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Trailblazers in the Art World: Harold Cohen

Digital art is becoming a hot topic with the rise of NFTs and artists taking control of how they build wealth with their pieces. So much is being said that the conversation is starting to become lost in whether or not digital art belongs in the world of fine art. The answer is much simpler and straightforward than a person might think though: digital art is important and is a necessary addition to the many ways artists can create. Did you know that many artists and computer scientists were working together to develop a new way to create pieces on digital platforms like computers in 1968? One of these artists was a UCSD professor who wanted to push the boundaries of fine art and computer science by making AI generated art a reality. Harold Cohen broke boundaries by creating AARON the first computer program that would allow artists to create works digitally.

Harold Cohen posing in front of one of his pieces at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1979).

Cohen grew up in London and was surrounded by the Bohemian Soho artistic movement that was going on in the UK during the 1940’s. When it came time for him to go to university he chose to pursue painting at the Slade School of Fine Arts, as he had been inspired by the works that marked his generation. Though, he didn’t make a move towards computer science until the late 60’s when he taught himself how to code and program a computer. Not too long after he was invited to give a series of lectures at UCSD in California; it was here that he became curious about AI and what conditions had to be met in order for image to be considered a work of art.

Harold Cohen at his estate (1988).

So he began his journey into AI, working with computer scientists at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He spent a total of two years there building AARON, the first AI artist. After his time at Stanford, he went back to UCSD and established the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts. There he began giving AARON more robust tasks to complete; he wanted the AI to be able to create complex and coherent pieces with colour, almost as though it had been painted by a human. Then in 1972, AARON finally got to have its pieces exhibited at a museum. ‘Three Behaviours for the Partitioning of Space’ debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the world was now exposed to the first ever ‘Robot Artist’.

His invention was a portal to the future of art and its industry. AI and digital is nothing new, and has made its way into the mainstream. With that said, it is here to stay, and has been accepted into the fine arts community as art. If you would like to know more about Harold Cohen and his groundbreaking invention, please visit: .


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