That AI-generated Magdalene selfie: a lot of fuss about very little

Hugh Linehan: Why did a banal picture in a Dublin exhibition elicit such a furious response?

The Annual Exhibition held every summer at the Royal Hibernian Academy is the artistic equivalent of a speed-dating app. With more than 300 pieces spread across the entire public space of the RHA’s elegant modernist building on Ely Place in Dublin, it’s too much for any individual viewer to take in within a single visit. Amid this sensory overload, the natural human impulse is to keep swiping right until something catches the eye or piques the imagination. That might seem like a recipe for favouring the large and the loud over the small and the subtle, but curiously, for this viewer anyway, the opposite is often the case.

Visiting the exhibition a couple of weeks ago, I halted momentarily at an AI-generated sepia image of four young women in 19th-century costume. The work, titled Throwback Selfie #Magdalene, seemed a bit glib and not very interesting. I moved on swiftly and thought no more of it.

A few days ago, the same image caused uproar in some corners of the internet when it was tweeted by the RHA and by RTÉ’s Arena programme. The reaction was almost entirely negative and, unsurprisingly for Twitter, vehemently expressed.

The picture was “wrong”, “grotesque”, “disgusting” or “vile”. RTÉ was a disgrace for posting it and the RHA was even worse for allowing it to be part of their exhibition. In its shrillness, the overall tone was reminiscent of the days when Fianna Fáil councillors would work themselves into fits of red-faced outrage over some mildly provocative show in the Project Arts Centre. All the old tropes were there: call this art? That’s not art, it’s a thundering disgrace. You should all be ashamed of yourselves. Whatever happened to proper art? Why must we suffer this filth? And so on.


Moral censoriousness is the default mode of the modern social media mob, but the intensity of emotion which this not-particularly-interesting work whipped up was something to behold.

Art historian Emily Mark-Fitzgerald, who has written critically in the past about the current fashion for manipulating historical pictures through colourisation, was intrigued by the furore. “Is it because it’s a fabricated image that ‘looks’ like a 19th-century historical photo?” she asked. “Is it because it uses AI? Is it because it poses fake Magdalen [sic] women in the banal aesthetic of the selfie?”

All of the above, apparently. One might add that it seems to say something about the radically different contextual experiences of interacting with an image on a gallery wall and in a social media feed, except that some people do also appear to be genuinely outraged that the RHA would even let an AI-generated image through its door. There are legitimate fears about the impact of this technology on some creative industries, but is anyone seriously suggesting it should be banned from art galleries? Or that we should censor photorealist images produced this way? Remember there was no subterfuge here.

Many complaints focused on the perceived insult to victims of abuse in Magdalene laundries and other carceral institutions. It was pointed out that survivors of these were still alive and might be retraumatised by the work. This seems a stretch if you look at the actual picture of four well-fed Gen Z teenagers cosplaying as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women which the image generator came up with as its interpretation of the Magdalene experience.

Or did it? If there is any act of genuine creativity in the construction of such an artefact, it’s in the instructions given by the human to the machine, and then in the title and meaning the human assigns to the finished product. Mooney tweeted in response to the attacks: “OK, relax. It was an attempt to amplify voices from the past with a relatable and empowering self portrait, made on a laptop.” If he had asked ChatGPT to craft a response in the style of a snarky schoolboy reading aloud from the Beginner’s Guide to 21st-Century Fatuous Cliches, it could hardly have done better.

One word that cropped up frequently in the criticism was “banal”, and it’s hard to disagree with that. Throwback Selfie #Magdalene is a banal piece deploying the banalities of online culture and made, judging by Mooney’s words, for the most banal reasons. As the entire life and work of Jeff Koons prove, there’s a lucrative market in the contemporary art world for hyper-banality, but this is thin stuff in comparison. The performatively outraged would be better advised to hit the Mute button.