I’ve seen some posts here and there on social media, of images created by Artificial Intelligence (AI). I am not an expert on AI, and most of what I’ve seen has been produced by Midjourney AI, so I am coming at this from my own limited perspective as of today.
Do I like the images? No. They are florid, sanitized, and creepy. Would I still like them if I had no knowledge of AI? Could I even reliably tell? I honestly don’t know. Unfortunately, I know something about the origin. If I saw a mushroom cloud rising without any comprehension of the bomb, perhaps I would find the billowing skyshapes to be beautiful.
I think you can tell from my tone how this piece is going to go.
Humanity has had a way of easing the workload for itself. Since the industrial revolution (yes, I went there) there’s been a conviction that if we could work less, we could be free to enjoy life.
Now, before you brand me a Luddite, hear me out. I’m grateful to live in a world where I live in relative comfort. I own a car, wear soft clothing, eat processed food, and have access to vaccines, medicines and reasonably good medical and dental care. When we created machines and factories to shoulder the work of many, we created the modern world. I LIKE the modern world. I’m not sure I’d want to live during any decade before 1850. I’d maybe even skip pre-1950, if I’m being really honest.
When I was born in 1969, we had just landed on the moon. (Mom claims she held me up to the TV to bear witness.) As a child in the ’70s, and as a youth of the ’80s and ’90s, I’ve watched the room-sized computer become something everyone could own. By the time I had my first child, pocket-sized phones existed, and within 15 years merged with the computers to become the highly-improbable pocket supercomputer that everyone is carrying around. During my corporate working years I watched the offices fill with laptops and screens, and watched the number of employees dwindle as the processes that used to take a roomful of administrative assistants became automated down to one multi-tasking software user per function.
We are excellent delegators. We give the computer every job we can think of. After all, we’d rather not do the work ourselves! Of course not.
That administrative work is boring work. We can automate the repetitive, soul-sucking tasks again, just like we freed ourselves from those dark Satanic Mills. And should we? Yes, yes, yes! Technology’s advance means more freedom to live our lives doing the GOOD stuff. The fun stuff. The CREATIVE stuff. Who wants to spend all day long typing data into forms? Trust me – I’ve been there, done that. (I’d decided I’d rather paint.)
Humanity is still in the business of “making things easier” and “lightening the load.” Today, as a grown-up full-fledged member of pro-technology humanity, I now own a pocket supercomputer which monitors my smartwatch and reports on my sleep patterns, keeps in touch with my friends and family, takes notes and keeps lists for me, directs me to where I’m going, categorizes and plays my music, and, most importantly, keeps my appointment calendar, even pinging little reminders so I do not forget where to go and what to do at what time. It even helps me share my paintings, and my life as an artist, with the world! Admittedly, I’m addicted to the darn thing. So easy! I can hardly remember what life was like before it…and I’ll bet you can’t either.
At least it couldn’t draw and paint for me! Thank goodness. This was always the one place the computers couldn’t tread. Only I could put mind, heart and hand together, and create my own unique paintings. And if I felt that making cards and prints felt “too factory”, I could always step away and make an original. A one-of-a-kind original. A handcrafted thing, made with love. Of course, with my newfound global social media reach, most of what people would see of my works would be thanks to my handy pocket supercomputer (and sometimes, a scanner/laptop combo). But I never lost sight of the physical world of museums and galleries, either.
And then, the AIs came.
They came for us in the 2020-2022 time period when the world was weakened, and weary.
We have let down our guard. In a post-Trump time, pandemics, economic downturn, climate and ecological breakdown create the perfect environment for AI art to get popular. It’s the ultimate “make art easier” tool. We want our pretty things, our Dopamine hits, and we want them now, and who cares how we get them?
NOW WAIT, I hear you say. YOU SAID IT WAS A TOOL. I have read the arguments that AIs are just another tool like paintbrushes or Photoshop, so why not add to the toolbox? The more tools we have, the larger amount and variety of beautiful art we will have, so what’s wrong with that? AIs are a different sort of implement, along a broad gradient of use types. We could take a toothpick and scratch ink off of a board. We could program a series of cameras to take photos pointed at the sunset for 365 days. We could fling house paint downward, suspended above a huge canvas. I’m not a great fan of every type of art, but I would still categorize it as human-created art. It’s part of culture that we create as artists, with our own backgrounds, training, reasons, and methods.
