Let’s just put it out there and up front — earlier, I was glad to play around with AI art, but that has ended. I have no intention at present of mucking around with AI art, signal-boosting it, or supporting it. I had a subscription to Midjourney, and I canceled it.
Now, to rewind a little —
I think AI art is pretty cool.
I know, I know — I just said, but I won’t support it, and that’s true.
But I think it’s neat, in a general sense. It’s like, we can make COMPUTER ROBOT GHOSTS do all kinds of cool things for us — they can tell us the weather, show us how to get to the mall, I can yell at my car to turn on the heat and it’ll totally do it, Gmail can already predict the response I’m going to make and start to prep it for me. The robot ghosts are cool. So, the ability to say, HEY ROBOT GHOST, SHOW ME WEREWOLF PIKACHU USING A NEW POKEMON MOVE CALLED “CORUSCATING ELECTRIC ANUS” ON A KAIJU VERSION OF JERRY SEINFELD and then somehow it sorta does it, well, I don’t hate that.
Now, admittedly, when I started mucking about with AI art in the long-times-ago epoch of, mmm, six months ago, what it produced was often fiddly and hilarious and straight-up fucking weird. It would still have eyeballs in places where there shouldn’t be. Some guy’s face might look like a smear of paint, and his hand would have sixteen fingers. You might squint and see Sophia from the Golden Girls mysteriously hiding in the wallpaper. It felt a bit like you watching a robot dream. Like you were privy to the growth of its creative mind.
(It’s a lie, of course. There’s no robot dreaming; that is a romantic, anthropomorphic notion.)
But it didn’t take long for the results to get… good. Real good. Freaky good. You plug in something and what returns is a foursquare array of nearly exactly what you asked for, in a variety of art styles and modes. Which, one might argue, is quite the point of this whole affair, and I suppose it is, though I’ll also note for my mileage it also kinda defeats if not the point, than rather, the delight of having a robot puke up something just super fucking weird instead of precisely what you asked for. We were training the robot well. And it was learning fast.
And now, you see the so-called AI art everywhere, and you also see those who are mad at so-called AI art everywhere. And the latter category is often artists. Not always! But often enough.
As such, I’m going to side with the artists.
(Spoiler: you should always side with the artists.)
I’ll talk about why in a moment, though I will note here there is, of course, a nuanced discussion to be had here. I don’t think people using AI art are like, Cyber Hitlers or anything. I used it quite well looking for inspiration for my Evil Apples book (which has a title and I’ll soon tell you what it is, I promise), and it… actually worked, and given how many iterations it took to get that inspiration, I could not have easily paid an artist for that essentially throwaway act. I’ve seen some trans friends say that they like how some of the AI profile art makes them look and feel, and that’s pretty wonderful. I have artist friends who use it and like it and find it valuable — it is a tool to them, not a curse. Technology also tends to expedite tasks while also leaving human workers behind in ways that are sometimes good and sometimes bad and most often somewhere in the middle — the ability to have language translated for us is pretty useful in a broadly human sense, even as it puts actual translators out of work. And finally, I think we as people seize on beautiful things and weird things and odd memes, and AI art allows us to do all of that, allowing us to play and explore and just be inspired in weird ways. And connect with each other as we do so.
But, but, but.
I’m still saying, let’s cool it on the AI art.
And here’s why.
1. First, just watch Charlotte’s video here. It covers a lot of things I’d say, except smarter and cooler because she is smarter and cooler than I am.
2. It is demoralizing for young artists. Trust me when I tell you, it’s hard to muster the interest in making new art when you can poke a computer to do it for you with a sentence or three. Yes, there remains value in art for art’s sake, but I think if you were a young artist viewing a future in Making Art, this is definitely going to give you pause. Again, I know this because I’ve seen this exact feeling emerge. Now, once more, I know there is nuance to all of this — I’m sure professional photographers winced when every jabroni got a digital camera and could take 40,000 photos in a weekend. I’ve no doubt that musicians of a certain age felt like I DON’T LIKE THAT THESE YOUNG KIDS TODAY CAN JUST TAP BUTTONS AND MAKE SOME BEEP-BOOP MUSIC ON THEIR SYNTHESCISSORS. But I also note that AI art isn’t that. Digital photography is still photography. Electronic music is still music. AI art… well, this leads me to the next point.
3. No, this doesn’t make you an artist and I’m seeing way too many defenders of AI art take this line. Some stay back at the line of, “I’m now an art director, art-directing a robot,” which, ennnh. Okay? But some march full on ahead and are saying, hey, I’m an artist now too. Which… nnnghhhh, are you? I admit, this gives me a pit in my stomach because I don’t like telling people what art is or is not and what makes an artist. That kind of gatekeeping curdles my milk more than a little. Still, as someone who has used Midjourney and other AI art makers, I sure don’t think of myself as an artist. If anything, I was just a writer jamming ideas into a techbro’s art engine. I didn’t feel like an artist. I sure wouldn’t call myself an artist having used Midjourney. I guess if I was using it to generate images that I then sketched or manipulated, that counts — but to do that, I’d still have to feed the beast, and therein lies part of the problem.
