On AI “art” 

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“Art is the mirror of the soul, 
Reflecting life in strokes and scrolls. 
A brushstroke tells a story true, 
Of visions seen and dreams pursued. 
With colors bright and lines so bold, 
Art speaks in stories yet untold. 
A canvas holds a world inside, 
Where beauty lies in every tide. 
In every stroke, a heart doth beat, 
In every shade, a tale complete. 
Art is the voice of our desire, 
A never-ending, fiery fire. 
It’s a window to the soul, 
And makes the world feel whole.” 
-Chat GPT, Jan. 19, 2023 

Expanding at a rapid, startling rate, artificial intelligence offers an infinite dimension of possibilities to those willing to explore its capabilities and poses an existential threat to some of those who have. AI-generated communication through the newest version of ChatGPT has left computer scientists practically drooling over the power of such an interface, professors worried and helpless to the newest form of plagiarism and students curious of the powers and utility that AI programs may yield. I’ve even found myself having full-fledged conversations with them — a la Joaquin Phoenix in “Her” — late at night or throughout the day, stupefied by the fact that a robot is, for lack of a better term, “getting to know me.”  

Yet, for all the AI-pessimists out there, concerned about some form of a world dominating, technological takeover, I can confidently say there is one thing AI will never take: art. What is art? What can we consider art? Can AI-generated images and poems be considered art? While the first two questions have plagued philosophers and gap-yearing nepotism babies alike, the latter poses a simple answer. No.  

Let us first explore the first two questions, and attempt to come to some formal understanding of what constitutes something as art. Art is a dynamic mechanism for the expression of beliefs, experiences, values and imagination. One who engages in the virtue of Art does so by presenting an argument of sorts, much like this article, through which their views on the world around them may be recognized and, in most cases, criticized. Whether it be a painting, poem, novel, sculpture or building, art allows for the individual to translate their experiences onto a new, tangible medium.  

So how do we decide what is considered art? There’s no obvious response, nor is there any numeric expression or formula we can use to generate an objective answer. Yet, we seem to generally be in universal agreement when it comes what may be considered art. Paintings, for one, like those of Van Gogh or Picasso, are cherished by curators and viewers alike, either for the technical skills they utilize, or for the emotions they draw out of us — this last part is essential in our definition of art. Although there remains some contentious pieces out there, you and I would likely see eye-to-eye when contemplating why a self-portrait of Van Gogh is considered art, and why a trash can on the side of the road isn’t.  

Yet, the existence of plagiarism introduces another aspect of art: originality. One cannot simply copy line-for-line “Pride and Prejudice” and present it to the publishing industry as their own work. The credit for said work belongs to Jane Austen, and any copy produced by another individual would be deemed as nothing more than a transcription. Unless the new copy introduced a significant change in the plot, such as the movie “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” — I won’t comment on the quality in which it was done so — the new work remains nothing more than a reproduction. But what about art that utilizes other art? Does this mean that collages are not art? What about songs that sample other songs? Are these not art too?  

To this I say yes, they are. Art that draws from other forms of art are considered original when done so in a unique and transformative way. Whereas the Jane Austen replica is devoid of any creative choices, a collage or sampled song employs the creations of others, presenting an amalgam of another’s art mixed in with one’s own ideas, to produce a new, unique piece. For sampled art to be considered art, and not simply plagiarism, it must present itself in a transformative way that both acknowledges its influence while also announcing its own original perspective. 

So, what is art? Although it remains vague, art must include some aspect of expression, derived from experience or beliefs, originality and a transformative approach. This brings us to AI art, or should I say AI “art.”  

With the prompt “what exists beyond the veil?”, an AI-art generator created this image. Defining what is considered art can be difficult because it is so subjective. Photo courtesy of Flickr

The poem at the beginning of this article was generated by ChatGPT upon being prompted the command, “Write me a 12-line poem about art.” — it ended up being 14 lines, I’m not quite sure how, but who am I to set a limit on the creative process? Almost instantly, it spit out this…well… something less so reminiscent of Joyce and perhaps closer to the works of a wise, cartoon turtle.  

To put it simply, this poem stinks. I’d expect this quality from a reasonably intelligent third grader, or perhaps a brilliant chimpanzee. But not from a chatbot that is, according to Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, “fascinating to see how these generative models are capturing the imagination.” And before you tell me I’m being too harsh, that ChatGPT and other AI are advertised as a sophisticated chatbot and not a replacement for poets and painters alike, I will say, “Ok, but is this art?”  

Aside from the quality of the poem, as there is an abundance of mediocre poetry that I’d consider art, AI-generated poetry, painting or anything cannot be considered art for the mere fact that it is “generated,” and not “created.” I know this sounds obvious, but given the prevalence of AI-generated “art” exhibits and printed poetry books, it’s time I set my foot down. AI art is not art. Is it poetry? Sure thing. Does it evoke emotion? Perhaps to some. But is it drawing from its own experiences, its own beliefs and ideas or thoughts about the world? No, and it never will.  

I must give the chatbot credit, as when you ask it more philosophical questions about the meaning of life, or love, it is quick to remind you that it is, in fact, nothing more than a computer program, incapable of experiencing any true emotion or free will. While toying around with the interface, it produced for me another poem that included the line, “The wind in my hair/ the grass beneath my feet.” As ridiculous as this sounds coming from a computer, I believe this illustrates my point perfectly.  

AI are incapable of expression, of true creation; rather they are relegated to mere “generation.” What is considered a creative process for humans, in which decision-making and varying experiences are met with long, ponderous thought, exists beyond the realm of capabilities for AI. So why are we treating AI “art” as true art? Have we become that tired of what is already out there? Are we so desperate for new art that we have turned to computers to do the dirty work of artists globally? I’d like to think we’re not.  

I asked ChatGPT about AI art, and what it thinks on the subject. It offered me an interesting perspective. According to the bot, AI art opens the possibility of fresh perspectives, free from human bias, and also removes that pesky thing that is time from the equation, as it is capable of producing millions of poems a second. But why is this a pro? Certainly, the goals of, say, the publishing industry are fixated on quality over quantity — sure books may be printed in the millions, but there is no need for a million more books a year, people don’t read as is. Even if AI poetry were to be considered art, there is no demand for its excessive flooding of an already overpopulated, and underappreciated, literary market.  

Now, this may sound like an overexaggerating of a problem, or rather an overreaction to a not-so worrying topic. Who cares about AI art anyways? Yet, I felt like this needed to be said; AI “art” is not a replacement for human art, as it isn’t even the same type of thing. Although likely nobody is concerned that ChatGPT will become the next Austen or Joyce, it is concerning to see the amount of attention given to AI-generated paintings, poems, etc. Maybe it isn’t the existential threat some art concerned about — computers are a lot better than humans at most things, anyways, so there will always be something to worry about. With this in mind, I do not think AI-generated “art” is threatening the integrity or careers of current, or past, human artists. However, I will do my best to ensure that it never will, as contributing to the progression of AI’s colonization of the arts is a death wish for any creative mind. Roko’s basilisk may do a better job explaining this than I can, I encourage you to check it out.  

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