Art is about people.
This is obvious and simplistic on the face of it but I think it’s important to remind ourselves of this–
Art is about people.
It is by people. It is for people. Art — and by proxy, storytelling — is a conduit between the maker of the art and the witness to that art. I made this, the maker says, and they did so for myriad possible reasons. They did it because it was beautiful, because it was horrible, because it scared them or enraged them or titillated them, or some combination of all of that. They were driven to portray a thing, or subvert a thing, or invent a thing.
The art forms a connection. The witness to the art — the one on the other end of that connection — experiences it however they must. They relate to it. They rebuke it. They adore it. They obsess over it. They detest it even as they can’t look away. Art, story, music — they form this ephemeral thing that is a way for us to talk to each other metatextually, across spans of distance great and small, and even across time itself. We scream our strange creations out into the void in the hope of being heard. A signal that we’re not alone. And we witness art in much the same way: as a reminder that we are not alone.
Which is to say, there’s not a lot of room for the ART BARF ROBOT to come in and BARF ART all up into this connection.
The introduction of so-called “artificial intelligence” — which, really, is just a keenly-designed high-tech mimeograph — has gunked up the conduit between artist and audience with great clotted gobs of digital snot. It’s a pipe crawling with the Too-Many-Fingers monsters waggling their many bent digits at you while screaming twee authorial pablum and dipshitted disinformation in your ear. It’s gunk. It’s a mess.
I’ve spoken before about how “artificial intelligence” is really about the fetishization of idea —
(The above comes from Threads, which I guess is proof that it’s a social media platform with “the juice,” given how far and wide I’ve seen this comment travel across various channels.)
For the people so attracted to AI-generated anything, work is just a speedbump. Process is yucky. Wouldn’t it be great to just yell at a computer, WHAT IF BATMAN FUCKED SUPER MARIO ON A SOFT BED OF MOSS WHILE FRAMED BY THE CREPUSCULAR LIGHT OF A GLITTERING FAIRY FOREST, PLEASE SHOW ME THAT NOW, and then the computer just said, YOU GOT IT, BOSS, and extruded your greatest desire onto the screen? So what if Batman has seven weird fingers? All the more fingers to lustily push into Mario’s dewy mustachioed mouth! So you grab this image and you show other people and you say to the people on the internet, LOOK MOM I MADE AN ART, and the people say back, “Did you mean to call us Mom?” And you choose not to answer because, why did you do that, exactly? That’s weird. Anyway. You did it! You arted! You had an idea and then you pressed a button and basically, basically, you painted this yourself, right? You took what was in your mind, the Dark Knight romantically bat-fucking the diminutive turtle-hating cross-dimensional Uber-Plumber, and now here it is, for all the world to see. What chumps other artists are, out there getting out their paints and their Procreates and their word processors — ugh, right? If only they understood how easy it was to become An Artist, now.
Except, come the fuck on.
You didn’t do shit. You’re not an artist, shut the fuck up. Thing is, I think deep down, you know it. You have to know somewhere in that short-circuiting soul of yours that what you’ve done is nothing. You, at best, are a patron of the arts, a mule-kicked de Medici wandering around trying not to fall in canals while poking your fake fucking Robo-Leonardo and yelling at him to paint you another SEXY TOMB RAIDER DRIVING A CYBERTRUCK NUDE. Congratulations. You said a thing and pushed a button and now the ART BARF ROBOT barfed art for you. Slow clap from the cheap seats.
That image of Batman banging Tanuki Mario (sorry, I changed it, one must cleave to one’s own very special fantasies, after all) wasn’t really yours. What occurred on screen was not your actual vision. An idea is formless. It’s nothing without execution. The art exists in that execution — and you weren’t the one who did it. The ART BARFING ROBOT did. If I paid an actual artist actual money to paint me Batman and Mario doing the bat-nasty, the artist would be the one executing. The artist is still the artist. I’m just the guy paying the artist and asking them to give me what I want. I had no skill to bring to the table. I had no talent. No process, no ability, no understanding of light and texture, no sense of how to make this color or those shadows, literally no grasp of how to make the roundness of those night-clad bat-cheeks gleam moistly in the glow of the Narnian forest. Can you imagine me paying the artist and then boldly saying, “Well, I’m the artist of this because it was my idea. You were just the crass serf who did all the work.” I’d be run out of town on a rail. I’d have the painting broken over my head.
And yet, that’s what you’re doing.
