The “the death of art” is a story we’ve heard time and time again: Substitute “video” and “radio” in the common aphorism and you get “AI killed the artist’s star”. But there’s more to this current iteration of art anxiety than those that came before it. This is because it’s not the medium that’s changed here, it’s the process itself. AI software makes it possible to create art in seconds, replacing labor and skills that take years to learn.
But with AI art, there’s a more fundamental problem – one that raises the question of the purpose of the art itself.
Of course, the art of AI captures a sense of wonder and awe, drawing out the curiosities that lie dormant within us and conjuring up the mysteries of a cosmic order that we are simply too small to comprehend. For a taste, take this series of AI portraits imagining what public figures who died prematurely would look like today, in their old age. Or take ‘Space Opera Theatre’ – a play that won first prize at the Colorado State Fair. It depicts a group of people staring into a luminous void, stylized like a Renaissance painting. To create it, all it took was a few text prompts passed to Midjourney, an artificial intelligence software. A Twitter user pointed out its style similarities to that of French Orientalism in art, which invokes strangeness. “He uses detail to dazzle us with no meaning… in the Orientalist style they frequently mixed and combined many different styles of Levante and Egyptian architecture and culture without caring what it meant or where it came from, everything like how AI art will recombine. meaning without its context” the user Noted.
Others are optimistic that the emergence of the art form – if it can be called that – may herald another revolution in art itself.
“When photography emerged, impressionism emerged. What will emerge now, when every conceivable combination of colors and shapes can be created in seconds by an algorithm?” asked one Reddit user .
But with software written in the Global North and datasets containing its corresponding bias, there is a bigger question to be asked about the gaze that is depicted in AI art, and what that says about the form itself.
AI art has started conversations about who an artist is and what we also consider art. But beyond that, there is a more pressing issue of the costs of art-generating AI software. What happens when a machine takes seconds to create something – that too based on an immeasurable treasure trove of existing art created by humans? This is where the ethics get murky and the cultural conversation around AI art quickly turns philosophical.
The thing about AI art is that it’s easy to do. And there is an obscure definition of who its “artists” are – given that while the author’s intent comes from a human being, the actual art comes from a machine. And that too, a machine that gathers information from a treasure trove of pre-existing datasets – themselves steeped in bias. Previous research has shown that AI reinforces racist and sexist stereotypes because it fails to identify biases in the datasets it feeds.
“It doesn’t appear that they have done any curation of the datasets used… And then they ask the user to be careful not to promote harmful stereotypes – washing their hands of any responsibility for this” , observes Divyansha Sehgal, a researcher at the Internet and Society Center. “All technology is political and all design choices have values embedded in them,” she adds.
Plus, anyone can use open-source AI art software to create (almost) anything — anything they can’t, they can usually get around. If before, people might not have bothered to create inappropriate or hateful artwork with their own hands, now they can do it by just typing a few prompts into the software – and it only takes a few seconds. This, added to the fact that it can be exploited for profit for the few people who control the software, is by definition the antithesis of art as a public good. “Technology is increasingly being deployed to create gig jobs and make billionaires rich, and a lot of it doesn’t seem to benefit the public enough… AI art is one of them. For developers and tech-savvy people, that’s a cool thing, but for illustrators, it’s very upsetting because it feels like you’ve eliminated the need to hire the illustrator,” said cartoonist Matt Borrs, in response to The Atlantic using an AI-generated image. in a newsletter rather than hiring and paying a human illustrator.
Take the recent development that allows users to edit real human faces using DALL-E 2, an AI art platform stylized after famous surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Filters and photo-editing technology have already raised questions about the authenticity of art: AI can not only fuel this debate, but infinitely expand the scope of damage.
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The other problem with AI art is that it’s relatively easy to produce. This is why artists fear being the first frontier for robots to replace their work – a prospect that should concern us all. “I worry about the flattening of public and market expectations. Just because AI art is so cheaply available, it could flood the market creating ‘content’ that our social media algorithms love so much,” Sehgal adds.
Also, by borrowing from images and ideas that already exist, AI art can respond to quirky prompts, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be creative about it. In the process, it might infringe upon existing copyrighted work – and more importantly, it disguises something more sinister – copyright infringement, mass production, replication and ultimately the creation of content – as creativity.
“…the question arises whether this is ‘creativity’ or just the appearance of creativity masking unethical technical and artistic practices,” researcher Deepa Singh told The Swaddle. Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in the Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi.
While some have argued that AI art is more accessible and addresses the access control inherent in the art world, Singh and other artists themselves refute this claim. “The very idea behind AI art generation is not the accessibility of art per se, but getting machines to make art and seeing where they go from there,” says -she. The problem with this is the underlying logic of AI as a tool itself, which makes the approach flawed: “the value system of AI is the value system of Silicon Valley, which in turn is also the value system of (mostly) white male tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists turned tech evangelists and techno-utopians.
The ease of generating art – coupled with the issues of existing copyrights and datasets – leads to a circular situation, in which an AI artist themselves are now struggling to claim their own art. One of the internet’s most popular artists, Greg Rutkowski, is now said to be more sought after than Picasso in software prompts. But now, with his own style that has taken over cyberspace while crowding out his own original work, Rutkowsi has virtually no pretensions to his own style. “It’s only been a month. And in a year? I probably won’t be able to find my job there because [the internet] will be awash with AI art,” he told MIT Technology Review.
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Content generation is not an art form. For a better analogy of what we’re losing in the art of AI, turn to AI scripts – themselves an internet joke. Send a few prompts to a text box and AI software can write a novel, screenplay, story, essay, or dissertation in seconds. Are they good and do they make sense? Probably not; they just try different permutations of what already exists. “Artificial art does not have its own intrinsic psychic meaning for the agent. AI agents do not create art; on the contrary, they reproduce art”, writes S. Will Chambers, in a bulletin.
When something is so easily reproduced, reused and regurgitated, it loses something of its essence. At least that’s what cultural theorist Walter Benjamin has argued — nearly a century before AI art even existed. He was talking about the easy reproducibility of art in the industrial age – where mechanical reproduction robs art of its “aura”. It’s AI art – a compulsive, endless loop of images that all lack the aura for how they’re different iterations of the same few things. It can be said that nothing new, stimulating or subversive is possible when the means of creating art are controlled by big technology.
And given that artists themselves borrow from tradition, experiment with format and play with ideas, does a machine that does this make matters worse? No doubt, yes. It takes away from the creative process – adding to a culture of infinite content, ubiquity and speed that has come to define consumer culture. We may no longer have to wait to see what happens to art when it is taken to the extremes of consumerism – we are probably already there.
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