An artificial intelligence program sparks debate on the nature of art
A digital artwork that won an award at the Colorado State Fair has reignited an old fury about what art is and how artists authentically create.
Jason Allen used an artificial intelligence program to generate an image titled, “Spatial Opera Theater”, which evokes an opera scene in a science fiction setting. Several Bloomington-Normal artists don’t seem to see the debate in a particularly bloodthirsty way.
The artist of the AI program in the game designer used by Allen does not involve any hands-on technique. There is no digital pen. There is no Photoshop toolbox. AI works by turning words and text into an image. This raises the question of the relationship between the artists, their technique and the subject: where does the AI fit in there?
Artist Rhea Edge has a studio in downtown Bloomington and teaches at Eureka College. She said the AI program is a contemporary version of the debate over the use of technical tools that artists have had since 400 BC and the invention of the Camera Obscura, a dark room with a small hole or lens. on one side through which an image is projected onto a wall.
When tube paint arrived, purists also argued that those who used it failed in their muses because they no longer mixed their own colors from raw ingredients. Edge said that Jan Van Eyck, Caravaggio, DaVinci and many others used the technology of their time and were criticized until the last iteration of the argument (so far) in the 1970s and 1980s .
“The legacy of the Photorealist generation has even been passed on to our own local artists Ken Holder and Harold Gregor. They used slides projected onto their canvas to initiate their paintings,” Edge said.
Some argue that AI is more radical than past tools that still relied on the hand and mind of the artist. The AI is a word interface – no hands are involved. In a sense, however, it is easy to say that the image is art.
Herb Eaton has worked in his downtown Bloomington art studio for decades, painting, sculpting and working in other media.
“An artist is a personality who enjoys manipulating the material world. And that’s what makes you an artist,” Eaton quoted, although he said he couldn’t remember who made the statement.
It’s a pretty broad definition. As a caveat, Eaton also quoted the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, saying “you can make art out of anything, even a sow’s ear. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a silk handbag.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s good. And that doesn’t mean it’s good for artists,” Eaton said.
Eaton said the artist puts his own perspective and memory into each work. There is not much of the material world in this one. You don’t need to have a good sense of color or good hand-eye coordination. You have to paint with words.
Rhea Edge said it just took the art in a different direction. “In the sense of the human mind and human invention, which will always be evolving. And all his creativity. This is all discovery,” she said.
This will not be the last time the debate erupts, she added. Artists will continue to develop new forms as new technologies emerge.
“After years and years, the general public is catching up with what some scientists and artists have started to discover. And as they do, it just becomes accepted. Just look at the rejection of Impressionism as a style of painting and how widespread and mainstream it is today,” Edge said.
Another Bloomington artist offered a corollary to Edge’s framing on the art advancement arc.
Brian Simpson said that every technological change impacts previous disciplines, sometimes negatively. “Each innovation stops another form of art. Photography has pretty much killed miniature portrait painting,” he said.
Even though AI can be an extension of the creative process, Simpson said it could change that process for some practitioners. Eaton said part of his own legacy as an artist is seeing the influences that shaped him – his teachers and his experiences in the world reflected in his work. And the intentionality of the creative act, he said, matters.
“What becomes a problem is asking artists, ‘What are you happy with?’ said Eaton.
It is true that there is a difference between the romantic sense of what an artist is supposed to do physically and what a person does with an AI program. Still, Simpson said there are similarities between AI-generated art and past elaborations of the creative process.
“There is a spirit behind it. The spirit decides that I want this image. And with this image, that’s the word I want to use. He (Allen) made 40, but he picked one. You can argue that choice and self-preservation is part of the artistic process,” Simpson said.
Another element of this process is the absorption artists feel as they work. It is deeply internal. It is similar to meditation. It suspends time.
Edge said it’s part of the “human ability to detach from highly intellectual, linear types of thinking,” while Simpson said he couldn’t find that exhilaration in using an AI program. Neither does Edge. Anyone else could.
“I think it’s probably possible that you’re doing the same thing while you’re working on a computer because you can get into a state where you’re not dictating everything you do, that there’s something that’s sort of automatic that takes over,” Edge said.
In the case of this particular piece of artwork, Eaton remained skeptical, saying it was unclear whether the process Jason Allen conducted was for art or publicity.
“It lessens this young man, as an artist, of a personality that can help shape where he comes from, the places and the people he comes from, and make something out of it, because everything is extravagant,” Eaton said.
He wondered if the process of creating this image was a creative artistic act or “to get a 90 day raise out of a three year career”, as one critic put it of another artist. Eaton said he wondered if it also furthered the development of this particular artist.
“What really appeals to me is that it’s almost an operation of this type. He is too young). He prepares to be seen that way,” Eaton said, adding that he sympathized with Allen because he was young too and wanted to do things to shake up the world.
But Eaton even went so far as to say he thinks the bump could be dangerous for Allen’s growth.
Some professions have moved faster than others in the digital age. Graphic design is one in which the pace of change has been rapid. There is also a distinction to be made between commercial graphic art and fine art. Simpson said some people are unhappy with AI because there’s no training involved in the traditional sense that comes from the academic approach to art. He said that this will have consequences on the market.
“It’s going to change the field,” he said. “There’s such a demand for graphic arts in terms of blogging, graphic design, and yes, that could very well put some graphic designers out of business. This is similar to computer-generated music. It’s not as good as an original composition, but it will do for the background of a podcast.
Currently, Simpson said the AI-generated images still look like conventional paintings with pixels. This may not always be true. For those criticizing him right now, Simpson said to give it some time.
“It took photography about 60 to 80 years to begin to understand how it could be its own art form and not imitate painting. So it might take a while for someone bright enough to realize that the idea is not to imitate painting, but to create an art form in itself that involves the manipulation of AI,” Simpson said.
AI art and traditional physical art forms can be fundamentally different in the emotional connection an artist feels with their art, or not. Edge said the program might attract a different kind of artist who feels the same connection.