Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Aesthetic Innovation (AI)

“Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” sounds like it is an 18th-century fancy French oil painting. It looks like an 18th-century fancy French oil painting. In reality, it is barely a year old. It is a piece of AI-generated artwork created by Jason M. Allen—which has won first prize in Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition, shocking people across the global art community. The fears have become reality: whether artists like it or not, AI art is slowly seeping its way into an industry once thought to be dominated by humans alone.

One of the largest points of current contention in the art community concerns Artificial Intelligence. While barely a few months ago the differences between AI art and artist-drawn art were discernible, the differences are becoming rapidly non-existent. AI image generation has quickly surpassed expectations of generating random, funny images and has become sophisticated enough to create detailed art pieces. While AI-generated art may have been created for casual fun, it still has a significant impact on professional art. In fact, there is so much impact that people have very polarized opinions on the topic.

One end of the spectrum argues that AI art is revolutionary. Kaloyan Chernev, the founder of Deep Dream Generator (a company specializing in AI), claims that AI is “rapidly approaching a level of sophistication and complexity that will allow it to generate highly realistic and nuanced images”. Chernev also suggests that AI-based content will not only assist in bettering the art field but also enable new forms of artistic expression.

More neutral opinions put forth various ideas on the matter. One of the larger opinion groups suggests that AI, with a faster pace at creating images than artists, can be used in industries and companies that value maximal efficiency. Corporations would thus profit greatly in time and money by using algorithms over artists. While artists take hours to months to create a single piece, algorithms only take minutes to produce artwork with a few typed words. Thus, the production of artwork takes less time and in turn, allows more time to be used on other projects. Economic efficiency is achieved as well, as companies do not need to hire extra artists if they choose to use AI-produced art instead. Such predictions are not in the far future; they have already happened. Nestlé has utilized AI-generated art of Vemeer’s “The Milkmaid” to promote La Laitière yogurt, and large companies such as Google are jumping into the scene to create algorithms for the specific purpose of generating art. Some also suggest that AI art will not degrade or harm the industry of artist-drawn art since AI art will not be able to catch up to the level of works done by humans. Others still advocate the idea that AI art will become irrelevant in the future, just as NFTs have in a short time.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are artists who strongly oppose the use of AI-generated images, claiming that it devalues the work of artists. Dapo Adeola, winner of the Illustrator of the Year at the 2022 British Book Awards, says that “the increasing use of AI will also lead to a devaluing of the work of artists”. As negative prejudice regarding creativity-focused industries already exists, “something like this reinforces an argument that what we do is easy and we shouldn’t be able to earn the money we command”.

With the worries of artists on the rise, many solutions have been proposed to alleviate this anxiety. One such solution, a new tool for artists, was introduced on March 31, 2023. Glaze, created by a team of Chicago University students, professors, and professional artists, is designed to protect digitally drawn art from mimicry. Artists are suing algorithm companies for mimicking their art styles. Notably, late South Korean illustrator Kim Jung Gi’s art style was copied by an AI software, which was met with large disdain. Glaze was developed to prevent art style copying.

Glaze works as follows: it uses a style-transfer AI to recreate the original image in the style of past artists. The styled images are then used as part of a computation, through which the end result maximizes patterns that algorithms will use instead of the original artist’s style. The result adds very small changes to an artist’s artwork before the art is posted online. While the changes are hardly able to be discerned by the human eye, the small details still effectively work as a "style cloak", preventing any algorithms from mimicking the artist’s style.

The reactions to this program are starkly divided, with arguments over art-related AI, in general, becoming heightened. Artists who want their art protected from AI celebrate the introduction of such a tool. From their perspective, they are able to produce art without worrying about art theft, with minimal changes to their artwork. However, not all welcome Glaze. People who use AI to create art and develop their algorithms are angry that images that use Glaze, if added to the database, will muddy the results for their programs.