But AIs are different. If you can’t see how paying $30 for a MidJourney account, then choosing different prompt words, and selecting from the iterations veers from the definition of “artist tool”, then I don’t know how else to describe it to you. You’re not just starting with a texture or reference – you’re sending it off to do its thing without you and then having it present options. I’ve heard the argument that creativity lies in the choices we make with what it produces, but if that qualifies as “creativity” then you and I have a very different understanding of this term.
“Creativity” is what we’re sending the AI off to do for us. It’s going off and scanning the world of images and styles, and synthesizing a new whole image. Isn’t that what goes on in the mind of an artist? This is why the maturity, background, and cultural exposure of an artist are visible in their works.
BUT WAIT! AIs don’t have HEART. It will never show up in what they produce. You can never simulate the ineffable. Oh, haven’t you seen what’s already out there? AIs only need to come CLOSE ENOUGH. And from what I’ve seen, the AI images are close enough, just good enough, to fool people into thinking they are seeing the real thing. Or, put another way, just good enough to serve the artistic purposes we require. Is it “just good enough” to cost a fraction of what hiring an illustrator would cost? So easy. Too easy. You can bet Art Directors everywhere are sitting up and taking notice. One less email, one less phone call, one less 1099 form, sure. This is making our lives easier.
I am fully aware that history is still playing out before my eyes just as it was when my mom held me up to see the moon landing. I know, that even though there are no more “history books” to speak of, and assuming there are future humans left to care to mark historical events, that AI-created art is just one more tragic chapter.
What do artists have left to do? When anyone can type a few words and send our automated slaves off to create images that can be tweaked and used for tarot cards, book covers, and even be entered into art contests and win, what are we even doing, trying to create art by ourselves? By HAND? That would take training and effort, after all. I suppose it was just too difficult, all along.
I guess we’ve automated everything. Even the creative act itself.
Where is the resistance? Exhausted, in survival mode, we’ve lost our will to choose the best world…we only want the easiest. “Culture” fails to carry any emotional currency. We no longer care who makes these things, or why, or whether or not artists can or should make a living, or even what the whole point of humanity is. Our creative urges are fundamental to what makes human intelligence and sentience unique in all the worlds we now know, but we have let those sparks fall in the cooling embers of a dying civilization.
This is the world, the culture, the life, that we’ve made for ourselves. A world where every task has been delegated, automated, and simulated. When there is nothing else left for any of us to do, will then we finally be free?
~ Leah Jay
Postscript: If you feel like humanity should be making different choices, then make a different choice yourself. Support the (human) arts. You know what to do.
About the guests:
Leah Jay is an artist and illustrator from the Pacific Northwest, who calls herself “an artistic polymath and avid experimenter”. Leah experiments with a variety of mediums: watercolor, acrylic, pastel, ink, fiber, and collage. Her colorful, expressive art has been featured in various publications. Highlights from Leah’s 35-years-long career include directing 2001’s WTC Memorial Art Project to facilitate artists’ responses to 9/11, sharing her piece “Yesterday’s California” on the cover of the Silicon Valley Metro, and successfully crowdfunding her artbook “Amphibian Love” to benefit Save the Frogs. More about Leah can be found at her website — https://leahjayart.com/.
Sohma Rae Hathaway is an inspiring artist who became Sterling Scholar amidst many challenging odds. She is a true empath who believes that laughter heals the heart and gratitude is just good medicine. Her memoir “Finding Diamonds in Dungeons” is gaining popularity with all 5 star reviews and a ‘best seller’ status. Sohma’s artwork uses bold and beautiful color combinations to convey emotion, most often with allegories or symbols of faith, hope and love. She uses a diversity of mediums from watercolor to oils and has even developed her own technique she calls “chaos refined” using an acrylic base with finishing touches done in oil-based paints. You can contact Sohma directly through social media: Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn. It’s available wherever books are sold. You can also get the audio version here.