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Simão Valente (University of Porto)


Simão Valente (DPhil Oxford 2016) is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Porto, Portugal, where he teaches Semiotics and Comparative Literature. His interests include world literature, crime fiction, realism and visual culture. He is co-editor of four volumes of the literary anthology Comparative World Literature: Perspectives in Portuguese. His current projects include translating Petrarch and a book on the topic of this conference.


Realism, Ekphrasis and AI Art: Some Preliminary Notes


The title of a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik, published last March, asks: ¡°What can AI art teach us about the real thing?¡±. The question addresses concerns about the aesthetic and ontological status of images generated by AI tools such as Midjourney, Dall-E or Stable Diffusion. It drives a wedge between ¡°real art¡± and AI art. A feature of the latter is its reliance on textual prompts, such as some used by Gopnik himself (¡°A Havanese at six pm on an East Coast beach in the style of a Winslow Homer watercolor¡±), in order to generate digital images. This text-to-image relationship can be thought of in terms of the rhetorical technique, or poetic genre, of ekphrasis: classically, vivid descriptions of any subject that seek to stimulate a mental image in the minds of an audience to a speech; or, in 20th century theory, ¡°a verbal representation of a visual representation¡± (Heffernan, 1993) ¡ª poems describing paintings or sculptures. In this talk, I will argue that the text prompt-AI art relationship can be better understood by studying the mimetic impulse of ekphrasis and, through it, the concern with realistic representation in Western poetics and aesthetics. AI models rely entirely on previous representations as schemata (¡°in the style of¡±) for the generation of new ones, lacking (for the time being) direct visual perception, as humans conceive it, of the material world. This is a central aspect of the tension between uncanniness and realism in results obtained by users, especially when relatively simple text leads to a profusion of visual detail. ¡°God hides in the details¡±, as Aby Warburg famously put it regarding painting, and as Ernst Robert Curtius repeated in relation to literature. The gap between verbal prompt and AI image is the hiding place we will look into.