A.I. completes Keith Haring’s intentionally unfinished painting

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The year before he died of AIDS-related complications, the
artist Keith Haring created a unique work known only as Unfinished
Painting (1989). In its upper-left quadrant, black and white lines
form stylized patterns on a purple background. Streaks of purple
paint trickle down onto the otherwise empty lower-left quadrant;
the right half of the canvas is also blank. Haring intentionally
left the work unfinished as a commentary on the AIDS crisis,
Azernews reports citing Smithsonian magazine.

Now, a newly “completed” version of the work—made with the help
of artificial intelligence—is generating controversy: A social
media user employed an A.I. image generator to expand Haring’s
designs across the blank sections of the canvas, ultimately posting
the altered image on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“The story behind this painting is so sad!” writes the user, who
goes by Donnel. “Now using A.I. we can complete what he couldn’t
finish!”

The image was met with intense backlash.

“It’s very disrespectful to not only anyone who was around
during the AIDS epidemic, but particularly those who died from it
or who lost friends and loved ones during it,” Tina Tallon, a
researcher of A.I. and the arts at the University of Florida, tells
NBC News’ Kalhan Rosenblatt.

Born in 1958, Haring rose to fame through the graffiti art he
drew inside the New York subways. In the early ’80s, “Haring
produced hundreds of these public drawings in rapid rhythmic lines,
sometimes creating as many as 40 ‘subway drawings’ in one day,”
according to the Keith Haring Foundation. “This seamless flow of
images became familiar to New York commuters.” He began exhibiting
his art in cities around the world.

While Haring is perhaps best known for his colorful, playful
designs, he also used his art to help raise awareness of the AIDS
crisis. In 1988, he was diagnosed with the disease, which he died
from in 1990, when he was 31.

“I find the ‘completed’ version of the artwork to be abhorrent,”
artist Brooke Peachley, whose post honoring Haring’s work prompted
Donnel’s, tells Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie and Rhea Nayyar, using
a pseudonym for her last name. “Not only does ‘completing’ the
painting completely negate it of its original meaning, but spits on
the tens of thousands of queer individuals who lost their lives to
the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s.”

She adds: “To do so using generative A.I., a computer program
that cannot feel the weight of what it is doing nor create with any
sort of human intention, only adds to the disrespect.”

What’s more, the A.I.-generated image doesn’t appear to be
faithful to Haring’s style, which often included images of human
figures. These kinds of figures are visible in Haring’s original
piece, but the image generator wasn’t able to replicate them.

“The once deeply intentional curves and shapes eerily lose their
form as the program moves farther and farther away from the
original source,” Peachley tells Hyperallergic.

Ever since A.I. image generators became publicly available,
their role in the art world has been a matter of debate. Many
artists worry that these models are trained on copyrighted works by
living artists—who didn’t consent for their art to be used in this
manner. Just last month, a list of thousands of artists allegedly
used to train Midjourney started circulating, intensifying concerns
about how A.I. art interacts with copyright law.

“Right now, we don’t really have structures or frameworks for
engaging with A.I.,” Tallon tells NBC News. “Or engaging with
generative AI in a way that I think fully respects artists and the
agency of artists and their agency over their own creative work,
whether living or dead.”

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