AI Art Is Human Art

AI Art allows poets to be visual artists, and illustrators are upset.

A few weeks ago, I read this article:

A colleague sent me this link:

A note about this article: Jason Allen never hid the fact that he used Midjourney (AI Art tool) but put it in his entry, stating that the artist was “Jason Allen via Midjourney.”

See also:

1. Artists have been through this before already, with the invention of the camera.

Yes, the camera took away jobs for portrait painters. Almost no one hires a painter to capture their likeness. But that was already the case before the camera was invented, because it was always expensive and time consuming. Now that photography is so heavily democratized, we just have a lot more portraiture and casual snapshotting, selfies, etc. Capturing someone’s likeness is for the masses.

In addition, photography plays an important role of reference for many artists, and has for almost two centuries, even before the internet. And with the internet, researching ideas and reference material for a new illustration or painting project is fast and easy. Image search results are an embarrassment of riches. In a world overflowing with search results, the creativity of the artist is in (A) knowing what to search for (query string, conceptualization, inspiration, caring about the starting point) (B) using taste to select candidates, and (C) having an opinion about how to combine it creatively (creative composition, cropping).

2. As Julien’s AIGA article noted, the job of an illustrator is not just to wield the brush, but to have a point of view.

If you think that the job of an illustrator is to comply with direct verbal requests without bringing any ideas or suggestions to the table, then you are already not hiring illustrators. Your needs can be, or already are, being served by stock images (photos or illustrations). Now AI art is a third option, which could be thought of like an amped up image search and stock image search combined into one. Depending on how picky you are as a “client,” you can spend more time to get more tailored results by trying more pulls of the Generate button / slot machine lever, or just go with your first or early options if they seem adequate from the get-go. Regardless, knowing what to search for is still its own art form, and you still need to engage with items A, B, C above.

Which brings us to:

3. The human element was ironically ignored in Jason Allen's case.

The angry Luddite illustrators completely dismissed all of the endless very-human work done by Jason Allen. These artists have no experience with these tools or they would have understood the basics:

(A) Jason brought a lot of creativity and experience to the game in terms of knowing how to craft an exceptionally powerful query. He knew what subjects would make an interesting image, what parts of the infinite verbal-visual world to explore.

If succinct poetry, haiku, and novel writing are considered respectable art forms, then crafting textual queries is absolutely an art form. No one bags on J.K. Rowling getting her name on the credits for the Harry Potter films because “all she did was write some words.” Are we accusing her of having aphantasia? She simply captured her mental images in a certain medium.

(B) Jason spent countless hours applying his taste to select candidates to move forward. He prepared three best images out of hundreds and only moved forward with the very best. He iterated and weeded out dozens of duds. He tried fruitless side roads. A large part of the magic of the winning image is that he threw away stacks of losers. We don’t see that in the final image itself, but if you choose not to see that then you are the one lacking imagination. (See Aintings for dozens of examples, where each piece is a 1 in 100 image, if not 1 in 1,000.)

(See this comment on the r/StableDiffusion where user shazvaz says: “I think the reason some people don't want to share prompts is that their prompts probably don't produce very good results for the most part. A big part of finding good images like these is just getting a prompt that is close enough, and then generating hundreds or thousands of images and cherry picking the very best ones.”)

(C) Using the tools and skills of photography, Jason completed the final image by composing it, cropping, fixing small things, adjusting exposure. Just like making a print from someone else’s negative, there is still a lot of art and a lot of effort involved here. Again we don’t take seriously the claim that a photographer is not an artist and the machine did all the work. Their passion and effort are obvious to the rest of us, who most of the time take lackluster pictures.

4. New categories.

Fans of animation somehow never accuse Computer Animated Films of not being animation. We understand just how much work goes into making CG animated films. The computer isn’t doing the work.

AI Art does somehow seem sort of qualitatively different to computer animation. I have personally had jobs where I sat next to animators, and we would all consider their work to be obviously difficult and painstaking, indistinguishable from magic. At first blush, typing text into a box and hitting a Generate button sounds like fun, not like work. However, we sort of understand that making an AI illustrated book (imagine the same characters from different angles, participating in the story) or film is still out of reach, at least for now.

I think a lot of AI art enthusiasts (AIrtists? Ainters? Notographers?) would welcome a separate category for competitions. In general people assume the possibility of malice, and there will be bad faith actors who put up AI art as if their own original work, but that has just become possible, which is part of what set off everyone’s alarm bells in the last 18-36 months.

To bring this back around, Shrek won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2001, the first year it was available. “Some members and fans have criticized the award, however, saying it is only intended to prevent animated films from having a chance of winning Best Picture.” If you think this new category of award has not brought out detractors, including those who have won it, such as Brad Bird, think again. He has stated publicly that he does not consider animation to be a genre. You don’t make critically-acclaimed, beloved blockbuster films if you think your medium limits your story-telling possibilities.

(Also a note about many blockbuster “live-action” films being 90% CGI anyway, at this point.)

5. This is the world in which we now live.

If the world seems concerned about AI Art, it is now partly because the results seem “too good,” almost unfair. This generation of illustrators did not expect to be the one going up against robots and realizing that the robots could do the job nearly as well but 10,000 times faster.

It makes no more sense for illustrators and painters to pine for a world in which cameras do not exist than it does to complain about new AI art tools that did not exist five years ago. Is it unfair to say that those who cannot accept the world as it is deserve to be completely steamrolled by people who can accept change and embrace the new tools? (Even if many of these early adopter steamrollers do not have art degrees?) No one is stopping illustrators from trying out the tools, except their own fear-based ideology, their high ideals and convincing talk about the ethics of training the model. (See also John Philip Sousa Feared “The Menace of Mechanical Music”. Boy oh boy was Sousa principled. And almost entirely dead wrong. And much later he admitted it.)

Personally I think all artists should embrace these tools, or at least experiment heavily with them. Most of the tools are free to try. Download them and spend time with them. Use them for inspiration. Use them as a starting place. Use them in the early research phases and get feedback from clients. Get lucky rolling double sixes and then use a great image as reference, and upscale and compose better than a machine can do. Use your taste to bring quality to the game. Create entirely new styles. If AI Art suddenly went from amusing (two or three years ago) to threatening, then what are you going to do about it? Join the dark side and figure out how to use the tools and quit complaining. During the time you spent crafting a carefully worded, whiny tweet, I created several amazing pieces of artwork.