Can You Tell Whether a Robot or an Artist Painted This Portrait?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Nov. 15 2012 12:32 PM

How Robots Saved an Artist’s Sanity

The greatest artist of his generation is named Paul.

Robotic Portrait of Patrick Tresset
Robotic Portrait of Patrick Tresset

For much of his life, Patrick Tresset has been torn between art and technology. The child of an artist and an engineer, Tresset dabbled in both during his youth in France and enjoyed tinkering with the “primitive” computer his family got when he was 10. In college, he eschewed art in favor of studying business computing. After graduating, however, he “found it boring” and pivoted back to art—painting, in particular.  

For the next decade, Tresset tried to make it as a painter. Occasionally, he was successful, exhibiting his work in Paris and London. But “along the way, I kind of lost touch with reality. … I kind of lost my ability to function in society,” he said last weekend at a press conference at Ciudad de las Ideas, an annual gathering about big ideas held in Puebla, Mexico, and sponsored by Grupo Salinas.

In his 30s, Tresset made the admirable and difficult decision to seek treatment for his mental health problems—and for him, medication and therapy worked. There was just one problem. “I was able to function again … but I lost my passion for art, for doing things by hand,” he said.

Advertisement

The connection between creativity and mental illness is complicated and has received a lot of attention—for instance, in Kay Redfield Jamison’s excellent Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, published in 1993. Jamison writes in the introduction:

"[T]here is some evidence that as a group, artists and writers disproportionately seek out psychiatric care; certainly many—including Byron, Schumann, Tennyson, Fitzgerald, and Lowell—repeatedly sought help from their physicians. Other writers and artists stop taking their medications because they miss the highs or the emotional intensity associated with their illness, or because they feel the drug side effects interfere with the clarity and rapidity of their thought or diminish their levels of enthusiasm, emotion, and energy."

The latter group seems to be the one that receives more attention—indeed, society seems to revere the mentally ill artist, seeing her as sacrificing her sanity for the greater good. If van Gogh had been healthy, this narrative goes, maybe he wouldn’t have produced such masterpieces.

Tresset, for one, discovered a novel way to stay mentally healthy with the help of drugs and still pursue what was once his life’s work: He created robots that can draw portraits. Far from a mere novelty, his research is telling us more about both the creative process in humans and how we relate emotionally to machines.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 8:38 AM An Implanted Wearable Gadget Isn’t as Crazy as You’d Think Products like New Deal Design’s UnderSkin may be the future.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.