John Walker's Electronic House

You Might Not Like AI Art, But It’s Here To Stay

by on Dec.14, 2022, under Rants

“An artist smashes a computer, digital art.”

The word “Luddite” has unfairly pejorative connotations in the modern age. In the early 19th century, English textile workers saw where their industry was heading with the introduction of technology, and recognised the imminent destruction of their livelihoods. So, in response, the workers would protest the new factories, and famously, destroy the rival machines.

It was hopeless. Such protesters were shot by the factory owners, and eventually the British army was used to suppress their wider movement. And, inevitably, machines became the primary way to create textiles, as is still the case today. The Luddites were not—as they are so often parodied—afraid to embrace modern technology. Instead, they were simply aware that it would starve their families. They were trying to defend their livelihoods, protect their loved ones, and responded with physical violence against capitalist violence.

This is all to say, I entirely get why artists are so furious about AI art creation. This new technology has the real potential to—at the very least—carve into a craft that has existed for thousands of years. If a book cover or movie poster or piece of background art can be created by typing a sentence into a website, then of course artists who’ve trained their whole lives to be masters of their craft are going to lose work. It must be terrifying, not least with the speed with which such extraordinarily powerful AI has appeared in the last year. I hate that very rich corporations, that absolutely could and should be compensating those from which they are gaining, are not.

I’m also aware that if AI can start doing as good a job as, or even better than, conventional artists, then it will win. Because every example of technology replacing artisan skill in the last few hundred years has ended that way. The protesting, the fury, and the sense of unfairness, will have no bearing on anything, and the computers will win out. This isn’t pessimism, and nor is it “giving up”; it’s just simply understanding reality.

“The last human stares at the sunset as the bombs drop, digital art.”

I don’t have a solution, because I don’t think there is one. Much as the Luddites hopelessly smashed apart that which would replace them, it’s completely understandable that current artists wish to find a way to smash apart this latest technology. However, it’s even more futile a task in the digital age, and attempting to find methods to do so is going to be very ugly, and very self-defeating.

This is already demonstrably the case in the current main messaging against AI art: It is, we’re endlessly told, “theft.” As someone who has been a loud voice for the last twenty years within the (mostly hopeless) movement to prevent corporations from tricking the wider public into thinking that copying is theft, this couldn’t be a more demoralising position to see taken by the creatives themselves. Copying isn’t theft, it never has been, and it never can be. This isn’t a moral argument in favour of copying, it’s a factual argument about what words mean. Theft requires the original item to no longer be in the original owner’s possession, and no matter how many knots people try to tie themselves in, that can never, ever be applied to copying. Indeed, you wouldn’t steal a car. But you’d sure as hell download one. Call it bad, fight against it, but don’t call it something it isn’t.

It’s genuinely bewildering to have lived through the Napster years, when suddenly the world realized that music had at last been freed from its one-hundred-year-long plastic prison (and during which time official album sales spiked worldwide, and record labels never made more money, until they had Napster shut down and sales started falling again), where people were threatened by corporate goons out of their life savings because their grandkid downloaded a Sum 41 album, to then see the creators of art attempting to use “theft” as their attack against corporate AI.

Copying may be something you’re against! You may wish to legislate against copying. Rather famously, there’s that whole “copyright” system, that itself has been brutally twisted into a weapon of oppression rather than a tool of freedom. But it isn’t theft, it isn’t “stealing,” and I am aghast at the decades-long backward step at seeing this being wheeled out by the “goodies,” in an attempt to fight the “baddie” corporations.

Should artists be compensated for their creations? Of course, if their creations are desired. I am a passionate believer in the patron system, where artistic work is paid for at the point of creation, and I believe that credit should always be given to those who have created something. I also passionately believe in sharing, and am vehemently against systems where a creator is paid in perpetuity for work completed years previously. I don’t feel beholden to the estate of Monet or to whichever current painter if I fancy printing off one of their paintings, any more than I think I should pay the plumber who fixed my tap every time I use the sink. I get paid for my time when writing articles about games, not whenever anyone reads them in five years’ time. (And should a time come when AI can usefully critique artistic creations like games, then yes, I’ll be screwed too.)

Yes, AI systems are fed with potentially millions of pieces of art, from which its code learns the patterns, systems, techniques, styles, and then attempts to reconfigure them into something original. And yes, they are mostly doing this with no permissions from the creators of the pieces of art that go in. But here’s the bad news: that was just a very accurate description of all of art ever.

“A couple watches as the stars fall from the sky, watercolour.”

No artist creates art in a vacuum. Since the first cave person scrawled in mushed up flowers on a cave wall, all art has been formed based on what has come before. All artists, since the beginning of recorded history, have learned art by copying other art. None needed to ask for permission—hell, for a good period of history, they were actively encouraged by the original artists. The most famous artists you know, especially those known for pioneering new movements, began by learning the patterns, systems, techniques and styles of those who came before, and then attempted to reconfigure them into something original. Picasso was one hell of a realistic portrait artist, as taught by his father, before he ever explored Cubism.

Computers didn’t think up AI art generation on their own. It was programmed by people, whether for good or evil. This isn’t a robot takeover—it’s new man-made technology doing as good a job as human creators. And as soon as we started “feeding AI a thousand…” of whatever, to see what it would generate, this became inevitable. You can hate it, and you can hate the corporations that have been quick to take advantage of it, but trying to redefine it as something more evil than the printing press or the self-scanning cashier machine in the grocery store is folly.

