AI: Is art doomed?

AI: Is art doomed?

The CG Artpocalypse is here (or so some say). AI platforms like Stable Diffusion, Midjourney and Dall E -2 have lately been making waves on the internet. While artists of all strokes have been commenting on tech’s looming threat to their careers for some time, the level of sophistication of AI today has made even the hardiest sceptics begin to wonder: Is this the end for CG Art?

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What history tells us

The invention of Photography in the 19th century aroused the same concern among artists of that time. Art critics dismissed it as an empty automated process devoid of any meaningful thought behind its production of images. That didn’t stop Photography from being regarded as fine art today, with many valid points that justify the change in sentiment.

 In this age, anyone with a mobile phone can take a photograph, but that hasn’t put actual photographers out of work. Artists use photos as a dependable reference and essential components of the final piece in some digital art practices. Art now embraces Photography wholeheartedly.

AI: Is art doomed?

That doesn’t mean that traditional artists hadn’t lost avenues of income, though. Photographs replaced hand-drawn illustrations that once populated newspapers, manuals, movie posters and the like as soon as the technology had developed enough. The demand for someone with the ability to draw and paint had narrowed itself to niche industries. 

The arrival of the Digital Age hasn’t helped either. Even in Concept Art for video games today, artists use photo manipulation to produce work faster. In some markets, Photographers likewise have lost work to 3D rendering. The speed and cost-effectiveness of visualising products inside a 3D program have sometimes invalidated the need to hire photographers to create images for catalogues or brochures.

Despite all this, Art has prevailed, and new opportunities for the working artist have arisen. Regardless of their device, today’s image maker gains recognition for skills that have taken practice, sacrifice, and mindfulness that can only be the product of years of experience. Look at the thriving Painters, Illustrators, and 3D artists on your favourite social media platforms. Artists and critics have since used the advent of Photography as an analogy to prove that Art is and always will be here to stay. But what happens when Art and the craft of making art meet a device that can draw from a library of outstanding works from antiquity to the modern day and create stunning images from a few lines of text?

A glimpse of what’s to come

Midjourney is an example of AI’s future in Art and Design. We log into their Discord server and type a description of what we want to see in a thread. We get four results within minutes and options to improve upon any of those results. Users have speculated on what prompts make a difference. Some findings suggest that Midjourney responds best to specific key phrases and not necessarily any arbitrary description at its current stage.

Even so,  in their nascent stages, the new generation of AI image generators is already capable of replicating a considerable part of the human artistic process- drawing upon a visual library and mixing elements to create a compelling picture. Suppose we base its evolution on the current trajectory. In that case, it’s safe to assume that it will only get better at parsing prompts until paint-overs or editing by hand will no longer be necessary. Perhaps at some point, we’ll be able to generate entire 3D scenes with a few sentences as well. 

AI: Is art doomed?

Weathering the Artpocalypse

What does this mean for artists and designers who spend their lives mastering the tools of our trade? Will our work hold sway against someone with a knack for giving fitting instructions to an AI generator? Will our craft be reduced to novelty- capitalising on the feat of making things by hand? Will the Twitter posts of tomorrow be jaw-dropping AI-generated renderings of everyone’s flights of fancy?

A cynical answer would be that we would value the ability to create images much less than we do today, which is probably much less than we did a century ago. The less time and skill required to produce Art, the less scarce it becomes, and scarcity drives value. 

An optimistic answer would be that the human spirit will always shine through hand-made work, whether a painting, photo or 3D render, and people will always be able to make the distinction.

A pragmatic answer would be that the model we use to evaluate Art today will change. We might appraise paintings not only by the final result but also by their technique, showcased in a timelapse of their process. We might begin to recognise the Art in the execution of strokes or mark-making and how each painting stage is itself Art. We might place in higher regard high-concept work, where there’s clear evidence of a narrative, question or statement expressed beyond “female portrait with ornate floral adornments” or something that directly translates to a prompt for AI. One can only speculate how exactly the model will change, but maybe a more nuanced baseline of scrutiny will keep Art and the human practice of Art alive and even elevate it.

Almost all the images in this article are from either Midjourney or Dream Studio. As a quick exercise, I generated this image using the prompt:  “the AI art apocalypse”.

AI: Is art doomed?

The result acted as the seed for this 3D render.

AI: Is art doomed?

Would I have been able to get an image like this by adjusting my prompt? At some point, maybe. But it was still more gratifying to develop it by hand, and I now have a scene I can improve upon and even make a short animation out of in the future. The paintings in the scene are more AI-generated images from Dream Studio.

In the end, none can say what this means for Art as a practice or livelihood. However, we must embrace change and grow like those before us, hopefully like those after us. Is this the end for CG Art? Only we decide.

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