Because you’re not even doing the very good work of paying an artist. You’re poking a piece of software to make your weird idea fall out. You’re clicking the “randomize character” button on the Sims and pretending you created life. And that piece of software? The ART BARF ROBOT? We have visions of it being this singular entity, a chrome-faced digital being out there in the void, tethered to all of us as we feed it our ideas, but it’s not that. It’s just a shitty techno-industrial blender grabbing all the words and all the images and all the music from all the creators it can, and it’s chewing them up and spitting them into your mouth like a big ol’ mama bird.
Artificial intelligence isn’t a person. It’s not even really, despite how I describe it, a machine. It’s the representative of a company. It’s the tool of not just one corporation, but many.
And it only exists because real people did real art.
Without something to chew up, it has nothing to spit out.
It steals our stuff, milks it, and kicks it aside, then shows it proudly to the world as if it did anything other than bleed an actual artist dry. It turns the artist and the art into dirt, then just regrows stuff from that same earth.
It’s a thief.
Except, even there? I’m lying. It didn’t steal shit. Because “it” has no agency. The owners? The companies? They have agency. They, actual people, are the ones who stole the shit, fed it to their beast, and then sold access to the beast to you. The art barf robot isn’t even a robot. It’s just the Scooby-Doo mask worn by all these tech bro shitheads. They’re pretending to be a sentient magical art maker when really, they’re the man behind the curtain. All they’ve really done is made a way for them, and you, to shortcut the work by stealing it from someone else.
To put it boldly, and surely to some contention:
The use of artificial intelligence in your creative pursuits is unethical.
And though this blog post is already too long — hey, fuck it, it’s my blog and I’ll yammer if I want to — I’ll go into a little more detail here and attempt to address some of the pushback I’ll probably hear.
So, to me, there are a number of predominant concerns for using artificial intelligence in your creative pursuits —
a) As noted, it is “trained” on the work of other artists, writers, musicians, what-have-you. They were not given a choice in this regard. Their work — and by their, I mean our, because I’m actually in that list, too — was simply vacuumed up in order to be pulped. We’re the meat in your Soylent Green. We are the fruit for your insipid smoothies. Using it empowers the companies to do this more and more.
b) Environmentally, it ain’t great. Artificial intelligence gulps a lot of resources — at a time of increased water usage in the west, here comes OpenAI to guzzle more water just so you can ask ChatGPT to lie to you or write mediocre fiction. It’s theorized that even just a handful of ChatGPT queries drains the equivalent of a 16-oz bottle of water. Never mind its potential power-draw and resultant emissions.
c) While there is this feeling that artificial intelligence is this alien thing, this unique mind, this individual persona, it really must be framed as being the product of big companies, of tech bros and billionaires. It’s why they steal the work — because if they had to license it, they wouldn’t make money. (OpenAI literally said this out loud.) Their goal is to make money, not art. Ultimately, this just becomes a tool for them. Why hire artists to make a movie poster, why pay authors to write a book, why have SFX people or musicians for commercials or any artist or writer or musician at all? They’re making themselves a system to crush the value of art, and they want you to be proselytes of this system. And to help train it. You pay for it and feed it prompts, and, one can argue, it banks that and “learns” from it.
d) Though this is adjacent to the art/writing stuff — it’s very, very easy to see how this is already being used for mis/disinformation. I can’t tell you how often I see some shit on social media (let’s be honest, it’s usually Facebook) of OMG LOOK AT THIS COOL GRANDMA AND HER GIANT YARN HOUSE or WOW THESE ARE PHOTOS OF FLYING SHARKS INSIDE A HURRICANE HOLY SHIT CLIMATE CHANGE IS WILD YOU GUYS, and of course it’s AI-generated bullshit. We were already in a world where truth and fact was becoming unstable — but when you can generate willfully deceptive fiction (visually and textually) with a button, and during a vital election year to boot, that’s real fucking bad. And our investment in, and use of, AI — even as a tool, even as a toy — is helping further that dissolution of shared reality. Holy fucking shit, there are AI-generated influencers now? Is this Hell? This might be Actual Hell. I’m going to go live in the woods now.
e) If we are to believe that art has value and the making of art is labor, AI completely cuts the throat of that notion. Right now, you pay your ten bucks a month or whatever and make your shitty AI art with your shitty AI art button, click-click-click, and meanwhile, an actual artist has to start a Gofundme just to pay (their ever-increasing) rent this week. And don’t get used to cheap access to AI. These are drug dealer rules. It’s cheap now. But once the human creators are all out of work (or are paid a pittance to basically turn the garbage AI output into something serviceable), that cost will either go up for the average users or it’ll get so enshittified (thanks Cory Doctorow for the word) that it’s unusable. Hell, maybe it’ll be both.
