Generative Adversarial Network’s [1] (G.A.N.), Portrait of Edmond Belamy, 2018


Last October an artwork produced by artificial intelligence (AI) was sold for $432,500 – nearly 45 times its highest estimate – by Christie’s in New York, making the company the first auction house to offer a work of art created by an algorithm.


To encounter the Portrait of Edmond Belamy by G.A.N. is to face the “hidden image”, as explained by the French collective Obvious.

Here the creativity and phenomenology of the gaze are said to be emulated by the contribution of the machine, that is, algorithms. Furthermore, the origin of the work is the artist’s signature at the bottom right. In cursive Gallic script it reads:

This work leads the viewer beyond the sense of the conventional, as it draws attention to the sovereign image linked to the letter, here as an algebraic formula. We can use Lacan’s registers – the symbolic, the imaginary and the real, as well as the formalisation of the four discourses [2] – to aid our understanding of this work of art.

Encountering the Real

The artwork is one of a group of portraits of the fictional Belamy family created by researchers.[3] The team explored the interface between art and AI, and the method goes by the name G.A.N.

Let us posit the following: “a database of pictures that’s used across the industry to train and test machine vision algorithms that seemed like a natural parallel to humans – the pictures look like haphazard arrangements of lines and blobs that lack any obvious immediate structure. But to algorithms trained to see the world on our behalf, they leap off the page as specific objects: electric fans, sewing machines, and lawnmowers. The prints are optical illusions, but only computers can see the hidden image and are programmed to produce novelty.


It turns out that the difficulty was part of the collective’s thinking… “We also tried feeding the algorithm sets of works by famous painters. But we found that portraits provided the best way to illustrate our point, which is that algorithms are able to emulate creativity.”

Here the sayable has an advantage over the visible. The Portrait of Edmond Belamy is veil-less. As such, it claims to be the very Thing (das Ding). The action of the collective leads the viewer to an iconic image: the algebraic formula as a letter.


The Rise of the Very Image

Lacan, in 1964, introduced a new reading of the phenomenology of the gaze, centred on the link between the world and the viewer as a subject.[4] Vision and gaze are pared down in our frame of thoughts, which is articulated by the point of view that one takes on. An elision arises from the artist’s act. As such we are looked at as Object of the Other, which is the cause of the gaze. Therefore, the artist’s point of view is not visible, something the viewer seems to forget.

The introduction of the screen and digitisation of the gaze is the final stage of the desiccation of vision, reduced to an image (das Ding). Between vision and jouissance, the object governs the world.[5]

As far as our hypermodernity is concerned, the rise of the object is exerting an absolute power over the subject, which supposes that the desire of the Other is turned into an insatiable scopic drive to watch the world. This raises the question: is there still any room left for shadows and what is hidden? As such, the algorithmic gaze – as a collective viewer – could be interpreted as an invisible gaze. This is where the viewer forgets that he was initially being looked at.

In other words, the act of watching without being seen indexes the viewer’s jouissance. The watched subject is reduced to the status of the object. As such, hiding is simply the condition of being a subject.

The Sovereign Image

Through the artist’s action, his signature leads the viewer to an iconic image as a letter. But as soon as the viewer’s attention turns to the algebraic formula as the artist’s signature, one may start to feel uneasy (unheimlich).

Spanning a gap, the sovereign image convenes an array of words, a frame and a slot. Following Jacques-Alain Miller,[6] these visual operators grant it a unique value as a signifier. Moreover, this image (image Une) refers to the significantised element.

The Invisible Signifier

The viewer is a mere spectator who is capable of looking and being looked at, and of reading. Yet we may ask what is there to read?

From a Lacanian standpoint, the subject is subordinated to language. To illustrate the interval between speech and the letter, the written words, as an iconic image, usually bring one’s interpretation into play.

The algebraic formula displays cursive Gallic script which points out a key tension in the master’s discourse for silencing the object a, here the subject.[7] As Lacan says, the number as the letter excludes the signified, pretending to fill the gap between meaning and the real. In “The Triumph of Objects”,[8] Marie-Hélène Brousse highlights that in the master’s discourse the master signifier (S1) is in the position of the agent, and in the university discourse the S2 of the expert’s know-how is in the position of the agent. This is precisely the message of the letter as a litter.

In Conclusion

AI artwork operates by treating the real with the symbolic. In addition, this work of art provides a new modality of the visible, i.e. the machine’s vision. One understands that looking at the world through an algorithmic gaze is to erase the subject in the position of the agent. At the end, the technology brings into place a vision of the world as the very Image.



[1] Generative Adversarial Network, G.A.N.

[2] Jacques Lacan, Seminar XX Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge 1972-73 (Ch. 2, “To Jakobson”), NY/London, Norton, 1998, p. 21.

[3] Consisting of Hugo Caselles-Dupré, Pierre Fautrel and Gauthier Vernier.

[4] Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Ch. 5, “Tuché and Automaton”, London, Penguin, 1977, p. 60.

[5] Gerard Wajcman, Fenêtre: Chronique du regard et de l’intime, “Naissance de l’intime”, Paris, Verdier/Philia, 2004, p. 432.

[6] Jacques-Alain Miller, “The Sovereign Image”, The Lacanian Review, No. 5, NLS, 2018, p. 39.

[7] Jacques-Alain Miller, “Aphorisms and Questions on Meaning and the Real”, Hurly-Burly, No. 7, May 2012 published for the Freudian Field, by the New Lacanian School, p. 61.

[8] Marie-Hélène Brousse, http://www.thelacanianreviews.com/the-triumph-of-objects/


Courtesy: Iconographie Image © Obvious

Courtesy: the Nature Morte gallery. Photo: Ramesh Pathania (2018)