As an artist, I sat on the sidelines, watching what AI image generation would do as it appeared, exploded, and faded into the background over a period of 6 months. I rewrote this opinion piece 3 times, crunching it down from thousands of words and had plenty of lively debate with fellow artists and people close to me. I tried generating some AI art myself, of course.
However from the beginning, I never related to the fear-mongering I see all over the internet. As an artist, I am not afraid of being replaced by an algorithm and I do think it’s a catastrophizing over-reaction to a new tool. I know my creative worth and I think you should too, fellow artist.
The elephants in the room
Over the course of the debate, a few points came up again and again:
- AI art will replace all creative jobs.
- Collectors/clients/employers don’t value our work.
- (The lesser implied one by the above:) Collectors/clients/employers are too dumb to tell what is AI vs. “real” art.
- AI art is made of stolen work & styles.
- AI art is not art.
AI art will replace some jobs
Firstly, AI art will definitely replace some jobs and careers because it will automate some creative tasks, just like what happens in any industry with any new technology. I think it will become even harder to make a career out of graphic design, stock photography, stock 3D assets, fanart commission services, and similar jobs that rely on providing repetitive, consistent service for compensation.
You have to ask a few questions about this though:
- If your job can be automated, is there something more worthwhile of your human mind you could be doing? Once upon a time ago, sitting in a dark, moist, moldy cellar, peeling potatoes by hand was a job someone spent their life on. There’s a hidden freedom here.
- If your creativity is so easily replaced by some lively math, are you really being creative? Is that the most you want out of your artistic career? I know, that’s a harsh one. By far, the biggest outcry I’m seeing on social media is from artists who make derivative work. Next, it’s technical artists, which makes more sense when their career is about providing a service.
- If you are a technical artist, are you keeping current with developments in your field? An outcry against to a new tool is pretty common and it’s always a technician’s responsibility to know and learn the tools of the trade. Digital tools replaced much of what used to be traditional art & traditional graphic design done on paper in the last 30 years, as the obvious example.
No one cares about the artist
I saw this reaction as a group therapy exercise in releasing repressed feelings… It’s very true most artists carry this heavy feeling of worthlessness; even the successful, confident ones have that moment of darkness. We are told on the regular that what we do is not a real job, not a valuable skill, playtime, not worth protecting by everyone from the individual up to the government level.
I think the AI thing is a catalyst for getting that horrible feeling out there, not that the two are necessarily related. This is not a new battle. It’s been going on for centuries and it’s half up to the artist to assert what we do is valuable. We really aren’t good at doing that and that continues to be part of the problem.
For some reassurance: If you make a living off your art, you have validation everyday that what you do is valuable. If you only make a small amount of money, that’s still validation. If you make nothing, you are still validated by the people who show up to your shows, who cheer you on, who proudly hang your work on their walls & share it with family & friends.
I think people will always value something made by a human being, and the kind of person who just wants the cheap, quick image was never going to support you to begin with. They were never going to be a supporter, a collector, a friend, a client. Why lose sleep over these people when they are not your people?
On a pragmatic level, I really think corporations and curators will be smart & apply a measured rejection to AI art. We already see it being banned from some platforms. We see a cultural rejection of AI images (similarly to NFTs). I think even libraries that imitate an artist’s style, such as the homebrew library of Studio Ghibli for example, create images that repulse as if they’re fake Gucci bags or fool’s gold. I think unless you’re specifically hired to use AI as a tool for your work, using AI makes people feel scammed and that moral emotion is enough push-back to protect the value in jobs and artwork.
This goes to the next point: artists need to have a little faith in their communities and employers to support them. Think about it – it’s kind of insulting to your collectors and employers. People aren’t that stupid & blind, and respect needs to go both ways. If they don’t know how to identify AI images from paintings, educate them. I think artists should always be educating about the creative process anyway to bridge the gap of understanding instead of gatekeeping behind degrees and auras of expertise.
I think even if AI images stick around – they probably won’t be worth much. It’ll be a new clipart/stock asset resource worth a few bucks or an add-on tool inside of software to be more creative with. For pure art value, they are more like processed food.
AI art is made of stolen work and styles
It doesn’t work without artists to begin with.
