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Nicéphore Niépce, 1826, The first photograph

All labor of love must have something beyond mere mechanism at the bottom of it.
-The New Path, 1865

We’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes
-OmniMorpho via Twitter 2022

Artificial Intelligence vs Human Intelligence

The angst right now among visual artists regarding AI artwork is palpable. If you are still unfamiliar with the term, this is art generated with the assistance of artificial intelligence by means of word prompts, and it is definitely having a moment. There are many readily available programs both free and paid, and also very powerful systems at major tech companies, which all have a hand in the arena. This alone is telling of it’s potential as a moneymaker. Although this use of AI is in it’s infancy, it will very quickly get better and easier to use, which will only make it more common.

Twenty five years ago Gary Kasparov, the world champion chess master, was beaten by a computer named Deep Blue. He actually did pretty well in the two six game matches, winning the first match, and losing 3½–2½ in the second match, which was tied after five games. In a rematch a few years later, Deep Blue was unbeatable in any game. Regardless, AI had come of age in the public imagination. Ultimately it didn’t matter much, beyond the existential dread it initially caused. A computer does not get flustered, or stumble, or angry which is the human drama that is the draw to top level chess. Players began using it test novel strategies, and eventually the technology became a tool for enthusiasts and a pastime for hobbyists.

As a visual art, the history of photography is more relevant to AI. The first commercial cameras became available in 1839, and almost immediately people thought this would be the end of painting, the end of high art. Why bother learning to draw if a camera can produce such a believable image with so little effort? This effectively weeded out less serious artists, but most continued working, with some established artists eventually adopting photography as a tool. Generationally, younger artists came of age with photography firmly ingrained, and they came to terms with it organically, eventually pushing the limits of their chosen media into new areas.

The marvelous productions of Photography continue to engross the attention of the lovers of Art in a high degree. The apprehensions once entertained that this art would, to a certain extent, thrust the artist and his vocation aside, are now no longer indulged; but, on the contrary, it is seen that Photography, so far from being a rival, is in truth a most important auxiliary.” -The Crayon, March, 1855

The fear has sometimes been expressed that photography would in time entirely supersede the art of painting. Some people seem to think that when the process of taking photographs in colors has been perfected and made common enough, the painter will have nothing more to do. We need not fear anything of the kind.” -Henrietta Clopath: Brush and Pencil, March, 1901

Still, it took a very long time for photography to be recognized as a worthy artistic pursuit, capable of depth of emotion and requiring skill. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was one of the first American institutions to collect photographs, but they didn’t do so until 1924 when Alfred Stieglitz donated twenty-seven of his photographs.

Frank Gregory, AI image, “antique photograph of a crowd all on smartphones”

When an artist’s visual synapses are firing, and they are pushing images through their hand onto a surface, or through a lens, or even onto a monitor, it is a markedly different thing than finding the right combination of words to coax a computer into spitting out a picture. I’ve played around with DALL-E 2 AI and find the experience awkward and uninspiring… so far. Describing an image in simple terms is fairly easy, but writing for an honest emotion or feeling in a way AI can understand is not intuitive at all, and definitely not poetry. It is not at all the same as writing for humans, and maybe this is AI’s limitation, which all media have. AI is intelligent enough to second guess my descriptions, which it does by making iterations that assume I don’t understand grammar, which is irritating. Sure, some compelling images do show up, but they are not at all what I was looking for. I suppose I could refine those and maybe get to something decent, but this is definitely more curation than creation. Also the lack of physicality is just boring, which is one of my major issues with NFTs and digital art in general. Of course this is just me, and doesn’t preclude its use as a tool for finishing something in another media.

So, will AI replace visual artists? The short answer is, that depends on the artist. Young artists, growing up with this tool will certainly use it. As for established artists, some will ignore it, some will try it out to see if it has a use (consider me in this group), and others will abandon the brush entirely either out of exasperation, or to dive deeper into AI. It does seem tailor made for the ubiquitous and diverse NFT crowd already out there. That said, it will certainly have a real effect on the commercial arts. Traditional illustrators will find themselves competing for gigs against AI programs, or will have to use it themselves. AI will definitely be cheaper for clients which will only make it more prevalent. It is also good to note here that early photography had a similar impact not long after it was introduced.

If it encroaches on any department of Art, it is that of engraver; for books illustrated by photography, in place of the productions of the graver, are finding their way into the book market.
-The Crayon, March, 1855

All of this could produce a backlash of course, with a resurgence of interest in the handmade. The Arts & Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, for example, was reaction against the industrialization of the decorative arts.

Elite level chess is inspiring because most of us will never approach being that good. We admire the strategic imagination that executes a beautiful move which another human has to respond to, sometimes negatively. Physical artwork, produced by the human hand will always speak to us in a way that a computer monitor just can’t. The HI (Human Intelligence) that is nimble enough or wired perfectly for a task is inspiring. Anyone can lose chess to a computer, and now anyone can sit at a computer and prompt a program to create an image. Is it chess? Sure, but it’s not a chess match. Is it art? Sure, but it is not a painting or a photograph.


Henrietta Clopath: Brush and Pencil , Mar., 1901, Vol. 7, No. 6 (Mar., 1901), pp. 331-333
The Crayon, Vol. 1, No. 11 (Mar. 14, 1855), p. 170
The New Path, Vol. 2, No. 12 (Dec., 1865), pp. 198-199

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