On social media and in the art press, AI art is gaining traction.
But while some artists are turning to creative possibilities like machine learning models like DALL-E, combining cultural reference points and visual iconography, others are falling back into tired “the robots are coming” tropes. “Artists are not happy,” they flagged The New York Times In a Sept. 2 headline, an AI-generated film won an art prize, a creator said in a later article that “it wants our jobs,” calling the technology “the antithesis of an active artist.”
“It’s fun for regular users and interesting for tech enthusiasts, but it’s also created an ethical and copyright black hole where everyone from artists to lawyers to engineers have very strong opinions about what it means, for their jobs and for the nature of art.
Instead of reducing AI, or any new technology, to a binary discussion of good and bad, artists should develop and incorporate any tool, such as a paintbrush or canvas, into their work. The use of AI to render images follows a postmodern tradition in art in which the end product is defined less by skill and more by the theory it represents. Although contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst are recognized as singular geniuses, they employ teams of assistants to implement the technical minutiae of the production process; Even historical figures like Michelangelo outsourced labor to create iconic works like the Sistine Chapel. AI gives artists a similar ability to focus more on theory, meaning and abstraction than execution, which in many cases takes years of labor to realize a single piece. How this democratization of the production process affects art and the world is determined by artists and how they use technology.
From a historical perspective, new technology is often met with fierce resistance and even protests by vested interest groups. When electricity first hit major American cities in the late 19th century, currents were described by leading newspapers as “uncontrollable monsters”, fueling a frenzy historians have dubbed the “power line panic”. Street lights are also viewed by critics as surveillance mechanisms.
Whenever a new medium is created, its context is the old medium. After the “power-wire panic”, the first films made in the early 20th century used cameras and plot to amplify the drama; Camera angles, non-chronological storytelling and wide lenses came much later. With the advent of television, anchors initially stood in front of cameras and read the news in a radio format. Marshall McLuhan wrote about this tradition in his 1964 book, Understanding the MediaIn which the theorist famously coined the phrase “media message”.
While there has been plenty of discussion centered on AI and ethics since DALL-E first became available to select creators, little has been said about how the intersection of AI and art creates new mediums. The conversation is stuck in a binary framework of a romantic or alarmist future governed by the implications of how technology works in today’s current media, social media, and market-dominating platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Instead of assuming the outcome is predetermined, artists must reclaim their agency and use AI in their work, becoming stakeholders in shaping how the technology evolves and its use in new mediums. Just as filmmakers used cameras to promote storytelling and digital illustrators printed NFTs during the early adoption of blockchain, artists are early adopters of new technology. By the very nature of our profession, artists are freer to raise awareness of the dangers and abuses of AI, as its resulting media, than developers and entrepreneurs, who are often caught up in the inner workings of the technology. A forest for the trees.
As with any new technology, AI comes with good and bad aspects. But how technology develops and shapes media is determined by humans. Instead of catastrophizing and pushing against the tides of modernity, artists should empower themselves by using this unique tool to create culture.
Agnieszka Pilat is a classically trained artist. Her upcoming exhibit, “ROBOTa,” will be held Nov. 3 at Modernism Inc. in San Francisco and features paintings completed by an ensemble of AI and robots, including Boston Dynamics’ Spot and Agility Robotics Digit.
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