Some time in the waning days of 2022 a kind of art revolt took place. Artists around the world united against ArtStation and decided that AI was to art what 'the meteor' was to dinosaurs. Hundreds upon hundreds of illustrators, character artists, 3D artists, and all sundry flooded their profiles with a “No to AI generated images” template, making the trending page on ArtStation a collage of the stamp and other variations of it. The whole incident seemed enough to make you believe that the arrival of MidJourney, Dall-E, Stable Diffusion, and many others of the ilk meant the end-times for human art. But that’s where you’d be wrong.
Before I go into the how and why of the wrongness, let me preface by saying I don’t consider myself an artist. Not in the conventional sense anyway. I may write unpublished poetry, unproduced movies and incomplete fiction in my off time, but my bread and butter is advertising. In fact, I’m one of the people whose job is perceived to be under threat by tools like ChatGPT. So, this is me shooting myself in the proverbial foot by advocating for the rise of AI art.
Nonetheless, it needs to be said that AI is not going to bring about the downfall of human art. It’s going to elevate it. I can feel the death stare of my artist friends as I say this but, unmount that high horse and hear me out for a bit.
Steal like an artist.
To every artist reading this, I propose a simple journey of self-reflection. Look back on when and how you started creating. Remember that first box of crayons and how utterly terrible your drawings were. Now fast forward a couple of years, to when your classmates have moved on but you keep doodling and drawing on every page. Go ahead a few more years and arrive at that point where you decided, “This is it. This is what I’m going to do. I’m gonna be an artist.”
Now slow down. This is the start of the artist’s journey. The moment you decide to make this a career, you inevitably have to learn and hone your craft. And the things that will shape your voice the most will be life and other artists. The vast majority of the illustrators I’ve met in my career started off by tracing or copying the work of artists they admired. When they were very young, their influences were shaped by the world and the art before them. More importantly, the recreation of a complex piece by their own hands helped them learn things that would otherwise never have come to mind. Copying is the prologue to creativity.
This isn’t true just for modern artists. All the greats were trained in traditional techniques before they became great. All of them ‘traced’ scenes of life or other artists by looking at them and applying the methods they learned from their forebears. Until they found their own style and voice. That’s when they graduated from artistic padawans to the masters we know them as today.
That’s exactly what the AI art generators are doing. These tools are the technological equivalent of pre-pubescent kids who just got their first box of crayons. They are just tracing the drawings of their peers - you. You learned by copying, AI art generators are doing the same. They still have to find their own style and voice, if they ever will. Being angry at AI art for copying your style is like being angry at a child for imitating your mannerisms. It’s annoying at most, but not worth frothing over.
Wondrous words with worldly worth.
ChatGPT is the thing that should worry my industry but it doesn’t worry me, personally. When you can get the copy for an eDM within seconds, clients will think twice about the kinds of briefs they give out to agencies. Then again, no one in agencies wants to churn out adapts for a living. Show me a creative who gets excited to mass-produce banners or eDMs and I’ll show you someone whose soul has been utterly crushed by the grind. Big ideas and executions will forever be human-made. AI will never overcome that. The fact remains that AI works on the law of averages and, therefore, its craft will always be average. When there is no sense of individuality, there can be no unique point of view. For that, we need to wait for what experts call the ‘singularity’ - a moment of AI advancement when it becomes smarter than the creator.
I even challenged myself recently to go head-to-head versus ChatGPT for a banal brief that made its way to my desk. Making up a CNY banner seemed like an easy enough task for the AI, but the headlines it delivered were grammatically correct yet shockingly terrible. Most were not even worth reading. None had any semblance of an idea. All were just variations of the prompt, without any craft. Only 1 headline served as some meagre starting point, after dozens of crafted prompts. Though my evidence is anecdotal and ChatGPT is still young, I’m confident in the shortcomings of AI. It will never write like Douglas Adams. It will never create The Man Your Man Could Smell Like. It cannot construct a sentence like the title of this section. It isn’t truly original… yet.
