Controversy erupted when it came to light that the winner of the 2022 Colorado State Fair art contest used an “artificial intelligence” art generator called Midjourney to create his winning work. Many quickly voiced concerns and criticisms of the technological feat that was Théâtre D’opéra Spatial. One person went so far as to say, “we’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes.”
Artificial Intelligence-based image generators like DALL-E 2, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion are just a few of the recent advancements stoking fears about AI, and not without reason. Art-sharing websites and imageboards such as DeviantArt or Pixiv are now inundated daily with new pieces of “AI art” as more people take an interest in using these programs. With this rise in accessibility and popularity, many artists fear losing work.
Detractors of AI art characterize it as a manifestation of dystopian science fiction. AI art will replace humans. Jobs will be lost. Creativity will be brushed aside for the sameness of an automatized industrial process. On the other hand, advocates praise AI art generators as an exciting new avenue for artistic expression and creativity. This conflict makes it genuinely difficult for newcomers to understand AI art and its implications. It’s likely that artificial intelligence will continue to advance, but that does not necessarily pose an existential threat to artists. To see this, we need to know what AI art currently is and what fields it may create or compete with as people take advantage of new technological possibilities.
So how does AI art generation actually work? Although specifics differ from one AI to the next (some specialize in portraits and others in landscapes, for example), AI art generators all operate on Text2image technology, which is exactly what it sounds like: A user types in prompts that tell a program to create an image. The AI uses stored image patterns and generates art matching the user’s request.
Notice that AI art generation is not a fully automated process. A person starts things off by creating the right prompt, and he then decides which images need improvement, refinement, or discarding. The AI merely automates the otherwise manual execution of what we could reasonably call a first draft. The creative process of direction, input, selection, and even sometimes editing still falls to a person.
Consider Théâtre D’opéra Spatial mentioned earlier. Its creator, Jason Allen, stated that it took him around eighty hours of thinking and experimentation to find the right words to feed Midjourney and create his winning work. A user certainly can use AI to make an image with just a simple prompt, but creating an art piece that might be considered “award-worthy” takes a lot of time, thought, and effort.
This doesn’t mean that artists have no grounds for worrying about machines encroaching on their livelihoods. The market competition has certainly increased, but it is hyperbolic to state that artists will just fade away. If anything, public support has increased for traditional artists as many people are critical of the automated process of AI. But this does not have to be an “us vs. them” scenario.
Remember that AI art generators are tools. They are very powerful tools, but tools nonetheless, which enterprising individuals will find ways to use to augment their work. Like other tools, AI provides more opportunities for people to bring their artistic visions to life. Consider Photoshop. It is another powerful tool that digital artists have used for decades. As British artist Idris Khan stated in an interview back in 2007:
I kind of can’t make my art without it. . . . A lot of people in the art world hate to use the word “Photoshop,” like it’s cheating or easy or something. I say bollocks to that—for me, it’s my tool, my paintbrush if you like, and lets me create my own visual language.
AI’s ability to augment artistic productivity hasn’t gone unnoticed. The online entertainment studio CorridorDigital recently released an animated video that relied heavily on AI. Artists such as Genel Jumalon and Tina Tallion use AI to help decide what to paint. After prompting an AI to produce some images, they choose their favorites and improve and expand upon the illustrations themselves.
Digital art opened the world of artistry to new creators who did not have to rely on paint, pen, or canvas to express their artistic visions. However, it did not sound the death knell for more traditional methods of creating art. Similarly, AI art opens up the world of creative expression even further for those willing to take advantage of this evolving technology.