Art is dead, long live art

The controversy surrounding the AI-generated artwork “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” was to be expected. Milestones in art history have always provoked – and that’s a good thing. But the shitstorm points to an even more significant problem: our society is ailing

The Colorado State Fair is a folk festival held every year in late August in Pueblo, Colorado in the western United States. Part of the spectacle are competitions in all kinds of disciplines, ranging from beer brewing to doll making to quilting. International attention was recently drawn to the visual arts category, in which – according to reports – it was not a human being but an artificial intelligence that took first place. This description is not entirely correct. It has nevertheless triggered a shitstorm.

“Yeah that’s pretty fucking shitty”

Board game developer Jason Allen had entered the contest with three images, one of which was titled “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” and won first place. But that is not his greatest achievement: the prize thus went to a work created by the AI Midjourney. This was a caesura in the history of art, which led to heated discussions.

Allen reported the initial placement of the AI-generated image in a Discord channel of the Midjourney community, whereupon 235 users pinned emoticons to the post. Of these, 48 emoticons had skeptical to clearly negative connotations, while the rest were positive to ambiguous. The response was still limited. But then a screenshot of the post reached Twitter via the illustrator @GenelJumalon, where the news hit like a bomb.

Someone entered an art competition with an AI-generated piece and won the first prize. Yeah that’s pretty fucking shitty.

@GenelJumalon on Twitter

@GenelJumalon’s tweet has now been retweeted over 13,000 times, faved nearly 90,000 times, and commented on mostly approvingly around 1900 times (as of 9/11/2022, 16:49). User @eldritch48, in his comment, doubted that Allen had been transparent about the influence of AI on his artwork: “The bigger issue is that (presumably), the judges didn’t realize it was AI, and still thought it was good enough to win. Doesn’t bode well for the ‘human vs AI’ illustration discussion.” The Twitter comment received nearly 8500 likes as of the above date.

Allen reportedly said he tagged his posts as “Jason Allen via Midjourney.” The jury has since reportedly confirmed that. Two days after his viral tweet, illustrator @GenelJumalon thanked numerous new followers with a new tweet asking them to support “human artists.”

Info Box | The Colorado State Fair art competition is divided into two main categories, one for emerging artists and one for professionals. In addition, each has subcategories of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, mixed media, jewelry and metalsmithing, heritage and digital art. The competition is aimed solely at artists in the U.S., which currently has a population of about 331.5 million. There were 265 entries in the emerging artist category. (There were 173 images in the professional category, just for the sake of completeness - let's stick with emerging artists). The most entries here, 108, came in the Painting subcategory, followed by Photography (52), Sculpture (29), Mixed Medias (28), Digital Arts (18), Heritage (5), and Blacksmithing (1). Since others besides Jason Allen submitted multiple images, eleven emerging artists competed with him in Digital Art for the $300 prize money. (Source: Colorado State Fair)

Allen against the status quo

The fact that artists in particular are sensitive to the outcome of the competition is alarming. It means stagnation in one of the most dynamic and open-minded scenes in the world.

What is art?

Art theorists and philosophers have been grappling with this question for centuries. The philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of the “riddle of art” that needed to be seen, not solved – a guiding principle with validity. When digital art came into vogue, it was demonized as something that would displace traditional art, the elaborate techniques of the old masters, the complex craft of the artist. In the meantime, digital art has carved out its own niche, where, as we can see, competitions are even held – without harming traditional painting.

This was made possible by the curiosity and open-mindedness of both artists and recipients – and by the nature of art. Art is development, because art comments on a world that is changing. Stagnation in art is like the end of breathing, that is, the death feared by Allen’s critics.

Throughout history, art has constantly reinvented itself, and where it has offended the masses, it has united and mutually strengthened itself in groups like Brücke and Blauer Reiter. Art resists dictatorships and is a means of youthful rebellion. Pencils, oil and acrylic paints, graffiti, collages and posters, every technique, every means, every form of expression had a beginning. Many were criticized, some are still discussed today, but none trigger a shitstorm.

An episode of the Netflix series “Uncoupled” offers an intriguing analogy: here we see an exhibition of sexually explicit comic art and a tone-deaf art collector who, in the tradition of Wagner’s Sixtus Beckmesser, judges, “This isn’t art.” The curator of the exhibition sees it differently, and other visitors are also persuaded. The art on display is provocative, challenging, thought-provoking, and forces a change in the status quo.

This is exactly what Allen and Midjourney are doing, with great success. The negative response to their collaborative work is sad, but if it had been exclusively positive, something would have been wrong.

The human in AI art

“Midjourney is an independent research lab exploring new mediums of thought and expanding the imaginative powers of the human species”: that’s the self-description of the eleven-person development team behind the AI whose painting took first place in Colorado. Of course, the AI didn’t do it all on its own – a fact that critics tend to forget and many people simply aren’t aware of. After all, today’s AIs are by no means intelligent.

Prominent warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence quickly make it into the broad media and thus into society’s consciousness. Especially when the superiority of humans is at stake. What is lost in the process is that warnings about overpowering machine intelligence are based on thought experiments. These are important and correct, because only those who think ahead can take precautions. But today’s AIs are already failing to meet two basic characteristics of intelligence: common sense and creativity.

Murray Shanahan, Professor of Cognitive Robotics at Imperial College London, understands common sense as the ability to grasp the “operating principles of the everyday world” (“The Technological Singularity,” Murray Shanahan, The MIT Press, 2015). This includes such simple things as that “if you go all the way around a thing, you come back to the starting point.” And by creativity, Shanahan doesn’t mean great art, but, for example, changing one’s behavior or giving old things a new purpose.

My cat has more common sense than any modern AI: He knows that if he jumps up on a door and pulls the handle down, the door will open. An AI would have to be told that first.

Artificial intelligences have no understanding of cause and effect. They have to be trained extensively for the small special area in which they are to be used. After that, they can only be used in that area. So Midjourney will never drive a car, and no Tesla will ever paint a picture. Ultimately, artificial intelligence is only a tool for people who want to use it to automate highly complex computing processes.

AI art systems like Midjourney also require extensive training before they can produce new creations. To do this, they need material in the form of images that are already in the world. Is AI art therefore ultimately just an imitation or even plagiarism?

Not necessarily. In fact, this process corresponds to that of human inspiration. Art arises and has always arisen from existing art: authors read books to grow from them. Artists visit exhibitions to feed their creative spirit. Engineers look to nature for models to create new technologies. And AIs like Midjourney give their users access to the accumulated creativity of humanity. This creates works that will, in turn, fuel creativity. A cycle of boundless inspiration.

It remains to mention that Allen’s contribution to the winning image was crucial to its creation. He came up with the motif. And his brush was code.

Artists, have faith!

One trigger and emotions run high: it’s normal, almost trivial, and not just on Twitter. The engine is fear, and it’s never far when it comes to artificial intelligence. Critics often fear for jobs, and so it is this time. Is the profession of the artist facing extinction? Hardly. Artists have been experimenting with computer programs that automatically generate images since the sixties. This has not made the scene poorer, but more versatile.

Moreover, the question arises: Why does anyone commission an artist? The reasons are manifold; the personal touch, the ability of humans to grasp subtleties and preferences, and the individual choice of motif are probably among them. Artists who fear being displaced by machines may lack an understanding of the complexity of human creativity – and self-confidence in their own work. Our society is not suffering from AI art, but from a climate that fosters toxic competition and fear of failure.

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