(I want to clarify something here, that I fear would otherwise be misunderstood: I am not advocating for people to directly use an artist’s previous creations for their own financial gain. I believe, obviously, an artist should be compensated in such a circumstance, unless that creation has been graciously released under a copyleft license that allows such use. However, I do believe that any piece of art is a legitimate source for inspiration, and being inspired by any piece of art when creating one’s own, even for financial gain, is clearly legitimate, given—again—all of history.)

In the latest of Luke’s passionate tirades against this technology on Kotaku, he firmly states “machines don’t make art. They’re machines!” This is, in my opinion, utterly wrong. Because as anyone who’s had to suffer through any interminable “are computer games art?” article will know, art is in the eye of the viewer. I’ve typed in sentences to AI art creation software that has produced images that are utterly beautiful. Of course it’s art, no matter how much I might not like that the tool that created it is owned by a corporation that sees no desire to compensate those from which it has gained.

I think there’s a very uncomfortable uncanny feeling about AI art, but I think it’s because it is art. There’s a piece of soul in it, but it’s not earned. It’s likely the scraps of soul that survive the mechanical processing of what’s been fed in. That’s existentially unsettling.

I hate it a bit, too. I mean, I can draw to some degree. I’ve been paid to draw silly cartoons for things over the years. I’ve sold them on greetings cards. Now, you can create something just about the same by asking Dall-E for a “cartoon of a rabbit in a medieval helmet.” Mine’s on the left, Dall-E’s is on the right:

Like all other artisan crafts where technology has allowed the mass production of very similar creations, I know that we will see AI creations replace a large amount of what would have been commissioned to artists. I also hope that many will recognize the worth of commissioning a person to use their skills to create something utterly bespoke, specifically for your needs.

I’m also aware that I can’t wait for AI to replace the current gouging of corporations like Getty and Shutterstock, who try to charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for copying an infinitely duplicable jpeg. Sure, they’ll all try to figure out how they can monetise it for a bit, before such technology escapes their confines, but it won’t last long.

Yes, many will be utterly furious with me for writing any of this, no matter how clear I make it that I would prefer for artists to be compensated, and for original work to be commissioned. But I won’t allow myself to deny two core truths, no matter how little I might like them: Technology always successfully replaces the mass production of artisan craft, and fighting to prevent it is a depressingly futile act that hurts the creators whose livelihoods are being threatened. As awful as any of this might be, it doesn’t change reality.

Artists and creators should not be fighting this with the language of greedy corporations, with attempts to wield corrupt systems like “copyright” and “intellectual property,” making ridiculous claims of “stealing,” but instead by proudly standing up and showing why what they create is special. Artists should boast of their talent, loudly display their work, seek patronage, and work together to create systems that better put themselves in front of people.

You—you—should respond to this by being diligent in your beliefs. Fund artists. Find their Patreons and sign up. Scream at sites like ArtStation until they add a button that lets you financially support artists you admire. Pay for art you care about. That’s a damn site more effective than screaming in fury at technology for existing. It’s going to win. You can’t smash it up, and the people who own it have the bigger guns.

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3 Comments for this entry

  • Kfix

    Sad that this needs to be said, but it does. And as always, said so very well John. Completely agree with your thoughts here, hope you don’t get too much stick for them.

  • HoneyBuzzBee

    Heaven high,

    What are the chances that I should stumble across your article just as I was waiting for a hypernetwork to finish training? I enjoyed reading it very much. When this whole AI image generation thing first started appearing I was very anxious that big companies like OpenAI (which despite its name isn’t open, let alone free) would guard jealously their technology so that in the future all art creation would be monopolized by a handful of weird crypto-ancaps from California. But then stable diffusion got released and it was good and all was well and FOSS again and my fears of capitalist overreach have somewhat been soothed. Slightly.

    I do feel sorry for artists, many of whom struggle to transform their craft into a livelihood, seeing these developments and wondering whether their jobs are on the line. They’re not right now, but as the technology improves and generated art becomes indistinguishable from or even better than the ‘real deal’ I can only see the demand for traditional art decreasing. Still, I wouldn’t fear for their profession disappearing completely. There are still plenty candlemakers, cobblers, goldsmiths and other such artisans, their jobs having mostly been made redundant by the cruel cogs of industrialism, who had to look for a new niche in which to continue practicing. They have found one, albeit much smaller, but that’s the way of progress I suppose.
    As the ability of AI progresses many more jobs, especially in the services and creative sectors, will be under threat, and as much as I am excited about the improvements it can bring to society and private life I am wary of its potential threats. I’m not talking about the loss of jobs. Jobs will always get lost, and new ones will take their place. What I am worried about is the potential capitalization and monopolization of artificial intelligence by big tech, the consequences of which will be horrendous, but is hardly if ever brought up in public discourse.

    Anyway, I see that I’m rambling and have probably bored you to death. All that I have left to say is that I’m hoping someone invent a podcast-generating AI so I don’t have to wait *bloody ages* for a new episode of Rum Doings to drop.

  • Jambe

    Well-said.

    Hearteningly, anti-monopoly sentiments are currently growing worldwide, whereas they’d been largely stagnating (in the West, anyway) for five decades or so. There are more and more rigorous studies, regulations, and actual enforcements aimed at understanding, identifying and curbing corporate power.

    Such work is never perfect and comes with its own pitfalls, but it gives me a spark of hope for e.g. legislation aimed at freeing the output of AIs trained on nonconsensual corpuses. I think we can both utilize AIs and fight the never-ending, worthwhile battle to keep corporations from extracting maximum rents.

    Also: will we get a special Rum Doings Chrimbo Special?

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