a pixelated image of wine

Art is wine | metaphors, AI, and a book review

Robertson Davies once said "Art is wine, and experience is the brandy we distill it from." It sounds poetic and thoughtful and true. But what does it really mean? What does it look like to distill experience into art?

If that sounds like a great prompt for a creative session, just wait...there's more!

I’ve been reading  “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It’s quite inspiring if you're looking for project ideas. It's also made me realize how much the human  communication process depends on understanding metaphorical imaging.

the outside of a book with a black binding and white lettering

It begins by illustrating how humans think entirely in metaphor.

Don’t believe me? Did you realize that I just used one?

The phrase "illustrating how humans think" is a metaphor. The words in a book aren't actually drawing pictures - the 'illustration' metaphor implies that your mind will form images that clearly show the meaning being conveyed in the book.

See what I mean about how we depend on metaphors?

Using metaphors for artistic creativity

Think about the last time you had a conversation with someone. How many times did you say things like “That was right on target” or “I feel wiped out”? How about “I wasted my time”, “that cost me an hour” or “I invested a lot of time in that”? Maybe you’re more familiar with some simples ones, such as “I feel down”, “he’s in top shape” or “she dropped dead”? Or even "see" what I mean?! 

They're all metaphors. We're so dependent on them that we use them without thinking. I think they'd be terrific starters for projects.

For example, was that observation actually on a target?  How would you draw that?

Did someone  take an eraser and 'wipe you out'? This might be good inspiration for performance art.

How do you barter a unit of time in exchange for something else? What a great prompt, maybe for a sculpture of "time"?

I found this book super interesting, not only because of the inspiration it provides, but also because it discusses the reasoning behind the use of metaphors in our language. 

Is this something only humans can do?

The farther I got into the book, the more I wondered. Is metaphorical thinking a higher level of thinking that humans do naturally? Can artificial intelligence be programmed to use it?

Take, for example, the Davies quote that I opened with in this post. If I could create an artwork that showed 'Art is wine and experience is the brandy we distill it from", I'd probably try a literal interpretation first. Maybe show the Mona Lisa being distilled into tiny pieces, the little pieces being poured into a wine bottle and another wine bottle pouring the little pieces into a brandy snifter.

But, out of curiousity, I plugged the quote (hehehe, another metaphor!) into an AI generator. Out of the subsequent 24 images, I felt only one came close to a literal interpretation of the quote:

a pixelated image of wine

I could "see" this as the image (the art work) being distilled into pixels metaphorically. But was that my mind interpreting the image (because I already had it in my brain), or did the algorithm "interpret" my input?

Let's investigate a few more of the results it gave me.

Wine bottles with faces

The depiction of artfully designed wine bottles is an  obvious interpretation of "art is wine", but the faces with emotional context are a looser interpretation of "the distillation of experience". I found the colorful representation attractive, if a bit surreal.

Monsters of experience?

Here's another image generated during the same session with the AI:

It's "art" and there seems to be a lot of something represented, possibly experience. But there's nothing to suggest something fine, such as wine, being created by distilling the experience. In fact, I find the image a little disturbing.

Colorful geometry...and wine

The remaining images were simply wine bottles or wine glasses such as this one:

Rainbow colored shapes frame a wine glass with red wine

It shows wine as art rather than art as wine.

Can AI create a metaphorical image?

This was a fun experiment even if it was limited. I don't really believe the AI algorithm can interpret words metaphorically, of course. Someone would have to program all those associations into the software. And even then, the associations would depend on that person's (or group's) experience, which is a limiting factor. It may not even be possible to program gazillions of unique associations derived from the experiences of billions of humans in the world. So the AI would always be biased by the constraints of its programming.

On the surface, it appears an AI can literally represent a metaphor in an image. However, it seems that only the human brain  can interpret the image within the context of experience, which is what metaphorical communication is ultimately about.

Which goes to show that not only is beauty in the eye of the beholder, but meaning too. Artificial intelligence is still only a tool. Like any tool, how it's used depends on the user. 

For instance, none of the AI images in this experiment were something I'd consider "genius" artwork. However, because AI is much faster at making connections amongst a gazillion different things than I am, I feel like I could use any one of these as a starting point for brainstorming a project and then develop it. The benefit is derived from the AI in a similar way as the benefits of brainstorming with another human, because I never would've thought of "pixelation" as the equivalent of "distillation" had I not seen the AI image first. And, even though nothing about the monster image is triggering my thought processes regarding "art is wine", it's possible it could trigger someone else's.

Which makes it a pretty good tool, in my opinion. What do you think?

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