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The "Ruin Of Art" — How Goethe Predicted Our Current AI Nightmare 220 Years Ago

Goethe was eerily prescient in his predictions about the “unstoppable force” of mechanization. But he didn’t call for a pause in technological advances. More than 200 years ago, he predicted with surprising accuracy how technological and industrial developments would change our world.

A black and white A.I. generated picture of Goethe using a laptop.

A.I. generated image of philosopher Goethe using a laptop.

Image generated by an A.I/Canva
Dankwart Guratzsch

BERLIN — What did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe know about computers, algorithms and artificial intelligence? Nothing, of course. But the legendary German writer (1749-1832) possessed the kind of observational gifts that enabled him to foresee where the early days of industrial development would lead – and the changes he predicted are now coming to fruition.

Among Goethe's most currently palpable predictions was the idea of an “art factory,” which would cheaply, quickly and accurately recreate “any painting using entirely mechanical means," by a process that “any child” could be taught to follow. Mass-produced art created by machines – that was the great writer’s nightmarish vision in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Goethe wrote his essay in 1797, but never published it. The steam engine was invented in 1765 and the mechanical loom in 1784, just 13 years before Goethe wrote his essay. These inventions accelerated a process that had already begun, as the world of work was undergoing a wave of mechanization. The 48-year-old Goethe predicted that the “unstoppable force” of this revolution would fundamentally change the status of art and artists.

Goethe originally gave his essay the title “Art and Industry,” but later changed it to “Art and Craftsmanship,” showing that it was a theme he returned to over a long period of time — a theme that cut to the heart of all art.

Goethe believed this trend towards “increased mechanization, intricate craftsmanship and the factory system” would mean that a work of art would only “be pleasing as long as it is new." He explained, somewhat pessimistically, that this would lead to the “complete and utter ruin” of art. He argued that it would flatten the “intrinsic, enduring value” that is inherent in the works of a “true artist.” Works created by a “purely mechanical artist” would by definition have less value: “Its thousandth work is the same as its first, and in the end it has made the same thing a thousand times.” He argued that even “the best works” of this new era would have “something meaningless and trivial” about them. It would mean the end of true art.

Rethinking values

The uncharacteristically defeatist tone of Goethe’s essay may have been why he left it to decay in a desk drawer. It is somewhat reminiscent of the nightmarish predictions made in the early days of artificial intelligence. But Goethe was not taken in by conspiracy theories. He dispassionately weighed up what he considered would be the inevitable consequences of fundamentally “rethinking all values.” Superficially, his analysis seemed to apply only to art: a definition of art that had been widely accepted since ancient times but was now being called into question. But it also has consequences for how we traditionally view the connection between time and human creativity.

The ideal of perfection has been replaced by the concept of quality.

Since the ancient Greeks, the value of a work of art has never been time-limited. Every era was seen as equally close to the ideal of art, and had the same responsibility towards it. The meaning of a work of art was not determined by the date when it was created, but by how close it came to perfection.

Art historian Günter Bandmann expressed this idea 70 years ago: “We find our legitimacy in the past, in the overriding plan of salvation … We don’t toy with the idea of escaping from the edifice of universalism that is founded in the past … Looking to the past does not mean clinging to it unthinkingly. It is the expression of a specific ethos, which is built around upholding the plan of salvation. Innovation is imperfection.”

In the modern era, after the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, this concept of continuity was rejected in favor of a fixation on the newest product, the latest version, which does not leave space for the highest form of perfection, as each creation is surpassed by every new product that appears. The new ideal lies in innovation, not in the plan of salvation or in perfection. Art has been stripped of its halo.

The value placed on the new has made artwork into a piece of fashion that follows the latest fads, into one object in a series of products that are continually superseded by new, more “current,” more perfect works and product lines. The ideal of perfection has been replaced by the concept of quality, where it is novelty, not the “enduring value” proposed by Goethe, that matters. And Goethe identifies the underlying cause of this revolution in values: the “unstoppable force” that has led to the rise of machines.

Goethe's pessimism

Here, Goethe referred to the work of a philosopher who is mostly forgotten today, but was widely read at the time: Karl Heinrich Heydenreich (1764–1801). In 1790, the academic and poet, who died young after struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, had proposed a “system of aesthetics” that differentiated between purely “mechanical” arts and “beautiful” arts, arguing that the first were simply physical, whereas the second had an “intellectual” element. This distinction has endured, and it marks the line between functionalism and constructivism on one side, and “artistic” design on the other.

