The world is ablaze with generative AI. A few words put together in a barely legible English phrase and out comes visual art almost equivalent to what great artists have only sporadically allowed us to enjoy throughout human history. What took decades upon decades to master and only granted to the genetically lucky few is now available to anyone with an almost complete set of fingers, a keyboard and an internet-connected device. And in the process, it’s redefining our conception of art.

Shattering the long-established dogma

Throughout history, art has been defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. Underlying this was the understanding and acceptance that it was an arduous, exceptionally difficult, almost exclusive and certainly elitist process, only available to a universally recognized few ( mostly white men) who had the scarce ‘ability” or “genius” to birth masterpieces. Like any of the previous computer-replicated human processes, generative AI is now shattering the long-established dogma. Like chess mastery, long believed to be the exclusive realm of super brilliant, almost alien-like human beings ( although they looked very much like only white men), visual art is now falling off its millennium-old pedestal.

A Van Gogh selfie as painted by the artist via DALLE-2
A Van Gogh selfie as painted by the artist via DALLE-2

The nobody artist

The recent win of a “nobody” at an art fair competition just recently confirmed the news. No established visual artist is safe, as tools like Mid journey, Stability AI, Dalle-2 and many others allow any “peasant” to come and steal their income. To the point that some competitions are now banning the use of any entry created using generative AI ( how they are going to filter them out is still being assessed). Humans only beyond this point! But are visual artists and very soon their close cousins,  photographers, really at risk?

What defines art

What is art? Is it the inspiration or the result? Are we judging the creative impulse or its execution? When is it born? When it’s conceptualized, or when it is created? And does how it is made even matter? In other words, do the tools used define what is or isn’t art?

Would a Van Gogh still be a van Gogh if his tools, strokes, and palette had been different? Would we appreciate his painting less? Could he even have been a great artist if he had lived 4 of 5 centuries prior when none of the utensils he used did exist? Is his work, or any of his contemporary masters’ work, art because of the tools they used? Did it make “making art” much easier for them than for the prior generation?

And what about photography which we now classify as another great visual art? Didn’t it allow for the emergence of a whole new class of artists ( mostly rich white men) who could not even begin to pretend how to hold a brush or mix colours properly? And yet they squandered the space previously controlled by Rembrandt or Sargent with their photo studios, some of them, like Annie Leibovitz, taking a rightful place within the masters. Today, no one said she was cheating because she used a camera rather than a paintbrush. No one. And yet, today, if we use a prompt rather than a number 4 pencil or a camera, we cannot possibly be an artist. A “real” artist. 

Watch and learn

At this point usually comes the statement that generative AI cheats because its training data used thousands upon thousands of images created or taken by others to learn how to create new images. Thus, it’s not really creation but copying. Walk in any art class in any country of the world today and see how teachers dissect, analyze and decompose every master’s work for students to learn by replicating them. We, human beings, like computers, learn by copying. Great artists all started by admiring a previous artist and copying them until they found their own style. They watch and learn from seeing others’ artwork exactly how generative AI currently learn from large repository of visual content. Nothing different. We find the process perfectly normal for our classroom yet evil if it is to train machines.

The winning generative ai art
Screengrab from Discord

Breaking into the elitist bubble

Jason Allen, whose AI-generated work “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” won the art fair, is president of a tabletop gaming company. It still took him 80 hours to create the final winning piece: “I have been exploring a special prompt that I will be publishing at a later date, I have created 100s of images using it, and after many weeks of fine tuning and curating my gens, I chose my top 3 and had them printed on canvas after unshackling with Gigapixel AI,” he wrote in a post before the winners were announced. Not a simple and easy process, as most would assume. And at each stage, each of us would have taken a different decision on how to proceed, leading to a completely different finished image. If we provide access to Mid journey- the Generative AI engine used to create this piece- to a million monkeys, would they be able to replicate it?

But in no way is this technology, like any prior or to come, lessening the creative process. In fact, it is delivering it into the hands of those (mostly non white men) who previously did not have the skills, the means or the education. The anti-generative AI and most ardent defenders of the art status quo are worried that they will lose their dominance on a very tightly closed and elitist club. That by providing formidable creative tools to the untrained masses, it will allow the exclusive and closely gaited art scene to be invaded by those who don’t deserve it. They are afraid that another barrier of privilege will fall.

Yes, some people who create visual content for a living will suffer because of this new technology. Many painters lost their income when the photographic process was made available to the masses, thanks to Kodak. Today, a significant amount of photographers should be seriously looking for other sources of revenue. Because art is about the inspiration and not the process. It is not the difficulty or hardship that creates the value of an art piece but the vision. What tools are used to bring to life so art can be shared and enjoyed by others is secondary, as long as it delivers on original creative spark. Imagine what a Vincent Van Gogh or Man Ray would create if they had their hands on a keyboard and access to Mid journey.


Main image by Photo by Beata Ratuszniak on Unsplash

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is a highly influential and visionary leader in visual tech, with 20+ years of experience in licensing, tech innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is the Managing Director of MelcherSystem and has held executive roles at Corbis, Stipple, and more. Melcher received a Digital Media Licensing Association Award and is a board member of Plus Coalition, Clippn, and Anthology, and has been named among the “100 most influential individuals in American photography”

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