Men playing go - photo by flickr user J.A.G.A.

Men playing go – photo by flickr user J.A.G.A.

Computers have a long history of beating humans at complex games. This month, Google clinched the crown jewel a decade earlier than anticipated, when its program AlphaGo defeated Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol in four out of five games of Go. Invented some 2,500 years ago in China, the game is deceptively simple: despite straightforward rules, there are more possible legal positions in the game than there are atoms in the observable universe (actually, than all the atoms in all universes if there were as many universes as there are atoms in our universe!). As such, it has long been an irresistible challenge to artificial intelligence researchers. Google’s DeepMind project team’s winning strategy was to abandon the traditional AI tactic of building search trees in favor of deep neural networks, training AlphaGo not only to learn from games past, but, importantly, to discover new strategies for itself. Why does this matter for the arts? Well, first of all, we just witnessed a computer mastering an art form: historically, Go was considered one of the four essential arts required of any true Chinese scholar, the others being a musical instrument, calligraphy, and painting. And second, the implications of AlphaGo’s win for the future of artificial intelligence go far beyond this single match; the principles DeepMind uses in AlphaGo may have broader applications for artificial “general” intelligence, which could include creating artistic work. More controversially, the early completion of this milestone may signal a hastening of the moment when machines take over the world.

China cracks down on TV. Cultural censorship in China reached new levels this month when the the government released updated regulations for what’s shown on television. The guidelines make it illegal to depict “abnormal sexual relationships and behaviours” on screen. This means, effectively, no incest, extramarital affairs, one night stands, underage relationships–and no gay people. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, it still remains taboo, and the first show to be cut under the new rules was Addicted, about the lives of queer high schoolers, outraging the show’s many fans and angering LGBT activists. The measures are a challenge for everyone, not least of which for Chinese video websites, which have benefited from a lack of government regulation of online television: in 2015, Chinese video platforms produced some 805 online shows, compared with 200 shows in 2013. All eyes are on if and how the new regulations are circumvented or resisted. The increased censorship comes at a time of rising individualism in China, and on the heels of a recent tiff between President Xi Jinping and Chinese tycoon Ren Zhiqiang which unexpectedly spurred journalists, scholars and party insiders to come forward in his defense. Will it be enough to force a wavering of the party line? Only time will tell.

Canada follows through with big arts funding increases. Just two months after committing to diversity at the grant level, Canada continues to lead the way in government arts funding with the announcement of Justin Trudeau’s budget plan. Fulfilling campaign promises, the cultural sector will receive a $1.87 billion boost over five years. $75 million was reinstated to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s budget this year, to be followed by $150 million a year until 2020-21. The Canada Council for the Arts also received welcome funding news, though a bit less than expected; it will see an additional $40 million this year, eventually rising to $180 million by 2020-21. Likewise, the National Film Board and Telefilm Canada will each receive $3.5 million this year, and $8 million annually thereafter. (The NFB made its own news this month when it announced that it is committed to ensuring that, in the future, half of its films are directed by women and half of its production budgets are spent on films directed by women.) After years of budget slashes by the previous Conservative government, all are in agreement that the funding is a “game changer.” The package also includes capital funding for Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, which announced this month that it will launch a new Indigenous Theater department that will equal the NAC’s English and French Theater companies in importance.

ISIS is out of Palmyra. The Islamic State’s ongoing destruction of antiquities in Iraq and Syria has received lots of coverage from Createquity over the past year (see here, here, and here.) This month, ISIS was finally driven by Syrian government forces from the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the center of Syria. With ISIS gone, the work of restoring the ancient site can begin. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s head of antiquities and museums, has said that “eighty percent of the ruins are in good shape,” and that the city will be fully restored in five years. Beyond Palmyra, significant efforts are underway to preserve antiquities under threat. The Italians, in conjunction with UNESCO, have created a task force dubbed Peacekeepers of Culture which is aimed at keeping ancient artworks, monuments, artifacts and archaeological sites in conflict areas out of the hands of extremists. In addition, several organizations have undertaken to document cultural heritage digitally, most recently the French 3D digitization agency Iconem. Finally, the International Criminal Court this month is considering whether to take to trial Malian jihadi leader Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for destroying mausoleums and damaging a mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012. If the trial goes ahead, it will be the first time that war crimes against cultural heritage constitute the main charge of an ICC hearing.

Cultural policy is so hot right now in the UK. The UK’s culture minister, Ed Vaizey, published a much anticipated White Paper this month, the first such statement since 1965. It comes at a critical juncture for the arts in Great Britain, as organizations across the country continue to recover from the recession-era austerity policies that forced a greater reliance on American-style private funding and government advocacy. The White Paper calls for a widening of access for the arts, announces a Cultural Protection Fund for heritage in global conflict zones to be launched this spring, and calls for a detailed reviews of museums, arts and heritage, due to be completed by summer 2017. (In advance of the paper’s release, Arts Council England announced earlier this month a major restructuring to its grant programs, which are in direct support of many of the tenets of Vaizey’s work.) Though some have criticized Vaizey for a lack of vision, many welcome the “vote of confidence” it places on the arts. Meanwhile, the Cultural Value Project, a two-year exploration of the value of culture beyond economic measures, concluded this month with the publication of a significant evidence review that perhaps controversially concludes that the value derived from arts and cultural activity arises primarily at the individual level.

MUSICAL CHAIRS / COOL JOBS

  • Maurine Knighton, currently senior vice president at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, has been named new program director of the Doris Duke Foundation’s Performing Arts Program, replacing Ben Cameron.
  • Malcolm White returns to the helm of the Mississippi Arts Commission after three years as the state’s tourism chief.
  • Pew Center for Arts & Heritage seeks a Center Specialist in the visual arts. No closing date.
  • The League of American Orchestras is hiring a Director and a Manager for its Knowledge Center. No closing date.

NEW RESEARCH OF NOTE

  • Geoffrey Crossick

    Many thanks to Createquity for drawing attention to our major Cultural Value Project, which rests on 70 original pieces of work funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council and a wider evidence review . We do indeed conclude that the main benefits may be seen as arising at the individual level but, lest your readers infer that this means that it is purely of individual benefit and thus plays into the hands of those who believe that arts and culture is no more than a personal matter, I should clarify.

    We find problems with the regular claims about economic impact and the benefits of large-scale culture-led regeneration, for example, and insist on giving far more attention to the individual experience, the individual engagement. This leads us to give substantial chapters to the reflective individual and to the engaged citizen, for example, both of which have been much neglected in discussions of the arts and culture in the UK (the latter has been less neglected in the US). It also leads us to argue that some of the most powerful benefits in areas like economic innovation, health and urban communities flow from individual experiences and engagement. So, we question some conventional claims but nonetheless see the benefits of arts and culture to individuals and (often through them) to society as major.

    Apologies for this amplification because your actual wording of ‘arises primarily at the individual level’ is in no way inaccurate. It just may have been misunderstood by some readers. We in no way argue that it ends there. Anyway, people can read it for themselves and decide how well we do it, and I hope many will want to do so!

    Geoff Crossick