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AI “Completes” Keith Haring’s Intentionally Unfinished Last Artwork, Sparks Controversy

Keith Haring Painting in Amsterdam

Keith Haring painting in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, 1986 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC0 BY 1.0 DEED)

In last few years, the art world has been flooded with controversy over the dramatic rise of AI art. While we have seen some artists and designers incorporating artificial intelligence into their practice, many others have remained firmly against it, especially as it relates to copyright. A recent incident has thrown the ethical concerns of AI art into question once again, when Keith Haring‘s intentionally unfinished artwork was completed with AI.

The original piece was titled Unfinished Painting, and was started and abandoned in 1989. Haring filled in the top left-hand corner of the canvas with a bold purple, black, and white design, before making a conscious decision to leave the rest of the painting unfinished. There are several purple paint dribbles that cascade down below the completed quadrant instead. It was left this way as commentary on the AIDS crisis. “My life is my art, it’s intertwined,” Haring said in a 1989 interview. “When AIDS became a reality in terms of my life, it started becoming a subject in my paintings. The more it affected my life the more it affected my work.” He would later die from AIDS-related complications, just one year later.

On December 31, 2023, Twitter user @DonnelVillager quote tweeted the original painting by Keith Haring with their fully realized version. “The story behind this painting is so sad! Now using AI we can complete what he couldn't finish!” they write. The post was met with significant backlash, many of whom thought it was made in poor taste considering the artwork's intentions and Haring's life. Some speculated that it was made as bait for discussion and engagement.

About a week after @DonnelVillager's tweet went viral, they made a video reply to the incident to clarify their intentions, which turned out to have nothing to do with Haring or AI art itself. “It just came from…a friend of mine sent the original tweet, which I ended up quote tweeting, which is the unfinished painting by Keith Haring and I responded saying ‘It's not even done' then another friend of mine said ‘Just finish it,' ” says @DonnelVillager. “And I finished it…A lot of people have assumed the intent behind it or tried to project meaning onto it. I can't even remember if I knew what the meaning or the intent behind the original was, and even if I had I probably would have done it anyway. I just thought it was funny.”

While Haring's painting may not have been altered with ill intent, the drama unfolded soon after Jon Lam shared a Google Doc of 16,000 artists whose work was allegedly scraped by AI art generator Midjourney. This post was accompanied by several screenshots of texts. “Midjourney developers caught discussing laundering, and creating a database of Artists (who have been dehumanized to styles) to train Midjourney off of,” writes Lam. “This has been submitted into evidence for the lawsuit. Prompt engineers, your ‘skills' are not yours.” Among the names listed are famous artists like Yayoi Kusama, David Hockney, and even Keith Haring.

Midjourney is not the only AI organization being accused of copyright claims. OpenAI, the company responsible for ChatGPT and text-to-image generator DALL-E, was compelled to make its own defense of scraping copyrighted material to “train” artificial intelligence. “Because copyright today covers virtually every sort of human expression—including blog posts, photographs, forum posts, scraps of software code, and government documents—it would be impossible to train today’s leading A.I. models without using copyrighted materials,” OpenAI says. While many artists and creators are not sympathetic to their defense, the future of AI art and copyright claims is definitely something to watch out for in the near future.

Twitter user @DonnelVillager used AI to complete Keith Haring's 1989 work Unfinished Painting, which Haring intentionally left unfinished as commentary on the AIDS crisis.

A couple of days later, @DonnelVillager made a video response explaining  why they made the piece.

This incident occurred at the same time Jon Lam shared a list of 16,000 artists whose work was allegedly scraped by AI art generator Midjourney without their knowledge or consent.

h/t: [designboom]

Related Articles:

New Keith Haring Exhibit at The Broad Is a Vibrant Showcase of the Artist’s Iconic Work

7 Facts About Pioneering Street Artist Keith Haring

Monumental Keith Haring Mural Uncovered in Amsterdam After Being Hidden for 30 Years

Margherita Cole

Margherita Cole is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and illustrator based in Southern California. She holds a BA in Art History with a minor in Studio Art from Wofford College, and an MA in Illustration: Authorial Practice from Falmouth University in the UK. She wrote and illustrated an instructional art book about how to draw cartoons titled 'Cartooning Made Easy: Circle, Triangle, Square' that was published by Walter Foster in 2022.
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