f) Eventually, this stagnates art. AI needs art to feed it, and if the preponderance of extant art becomes AI-created pap, glurge, and slop, then it will have to cannibalize itself to make more of itself. Which, admittedly, I look forward to, because it’ll eat itself to make itself and produce what I am guessing will be the garbage piss at the bottom of old dumpsters, and then we will learn the true value of human art. Which will be ironic since all the artists by then will be either accountants or, you know, pig feed.
g) Also, finally, it devalues art. If art, even shit art, is so easy to make, and artists are not required anymore, they won’t be paid and they’ll instead be turned into Robot Herders, herding the output of the software into something art-shaped. Meaning, they’ll probably still be doing THE ART, just at a cut rate, because realistically, the output of AI generators will still be mediocre, and someone of skill will need to fix that shit, but they won’t be treated like an artist. Which is to say, a class of creator that is already devalued in a lot of ways. AI makes it worse! Somehow! Fuck!
So, already I’ve been typing for a while, and this post is too long, but I’m about to make it longer. Because I can sense a small percentage of you reading this gnashing your teeth. You’re frothy with indignation because how dare I say these things? How could I poo-poo this cool fun future-changing technology? You have your BUT CHUCK retorts, and I will endeavor to address them, now. Note: they are different from your BUTT CHUCK retorts, which is a whole different, and altogether more childish, retort.
But Chuck! Something-something buggy whips, you Luddite!
Obviously the idea here is that blah blah blah when cars were invented all the buggy-whip manufacturers went out of business and certainly using a car wasn’t unethical just because of the poor buggy-whip makers blah blah blah. This is falsely based on the assumption that all technological advances are both a) equal and b) equally good. (It’s also worth asking the question of whether cars really were the singular most valuable and ethical choice going forward, as our reliance on them has not been necessarily a global good. More trains, I say!) To me the question is, who does this serve, and AI-generated material serves giant companies and tech bros more than it serves, say, you or me — and, one could argue it’s pretty deleterious to art, art culture, art as labor, all of that. And why are you comparing art — all the beautiful paintings and books and music over the years — to a single instrument used to cane a horse into moving faster? No. Be better. (And though Luddite has long been an insult, it’s really, really, really worth reading the origins of the term ‘Luddite’ and why, like the lady who burned herself with McDonald’s coffee, there’s a far more important story here.)
“Now do cameras.”
I’ve seen this response a buncha times re: criticisms of AI, specifically that phrasing. “Now do cameras.” Which, again, what are you saying? You have to, somewhere down deep inside, understand that USING A CAMERA and USING ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is not remotely the same, and you should know that even if you think of AI as a boon, and not a bane, to artists.
I assume the idea is, oh, if I use a camera it removes all the work of… painting the landscape? So it can’t be art? And digital art removes the work of using paint, too? And so therefore it’s the same? Or… something?
Let me say it this way: when I use a camera, and I take a photo, I am being intentional and I am making choices. Those two things are really key here: intentionality, and the making of choices. I’m saying, this thing in front of me, it is something I see, and want to show the world. And even I, a basic ding-dong, know that how I take that photo matters. How I frame the image matters. Subject versus background, light versus shadow, and so forth. Far better photographers than I are making even more choices in that moment, with a far greater awareness than I have, but in all aspects, there remains us, the photographer — aka, the human element. Then, if we go to digitally edit that photo in whatever way we care to (saturation modifications, cropping, doodling a little dick on a forehead and the dick is shooting hyphenated pee-pee bullets), we are once again a human making deliberate choices that culminate in a photo we, the human, wanted to show you, a fellow human.
And here you’re saying, BUT MAKING AI GENERATED BARF ART IS THE SAME THING, but please let me stop you. Your prompt is, indeed, making choices and creating intentionality, but you aren’t actually touching it or interacting with it. And the result is not something you in any way made. Something else made it. The software made it.
You didn’t make anything.
The equivalent is, instead of holding a camera and taking a photo, you instead handed the camera to a robot and said, “Go get me a photo of a butterfly.” You aren’t even taking the photo. The robot comes back and hands you the photo and you have the gall to say I’m the photographer.
If I tell a bartender to make me a cocktail, I don’t claim I made, or invented, the cocktail, okay? The bartender had the skills. You just had a drink order.
Art involves intentionality and making choices but also the effort — the literal human touch, actually, not even a metaphorical touch, I mean you’re actually touching the material in a fundamental way.
