An article so controversial it needs no subtitle
Sometimes you spend months wrestling with an idea only to have a moment where you realize what you were looking at it all wrong.
As I discussed in my year-end review, there are few hotter topics right now than whether artificial intelligence creations are art. This makes sense because AI is having quite the creative renaissance. DALL-E is churning out images at a rate that would make Morris Katz blush. Various AIs have spent years creating all sorts of music, up to and including full albums. And our old friend ChatGPT is so prolific that I’ve already had it churn out a 300-page novel, a script for a television pilot, and a treatment for “Unleashed,” a horror film where a dogwalker discovers one of the dogs is possessed by an evil spirit and she must save herself and the souls of her dogs. It is understandable as to why people would want to debate whether this is art. And as this falls exactly within the confines of this newsletter’s remit, I’ve spent months trying to answer this question.
To do that, we need to start somewhere. And as I would sooner die than start any piece with a dictionary definition, I instead chose to go to the horse’s mouth to answer these questions. First, I asked ChatGPT what is art, to which it replied:
Art refers to the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. The definition of art is a controversial subject, with many differing viewpoints. Some argue that art must be created with the intention of being art, while others argue that any human expression can be considered art. Additionally, the classification of what is and isn't art can change over time.
I then asked it if it can create art.
As an Artificial Intelligence, I can assist in the creation of art by providing inspiration, suggestions and tools, but I do not possess creativity or imagination, therefore I cannot create art by myself. However, I can be programmed to generate images, video, music or text based on certain rules and parameters that have been established by humans, but that would be just a simulation of the art creation process, the result not being a true art but rather a product of pre-defined instructions. The art created by humans is the product of their imagination, creativity, and skill, while AI-generated art is the product of algorithms, it is not an original creation and it is not created by a human.
Fair enough. I guess that settles that. Article over, see y’all next week!
Okay, maybe not. Although this answer feels right, intellectually, I don’t like this. Much of this seems based on the distinction between the creator and the creation, and the extent to which the intervention of technology severs that. The creation of art has involved technology for as far back as art has been created. Let’s talk about music. Short of singing acapella, every form of music we create involves some technology. I know we often confuse “technology” and “new technology” but even though this is about as traditional a form of music as we can think, there was a time the morin khuur was their Facebook or Tesla.
We have no issue considering that art, even though he’s using a piece of technology to produce many of those sounds. Nor would we have a problem with Vivaldi, even though every sound in this – my personal choice for the pinnacle of the Baroque Era – is created by a piece of technology, albeit directly used by a human.
I think most of us would agree that although the creation of the actual sounds requires a non-human element, the overall creation is the product of human endeavor. So, let’s jump forward a few centuries to George Martin, specifically, the legendary producer, not the dawdling writer. Part of the genius of Martin is that he was able to create so much of The Beatles’ sound in the studio, using machines to manipulate the sounds. Now, artists were able to create sounds that they otherwise were not able to create in nature. Eventually, we got to the point where we could develop synthesizers and drum machines that would artificially create sounds. Music sequencers allow an artist to create music entirely using computerized machines. It’s only a few steps from Mongolian throat singers to deadmau5. And in each of these steps, we’re moving the human creator one step away from the creation.
AI tools take us another step further away. Perhaps it’s too big of a step? However, all of it still involves humans. When I tell an AI to create a screenplay for a horror movie involving a dogwalker, there’s still a human involved. Take the images I use at the top of each of these posts. I tell DALL-E to create them based off a prompt, and I do this for a simple reason: I am a terrible visual artist. I have been working on this quite a bit lately and of course, technology is very helpful. My attempts at painting are, let’s say to be nice, amateurish. To not be accurate, they’re at the level of a mediocre 3rd grade art student who shows up to school inebriated. I could no more create the picture at the top than George Harrison could create the guitar sounds on “Nowhere Man.” In both cases, we need a tool to substitute for our technique.
At this point, you may be insisting that I am being obtuse. There is a difference in that the AI exerts some level of creative decision making. Which leads to the question of: where’s the line? Is the moment that any of the creativity is outside of human hands does something cease to be art? Apparently, Da Vinci was being quite poetic. But what if I wrote a song. I write the music, I write the lyrics, I record myself singing and playing guitar and then I use GarageBand to create a drum track for me. Does this cease to have artistic merit? What if I went full late-90s Oasis and I just kept adding instruments that I myself play? I add strings, a trumpet, a saxophone, a cowbell, and a flute solo that would make Jethro Tull breakup in shame.
Even after all that, does that AI generated drum track mean it is not art? Similarly, what if I took that AI generated imagine and went into Photoshop and started changing it. What if I changed the colors? What if I added something in the background? What if I took the entire image and painted it on a canvas, would that be art? How much of the creative control must remain in human hands for it to still be art?
And isn’t even the artificial part of this equation still partly human? This video by the create of AIVA, an AI music generator, explains how AI music generation works. I think the entire video is interesting but for those of you who hate watching videos in articles – like me – I will hit the key points on the other side.
