A Keith Haring Painting ‘Completed’ Using A.I. Generates Backlash

The Pop artist had left the work deliberately unfinished as a commentary on the AIDS epidemic.

Keith Haring, Unfinished Painting (1989). Photo: © Keith Haring Foundation

Keith Haring’s Unfinished Painting (1989) is deliberately so. The canvas was filled in its top-left corner by the Pop artist in his buoyant, figurative hand, the rest of it left shockingly blank to represent the vacuum left by the HIV epidemic, which cut short millions of lives around the world. Haring himself died from AIDS-related complications a few months after completing the work. 

But what Haring intentionally and poignantly left blank, an X user has now—unwisely—thought to “complete” using artificial intelligence. On December 31, 2023, @DonnelVillager, in response to another user’s tweet about the work, posted an image of Unfinished Painting, filled edge to edge using generative A.I. “The story behind this painting is so sad!” they wrote. “Now using A.I. we can complete what he couldn’t finish!” 

The post swiftly caught the ire of the X community, with users describing the action as “disrespectful,” “disgusting,” and a “desecration.” Some praised the powers of A.I. for “showing us a world without AIDS,” while others deemed the tweet excellent “bait” on an Elon Musk-led online platform that newly rewards outrage with engagement. 

To add fuel to the fire, a fellow user, @aodanhill, used ChatGPT to “figure out how Keith would feel” about the completion of his painting. The A.I. chatbot spit out a typically inane response, calling the A.I.-generated piece “a testament to the collaborative spirit that fuels creativity and the endless possibilities of artistic expression.”  

This latest controversy arrives as generative A.I. is being increasingly scrutinized for its copyright infringements. An ongoing class action suit against Midjourney, Stability A.I., and DeviantArt is alleging the companies scraped vast amounts of material without their creators’ consent or permission with which to train their text-to-image tools. Included as evidence in the case is a massive list of artists whose work had been scraped; it features names such as Yayoi Kusama, Banksy, Damien Hirst, and, yes, Keith Haring. 

Most revealingly, OpenAI recently defended its work to the U.K.’s House of Lords by claiming “it would be impossible to train today’s leading A.I. models without using copyrighted materials.” The company, which is behind ChatGPT, added: “Limiting training data to public domain books and drawings created more than a century ago might yield an interesting experiment, but would not provide A.I. systems that meet the needs of today’s citizens.” 

X user @peachlybeloved, whose first posted about Haring’s Unfinished Painting, told Hyperallergic: “Generative AI is hurting artists everywhere by stealing not only from our pre-existing work to build its libraries without consent, but our jobs too, and it doesn’t even do it authentically or well.”  

Of the “completed” painting, she pointed out that the A.I. could barely render Haring’s evocative human forms, producing instead mere abstractions. The result, she added, was “abhorrent.” 

“Not only does ‘completing’ the painting completely negate it of its original meaning,” she added, “but spits on the tens of thousands of queer individuals who lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s.” 

 

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