This is the strongest point against AI in protecting creative jobs. AI cannot generate anything without the libraries full of stock photography, clipart, artwork, copyrighted images/music/movies/ect. It’s not actually creative and sentient, it doesn’t think. It just mashes existing things together, like a kid doing collage from magazine clippings. In concept art, doing this process by hand is called photobashing, so it’s not even new.
We already see some legal battles unfolding in the background over the hot topic of copyrighted IP, however some art platforms already have options to opt-out of being in any AI database – like DeviantArt, who is ironically in the lawsuit. This also suggests any intelligent employer will not want to use AI databases that aren’t certified to be copyright safe. This also means very real legal battles over copyright infringement vs. appropriation will be a thing in the future even if this lawsuit settles…As much as some artists hate copyright, voila – this is why we have it to begin with. It’s to protect our careers and work. 🤦Frankly, I am happy this is happening this fast in the development of this technology. I expected it to happen years or a decade from now, when it’s too late.
Is AI art or not?
If I have to comment on the low hanging fruit of AI image generation, then I agree it’s not really “art”. I still think there’s value in making experience of the creative process more accessible or in filling whatever need they have with an image. Not every artist needs to necessarily strive for creative innovation and aesthetic excellence. There’s art that’s purely functional, in that it meets a need and that’s it.
There are artists doing some very interesting things with AI as a tool, like Matt Perkins. That is still art, and it’s art because the artist is being creative and controlling the tool. The artist brings out the best potential of the tool. It cycles right back to the human artist behind the screen, not the gimmick magic trick of what it’s doing.
Justin made a really cool visualizer to match his new music album this winter using AI generation. He spent weeks generating creepy images to create an alien feel that’d be similar to watching The Ring, where you’d second-guess if what you’re watching is safe to witness and whether ghouls would pour out of your TV later. He did much more than that, editing it together into a video and then processing it through an ancient camcorder & VHS player to heighten the aesthetic and experience. I’m a bit biased, of course, but this is art.
After much discussion, we decided one of the strengths of AI right now is generating very off-putting, weird horror imagery. It’s truly disturbing to think about what the AI library may be referencing when generating these.
AI is a tool
In my experience so far, there are some really useful things about AI generation. It can make boring assets quickly, it can make art no one wants to make (like really obscure stock images for political commentary, 3D rock model number 20345, or generic background for your VR chat), and it can be used to speed up the arduous process of creative thinking.
It’s really fun putting in some of your own sketches or older artwork & seeing what variations it creates for you. You can use this to plan a new artwork or exercise a stiff imagination. You can use this to quickly show your client your project ideas, or have your client, who’s sobbing about their lack of artistic abilities, quickly render a version of their thoughts for you to work from to make the process more efficient and less frustrating for both of you.
Would I sit there and try create an entire artwork from scratch with it? Personally, no. It is actually faster for me to do the work than craft prompts & spend hours or days generating hundreds of images, tweaking them to perfection, and then still having to retouch & paint over them because they’re not what I wanted. It’d be super cool to create a library of my own work and train an AI on that, and have it actually help make my work for me…but it would still circle back to my human creative feedback. I don’t think this will ever happen, because I find each AI software has its own “look”. Midjourney, for example, has a very specific and kinda 🧀 rendering style across all imagery.
Last, it comes down to how enjoyable it is. After the initial novelty wore off, I honestly found AI prompting to be very boring and exhausting. It quickly turned one of the most fun things ever (being creative and making stuff) into something that feels as fun as doing your taxes.
I think artists need to be a little more level-headed and adaptive. I think artists need to take a moment to find the gratitude for everyone who supports us and for the privilege we can do creative work everyday or have any time & energy for it. If you’re the sort feeling unoriginal right now, then accept this as a challenge to improve your work and be more creative. If you’re a technician, then it’s a time to explore this tool, not shy away from it, to find how it’s going to help you. And if you’re doing all the above & feeling worthless, then I think it’s time to present yourself better & show your worth! It’s time to really connect to your community and have some faith not everyone is out there to exploit you. Giving up because a new tool entered the industry is a poor reaction.
PS. If you’re an art lover, I think this is a great time to share the works of your favourite artists. Artists want you to share their work!!! Not enough people do it or think they’re not allowed to (for some reason). It’s the best compliment.
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