Any deep learning AI is basing its creation upon a canon that it studied. That canon was selected by humans. All it is trying to do is mimic what it believes a human would have done in those situations, based off human works that humans chose for it to review. Thus, anything AIs create is still based on the creative parameters set by humans.
And yet, the question remains: is this enough? Is there enough human element in there for this to be considered art? Or, at least, it was the question, before a chance conversation the other day led me to realize why I was looking at this wrong.
While at dinner, a friend was flabbergasted at the revelation that I watched – let alone enjoyed – a television show that seemed out of character. They described the show as a guilty pleasure, which is a category I long ago came to reject. Like most people who fit my profile, I spent a large portion of my teens and twenties concerned about such matters. Punk rock is real music, not like pop.Art house cinema is so superior to the kind of romcom crap that Americans flock to. Ugh, with the entire canon of western literature, imagine reading a Danielle Steele novel. Eventually, I stopped having these opinions for a simple reason: it was irrelevant to my experience of the art. If I find something beautiful or it elicits emotions, that’s all that matters to me. Everything else is a distraction. 18-year-old me would have thought the idea of considering a video game art was ludicrous. 38-year-old me wept like a small child at the end of Red Dead Redemption 2. Whether anyone thinks video games are art is irrelevant to my experience. Which means I already knew the answer to the question of whether AI generated creations are art: who cares?
Go back to our earlier definition of art. So much of the emphasis of it is on the human creative process. Which would seem to imply that art is something created by humans. Which would make sense if we’re focused on the creation side of art. But, why do I care about that? When I create things – be it my terrible paintings, my poorly written songs, or the top-notch feats of theatrical brilliance from my youth – I don’t particularly care if it’s art or not. And when I consume something, I also don’t care whether it is art or not. And the truth is, neither do most people.
Do you know how I know most people don’t care about whether or not they’re consuming art or something else? Because the cumulative views of cat videos are in the billions. No animal is – as far as our current level of technological progress allows us to understand the animal mind – capable of creative endeavor. There is no technical quality on display when my dog tries to extricate himself from a blanket, yet the mirth it fills me with is as real an emotion as one can experience. And there’s never been a single creation of Mark Rothko that can elicit the emotions of this:
I don’t think the millions of people over the millennia who have experienced the awe of glimpsing the Rocky Mountains have been too concerned whether they qualify as art. There is no artistic technique or intention or creativity. There is only beauty and deep emotional resonance. So, if the results of art are there, why does whether something is art matter? Afterall, it seems as if it’s just us striving to do what nature does so effortlessly.
If people wish to discuss what is and is not art, I don’t begrudge them that. Just as I do not begrudge people wishing to debate which version of Battlestar Galactica is superior. But in neither case do I need to care. If an AI can create a picture, or a piece of music, or a story that I enjoy, I don’t care if it’s art. The definition of art is not real. My experience of it is, which is all that matters. To return to our original question, can an AI create art? In the end, it turns out that I don’t really care.
First, “Jethro Tull flute solo” is the most fun YouTube search I’ve ever done for this place. Second, I wonder if anyone watched that video to the end. Third, the real reason I want this to be a success is not fame or fortune, it’s so I have enough readers that someone out there will lay that over an artificially created drum track.
Listen, I was a huge punk rock guy as a teenager. But artsy superiority from people who are fans of a genre essentially defined by poor technique is always hilarious. If you’re going to make these arguments that your form of music is superior (as opposed to more fitting your tastes) at least be making your argument on behalf of Jaco Pastorius or Yngwie Malmsteen.
I picked these specific examples because I’m trying to not so subtly highlight a trend that tends to be prevalent in these types of discussions over what real art is.
Since some people get confused on this, nothing here is to argue that everything is equally good. It’s that I don’t particularly care. I do tend to consume things when there is a consensus of quality because we societally generally do a pretty good job of recognizing when things are good. Except Avatar, that movie bored me to tears.
The other point to consider is that art isn't just consumed; it's also produced. Does art serve any purpose for the artist?
I think most of us would say yes. It's a form of self-expression and self-discovery, helping us process difficult experiences in our lives and put them into words or brushstrokes or music. It brings catharsis. And one important factor is that the *struggle* to produce art is where much of this value comes from. If I had ChatGPT write my story using my characters and my ideas, it's true that the stuff on the page would be guided by me and capture my ideas. But I doubt it would give me the space for reflection I desperately need.
I also think you're short-changing art by saying it only matters for its beauty or entertainment value. Because for me, art is communication. I have often felt that I know my favorite authors better than I know some of my friends. If AI took over, whose soul am I searching out at that point?
While I agree with everything you’ve said from a consumer point of view, my (visual) artist friends complain how AI is actually ripping of their hard work by “stealing” their style and transforming it into something they don’t get paid for. And especially since most consumers don’t care who made what, I do get their concern.