Earlier this month it was reported that an AI bot by the name of Midjourney took first place in art competition held in Colorado, quickly creating a storm of comments spanning the spectrum from welcoming our new benevolent overlord artists to the downfall of society (or at least art) as we know it.
No matter your take, the world of Art just heard clearly the clarion call of a revolution as great, and likely as disruptive, as the advent of photography. It was only two centuries ago that the photography was introduced to the world, and it would not be till the 1940s before it was seen as an artform. A similar journey awaited movies, and now video games.
The groundwork for this revolution has been quietly happening underfoot in some of the least likely, read: geekiest, of places such as at Google’s AI labs amongst others. While OpenAI’s DALL-E has been out and available for awhile, we now have any number of publicly available AI bots that have been created with toolsets that make them significantly more accessible to the average person.
More so, they are being commercialized as we speak. Midjourney, which made public its beta on July 12, 2022 – a scant two months ago – is in talks to raise capital at a $1billion valuation. While Midjourney has made the headlines, competitors are not very far behind with Stable Diffusion from CompVis along with a handful or more of AI generating image tools gaining traction.
But I’m not really focused on talking about the latest AI bot tools as this is changing, if not by the hour, then by the day presently as new training models, updated and improve toolchains, et cetera are developed and released. Regardless of whether you are a “glass half full” or “half empty” person, the last few weeks have been quite a white-knuckle ride.
In a lot of ways, these recent advances mirror the same ones I saw back when Adobe Photoshop and other digital photo tools become available for the Mac and then PC. Albeit the pace of innovation in 2022 is orders of magnitude faster than it was in the mid and late 1990s. Nevertheless, it’s the same conversation. It was said then that “real artists don’t use Photoshop”. Nowadays you cannot find amongst popular artists who do not include some amount of digitization into their toolchain. And I suspect will live through a period of “real artists don’t use Midjourney” nonsense.
If music videos killed the radio star, then there are people who say digital art killed the fine artist. But the reality is that none of this true. Yes, there are people who will always prefer the value of a physical object, as evidenced by art galleries the world over. My point is not that more traditional artforms are being replaced by digital, but that digital is maturing to be on par and peer to these other forms of art. The sale of Beeple’s work for $69 million at Christie’s is proof that there any people in the world putting “their money where their mouth is” when it comes to this thesis.
For myself, as an artist, worse than the doomsayers are those who have the opinion – both within and without the art world – that digital art, and now by extension art created with AI, are not real artists or real art; that somehow the use of more advanced tools diminishes the essence of the art produced. But if that is the case, then the whole of history since our ancestors put art on cave walls is so reduced.
The simple reality is artists throughout the ages have leveraged whatever tools were available to them to improve their craft. Just look no further than the camera obscura and camera lucida. There is mounting evidence shows that many masters of the time extensively used these tools. I would further argue that the use of these tools improved their work, minimally at least for those who did representational, perspective pieces.
I wrote on this before about art as artifact versus art as process, but too often we do not separate art as a consumptive experience from the creative experience. Which is to say, when we talk about “what is art?” there is rarely an explicitly shared common understanding of what qualifies as art. Worse, we often conflate the qualities of art, or aesthetics, with the art itself. We are all our own Justice Potter Stewarts when it comes to the definition of art: “I know it when I see it“. Which is really just an admission that art is subjective. Has been. Is now. And forever will be.
Just yesterday, I was chatting with Mark Ferrari, my good friend and artist/author extraordinaire, about this post’s topic. And while I may butcher what he said more elegantly to me then, I subscribe to his notion that:
“the essence of art is to take the internal and make it external so that others may experience it as the artist experiences it in their mind.”Mark Ferrari (paraphrased)
That’s it. Everything is mere window-dressing, or more specifically technical aspects of the craft to make art.
Whether you use traditional processes and mediums such as oils, gouaches, watercolors or use, as I do, digital matters very little to whether something is art or not. These tools do not add to or detract from the value of the thing created. What really matters, and who is ultimately an arbitrator of the goodness of the art, is primarily the artist and secondarily the viewers of the art. Primarily the artist as only they know if what they created is true to the imagined internal concept they had. Secondarily the viewers as they can only affirm or deny whether the art they experience conforms to the expressed ideas of the artist. Note, you can invert the priority of primary and secondary, but then this is difference by degrees but not of type.
Based on this definition of art – which I believe is the only honest definition of art one can make – then the advent of AI bots to generate (or assist) with the creation of art in no way influences whether something is art or not. Or whether someone is an artist or not. To be clear: art itself is devoid of relationship to the means of its creation. The only question then is if the tools enhance or impede the artists ability to meet their own intent.
I do not foresee a world where art loses its meaning with the advent of these tools; quite the contrary, we will see art continue to evolve as these tools, and yet to be imaged one, evolve. Just as it did with the advent of oils. And camera obscura and lucida. And photography. And Photoshop. And now AI-generated art.
The question is not even when this revolution will occur, it’s already happening. We see professional artists learning how to incorporate Midjourney and other AI generative tools into their workflows from game asset creation to creating a graphic novel in a day to proof of concept web design.
The bigger question is to where will these tool take us? For myself, I think these tools will continue to help bridge that gap between what we as artists imagine and what we dare to create. And that is an exciting thing indeed.
I, for one, welcome our new benevolent artlords.
Note: all images in this post are all generated by the author using Midjourney.