Culture Uncategorized

Artificial Intelligence Cheapens the Artistic Imagination

Artist Jingna Zhang predicts that “60-80% of the artist workforce will lose their jobs in the next 2-5 years. Not to prompters—just to company bottom lines.” As with businesses and workplaces, the visual arts are going through a major shake-up from generative AI. It seems like a safe bet that artists will lose work to AI – a recurring consequence of new technologies – but job security is not all that is at stake. The introduction of AI into the visual arts cheapens the unique human capacity for imagination.

What is the future of art and artists in a world powered by AI? For Chinese-Canadian artist Sougwen Chung, the only way for a human artist not to be replaced by AI is to embrace a kind of “man-machine hybridity” where human and algorithm become collaborators and co-creators in art. Chung’s own creative process involves a mechanical arm powered by a custom-built AI that dips down to paint alongside her on the canvas. The robot arm holds a brush and reads her brainwaves to follow along with her brushstrokes. What is the result? A series of meandering blue swirls. Chung’s idea of man-machine collaboration and hybridity foreshadows a future where all our cultural symbols and sources of meaning have become shallow and empty vessels.

Before getting into the reasons why AI will make culture shallow, it is important to investigate how artists are already making use of generative AI technologies in their practice.

What is art made with AI?

Art made with AI is a burgeoning field that features many different practices, mediums, and methodologies. New ways of using AI in art seem to be emerging every day. German artist Mario Klingemann uses neural networks, code, and algorithms to make interactive installations that communicate back to the viewer. Klingemann trains an AI on select datasets to build an image, which he then displays before an audience in a gallery.  His 2018 gallery show Uncanny Mirror presented a screen with a camera that displays an AI-generated portrait of the viewer based on the faces of the people that had visited before. In this case, the dataset is all the faces of people who stand in front of the display camera. The AI learns from these data points to present back to the viewer its version of them, but what appears is often something strange and inhuman. Klingemann and Chung’s work gives a glimpse into the diversity of ways an artist can use AI in their practice, but behind all AI art is a deep-learning algorithm that has been trained on selected datasets to generate some sort of visual output. This way of creating resembles an engineer behind a console more than a classical artist.

“Creating art with AI resembles an engineer behind a console more than a classical artist.”

Outside of the high art world, AI is taking hold in graphic design. Adobe’s professional design apps now feature an AI image generator, and the user-friendly design app Canva recently launched its Magic Studio which can automatically generate design templates, images, and short video clips based on a text prompt. On AI image generator EverArt’s website, the message is clear: “Spend more time being creative, less time executing.” This helpfully summarizes the creative philosophy behind AI image generators (if you can truly call it creative). The makers of these tools promise they will boost efficiency and productivity by making workflows easier and faster. The problem with this message is that art is not about efficiency, productivity, or smooth workflows. Art is not about “executing” a task. Art is certainly not about the metrics of quantity, low cost, and speed that characterize industrialism. Through the act of making, an artist spends their time in deep attention and thought about what their hands are doing, and how they want their work to turn out. Art is about the careful consideration of why and how to do something so that the thing that gets made can be of lasting worth to a community. With AI-based tools that require less thought or effort from a maker, the worth of creative work is lost. Artistry is eliminated from art.

What will AI do to human imagination and culture?

The loss of artistry in art presages a greater dearth of meaning than what has already permeated Western culture. When artistry is done away with, and the human mind becomes either hybridized with machine-making or removed from making entirely, we risk the total erasure of the voices of flesh-and-blood people that hold a mirror to culture and speak truth to power. Human creativity and the good it offers to society cannot be replicated by a machine. No matter how advanced AI systems become, it is not likely that they will ever be able to think like a person. In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman observed that “human beings have a unique, biologically rooted, intangible mental life which in some limited respects can be simulated by a machine but cannot be duplicated” (112). Western culture has erroneously accepted the notion of the human mind as similar in function to a mechanistic data-processor, rather than a unique attribute of human beings that includes things like emotions, self-reflection, and rational decision-making. Postman later elaborates on this point, stating that “artificial intelligence does not and cannot lead to a meaning-making, understanding, and feeling creature, which is what a human being is” (113). This insight is crucial for the survival of deep culture. Despite what we have heard, human creativity cannot be duplicated by a machine because a machine does not have a soul.

“Human creativity and the good it offers to society cannot be replicated by a machine. No matter how advanced AI systems become, it is not likely that they will ever be able to think like a person.”

What is art really for?

Artists are not just craftsmen who make things of beauty and worth, as objects for contemplation and adornment. Artists are also people who use their creativity to challenge the momentum of culture; they make things that reflect the culture back to itself and tell it to look long and hard at what it sees.

This mirror-holding should be the aspiration of every artist. This is not a negative or destructive work. In the very act of making, an artist expresses hope and preserves meaning for the community. According to Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann, expressing hope means “to move back into the deepest of memories of this community and activate those very symbols that have always been the basis for contradicting the regnant consciousness” (The Prophetic Imagination, 64). In Brueggemann’s view, the role of the artist is to call a community back to the images that comprise the foundation and stability of the life they share together. When AI threatens to flatten our cultural symbols and the remaining rituals that give life meaning, contemporary artists must consider how to incorporate this symbolic imagination into their work. 

What is at stake with AI art is the ability to meaningfully imagine and hold up another kind of world than the one we live in. In Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, artist Makoto Fujimura offers a vision for creativity that is rooted in a biblical theology of the creator God making everything new. In Chapter 9, Fujimura describes a poignant yet hopeful experience of debilitating doubt and sorrow that he experienced after the 9/11 attacks in his home city of New York. He writes, “As a Christian, someone cognizant of biblical reality that points to a New Earth and New Heaven, I do have an advantage: I create from a vision of the world to come, not just from the broken realities I experience today.” Hopeful expectation is what shapes the Christian imagination, and the work of the Christian artist. But one does not have to be a Christian to make art with a hope-filled perspective. Indeed, Fujimura sees art as a deeply human impulse and an inherently hopeful act. To make art is to make order out of the disorder we experience in a broken existence and beautifully express the reasons for hope, even in the midst of lament. Christians call this the Image of God, which means that this is how God made all human beings to be in the world.

“To make art is to make order out of the disorder we experience in a broken existence and beautifully express the reasons for hope, even in the midst of lament.”

A helpful contrast to the image-engineering performed by AI can be found in a community of young artisans in Shigaraki, Japan that is carrying on their town’s tradition of kiln-fired clay pottery to the next generation. In Japan, as much as anywhere else, modernization has all but eradicated many cottage industries as young men and women move to the cities. The work of these potters’ hands is slow, intentional, and masterful. What these potters and sculptors make is beautiful, but it also preserves a way of life and cultural memory in Shigaraki that would otherwise die out with them. This loss of culture is the reality being faced by artists and communities everywhere. The Shigaraki potters are an example of how to keep hope and meaning alive in art.

If we let machines make our images and write our songs, we are forfeiting our soul, no matter how good or corrupt that soul may be.


Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash.

Kona