AI & Art

I am a writer, striving to learn digital art to be able to create covers for and illustrate my work. If I have any artistic talent, it’s buried so deep it would take an archaeologist to dig it up. But I’m good with computers, so I have hope.

Even as I try to learn digital art, the field is rocked by controversy over using artificial intelligence to “create” art. Many artists, even amateurs who publish their work for free are outraged that most internet platforms demand the right to put their works into a massive database to train their artificial intelligence engines with. (BTW did you know that those little captcha so-called security checks were created by Google to train their AI engine to recognize and label imagery? This kind of exploitation of free labor will always be with us.)

In theory with these AI renderers, all you do is write a short text prompt, and the AI engine searches it’s massive database of art to generate what you prompted it with, sometimes with astonishingly good results. Not for me though. Apparently I don’t know how to write a proper prompt. But real artists see people with no discernible artistic talent create imagery almost as good as theirs, and in some cases, looking like it was drawn by them. Just not in my case. See below:

Dr Seuss’ Cat in the Hat by Rembrandt.

Dr Seuss’ Cat in the Hat by Monet.

Dr Seuss’ Cat in the Hat by Frank Miller.

This is not a new problem for creative people. The phrase work-for-hire is infamous to writers everywhere. You may write something, but the company that pays you a salary owns the copyright, not you. Just ask Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Over the years, many publications who publish freelancers like the New York Times have attempted to foist language on freelancers saying that all their work is by law work-for-hire, a blatant contradiction of the actual legal definition since they’re not paid a salary nor offered any benefits.

Hollywood is infamous for its backroom of poorly paid interns analyzing screenplays to see how closely they match Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (in the post Star Wars era), or Die Hard (in the early 90’s), or whether the screenplay has the right mix of ethnic and gender non-conforming characters (in the current era).

Perhaps closer to home for artists is what has happened to music. First, in the mid 60’s, there was the Moog Synthesizer, that allowed musicians and even non-musicians to simulate other instruments with a keyboard-like interface. Modern incarnations of this pioneering device allow even street buskers to sound like they have a whole band behind them with just a keyboard and their own instrument of choice. Who needs a band? It’s enough to make George Harrison roll over in his grave.

A lot of early rap music famously just came out of a box with a simple beat while the singers showed their talent by stringing more and even more improbable rhymes together rather than with any musicianship. Now singers walk into a studio where some nerd uses what they call “sampling” to build a pop song for Katy Perry or Taylor Swift out of what started as a simple ballad backed by a lone guitar. For those musically inclined, I’m sure this practice drives them crazy as they recognize the same famous riff over and over in half the pop songs on the radio today. For those of us who are not musicians, it probably only surfaces in the infamous sample of a thousand cymbals being tossed down a stairwell that seems to drown out a singer’s voice at the dramatic climax of any song. If you listen, you can always tell, when you say to yourself, “That sounds really dramatic! I wonder what she’s singing about?” at the start of the third verse. This process of opening up mediocre music to almost everybody seems destined to overtake the art world now.

The “art establishment” has fully embraced the non-artistic genre of “idea art” exemplified by a banana duct taped to a wall or Andy Warhol’s film Empire, consisting solely of a stationary camera filming the Empire State Building from sundown to sunrise, and whose goal, paraphrased from Warhol was, “to waste time.” Or “performance art” by some “artist” sitting on a platform in a museum for 8 hours at a time. So if you’re a real artist who, you know, actually draws or paints things, you’ve already lost your shot at being in a prestigious art museum. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that, during his lifetime, Van Gogh used to trade his paintings for food, so starving artist is not just an expression, and certainly not a commentary on the quality of your work.

All this borrowing, stealing, plagiarizing, or whatever you want to call it is nothing new however. Before the digital age, there was one drawing of an attacking tiger that became so iconic, it was used dozens of times in different works by different artists with only minor variations. In fact, the word icon comes from the Orthodox Church where each icon has a particular set of symbols that must be included and be almost identical in their depiction, allowing only minor variations for the artist’s individual take on it.

Many years ago, most artists could not even learn to log onto a computer and had only disdain for anyone trying to make art with a computer. Different brushes, muscle memory to do brush strokes, mixing paints, etc. were the tools of artists. Computers were for science geeks. Then some artists learned to program and created PhotoShop. Today, is using a rendering tool like DAZ3D with which you can create 3D models of people and pose and repose them with the computer program’s knowledge of how human anatomy works cheating? Or is it just taking some of the drudgery out of the true artistic talents like reshaping a face or generating an interesting point of view and creative lighting? If anybody with a chainsaw can cut down timber like Paul Bunyan, is there no room for heroes (or true artists) anymore? I say it’s better to learn what new tools might be useful, and make them the tools of true artists, maybe even teaching others how to use them to create real art along the way. After all, I don’t think any of us want to go back to digging in the ground to make our materials like those at Lascaux did.

There will always be a place for true artists, but you have to decide if you’re in the business of making the best food for a small group of rich and discerning customers like The French Laundry, or in the business of getting rich by serving mediocre but acceptable food to hundreds of millions like McDonalds. Fast art is not your competitor, it’s in a whole different business that just superficially seems like yours, and fortunately or not, like the chainsaw it’s not going away.

UPDATE: Since I mentioned in passing Google’s use of captcha to train it’s AI, the latest news from the world of AI research is that your robot vacuum is spying on you. Your “smart” devices are finking on you!

3 responses to “AI & Art”

  1. I don’t feel it is bad or good unless used to impersonate another artist. If used to create art than it is just another meium such as oil paint or clay or stone. Let’s see what future art looks like.


  2. There is currently a very strong reaction against AI art, but nothing new under the sun, your article is spot on. As artist we will have to adapt, maybe find a way to leave the tedious work for the AI, while the human will add a special twist into a dull artwork and give it magic?!


  3. interesting


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