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Artificial intelligence program ignites debate over the nature of art

“Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” by Jason Allen
Colorado State Fair
“Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” by Jason Allen.

A piece of digital art that won a prize at the Colorado State Fair has reignited an old furor over what art is and how artists create in an authentic way.

Jason Allen used an artificial intelligence program to generate an image titled, Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” that evokes an opera scene in a science fiction setting. Several Bloomington-Normal artists do not seem to view the debate in an especially sanguinary way.

The AI program artist in game designer Allen used doesn't involve any hands-on technique at all. There's no digital pen. There's no Photoshop toolkit. The AI operates by turning words and text into image. This raises the issue of the relationship between the artists, their technique and the subject: Where does AI fall in that?

Artist Rhea Edge has a studio in downtown Bloomington and teaches at Eureka College. She said the AI program is a contemporary version of the debate over technical tool use that artists have waged going all the way back to 400 BC and the invention of the Camera Obscura, a darkened room with a small hole or lens on one side through which an image is projected onto a wall.

When tubed paint came along, purists also argued those who used it failed their muses because they no longer mixed their own colors from raw ingredients. Edge said Jan Van Eyck, Caravaggio, DaVinci, and many others used the technology of their day and got flack for it even up to the most recent iteration of the argument (till now) in the 1970s and '80s.

“The legacy of the photo realist generation was even passed along to our own local artists Ken Holder and Harold Gregor. They used projected slides on their canvas to initiate their paintings,” said Edge.

Some argue AI is more sweeping than past tools that still relied on the hand and mind of the artist. AI is a word interface — no hands involved. In one sense, though, it's easy to say the image is art.

Herb Eaton has worked in his downtown Bloomington art studio for decades painting, sculpting, and working in other media.

“An artist is a personality who enjoys the manipulation of the material world. And that's what makes you an artist,” quoted Eaton, though he said he could not remember the originator of the statement.

That's a pretty broad definition. As a caveat, Eaton also quoted philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, saying "you can make art out of anything, even a sow's ear. But that doesn't mean it's a silk purse."

“That doesn't mean it's any good. And it doesn't mean that it is any good for the artists,” said Eaton.

Eaton said the artist puts his or her own perspectives and memory into each work. There's not much from the material world in this one. You don't have to have great color sense or hand eye coordination. You do have to paint with words.

Rhea Edge said this only takes art in a different direction. “In the direction of the human mind and human invention, which will always be evolving. And all of its creative. All of it is discovery,” she said.

This won't be the last time the debate bubbles up, she added. Artists will continue to develop new forms as new technology comes along.

“After years and years, the general public catches up with what specific scientists and artists began to discover. And as they do that, it just becomes accepted. Just look at the rejection of Impressionism as a style of painting and how prevalent and common it is today,” said Edge.

Another Bloomington artist offered a corollary to Edge’s framing of the arc of art advancement.

Brian Simpson said each technological shift impacts previous disciplines, sometimes negatively. “Every innovation stops another form of art. Photography pretty much killed miniature portrait painting,” he said.

Even though AI may be an extension of the creative process, Simpson said it may change that process for some practitioners. Eaton said part of his own heritage as an artist is seeing the influences that shaped him — his teachers, and experiences in the world reflected in his work. And the intentionality of the creative act, he said, matters.

“What becomes an issue is asking the artists, 'What are you satisfied with?” said Eaton.

It is true there is a difference in the romantic sense of what an artist is presumed to physically do from what a person does with an AI program. Yet Simpson said there are similarities between AI-generated art and past elaborations of the creative process.

“There is a mind behind it. The mind is deciding I want this image. And with this image, this is the word I want to use. He (Allen) did 40 of them, but he chose one. You can argue that choice and self-curation is part of the art process,” said Simpson.

Another element of that process is the rapt absorption artists feel as they work. It's deeply internal. It's similar to meditation. It suspends time.

Edge said it's part of the ‘"human capacity to detach from highly intellectual linear types of thinking," while Simpson said he couldn't find that exultation in using an AI program. Neither can Edge. Someone else might.

“I believe it's probably possible that you would do the same thing while you're working on a computer because you can get into a state where you're not dictating everything that you do, that there's something that's sort of automatic that takes over,” said Edge.

In the case of this particular piece of AI art, Eaton remained skeptical, saying it's not clear the process conducted by Jason Allen was for art, or for publicity.

“It lessens that young man, as an artist, a personality that can contribute to forming out of where he comes, the places and people he's from, and forming something out of that, because it's all extravagance,” said Eaton.

He questioned whether the process to make that image was for a creative act of art, or "to get a 90-day bump on a three-year career," as one critic said of another artist. Eaton said he wonders whether it furthers the development of this particular artist, too.

“What really gets me is that it's almost an exploitation of that guy. He's to (young). He's setting himself up to be seen that way,” said Eaton, adding he empathizes with Allen because he was young once, too, and wanted to do things to shake the world.

But Eaton even went so far as to say he thinks this bump might be dangerous for Allen's growth.

Certain professions have moved into the digital era faster than others. Graphic design is one in which the pace of change has been rapid. There's also a distinction to be made between commercial graphic art and fine art. Simpson said some people are upset about AI because there's no training involved in the traditional sense that comes from the academic approach to art. He said that will have consequences in the marketplace.

“It will change the field," he said. "There's such a demand for graphic arts in terms of blogs, graphic design, and yeah, it very well could put some graphic design people out of business. This is similar to computer-generated music. It's not as good as an original composition, but it'll do for the background for a podcast.”

Right now, Simpson said AI-generated images still look like conventional paintings with pixels. That may not always be true. For those critiquing it right now, Simpson said give it some time.

“It took photography maybe 60 to 80 years before it started to understand how it could be its own art form and not imitate painting. So, it may take a while before someone bright enough understands that the idea is not to mimic painting, but to create an art form in and of itself that comes through AI manipulation,” said Simpson.

AI art and traditional physical art forms may be fundamentally different in the emotional connection an artist feels with their art, or it may not. Edge said it may be the program will just attract a different kind of artist who will feel that same connection.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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