On August 25th, 2022, Jason Allen, a game designer, lit the fuse on a controversial debate that has been running. He submitted an AI-generated art to the Colorado State Fair fine arts and won the first prize! Allen bagged a whopping $300 cash prize with his win. Some artists don’t like the idea.
This is a special case of Internet callout as the issue involves AI and art, stirring Twitter-based AI ethics, art philosophy, and post-modernism debates. In recent years, machines have slowly but surely taken over some tasks previously done by humans.
Yet, what should be scary for humans is that the devices are getting smarter and will progressively take over more functions in the future. While it’s inevitable that automation will continuously take on the repetitive and predictable jobs humans did in the past, AI has invaded almost all areas of human activity.
But can AI make art? Is it ethical to bestow the acclaimed artist title upon AI? Great questions! Let’s weigh in!
The Human Element
Allen worked on his prompts to produce the final product for “many weeks,” as he says. He worked further on the Midjourney images, so they’re manually finished.
But the central issue is that AI-generated art beat human artists and was plausible enough to fool human judges. Midjourney is one example of the many AI image generation software emerging and is currently in beta. This tool can produce endless possibilities.
The user enters text prompts, and the tool generates images based on the commands therein. Of course, that means there is an aspect of human finesse to what it generates. Remember, specific languages in various combinations can produce multiple outcomes.
Simply put, there are several elements of automation to these things. Still, they’re fundamental tools to be manhandled. Allen’s images aren’t of poor quality: they’re epic! His winning art, the “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” took first place in the competition. However, his achievement has raised eyebrows and spurred divided opinions.
Following the win, Colorado State Fair Fine Arts tweeted Allen’s victory, a tweet that was picked up and went viral. The event was presented with the TL, “Someone joined an art competition with an AI-generated item and won the first prize. That’s pretty fucking weird.”
The pile-on began, though luckily for Allen, he is one of those sensible folks who doesn’t use Twitter. The arguments are familiar but narrowed to the potential of AI-generated tools replacing human skill and artistry and its implications for cultural production and lost jobs.
These tools are trained on the work of humans who benefit or get no credit from them. Then, there is an obvious dividing line: AI image-generation tools exist, and they’re not going away. But should humans be competing with AI image-generating software?
“I’m not going to apologize,” Allen insisted. “I won, and I didn’t violate any rules.”
Colorado Department of Agriculture disclosed that the use of Midjourney in Allen’s submission was within the rules. However, they added that the judges didn’t know about Midjourney but would have still awarded Allen’s art the prize.
Allen believes such an award will create an ‘AI-generated art category.’ He further told The New York Times that the ethics weren’t in the technology but in the people. He insisted that art was dead, AI won, and humans lost.
So, Is AI-Generated Content Art?
This is an apparent provocation, but it gets us into the unanswerable and messy question of what counts as art and what techniques of art generation are valid. The technique is new, but the question isn’t: various historical examples have prompted the same considerations over the years, like Pollock’s paint splashes.
Our machines have come of age. All our lives, we’ve been reassured that machines are incapable of being creative. But, suddenly, millions of people can now use a new breed of AI to generate epic, never-before-seen images.
Most of these users aren’t, like Lee Unkrich and Jasen Allen, professional artists, and that’s the point: they don’t have to be. Not everyone can direct, write, and edit an Oscar winner like Coco or Toy Story, but everyone can launch an AI image generator and key in an idea.
What appears on your screen is fantastic in its depth of detail and realism. Thus, the universal response: wow! On four tools alone— Stable Diffusion, DALL-E, Artbreeders, and Midjourney—humans working with AI can cocreate more than 30 million images daily. With a paintbrush in hand, AI has become an engine for wowing humans!
Will AI Replace Artists?
Allen stated, “Most people say, ‘AI can’t replace creative jobs, that is not an issue to bother sculptors and artists.’ And here we’re dealing with it right now (…). Maybe, the animosity and hate stem from fear. Artists are scared and worried that the robot might replace them.”
With the advent of photography, painters wondered if they’d be out of a job. However, on photography’s heels came the emergence of Modernism, and the world of Picasso, Braque, and others transformed how we define artistic expression. We will have to wait and see how AI-generated art will affect the field.
A Lesson From the Past
The invention of photography in the early 19th century resulted in disdain and outright disapproval from artists. Photography presented a challenge that infuriated and troubled artists. They believed that photography was going to take their jobs and incomes.
Apart from the fear of loss of income, 19th-century artists derided photography as a mechanically-driven process that lacked the creative genius associated with art. While the first photos were black and white, some artists feared that their trade would die naturally as soon as people could produce color photos.
Today, photography is appreciated as fine art. It took a long time to understand that photography was not a thoughtless machine-operated process and that two people could photograph the same scene but deliver a widely differing message.
Why is this possible? Because photography is less about the device used and more about the discerning eye of the photographer. And while ancient artists feared that photography would render them jobless, history has proved that the two art forms play complementary rather than competitive roles.
There is an argument that AI is a tool, just like a paintbrush. Thus, the use of AI-generated art in art competitions isn’t cheating. Thankfully, Allen suggested that the Colorado State Fair introduce the AI category next year, which is a sensible solution. The organizers are considering it! So, if you want a chance at scooping the first prize, start learning about AI art today.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©local_doctor/Shutterstock.com.