4. Feeding the beast means feeding an engine that feeds techbros and not artists. That’s the heart of the problem, really. Artists are like dinosaurs getting mulched into oil to fuel this thing. And you can see it when the AI art reproduces material with artifacts of signatures and watermarks. It’s clearly harvesting pre-existing art. It’s not dreaming up new art. It’s using their art, human art, and nobody is getting compensated, nobody is getting their due for being the literal seed-bed for this entire thing. The only people compensated are tech people. The people who make the engine. They’re the ones glad to press the oil out of the artists to run the machine.
5. No, this isn’t the same thing as “being inspired by artists.” That’s one of the lines of argument that doesn’t well with me. “It’s not copying artists, it’s being inspired by them, same as a person would be.” Except it’s not that, and you know it’s not that. We’ve fallen for the same anthropomorphic bullshit I spewed above about this being some PRECIOUS ROBOT DREAMING, and AWWW SEE THE ART-BOT IS INSPIRED BY YOU, but that’s not what it is. It’s not sentient. It’s not alive. It’s not a person making artistic decisions. It’s software operating on algorithmic decisions driven by, again, engines of tech, not creatures of art. “But it’s just like Andy Warhol!” No it’s jolly well fucking not. And you know that. You know Andy Warhol was a person who, like him or not, made decisions about what images he used, how he would subvert them, how that would put the work in front of other humans. He was a human making human art from corporate material in order to affect other humans.
6. And of course some people are choosing this as a battleground to litigate the problems with our current copyright system. Look, we’re all out here making choices and sometimes those choices are choices that benefit our urges and interests rather than helping out the greater good, right? From water bottles to Spotify to this or that, we are morally compromised daily because it is difficult to get a clean 100% record on Best Human Practices. But there’s a special kind of person who then justifies their choices with a lot of bluster about how REALLY they’re actually doing the RIGHT THING — “I voted for Jill Stein because something-something third-parties.” And you’re seeing it now with this AI art thing. “Well, copyright in America is poisonous and we have to Defeat Capitalism and really artists should be paid a Universal Basic Income,” and yeah, okay, good point, except that’s not a thing right now and this certainly won’t make it a thing. Yes, copyright has its problems, but that doesn’t mean you should hand it over to a tech company to do with as they see fit. Yes, capitalism is fraught and fucked up but paying an AI art subscription isn’t you throwing a Molotov cocktail through a bank window. Artists are already people on the fringes and they deserve to be paid for their efforts. They deserve to eat. To pay rent. To buy cool things. Hell, I’d much rather an artist get rich than Tech Bro #483, okay?
7. There is an adjacency (is that a word? too late) to NFT/crypto culture that I find… off-putting. There’s an NFT publishing company which, I’ll be honest, seems super fucking scammy to me, and most of their Very Special Super Rare Non-Fungible Book Cover Tokens are… just random AI art. Ennh. Ugh. Yuck.
8. Finally, the biggest reason of all: because more artists are asking us to leave AI art behind. I dunno. I’m not an artist. So Imma listen to them when I can.
So, anyway, them’s my thoughts. I suspect (or at least, hope) this AI art thing burns out. I think we should share actual human art. No, I don’t think you’re Il Monstre for using AI art. I think artists should be compensated. It’s the holidays, buy their prints, commission them to do something cool, whatever. We humans are why the human experience matters. Side with WONDERFUL MEATBAG ARTISTS, not TECH BRO MAGPIES. Okay? Okay.
(And yes, I recognize they’re coming for writers, too. Our off-ramp is a few miles down the road yet, but the car is speeding up, not slowing down.)
And speaking of writers —
Hey, Wayward is out if you want a cool GIFTY BOOK THING for folks. (And curiously, it’s a book that has a lot of thoughts about artificial intelligence!)
Cut off date for ordering signed, personalized books of mine from Doylestown Bookshop is, I believe, end of day 12/12, so hop to it if that’s what you want.
And if you liked it, please talk about it, yell about it, shake people and demand they buy it, that sort of thing. Word-of-mouth is the most vital resource we have, and in this era of fracturing social media, it counts double, even triple.
I’m currently dialed back on Twitter (and locked down too), so I may not see stuff over there quickly, and if you’d care to share this there, that’s a-okay by me. (Twitter: another one of those questionable things these days. I’ve more thinking to do about that place, but for now, I’m busy with book edits and will take the break until after the holidays.)
Also, finally, for those looking to see me at the Bethlehem/Easton B&N this weekend — we’re going to reschedule it. Lot of illness going around (including in our own house), so feels like it’s best to maybe kick that can to after the holidays. Look for a rescheduling of that event into Jan or Feb!