The role of the artist in creative endeavour has been a much-discussed topic due to recent artwork produced by AI programs such as Midjourney and DALL-E, including a controversial prize winner in Colorado this week.

These programs are using artificial intelligence or diffusion machine learning to produce beautiful images. But is it art, and will it put human artists out of a job?

The question “what is art?” has been seminal in the art world for decades. When Australia acquired Blue Poles, critics accused Jackson Pollock of throwing paint at the canvas while drunk. Today his work is considered a masterful example of abstract expressionism, but it is hard to claim Pollock was “painting” in a traditional sense.

What is the measure of art? Is it manual dexterity, or is it artistic intent? Is the decision to include something or exclude something as valid as how well one can apply a paint stroke? Is an Andy Warhol painting a real Andy Warhol painting if he did not actually paint it, but he conceptualised it and supervised it being made in the factory loft he ran in New York?

Art reflects and amplifies the world around us, it enriches us, but it must be judged in the context of what is happening in art and the world at that time.

New AI diffusion machine learning, which has been trained using thousands of images, may seem like it is cheating to some – but art is not about reward for effort.

A Picasso painting might have taken less time to complete than a house painter takes to re-do your kitchen, but that does not make your kitchen a masterpiece (even if Sydney renovation prices may make it appear so).

Art is not a function of accuracy or craft, it is truth. It is borne of ideas and insights that spark our imagination. Art from an AI computer doesn’t seem as art should be for many people. It lacks the myth of the genius artist able to see the world differently.

It may look very artistic, but it violates and fails to conform to what art historian Matthew Collings describes as the three myths of modern art: genius, originality, and self-awareness.

It seems like cheating. Someone copying, not inventing, performing a giant “copy and paste” of styles and subjects from real painters.

Is a tool that synthesises from what has gone before unworthy? Art history is one long story of visual and artistic innovations that challenged the status quo.

Almost without exception, each new art movement has been initially hailed as unworthy of the title of art. Impressionism, cubism, minimalism, conceptualism, post-modernism – in fact all the ‘isms’ – had haters and finger-wagging critics calling them foul.

The fear is that AI art will mean the end of human artists. It will not. We live in an age where computers can infer a plausibly beautiful image from training visual data, but the AI does not have consciousness or awareness; it is a tool.

This image of an armoured cyberpunk dog was created by Peter Moxom using AI diffusion software. CREDIT:PETER MOXOM

The issue of AI art may seem confronting, but the AI engine is just that: an engine. It makes no creative judgments – it does, however, respond to the “intent” of the operator or artist. The artist must guide the AI, decide what changes to make, and when to stop as they see artistic merit.

The introduction of the camera erased the need to have a painting as a faithful reproduction or mirror imaging tool. If you wanted a realistic image, you could just take a photo.

Photography had a vast impact, just as AI is starting to, but it did not spell the end of art – instead it opened new opportunities. Photography allowed for new ways to express artistic intent. Now the world has photographers, filmmakers, and a host of other happy creative artistic people.

These AI tools are providing a new way to explore ideas. It is possible that these new visual engines will be an incredibly rich source of ideation and inspiration in ways yet to be discovered.

Digital artist Peter Moxom uses these new tools and will be the artist-in-residence at the Disrupt.Sydney conference, where he will assist media guru Adam Ferrier in a visual design thinking workshop with DALL-E.

There, they will use the same AI art tools for problem-solving and ideation. Art is the intent of the artist and the reaction of the viewer in a societal context.

By this account, the new AI tools tick all the boxes: they can be used with intent, produce an emotional response in the viewer, and illuminate certain truths about our relationship to technology. As creative vehicles and artistic ideation tools, AI art programs offer to augment and extend our artistic expression, and they are open to all.

Far from shutting down artistic expression, they allow anyone, with or without drawing or painting skills, to imagine new worlds, connect disparate ideas and produce engaging art.


This article was originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald and republished with permission. Read the original article.

Image: Jason Allen’s work, Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, created using AI

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