Artificial AI – by me

So, enter a few keywords in AI software and add some art you like and … … … … … Moments later, the software poops out a piece of art containing the objects your keywords refer to in the style of the art you added! Right? Right. And artists aren’t liking the idea very much. I have some reservations about it myself, so I figured, why not do the same thing with my own hands? Before I start my reflections upon AI, let me tell you how:

I entered a few keywords in search engines and found me a few images that I made a pretty digital collage of. Then I decided I wanted to work that collage into an ink drawing. It took three work days, but eventually my mind and hands did the job and pooped out this Tree House:

The Tree House is an ink drawing of a graphically designed tree house in which different kinds of woodpeckers are positioned. It's colored black, white, grey and blood red.
“The Tree House”, India ink and watercolor on A3 Bristol paper

AI crushing limits

AI offers the digital technique to create a work of art in the style of any artist you like. There are no limits. Not to the technical possibilities of creating a pretty picture and not to the ethical questions this development raises. I felt it’s time for some reflections.

AI selfies, copyright and common decency

The past weeks AI washed over my Insta timeline. Apparently, an AI app that turns selfies into artwork in the style of an artist of your preference had gone viral. Suddenly part of my tribe bombarded their followers with dozens of virtual artistic versions of themselves. Some mentioned feeling slightly awkward about joining the hype. They realised that by using such an app, they might be violating copyright laws and common decency towards the artists whose work was used by the AI software to make these virtual portraits with. Most were blatantly and blissfully unaware that the artists the underlying artwork had been used from had not been asked for permission to use their work, let alone that they’d been paid for it.

Vanity and indignation

So after the initial wave of excited vanity followed  a second wave, that of angry and scared artists. AI can take away their income in two ways. Firstly, by using their work in the software to create new images from. And secondly by making future art work superfluous. Because, if you can have a pretty portrait made within minutes for free, who’s going to commission an artist?

Same old, same old?

Some people argue that when photography came, artists were scared they’d lose their income of portrait painting, but they didn’t. There were still people who wanted a painted or drawn portrait. So, thinking along that line they argue that AI will probably not change the art world that much. I think, that it will, because AI is NOT the same as the new technique photography brought to the market.

AI, the new predator versus artists, the new prey

In the first place AI is more than ‘just a technique’. It cannot only offer a new possibilities for, let’s say, portraits. In order to be able to do so, AI must be fed tons of portraits, created by real artists. So AI also predates on the work artists make, eats it, digests it and creates something new from it. That is an unprecedented development that scars every sense of ethics with regards to creating, the creation and the creator.

Unimaginable scale

Also, when photography came, it was very expensive to have your photo taken. Few people could afford it. AI, however, is currently offered for free. And with the way things work with us paying for the use of “free”apps with data, it’s likely that there will always be apps that allow us to create AI art for free. This, of course, means that the scale of the effect of this new technique is humongous. AI will seep into every little crevice in the world, decimating chances for traditional artists.

What does AI mean to art?

Chances for artists to make money from their work were always small. Maybe during the rise of the internet and social media some artists got chances they wouldn’t previously have had. But things are about to change again. Because this time, with AI everybody will be able to make art. Or, maybe we shouldn’t say ‘art’, but ‘pretty pictures’. Because when you generate images through calculations, can we really call that art anymore? Capital ‘A’? Maybe the first one who did it, but I think it may very well be ‘Art’ what AI cannot do. Maybe all AI can do, is generate ‘pretty’ pictures. ‘Pretty’ meaning “to the taste of the programmer”.

Illustration: Disneyfied “art” versus artistic illustration

What I think AI will be very good at, is to create what I call disneyfied “art”. Let me start by explaining what I mean by ‘disneyfied’. What Disney does great, is pick fairytales and myths, polish and burnish them into easily digestible ‘happily ever after’ feel-good stories. And then they ‘disneyfy’ them into rather literal visual translations of the text.

Picture perfect versus artistic

If you remember the Disney Book Club books, the illustrations would almost always depict exactly what was written in the text. That is a simple, accessible, flat and superficial, yet successful type of illustration. There is, however, another kind of illustration that I’d call artful. Those are the illustrations that intensify the emotional charge of a story, the illustrations that clarify the more abstract parts in a text and the illustrations that tell a little parallel story to clarify or create the atmosphere of the book. Just like the type of illustrations they are, they are often very creatively and artistically made, contrary to the more superficial type of illustration work, that tends to be very flat or cheaply digital.

AI for the commercial masses

It is my guess that there will always be an audience for artful illustration work. But, I’m also realistic enough to recognize the commercial success of companies like Disney. Those image factories easily meet the standards of the masses. So, the market for illustration work may be decimated with the arrival of slick, quick and cheap AI generated images. That is what most people will be happy with.

Art for the human connection

But…there will always be people who are hungry for more. More artistic work offers more emotional depth, catharsis, an artistically forged bridge between the reader’s own consciousness and that of the artist, a reflection of the time they live in and in which they recognize feelings and thoughts that are otherwise hard to put a finger on. Maybe it will become even harder to find budgets that will pay for that kind of work, but the need for the work will always be there. The need for what’s human in art.