Way back when AI was just beginning to be noticed, Burger King made an entire series of films that were supposedly scripted by AI. They were witty. They were hilarious and memorable. They made me excited for the future of AI. Then I met the creative director who came up with the idea and found out that all of the films were written by actual copywriters imitating the inaneness of AI scripts. The incoherent style of AI was copied and recreated by humans to make art. I hope the irony is apparent.
There will come a Hendrix.
I honestly find this entire cacophony of doom and gloom around AI art generators to be fundamentally flawed. In human history, we have always had new technology come up and the gatekeepers of the old way have risen in aggravation. Time and time again, those who hate the new have made it an existential threat when it can instead become an asset.
When the electric guitar first came out, conventional guitarists were shouting from the rooftops that it’s not genuine music. When phone cameras reached our hands, photographers raised theirs and bemoaned the death of art. When photoshop arrived, many artists had a similar reaction to the one they are currently expressing with regards to AI generated art. Candle makers were appalled at the lightbulb. Carriage companies pulled their hair out over automobiles. It is unavoidable. Tension makes a rubber band work and movement requires friction.
But what these shortsighted critics failed to realise then, as they fail to do now, is that AI art generators are simply the next tool at our disposal. They are electric guitars in a classical age. Not some T-1000 to be feared, but a tool to be mastered.
Right now, as you read this, there are probably a bunch of pre-teens discovering MidJourney or Stable Diffusion or any of the dozen others for the first time alongside us. Unlike the ageing ‘artists’, these kids are greeting AI art with the excitement it deserves. Within the next few years we will see them use the same prompts we have and the same tools we can access, to create things that can only be described as art. They will undoubtedly push this tool to its limits and usher in a new era of human art complemented by AI. Deny it as we might, there will come a Jimi Hendrix who will turn the wah-wah pedal into iconic music instead of the cat copulation noises that critics called it at the beginning.
Pictures came and broke your heart.
The clearest analogy I can find is the reason I quoted the famous Buggles song as the title of this article. When televisions first appeared in homes, people feared that it would be the end of radio. True enough, there was a period of turmoil until the old guard that refused to adapt eventually went extinct. Then, podcasts came along and the skills that were thought to be useless suddenly found a renewed purpose.
That is what I foresee will happen in the near future because, like it or not, AI art is here. It’s everywhere and it’s evolving. Even AI experts are adjusting their figures for the ‘singularity’ by decades. The cool thing is, we are going to evolve with it and because of it. Within a few machine generations of learning, it will blow our minds with its capabilities and how the new human generation bends it to realise their imagination. Will there be a dark side? Of course there will. Corporations like Amazon and Microsoft will soon use AI to mass-produce ads without needing to employ expensive agencies or artists. It will all look the same and sound the same. It will be boring. It will be soulless.
However, this will cause the value of human art to grow exponentially. Because only the best human artists will flourish and their demand will far outweigh their supply. It will also result in agencies and artists who are hybrids, using AI as the tool it is to elevate their own voices.
For me, the first instinct upon discovering MidJourney was to input all my old poems into the AI as prompts to see how it interpreted my words in an ongoing project called MidPoetry. It’s hard to argue that the output isn’t art, since the input was written art to begin with. Though there are some who would never even consider AI and art in the same sentence (yes you, Kotaku), MidJourney just became a new medium for me to express my voice in a way that I was simply unable to do before. My words came to life with multiple interpretations and I got to hone the ones that resonated with me the most. It’s no different than someone using an Apple Pencil over a paintbrush. Just because it’s easier doesn’t mean the expression is devalued in any way, otherwise all digital art should be essentially worthless in comparison to Michelangelo’s intricate sculptures.
The thing is, if you don’t change your perspective and pick up the skills to conquer this new software (let’s be honest, that is all it is), you deserve to be left behind. By seeing AI art generators as the tool that they are, you can survive the oncoming radio apocalypse of our generation and maybe even lead the direction art is heading in.
Viraj Chouhan is associate creative director at The Secret Little Agency