital collections for connections. They are learning how to be art historians and assessing the creativity of painting masters. And now, one computer algorithm has ranked works from the early 1400s to today, on their "creativity," reports Daniel Culpan for Wired UK (via Ars Technica).

Creativity in the algorithm’s programming is defined by computer scientists Ahmed Elgammal and Babek Saleh as how different the artwork is compared to earlier works. They also included to what degree the art influenced works created later. Both of these measures are used by art historians to categorize works by masters. The team reported their process online at arXiv.org. They programmed the algorithm to look at color, texture and the scenes and objects the painter chose to paint. The researchers tested their algorithm on 62,000 paintings and came up with a chart. Culpan writes:

The paintings at the top of the chart are those judged by the algorithm to be more original, while those languishing towards the bottom have been rated to be more derivative. The results are interesting, if not altogether surprising; Edvard Munch's instantly recognizable The Scream is considered exceptional, along with Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's bold Yellow Still Life and Monet's serene Haystacks at Chailly at Sunrise. In contrast, works by some of the Old Masters, such as Ingres and Rodin, slip down the list—perhaps simply proving the age-old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The researchers concede that originality may not be the best metric by which to measure art. However, many of the paintings that the program ranks highly are those that art historians "highlight as innovative and influential." The computer hasn’t passed humans in this realm just yet, but it can make these assessments faster.

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