Clickbait or creativity? The art world is battling AI

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Paris (AFP) – Online tools that can create beautiful, absurd and sometimes terrifying images using artificial intelligence (AI) have exploded in popularity, prompting a deep search for the nature of art.

Tech companies tout their inventions as the liberating power of art for all, but purists argue that the artist is still the central cog in the machine.

Art historian and artificial intelligence expert Emily L. Spratt, whose forthcoming book deals with the ethics and regulation of artificial intelligence art, told AFP that the art world has yet to find an answer to the potentially transformative technology.

Are we all artists now?

Type a few keywords into an AI art tool — something like “Brad Pitt in a Mondrian-esque space rowing boat” — and seconds later pop up boldly colored drawings of the Hollywood star rowing among the stars.

There are many fans of tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion and DALL-E 2 who have declared this to democratize the art.

But Spratt thinks such tools are more for “entertainment and clickbait” than art.

“It’s a way to encourage engagement with platforms, which of course will help these companies,” she said.

Works like “A Sea Otter in the Style of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring” are more clickbait than art, Spratt said © – / OpenAI/AFP/File

“The idea that it’s just an empowerment tool or that it’s going to democratize the space is too simplistic — it’s naive.”

Rather, she sees the line between AI and other technologies blurring, pointing to image manipulation programs that are already widely used.

“I see the future of AI as part of the ubiquitous background architecture for all digital imaging processes,” she said.

“It will be hard to avoid because it permeates all our digital interactions, often without us knowing, especially when we create, edit or search for images.”

Are there AI masterpieces?

Beyond simple online tools that anyone can use, there are many artists working on their own algorithms with custom datasets.

These works sell for tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands.

An outstanding practitioner, Spratt said, is the German artist Mario Klingemann, whose “Hyperdimensional Attraction Series, Bestiary” is the pinnacle of the genre.

Emily Spratt said the traditional art world has yet to find a coherent response to AI
Emily Spratt said the traditional art world has yet to find a coherent response to AI © Dominik Bindl / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File

“It’s a video of seemingly organic forms that transform from one physical being into another and momentarily appear as recognizable animals,” she said.

“To be honest, it’s a little unnerving, but it works well as a commentary on the dividing lines between the tangible and intangible, and the limitations of generative AI in replicating the natural world.”

She said his art continually asks questions about AI as a tool and more broadly about the nature of creativity.

What is the art world doing with AI?

Until relatively recently, there was very little buzz around AI outside of video installations, largely because there was no bank of clearly labeled digital images.

Without the source material, there could be no AI art as we know it today.

That changed a decade ago when several projects began to deliver massive amounts of digital images, sparking an explosion in creativity.

Apparently sold
Apparently sold “Portrait of Edmond de Bellamy” in 2018, but the code was largely borrowed © TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP/File

A French collective called Obvious sold a piece for more than $400,000 in 2018 after hotly embracing the idea that AI “created” the piece.

This sale became extremely controversial after it was revealed that they used an algorithm written by artist and programmer Robbie Barratt.

“The reason the Obvious artwork sold, especially at that price, was largely because it was advertised as the first artificial intelligence artwork to be offered at a major auction house,” Spratt said.

“This was really the art market experimenting with offering art with artificial intelligence in step with long-established approaches to selling fine art.”

At the time, she said, there was huge interest in bringing the technology sector and the art world together.

But since then, the tech industry has been hit by a dramatic economic downturn, and investment and interest have waned.

Major auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s have since been working hard to create separate platforms for selling art with artificial intelligence.

“It’s as if they don’t want to tarnish fine art with these new digital studies,” Spratt said.

And the critics have yet to catch up and really express what is good, bad or indifferent, she believes.

“Unfortunately, the art discourse about artificial intelligence is not there yet, but I think it’s on its way and it has to come from the field of art history,” she insisted.

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