Two types of images

There’s also the type of artists who just make very beautiful images. Not necessarily illustrations of something, but beautiful stand-alone images, to hang on your wall or to have printed on a coffee mug, or something. In this category of art I feel there are two subcategories. The first is the one that materializes inner sensations, emotions, reflections and experiences. Just like with the artistic illustration genre this is a storytelling one that can create a sense of connection between the artist and the viewer. The second subcategory is that of the ‘pretty picture’. These are just that – really pretty pictures. This category is the most popular art category in Instagram and fills timelines with images that are mostly done in the same technique, the same style. These images look great on your wall or on a notebook, but they have little or no story to tell.

‘pretty pictures’ to be an endangered species?

It is my guess that artist-made ‘pretty pictures’ will easily be replaced by AI excrement. Pretty pictures are easy to replicate when AI software is fed with hundreds of similar looking images. It’s my gut feeling that artists who make art in this category will be having a hard time as manufacturers of products with pretty pictures on them and magazine publishers, for example, will find it way cheaper to have a quick image made with AI than to commission an artist. When no deeper story or emotion is necessary, AI might be a cheap, quick and easy way out.

Capital ‘A’ Art

Real Art, with a capital ‘A’, the Art that hangs in walls of museums and exclusive galleries, will always be there. I think AI might sooner provide Art with a new medium, a new Art form, than that it may pose a threat to its existence. Activist Art also falls into this category, the Art that reflects our times like a mirror, prophetic even, sometimes. That too will not disappear because of the emergence of AI.

What is AI intelligence?

AI may be “intelligent” in computer terms, but it’s never more than very clever algorithms with very clever feedback loops. It might in the future come close to human-made work, but the human mind and emotional life are chaos and susceptible to experiences and impulses from the outside world. Whether AI will ever sort out our inner chaos to prove it’s truly intelligent, we’ll have to wait and see. For now, it is not, so the most it can do, is produce pretty pictures based on what we feed it, on what we teach the algorithms. I think that ‘intelligence’ as in the term AI refers to ‘information’ or ‘data’ rather than to the capacity to reason, think and take mental sidesteps for creative thinking when inspired.

Are we feeding AI?

In that light there’s a question I’ve been pondering about: should we feed AI anymore? Should we keep posting our work online so that it can be downloaded and fed to AI with the purpose of no longer needing our work? How intelligent is it to have our timelines filled with images of all the stuff we make? Would it be too late to stop doing it? And if we did stop showing off our work, would we be artists anymore? What channels would we have to get our work to the people?

Artists versus AI in the human aspect

No matter how we feel about AI-created “art”, and no matter how unethical it may be, we are not going to stop this development from pushing through. And undoubtedly, it’s going to decimate the possibilities for artists to make an income from their work. If there’s anything I think artists can do to raise their chances, it is to make sure their work comes from a deeper level. AI can and will do the superficial pretty picture well, quick and cheap. It’s the truly unique human aspect that AI cannot (yet) bring forth, so I think we need to strive for more than just a pretty picture and reach for depth, story and connection.

New ethics and international laws required

Zooming out to macro level, AI requires a new philosophical and ethical discussion about intellectual property and copyright. If people use AI to create a new image and use a collection of an artists’ work to do so and create a digital work of art that resembles theirs, how does that affect intellectual property? Should artists be compensated in that case? And if so, what does it mean for platforms like facebook and Instagram that have let users sign to be okay with them using the uploaded images in whatever way they like? Have we given away any possible rights there?

Artists: unite!

In this light, artists around the world should unite to stand up for themselves and the rights to their work. Nobody else will do it for us. Nobody else will be affected by this development. In fact, many may prosper from AI to the cost of artists’ work. We cannot stop this development, but we can try to inspire our governments to take action and make the situation a bit more fair than it seems to turn out to be at this moment.

And the Art consumer?

As Art consumers we have things to lose here too. The more AI will get a grip on the art world, the more uniform the art that surrounds us will become. If we want to keep seeing variety and if we want to keep being surprised by original takes on the inner human life in which we can see ourselves reflected, we need to keep paying attention to traditional artists. Also, no matter how pretty an artificially generated piece of art may turn out to be, it will always lack the expression of the medium. My tree house at the top of this article may be nothing but lines and patches of color to you, but if you could see the real deal and feel it…you would see the shimmer of the dry India ink, you would feel where my pen scratched the paper, you would see the sun tickle the ink and sparkle it up here and there. That is added value that AI will never provide.

close up from ink drawing by Mandy van Goeije in which a tree house is filled with different kinds of woodpeckers
Close up from “The Tree House” in which you can see the details of the material, the flaws of hand work and the scratching of the nib of my pen that digital art doesn’t provide.

What are your thoughts?

There’s a lot of debate about this topic. Feel free to comment on this blog if you’ve any thoughts to share or if you feel you have reflections to add.

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Credits

Contrary to what this popular AI app does, I will do my best to credit the makers of the original images:

  • homedeco.nl. This staircase can be found online in many places, but I have not been able to trace the architect, so can’t credit.
  • The swirling building is Ribbon Chapel in Onomichi, Japan and was created by architect Hiroshi Nakamura. I found the image on Pinterest and could trace it back to the architect.
  • The green woodpecker at the top and the one on the bottom floor of the tree are after photos I made of my woodpecker friend that visits the Chestnut tree in front of my studio.
  • The image of the pileated woodpecker, the one I used for the left and right woodpecker on the second swirl of the treehouse, I found on google image search and could trace it back to the Flickr account of Nigel.
  • The front-facing woodpecker, an Acorn Woodpecker, and the woodpecker on the ground were based on magazine clippings I’ve kept for years, makers of the photos untraceable.