Lensa, the cheap, accessible avatar generator entertaining internet users at the moment, has artists and more judicious netizens coming out in droves to critique the app, the role of AI in art and the merit of AI art itself. Criticisms have ranged from Lensa profiting off existing artists’ work with no compensation granted to them, working off an image database that includes violent images and people’s private records and generating nudes from users’ childhood photos. The debate around AI (in) art is not new, but it is a protracted one; it will continue to evolve as policy and moral rationale play catch up to newer, more advanced, more “fun” AI art technologies. As more artists’ critiques and pleas for caution are ignored, we could be headed in the direction of anticipated and unforeseen harms and challenges to users’ online privacy and consent, artists’ economic opportunities and human creativity.
But surely, it can’t all be doom and gloom. Is the only way out of this to step aside and let AI art technologies bulldoze over artists and their opportunities? Are we sure nothing good can come out of tools that seemingly halve the tediousness of the artistic process? In India’s #1 tourist destination, Goa, some artists have taken to DALL-E, Stable Diffusion and Midjourney and other AI 'text to image' tools like it’s just another tool in the proverbial paint kit.
Intelligent Artificial, an informal creative lab curated by Quicksand's Avinash Kumar, brought together artists, architects, food and drink specialists and researchers to talk about the implications, hopes and concerns of AI in art. Led by DFL’s Communications Manager, Sasha John, for her session on ‘AI + Creative Economy’, representatives from Bus Ride, Digital Futures Lab and Countertop India and others spoke extensively and openly about the applications for AI in art, how AI has and might continue to define the artistic process and what it means for AI to be situated within the current rhetorical and socioeconomic landscape of the “creative economy”.
Interestingly, the artists and designers present understand AI in art as a phenomenon to be embraced and adapted to, rather than be fearful or cautious of. Like with the advent of the camera and VFX in film, Intelligent Artificial participants saw AI in art as “of the times”; it’s here to stick around, so why not get with the programme? Some have taken to incorporating it in their own process, to help with the conceptualisation phase with clients for example. It’s partially a matter of “re-skilling” - something a lot of people fall back on in the age of the “creative entrepreneur”. This is a bit of a misnomer though, because the “skill” in question is not as simple as learning how to input the right combination of words and phrases that will result in a near-perfect visual rendition of the germ of an idea you have. As a couple of participants pointed out, there is a certain privilege associated with the type of creative professional (or even a random person using the internet) who can trulyleverage research, existing knowledge of art and art history, the English language, editing software etc. to produce relevant, high quality AI art. So when we talk about AI art making art “accessible” through “a democratization of artistic tools”, yet again, who is actually able to take advantage of AI in art and truly make something off it?
The larger point, however, is that not every innovation, and its ensuing disruption, needs to be welcomed. And it seems particularly unfair that after years of skilling, the great solution for artists is to just… skill again! Whether out of self-preservation or professional advancement, what if the fallacy is in the conviction that AI in art is something we have to adapt to? Why is resisting not seen as just as viable? We’ve rhetorically, intellectually and socially cornered ourselves into thinking AI, in general, is an inevitable part of human advancement. When the truth is, it’s absolutely possible to change course.
Some part of Intelligent Artificial was also spent on interrogating the importance of human creativity, intention, years of experience and innate skill when it comes to creating. Is the artist someone who has spent years honing their craft, or someone who knows how to use a tool of their time to make something meaningful, even if it is something they only picked up a few days ago? What determines the value of an artwork, and its impact, and why are we so sure that AI - with just a hint of the human touch - is incapable of creating something that possesses both in high amounts? While participants were split in this debate, most did agree that AI art has the tendency to be hollow - a critique that’s been made against AI art for its “hotel lobby art” quality.
Outside of the vacuity in the facial expressions of most AI art-generated characters, there’s no artist story to truly go along with the artwork. The work is predominantly computer-driven and not entirely creator-driven, so there are little to no elements of the artist’s quirks, their lives or themselves in the work. You could argue that that’s not important, that those layers of interpretation and hidden meaning are often beyond your everyday consumers of art anyway, which is fair. But it’s also what makes looking at and trying to understand art so great.
AI art, and the ensuing debate around it, is but one of many products of the “creative economy” age. “Creative industries” as a term and as an ecosystem of industries (film, TV, media, publishing, advertising, graphic design etc. etc.), it was pointed out during Intelligent Artificial, has been around for a while. But “creative economy” - that distinct economic setup of getting “the most art and culture” out of the least amount of input in the most efficient way possible - is perhaps a relatively new spin on the age-old twin menaces that are scaling and profiting off art. And while this wasn’t the overwhelming feeling at Intelligent Artificial, AI enables exactly those latter two things at the expense of artists who have developed a craft, style and illustrious portfolios over years and continued effort. Plagiarism, databases, copyright and “publicly available” internet content all come together to form the trappings of the very sticky mess that is “accessible and democratised” AI art in the modern, capitalist creative economy.
In short, for the artists and designers at Intelligent Artificial, it’s perhaps not all doom and gloom in the oft-proclaimed ‘AI age’. While the race to the bottom for the arts is warily looming, with the right protections and existential preservations, AI can’t possibly rip off artists, or replace them. But in order to defeat the enemy, or at least put up safeguards to stave them off, it’s important to see what the fuss is about. And that’s what we hope to do at Digital Futures Lab: explore and interrogate the contours of the creative economy and related industries, specifically in the context of the majority world, and see just what the fuss is about. And also what the future might hold!