[NetBehaviour] simplified account of image identification to train artificially aesthetic-intelligent machines with that they might help save earth's biosphere from destruction by humans if possible

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Fri May 5 16:49:45 CEST 2023


Art for Our Sake: a 21st Century Mona Lisa

This year marks the 150th anniversary of what some consider the most famous prose ever written about a painting: Walter Pater’s 1873 collection of essays The Renaissance.  Transcending and departing from Victorian thought, Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa as “the presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters” was declared “the first modern poem” by Yeats; and the book's controversial “love of art for its own sake” inspired a generation of young writers like Wilde, Joyce, Eliot, and Proust.

Could a parallel use of ekphrasis – human writing about human art – be required by the already daunting twenty-first century? Duchamp interpreted La Gioconda for the twentieth with a mustache and racy acronym which reverberated as powerfully as “art for art’s sake.”

A new reading of the portrait, like Dupin’s purloined letter hidden in plain sight, might be found in the title itself.  Leonardo did not provide any, but later commentators settled upon Mona Lisa – the customer’s name – or “The Jocund One.”  What if the true subject is Esperienza, an allegorical personification akin to Apelles’ Calumny, which Leonardo revered as “the common mother of all the sciences and all the arts,” “the interpreter between humans and nature,” and “the one true maestra”?

Surprisingly this hypothesis has not yet been proposed by scholars.

The Italian word for both experience and experiment, esperienza has deep roots.  Dante imbued it, in the words of G. Mazzotta, with “extraordinary overtones.”  Throughout the Divine Comedy Dante and Beatrice use the term to capture both the empiricism of scientific method and the experiential nature of art, poetry, and spiritual change.  In its Latin form experientia it features prominently in even earlier precursors like Nicolaus Cusanus and Roger Bacon.  One can discern in this single word much of what emerged from medieval rigor to reach full flower in the Renaissance.

Just as Pater believed a look back to Leonardo could help his society adapt we too may want, in our own age of global crises and technological upheaval, to look back: not returning to an impossible past but seeing our present afresh to better choose paths toward the future.  Pater saw the Renaissance equally emerging from prolonged stasis by blending antiquity with modern innovation.

Ekphrasis ironically is itself a function now fully mastered by our own machines.  The “GPT” family of computer programs can generate both aesthetic images indistinguishable from human ones and prose or even verse interpretations thereof.  (Curiously, Calvino foresaw this in his magical novel If on a winter’s night a traveler.)  What risks may lie in performing these most human of tasks by machine?  There is no doubt that intelligent technologies already manage a great deal of our imaginative lives for us.

Pater’s characterization of the Mona Lisa is yet again starkly relevant:

“The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life.”

He declares the portrait “embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.”

The celebrated fragment, in its own way both prolific and immortal, uses the word "experience" twice for emphasis and from an author acutely conscious of design this matters.  In the book’s four-page Conclusion we find it seven times, including thus: “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.”

Partly to rebut accusations of decadent Aestheticism Pater subsequently wrote his philosophical novel Marius the Epicurean.  In this work he uses “experience” a full eighty-five times (according to Ctrl-FGPT), with overtones one may reasonably call extraordinary, attempting to trace the double-helix of philosophy and art from prehistoric Rome to the present.  Could this be the same Marius cited by Leonardo's Proema, asking of his critics "Do they know that my subjects are based on experience rather than the words of others?"

It may be tidy to consign Leonardo to an antiquarian, wordlessly smiling past.  It might also be unnecessary.  Some have taken the strange step of splashing or smearing paint on artworks from the Louvre to the National Gallery in desperate hope of raising environmental awareness.  Few realize Leonardo understood even this, e.g. "Of the Cruelty of Man": “Nothing will remain on earth, or under the earth or in the waters which will not be persecuted, disturbed and spoiled, and those of one country removed into another.”

Little is more modern or Anthropocene than to recognize the survival of the planet’s biosphere will depend on the choices we make, in art as well as science, over the next several decades.  Perhaps our present century deserves an attempt to address the Mona Lisa by its potentially truest and most intended name:  experience, experiment, Esperienza.

And really, what have we got to lose?



  1.  Text of The Renaissance
     *   https://archive.org/stream/renaissance034976mbp/renaissance034976mbp_djvu.txt
  2.  Ekphrasis
     *   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ekphrasis
  3.  La Gioconda
     *   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mona_Lisa
  4.  Text of Marius the Epicurean
     *   https://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4057/pg4057-images.html
     *   https://gutenberg.org/files/4058/4058-h/4058-h.htm
  5.  “The Purloined Letter”
     *   https://americanliterature.com/author/edgar-allan-poe/short-story/the-purloined-letter
  6.  G. Mazzotta, Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge
     *   http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvmzw
  7.  If on a winter’s night a traveler
     *   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_on_a_winter%27s_night_a_traveler
  8.  Leonardo Wikiquote
     *   https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Leonardo_da_Vinci
  9.  Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles
     *   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calumny_of_Apelles_(Botticelli)
  10. Nicolaus Cusanus
     *   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_of_Cusa
  11. Roger Bacon
     *   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Bacon
  12. Dante
     *   https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/
  13. Beatrice
     *   https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/
  14. Text of Montaigne’s “Experience”
     *   http://essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/experience/
  15. Text of Emerson’s “Experience”
     *   http://essays.quotidiana.org/emerson/experience/
  16. Aestheticism
     *   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aestheticism
  17. The Louvre
     *   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louvre
  18. "Art for our sake"
     *   http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2022-03-03-art-our-sake-artists-cannot-be-replaced-machines-study
  19. Tokarczuk’s “Ognosia”
     *   https://wordswithoutborders.org/read/article/2022-06/ognosia-olga-tokarczuk-jennifer-croft/
  20. Fritjof Capra: Learning from Leonardo
     *   https://www.fritjofcapra.net/learning-from-leonardo/
  21. Pater’s “Diaphaneitè”
     *   https://www.laits.utexas.edu/farrell/documents/DIAPHANEITI.pdf
  22. Marius and experience in Leonardo’s Proema
     *   https://www.discoveringdavinci.com/proem


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