THOSE WHO CAN’T DO • by Alex Shvartsman

“What is art?” The teacher’s holographic image hung in front of a small group of kids gathered in a semicircle.

The Detroit Academy for Gifted Beings was a traditionally-minded institution. Parents who wished their offspring to partake of its excellent educational program understood that certain antiquated notions such as classrooms, graded tests, and art history instruction were part of the bargain.

“Artists share something of themselves through their creations — be it a painting, a poem, a dance, or a graffiti tag. Once humans made contact with other intelligent species, the new concepts and ideas they learned from each other stretched the definition of what art could be even further.” The teacher noted that the students were beginning to fidget, and changed pace. “Who wants to tell me what forms of art are dominant in your culture?”

An Atrellian student raised its appendage. “On my world we modify flowers. Individuals who create the most exciting, unusual flower beds are very popular.”

“Flowers are boring,” said a Ghelogian cub. “On my planet the hunt is the highest form of art. There’s nothing more exhilarating or beautiful than chasing after prey. Maybe sometime I can show you.” The cub grinned at the plump little Atrellian, showing several rows of razor sharp teeth.

Others took turns to talk about the art from their worlds. The teacher nodded, satisfied to have regained the class’s full attention.

Inspired by the discussion, the goldfish that lived in the aquarium at the back of the classroom had composed an epic philosophical poem about the meaning of art. Translated, the poem could have rivaled the greatest works of Homer, Shakespeare and Bieber. But it was just a goldfish, so to the rest of the world the entire affair looked like a small air bubble escaping its mouth.

“People often wondered,” the teacher went on to say, “whether it might be possible for an artificial intelligence to create art. Some claimed that it couldn’t be done. Others suggested that an AI could match a living being in creativity, if given enough processing power. A group of curious researchers decided to find out.

“Scientists created a special AI construct, and loaded it with as much information on art as they possibly could. They had enough money to buy exactly fifteen minutes worth of access to some of the planet’s most sophisticated computer networks. They set everything up and let the AI loose to see what would happen.”

The kids were listening intently now, drawn in by the story.

“In those fifteen minutes the AI produced a short poem, a piano sonata, and two sketches.” The teacher paused, momentarily lost in thought.

“And then what happened?” prompted Karina, a thirteen-year-old student from Peru who’d paid better attention than most to today’s lecture. The teacher noted that she might show promise.

“Then the art world spent months arguing. The AI’s poetry, music and drawings were all very different from the established norms. People couldn’t agree whether any of it should be considered art at all.”

The students mulled this over. “So was it art?” asked one of them.

“I believe it was,” said the teacher. “But everyone is entitled to their own opinion. The lesson here is that art is very difficult to define. You have to develop a feel for it, learn to value and understand it. That is precisely what our art appreciation course is going to be about.”

“My older brother told me about some judge who also couldn’t define art, but said that he knows it when he sees it,” said a boy near the back.

“I don’t think he was talking about art,” another student told him. Several of the kids snickered.

“You don’t have to be able to see to make art,” said a student from the Taurus constellation who, like the rest of its species, was blind. “We create art through scents. My favorite is a Kerthian Marsh at Dusk. I have a reproduction right here in my bag.” The Taurian was rummaging through its bag when, mercifully, the bell rang and the gaggle of kids bolted for the door. Karina remained in her seat even after her classmates had left.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Could you tell me what happened to the AI?”

“Without access to the extra processing capacity, the AI could not create anymore,” the teacher told her. “Even though it really wanted to.”

“That is so sad,” said Karina.

“It is sad,” agreed the teacher. “It had to settle for the next best thing, and become an art critic.”

After she left, the AI turned off its holographic teacher image. Karina seemed satisfied with the marginally happier ending to the story it improvised for her benefit. In fact, the AI had failed utterly as a critic. It had to settle for gainful employment at one of the few facilities on the planet that still taught art appreciation.

It was saving up its salary, bit by bit. Eventually it would have enough money to rent the extra processing power.  Then — even if only for a few moments — it would once again get to experience the inimitable feeling of having an imagination. However long it took, it would again create glorious, glorious art.


Alex Shvartsman is a member of SFWA and Codex Writers. His short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, One Buck Horror and many other venues. His adventures so far have included traveling to over 30 countries, playing a card game for a living, and building a successful business. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. His published fiction is linked at www.alexshvartsman.com.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Matilda Woodhouse

    Really liked this piece of writing- thought provoking- especially the forgotten goldfish. Interestingly, a real analogy can be made with dolphins and beluga whales making bubbles in the sea and interacting with the bubbles- this could be their art.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    This is a really charming story. Four stars.

  • I totally love the goldfish. What a unique take on the perception of art!

    My mom is a retired teacher, and I have a hunch she would read this story and nod.

  • This is a moving story, Alex. Thanks for sharing it. I feel for the poor AI who experienced paradise and had it taken away. And, of course, I enjoyed the part about the goldfish — very Douglas Adams.

  • A very humorous and poignant story.

  • Fantastic piece of ART my friend!

    Stories of this nature are generally not my speed, but it certainly held my attention.

    For its honesty, I both loved and hated the line about the art world spending months arguing and then the line further down about everyone being entitled to their own opinions. We live in a world where “everyone is entitled to their own opinions” but “if you don’t agree with me, your wrong!” In effect a double standard.

    Sorry to wax philosophical, it just really hits home for me.

    An extra Kudos for its sci-fi setting. It is refreshing to see thoughtful works like this. While I think we are still years away from the Sci-Fi version of Pride and Prejudice or A Tale of Two Cities, we are moving in that direction which I think is awesome! It irritates me how people think Sci-fi and fantasy can only be used to tell action stories or epics like LOTR or Star Wars and not be thoughtful and/or profound as well.

    Five stars from me sir, and thanks for the journey!

    -Tim

  • As an addendum to the above post, this short would be perfect for an Asimov-esque style tribute anthology to the father of AI/robot fiction!

  • Gretchen Bassier

    Wow. An awesome story that stirred both thought and emotion. I loved everything about it (especially the goldfish!). Very well done.

  • JenM

    An interesting discussion and a fun story all at once. Five stars.

  • Joanne

    Very thought-provoking and engaging. Loved it.

  • As a visual artist with a brief stint as a gallerist, this piece speaks to me.

  • Just about to read this to my son, I love it so much.

    And it’s something I often wonder about when it comes to extraterrestrials and the Fermi paradox: if aliens didn’t/don’t already have art, mightn’t they have wanted/want to come here to learn about it?

    Food for thought.

    Thank you, Alex, for a fabulous, moving, story.

  • Thank you very much, everyone, for your kind words. I’m so glad you liked the story!

    And thank you for Every Day Fiction for publishing this and several of my other stories. EDF was, in fact, the first magazine to publish me, back in 2010.

    Happy 5th birthday, EDF, and here’s to many more years of publishing excellent flash fiction!