In this day and age, technology is commonplace. Most of us have witnessed the emergence of new technologies in our lifetime. Throughout history, as our access to new technologies increased, some careers that were once vital were eventually replaced. For example, when the telephone was invented in the early 20th century, the careers of telegraph operators and message boys were eliminated and replaced with telephone operators. As we have seen during the pandemic, the way that we perform our jobs has changed dramatically in the past two years. We too may one day see the decreased necessity for particular careers as the world churns out more and more new inventions that make our lives more efficient.
But artists can never be replaced, right? A creative mind can not be recaptured and reproduced. The revolving door of artists and creatives will seemingly never stop as our society relies on the evolution of new creative geniuses to show us what we don’t know and could never understand.
However, a new technological update has many people worried about the future of visual arts. In an unexpected rise to prominence, updates in artificial intelligence (AI) technology can now recapture the human intelligence of art, regurgitating it on a computer screen in as little as 30 seconds. The skills that require years of training and time can now be configured with a few simple phrases. What is this technology, how does it work, and what does it mean for the modern artist?
You might have seen TikTok videos using the popular new AI Art Generator filter across your for you page (FYP). While most videos portray a trippy, psychedelic depiction of someone’s name, birthdate, or university, others ask the AI to generate more profound answers to abstract questions, such as “What does death feel like?” or “What does Hell look like?” The results are typically shared with haunting background music and awe-inspiring artwork. In one video, a user asks the AI to show them what death looks like. They are shocked when the AI generates an unsettling image of a lone figure wandering through an underworld of darkness surrounded by a red haze. In a world where so much is unknown, perhaps it is natural and/or comforting for us to want to know the answers. As seen in previous trends, many TikToks go viral simply because they feature a myriad of filters through which the user can see the world differently. In this case, artificial intelligence is an attempt to answer the unknown, to communicate beyond language, and to truly examine humanity through a machine.
Screengrab of TikTok AI "death" render
However, the TikTok filter is a simplistic replication of the real artificial intelligence software used to create art. Various sites exist, but one of the most popular is Midjourney. Midjourney is a small project with only 11 employees. To use Midjourney, you only need a Discord account. The program creates images from user input of text descriptions. These prompts, beginning with the text “/imagine '' tell the system to generate specific styles of art, colors, lighting, and many other elements. The Midjourney bot then creates four images that appear to users in a grid with numbers. Users can choose the image that fits their prompt the best and immediately save it to their device. Thus, Midjourney is not only a fascinating tool to explore AI, but it is also free and accessible to many people. Midjourney’s accessibility is indicative of how AI technology is reaching the masses. AI is no longer a science fiction vision—it is a part of our modern life.
Thus, creating these renderings can be tedious in itself. Though it isn’t the same kind of tediousness that a painting or sketch would require, this is a skill. We know that coding and game design are generally considered a great talent in computer science and digital art, but how does AI fit into that? Is the “artist” in these renderings the bot itself or the user? Who can take ownership?
Humans have maintained our unique ability to create art. It is what differentiates us from other animals. We are passionate and creative creatures that can generate ideas that cannot be recreated. Taking into account that artwork can now be replicated by artificial intelligence, what does our transition into the age of technology leave for artists? As some users have expressed, AI-generated art has created a mass fear that millions of artists may lose their careers. According to these opinions, we may be witnessing the beginning stages of the death of artistry and human creativity.
In fact, in the past month, art made with AI technology has led to controversy regarding art authorship and creativity. Théâtre D’opéra Spatial by artist Jason Allen recently won the top prize in the Colorado State Fair’s digital art competition. Artists and art enthusiasts went to social media to express their anger at Allen’s award. Though Allen used Midjourney to create his piece, entering in words and phrases to render the final project, he did not illustrate it himself.
However, this trend also embodies questions that the art world has been asking for decades: Can these images even be considered art? How do we determine what art even is? How do the judges of an art competition determine “good” art?
A possible explanation for artificial intelligence reaching the state fair judge’s qualifications of a prize-winning piece is conceptual art. Conceptual art privileges the ideas behind a piece more so than the finished product itself. Thus, in Allen’s case, one could argue that the piece’s purpose was to demonstrate a snapshot of humanlike intelligence, demonstrating what we as humans find special and relevant. AI renderings can also serve as commentaries on the modern human’s attachment to technology.
Thus, the problem with AI-generated artwork (according to some people) is that it eliminates the need for an illustrator completely. However, according to others, Allen’s work exemplifies a new movement in art, one that would bridge together digital and conceptual art in order to make a social commentary on the prominence of technology in the modern human’s life. Or perhaps we are witnessing the emergence of a new art form: synthetic art.