What is more, is that the developers of Glaze admit that this tool can only be useful in the short term. According to the project website, "Unfortunately, Glaze is not a permanent solution against AI mimicry. AI evolves quickly, and systems like Glaze face an inherent challenge of being future-proof. Techniques we use to cloak artworks today might be overcome by a future countermeasure, possibly rendering previously protected art vulnerable". In other words, if the art community continues with polarized stances on AI, the future can easily lead to an endless race of algorithms finding new ways to use art for their database and tools being developed as countermeasures against them.

With all this taken into consideration, the core issue of AI art is clear. In the process of trying to find a foothold in the art community, it is mainly trying to replace what currently-existing artists can do instead of forging an entirely new path in artistry. This forces the art community into an endless circle of protecting and overcoming instead of progressing in a new direction. AI art so far has been shown as a stepping stone to AI surpassing human abilities and thus replacing them. While not inherently bad from a technological perspective, this is a gross undermining of a technology that could have more potential.

In that case, what comes next? The varying views in the AI art uproar show that there is clearly a divide in values of aesthetics that is strongly linked to artistic copyright in the creative community. Those who refuse to acknowledge AI art as part of creative work seem to value human creativity, process, and work put behind the end result. These people put high importance in giving credit where it is due in creative works. Those who support AI, or at least are neutral on the topic, seem to advocate the idea that all creative artwork is an amalgamation of all the knowledge the creator has collected in the past. Thus, they advocate for artistic democracy and everyone being able to participate in artistic creation. Should these two views continue to be polarized, there can be no real progress in artistry for AI. It can be easy to think that this divide in opinions is unable to be bridged. Certainly, the bridging process to come to an agreement can be long and will take a lot of effort. However, history claims that it still can be achieved.

Philosophy has had its fair share of furious debates over what kind of purpose art has in life, where it comes from, and what kind of characteristics it has, ranging from Plato to Tolstoy. The most relevant argument to look at, however, is Walter Benjamin’s argument on aura. Benjamin argues that “[i]n principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men…Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new”. He notably points out photography as one such example. Benjamin holds that “the situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated”. As such, the aura surrounding the original art piece disappears, since the art itself can be reproduced through mechanical means, and it can spread through the masses. This is not necessarily a bad thing; however, if anything, it furthered the democratization of art, allowing others to participate in creatives with ease.

Some may argue that photography did not democratize art; it monopolized art by taking over portrait painting. Despite this, photography has continued to thrive, and not in the manner of replacing a specific art form. When Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph in 1822 and later publicly announced in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, the public embraced the new medium. Ironically, the artistic movements in Europe before the 19th century had always been focused on realism. When photography took away the necessity for artists to depict realism, art movements slowly moved away from it, starting with Impressionism and moving on as far as Dadaism. In a way, artists have no reason to fear that AI art will cause artist-made art obsolete or devalued as a craft, as art has always found a way to survive and continue pursuing creativity throughout the years.

More importantly, it is worth noting that photographers did not immediately assume photography to be a substitute for portraits and landscape paintings. They spent many years experimenting with the types of photos that could be taken and thinking of what kind of role this new technology would take in society. World War I and II did cement photography as a part of a medium. It solidified photography as a modern way to express culture and World War II photography showed the brutality of war. However, it was the work of photographers giving serious thought to the craft that resulted in photography being a widely respected form of media today. The artistic value clash in the present is an echo of a similar conflict in the past in the invention of a new art medium. Thus, the answers to solving the modern value clash can be found in the past as well.

In other words, AI artistry must go through the same process as photography to be accepted as a mode of creating art. While Glaze and plagiarism protection tools to come will function as a necessary precaution, what is most needed in the AI art industry is for the artists to think about their craft. What purpose does their art serve in the industry and to society? What types of technology can be used to make AI art differ from other art forms? Instead of looking to take over the art industry as a whole or replace other media, AI-generated art should focus on its unique strengths to create a new medium, as many hope it will become.

All in all, Artificial Intelligence may have come a long way in a short time to develop to the level it is now, but it still has a long way to go in order to be refined into a method of art that all people can accept. In order to break a potentially endless cycle of art-generating algorithms against protection algorithms, AI developers must turn to aesthetic values and forge a new path for their creations to walk.