The creation of digital art is not new, but advancements in artificial intelligence have created a new environment where all types of media can be created without excessive human input. In September 2022, an artist named Jason M. Allen won the digital arts category of the Colorado State Fair with his work "Théâtre d'Opéra Spatial," sparking intense debates about the nature of art and the validity of AI-created works. However, it is important to keep in mind that this raises many ethical issues. Are these concerns about the fairness of competitions or the future of art? In other words, is art dead, my friend?
Jason M. Allen (with Midjourney), “Théâtre D'opéra Spatial”, 2022.
The story goes like this: Allen, a video game designer, creates his entry using an artificial intelligence called "Midjourney". To begin with, let's clarify how Midjourney and other applications like it - such as DALL·E 2, Stable Diffusion, or Lensa - work:
"Midjourney" is an artificial intelligence image generation tool that uses a machine learning algorithm trained on a large amount of image data to produce unique images from input (usually text requests and parameters, as well as other images).
Allen claims to have created hundreds (around 900) images in this way before arriving at his last three pieces. He then makes some additional edits using Adobe Photoshop and increases their resolution using another application called "Gigapixel". The resulting work is then submitted to and wins in the digital art category of the Colorado State Fair, which is defined as "artistic application that uses digital technology as a creative or presentation component." Allen claims to have informed the competition of the image's AI origin, but the judges say they were not aware of this. Nonetheless, they say they would still have awarded first place or not taken back the prize based on the artwork itself. In short, the jury's decision is final.
It is not uncommon for the internet to have a strong reaction to such controversies:
While the debate may not be surprising, not everyone holds the same objections.
It is not uncommon for the internet to have a strong reaction to such controversies. While the debate may not be surprising, not everyone holds the same objections. Let's address the first big ethical question surrounding the competition: Was it wrong for Allen to submit and win with an artwork created by artificial intelligence, compared to other artists who created their artwork by hand? The definition of digital art in the competition was broad enough to include artwork created by AI. The entry was submitted under the name "Jason M. Allen, using Midjourney." Furthermore, according to Allen, this was not just a case of pressing a few buttons, but the result of an 80-hour work - adjusting requests and selecting from 900 iterations to achieve the desired image. While Allen may spend his time differently than other artists, this does not mean that the image lacks skill, effort, or aesthetic taste.
On the other hand, others may argue that it was wrong for Allen to enter the competition as he is not an artist; it was actually the AI that created the artwork. Was the AI responsible for creating the work or was it simply a tool for Allen, the actual creator, to manipulate?
“The judges selected this particular work due to its impact on them and Allen was trying to connect the themes conveyed by the image. Meanwhile, AI has no idea of the impact that images can have; it does not think differently about art conveyed by 899 or 900 images.”
What complicates matters further is that the creation of artificial intelligence relies on data from other artists, raising the issue of plagiarism. Although the AI piece may not be a direct copy, it takes inspiration from the art it was trained on. Typically, art is about bringing together styles and techniques to create something new, making it difficult to see it as solely copying other artists. If the piece is not a copy of other artists and AI is not considered an artist, then it could be argued that Allen is the artist. However, if not, then it could be argued that it is not a work of art and therefore Allen should not have been allowed to enter the competition.
The other part of this big problem is the judging process of the competition. Let's say that Allen's submission of his work as his own was actually ethical and legal, was it ethical for the judges to judge the work as if it had been made without the help of AI, let alone choosing it as the overall winner?
"What is art?" this question may tell us whether AI can truly create something like this, but defining it is quite difficult and relying on preconceived notions may be easier for us. Generally, art follows certain aesthetic patterns and conveys content that people find meaningful. The judges awarded the prize based on the spirit they perceived. We can't delve into such a complex question here, but we should question whether this understanding of the creative process really threatens art. Did Allen have a point when he said "Art is dead my friend"? Is there any role left for human artists?
When the camera was first developed, people said it would be the end of the painter, but clearly painters still exist today. Ultimately, human artists bring a sense of originality and uniqueness to the work.
“Artificial intelligence will not replace aesthetic choice and aesthetic judgment, because ultimately, we have to decide the value of what is produced. Although the role of the artist may change, the place of any system that produces such works is very important.”
Another ethical issue is the general problem of the future of the artist. Even if we accept that Allen did not do anything wrong, most still denounce the end of professional artists. As digital artist RJ Palmer claims, "This thing wants our jobs, by nature anti-artist." Even if we accept that Allen's work was not plagiarism, it is impossible to deny that images produced by artificial intelligence work only by being trained on the works of real artists, which means that the algorithm can later borrow the style elements it wants. This creates the potential for a nightmare of intellectual property for a smaller artist who cannot make a profit from their work at almost the same level as a company using artificial intelligence to produce images much faster in that artist's style. Federal courts are now hearing a case on whether the US Copyright Office's refusal to grant copyright to an AI-produced piece is wrong.
So, who should bear the responsibility of acknowledging the artists that feed AI? How can the companies that create AI compensate for the data they collect? This solution may be more difficult to implement than we think. For example, the popular app Lensa, which has been gaining popularity in recent months, uses a "deep learning" model called "stable diffusion" that allows artists to turn off their works online as long as they are online. If you're reading this as a digital artist, your work may have been used to feed this algorithm.
The threat that AI poses to the workforce is not limited to the art world. Eventually, legal and industry reforms may alleviate some of these issues, but many artists will undoubtedly suffer and this art industry as a whole could be dismantled. As one artist stated, AI art is not something that AI can create on its own, it will always be a kind of "derivative, manufactured adhesive." To be honest, the implications of Allen's victory go beyond just one blue ribbon.
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