Thoughts on A.I. Generated Art

The first time I dabbled with A.I. generated art was on the site Artbreeder. After signing up I spent a number of hours morphing and combining images, creating alien beings, and strange insects. I uploaded a personal photograph and generated images of men that could have been brothers, distant cousins, a grown-up son. Some of the images, specifically the images that combined with other seed images, were strange and haunting, the stuff of nightmares, the outcome of a fevered night of painting in Francis Bacon’s London studio. I socked away a few images for inspirational jumping points. My first impression was one of amazement, and possible good fortune at having stumbled across such a weird and wonderful tool. This tool could be used to inspire my own work and take it in new and weird directions.

The second time I toyed around with A.I. generated images happened when the announced Deep Nostalgia. Deep Nostalgia boasted the ability to bring your everyday photograph to life. Examples on the site depicted the sitters in dusty photographs from bygone era’s coming to life, moving their heads around, smiling shyly at the camera. The service was temporarily allowing visitors to sign up whereupon they were granted the ability to upload up to five images for “animation”. Curious, and thinking to myself, “I’ll never see my father move with life again,” I uploaded a photo of my father and recoiled in horror at the sight of his head lolling back and forth, his mouth pulling into a strange smirk. The eyes were creepy, never fully blinking, bright with lightlets, though vacuous with a thousand yard stare, a machine gazing into a void. The whole thing came off unsettling, the stuff of nightmares, inspiring comparative thoughts of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. It was human-like, and definitely in uncanny-valley territory.

I hadn’t thought about the ramifications of a technology like this with any seriousness as it still seemed niche and rudimentary. It came across more as a plaything. And then I read about Dall-E 2 and felt the first rumblings of a technological tectonic shift. If you’re one of the last people on the planet to have heard of it, Dall-E is a trained neural network that generates images by text prompt. You write a prompt, such as one I gave it, “Donald Trump eating the American flag” and it spits out a series of images. From those images you can pick the best and continue to iterate on them. You can end up with amazing, high quality images.

Within weeks of reading about Dall-E I had an invite to toy with Midjourney on Discord. Once gaining access I was visually greeted by hundreds of cinematic quality artworks, hundreds of highly-executed original pieces, from sketches, to painting, to illustrations. Some of these works were of photo-realistic quality, stills taken from the dark nightmares of post-apocalyptic landscapes, others the whimsical drawings that spilled from a children’s book that had yet to exist. I was mesmerized, and also dispirited. It felt as if sacred, hallowed ground were being invaded.

I know, it’s silly, nothing is sacred, not when it comes to technology. I imagine some of my feeling is personal. I’ve always enjoyed making art, and while I’m not making a living as an artist, or even a prolific artistic creator, I have always had a deep and abiding interest in art and artists, and a profound respect for those who make art. I believe the creation of art to be one of the most beautiful and elevated expressions of being a human being. Here is this wonderful thing inside of us, beyond our primal instincts, outside of the everyday machinations of our brain and bodies, this arising of creative expression to communicate, express joy and pain and sorrow, to envision a better world, or a worse one, or a simple manifestation of our joy and contentment, for no other reason than to place line and color on simple sheets of paper, or words in row until they paint mental pictures, or mounds of clay to be molded into a likeness of person and gesture, in any medium in which our hands can shape and manifest whatever it is from inside that needs to born into this world. And it is accessible to everyone of us! When I consider the culmination for our genesis from microbe to a human being that can express itself in these myriad ways-I’m absolutely amazed.

Part of the feeling I have is this sense that something is about to be ruined, debased, made generic and hollow. Here is this new tool, in the burgeoning days of its technological infancy, that is a seductive marvel at first touch. It’s like magic. Type out your incantation and your image appears. And while this magic is wondrous on one hand, I find it to hold a portentous viper behind its veil of innocent child-like play on the other. Like others have said before me, I see this having a profoundly negative impact on illustrators and contract artists of all types. It will only be a matter of time before you’ll be able to buy a subscription to a service that allows you to generate images through text prompt which can then be used in your marketing, magazine / zine publications, etc.

What about the arts in general? I’ve already seen an article about a person who entered A.I. art into a digital contest and won. What does it mean to be an artist when all you have to do is type your incantations and you instantly have a hundred different variations of high quality artistic work to choose from? The Dall-E site refers to the persons iterating on A.I. generated images as artists. On first read I found that offensive. Is the definition of artist going to expand to someone who types incantations? Will they be credited as having creative ability? Artists have historically had assistants who help to create their work, at their direction. Does this make it any different? Is extracting the human element make it any less art? Does this simply make everyone who uses this tech an art director?

There seems to me to be something monstrous when taking out the human element, the volition to produce something with living hands. The totality of everything that has shaped and informed a human being, the whole of their life experiences, the time given to learning, and training, and craft, the personality of the person wielding the pen, the brush, the clay-all of this and more feels so fundamentally quintessential to the making of art, and to what makes it live and breathe and communicate through the space between the viewer and the work.

These are only a random sampling of thoughts about A.I. generated art and its impacts and applications. There are a lot of conversations going on about it, so many with more succinct and in-depth thoughts than my own. You can see, in almost real-time, as artists begin to poke at this new beast, testing its capabilities, seeking to understand how it works, what it can do, how it will impact them. There will most certainly be other uses for this tech, uses we haven’t realized or thought of at this point. I don’t ever recall anyone ever imagining that social media behemoths the likes of Facebook or Twitter would be used as large scale propaganda and mis-information machines that would help to bring about a major decline in our American democracy. And yet were living through the damaging and degrading outcomes of those social services. These tools can be great facilitators of connection, were touted as such, and yet their impacts and uses are often so much more nefarious. Will these new tools have unimagined consequences as well? Unfortunately, I think they will.

I would never advocate this tech go away. To do so would be ridiculous. It is here, and it will continue to evolve and grow, and it will have its inevitable impacts on our culture, on our world. There is no way to stop it. These words may look foolish a short time down the road. I may find myself a decade from now using these tools and glad that they exist, making daily tasks at my job so much easier to expedite. There may be uses for these tools we’ve yet to imagine that brighten and enhance our lives. Maybe the impacts will not be so profound? I like to hope so, but I can’t seem to shake this heavy, sad feeling, like something is over and we just don’t know it yet. There is even a child-like feeling of something bad moving in our direction. Something formless and dark slithering out of the closet with the sole intent of taking all the toys away.

Author: Jason Jacobs

Jason Jacobs is an artist, project manager, and frontend web designer living and working in Boise, Idaho. Beyond work he spends his time with family, as well as reading, writing articles for Uhmm, and working on his art. All words and opinions, etc., are his and do not reflect the positions or beliefs of anyone other than himself.