At first, architecture fared badly in Heydenreich’s system. He classed it as a mechanical art form, but said it was “capable of much embellishment.” It too could reach the heights of “beautiful art,” but only through a “poetic representation of the higher purpose of the building in beautiful architectural forms, where all purely physical considerations completely disappear."

Goethe’s 1797 essay did not leave room for such optimism. Instead, Goethe predicted the rise of “machines and the factory system," which would “flood the world with beautiful, delicate, pleasant, transient things through commerce.” This is where his image of the “huge art factory” comes in, as he predicted it would replace the work of “true artists” with “wholly mechanical operations” – a prediction that has proven surprisingly accurate.

This was not only relevant to art, but to the world of work as a whole. Years later, in his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Goethe returned to this theme and boldly applied it to wider society.

“Just as the steam engines cannot now be silenced, neither can our customs now be changed: the bustle of commerce, burning through paper money, piling up debts to pay debts, all these are the dreadful forces facing a young man today.” He predicted that this would lead to unemployment – a danger often raised in current debates on artificial intelligence.

Image of Midjourney homepage.

Midjourney generates images from natural language descriptions, called "prompts".

Jonathan Kemper

Dangerous revolution

Goethe was prescient in recognizing the danger that the technological revolution posed to the accepted value system, at a time when the new value system was still in its infancy. It is the machine that literally turns the wheel, that spews out money and mass-produced items. Today’s equivalent, the most technologically advanced machine that has expanded into every corner of our life – the internet – has proven to be a monster that excels at making money and throwing billions around.

At the dawn of the 19th century, Goethe recognized the threat of encroaching mechanization and called for markers of “true art” to be preserved.

If, as Friedrich Schiller put it, this era turned trivial utility into a “great idol,” an authority to which “all powers do homage and all subjects are subservient,” then, he argued, it was necessary to develop a new understanding of art, which foregrounded the “necessity of spirits and not that of matter.”

It is the same approach that many are now calling for when it comes to AI. How can humans stand their ground against machines? The “necessity of matter” means constantly refining and innovating, because the production process – whose values are spreading further throughout society – means that only the newest, most advanced, most effective machine can survive. The “necessity of spirits” cannot keep up with this pace. Those experts who are now calling for a “pause” in the development of AI know that would be contrary to the very nature of the machine world.

German language and literature expert Klaus-Michael Bogdal has studied how writers engaged with the idea of the “necessity of matter” over the 100 years after Goethe’s essay, tracing how it became an image of the conflict between humans and machines as superhuman beings.

Faster, more precise, more efficient A.I

A novel of 1888 by Conrad Alberti features a monster that already possesses all the characteristics of AI: “It was like a huge body with tiny, stunted sense organs, with a single bulging eye that could only stare blankly in one direction and doesn’t notice what is happening to its right or to its left, with a brain that cannot differentiate between good and evil, true and false, with limbs that only respond to the stimulation of the nerves, the usual reflexes to external stimuli, not the free, independent thought of the true mind.”

Bogdal was describing a “sensory physical energy … that directs its appetite towards weaker, simple mankind, in order to siphon off their strength and destroy them.” We see the same images cropping up in debates about whether AI is a blessing or a curse.

AI will dominate when it proves to be faster, more precise, and more efficient.

Goethe clearly saw no value in calling for a halt to technological advances, as he did not publish his reflections about machines. He acknowledged that these changes were “rushing forward with unstoppable force.” In his engagement with Isaac Newton’s revolutionary scientific discoveries, as well as with the mechanical worldview of French Enlightenment thinker La Mettrie (“Man a Machine”), he clings to the idea of an “intellectual order” that is present throughout all of creation. As the British academic Jeremy Adler recently argued, Goethe was driven by concerns about the “inhuman dangers of mathematical physics” – a fear that is also behind many leading scientists’ current skepticism towards AI.

The distinction that Goethe makes, between inhuman mathematical physics and a kind of science based on the human individual as an organic being, only holds up as long as human-based science remains effective and superior in an industrialized world.

That means, in turn, that AI will dominate when it proves to be faster, more precise, and more efficient – regardless of whether it is conscious or not. Computers don’t make decisions based on feelings, but based on logic, practicality and efficiency. The more humanity submits to these criteria, the more humans unavoidably become like machines. The “necessity of spirits” can only win through if it proves stronger than the “necessity of matter."

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Photo of Mahmoud Abbas speaking into microphone

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Thaer Ganaim/APA Images via ZUMA
Elias Kassem

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