Cameras are a tool. Paints are a tool. Word processors are a tool.
ChatGPT, Midjourney, all of that? They’re just bartenders. They are third-party entities to which you give the entirety of the creative act.
BUT CHUCK. Isn’t what the AI does the same as what a human artist does?
Do you actually think this? You don’t, do you? I really am going to need you to see clearly through to the difference between “human doing human stuff, as human has done since humans starting humaning” and “software owned by tech assholes snorting up all the art so it can sneeze it back out.” If the software were truly a chrome-domed robot in a room, poring through the output of humanity over the centuries and finding inspiration and agita and hope and love and fear and emotion in what they were witnessing, then hey, maybe, sure. But it isn’t that. This feels like you already know this. My child knows this. A Furby isn’t a dog, either, since we’re having this chat.
But Chuck?? What about accessibility and ableism???
Seen the argument that making AI art is actually an act of accessibility and to deny it is an act of ableism and, you know, I think this is a disingenuous argument that uses social justice as a cudgel instead of actually doing any kind of work or offering any kind of benefit. This is a world designed by rampant acts of ableism, I agree, and that sucks, and it should change, but I don’t know that simply removing the entire act and effort of making stuff and instead handing that act and effort to an AI generator is not really a true act of equity. You have not given anybody accessible tools. AI isn’t the tool, it’s the everything. It’s the artist. I don’t see this as leveling any playing fields so much as it is taking the playing field away and calling it a favor.
But Chuck! The AI generator I use trains itself on opt-in material!
Hey, that’s great if that’s the case. But let’s remember that Midjourney supposedly didn’t have a huge list of art/artists it was harvesting, except then it turns out it totally did. And “opt-in” is kind of a sliding scale, isn’t it? EULAs can be pretty fucking inscrutable and sometimes a service will quietly add something to its service parameters about AI and then you’re technically kinda sorta opt-in even though you didn’t really opt-in, did you?
But Chuck, I’m an artist using AI!
That’s great, we can tell! “I’m a human and I eat other humans!” What fun for you! Okay! Cool! If you do that, more power to you. I don’t get it, and I’m happy it helps your… process? But I also don’t think you can, at present, extract the realities of artificial intelligence from your use of it without a hefty dose of fantasy and good old fashioned ignorance is bliss thinking.
And so, that leads me to this:
We all make choices and a lot of those choices are, by necessity, poorer ones than we’d like. And we make them because a lot of times we don’t have better choices at hand, and because unregulated capitalism has left us with a series of buttons to push and levers to pull that force us to imagine the trolley problem whenever we’re buying groceries or purchasing a book or posting a vacation photo on Instagram. Did you buy a water to drink at the airport? Congrats, it’s full of plastic and probably is helping to contribute to the desiccation of the Western United States and that bottle will probably end up in the ocean where it will somehow choke and kill a pelican. But you needed some fucking water and the airport maybe doesn’t have a dispenser for your own bottle and… you needed some fucking water, I dunno. We do what we can, when we can, to make meaningful choices in order to stave off the inevitable corporate plan of turning us all into chum for the harvesters.
And my view is, at this point in time, it’s clear that artificial intelligence in the arts is real problematic, and the juice is not worth the squeeze — and, further, if denying its power now gives us better agency going forward, then that’s a really good thing. Because certainly there is a world where AI can be used ethically, in some fashion, in our creative pursuits.
But today is just not that day.
And certainly AI can and should be used in important places that humans can’t really… effect, or access. If an AI helps us find new antibiotics, or can predict a new weather pattern, or can remind me that I’m out of ketchup and I need to buy new ketchup, hell yeah, let’s do it. But art is about people, and it has always been about people, and so-called AI being inserted into that equation by tech-bros (who yesterday really really wanted you to buy NFTs) changes the equation in such a fundamental way that it cannot be worth it, especially given the way the sausage is made. Or should I say, stolen.
Because with AI, the sausage is totally fucking stolen.
So don’t use it. Don’t play with it, don’t post it, don’t share it around. Reject the Art Barf Robot. You don’t need it. It’s not for you. You don’t need it for the words, the images, the narration, the music. Writing isn’t easy, but also, your access to writing is easy. Art is hard, but also, you can still make art. Make weird shit, messy shit, ugly shit, incomplete shit, amateur shit — make art to make art. Touch it. Be intentional. Make choices. Make art. You do it. The human you. I’ll do it, too. Eat shit, art barf robot!
p.s. buy my book it’s suburban folk horror about an orchard cult, yeah, try to do that, ChatGPT you mediocre fucker