AI has capacity to redefine art, spark innovative ideas

By J Frank

There are a few quick ways to sound smart without much effort. Blame a social issue on capitalism. Pepper your essays with “nevertheless,” “erstwhile” or best of all, “ontologically.” And when a new technology enters the conversation, quote Jeff Goldblum’s character from “Jurassic Park,” who said, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” I guarantee that everybody in the room will nod slowly as if you had said something thoughtful and original.

But most technologies are not dinosaurs and are not going to eat you. Take the rise of AI-generated images. Over the past couple of years, AI images have gone from being incoherent blobs of color to nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. As one could expect from a development such as this, there has been a lot of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. AI art has been savaged as inauthentic the opposite of real art even as theft from “real” artists. “Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” long one of art’s most beloved adages, has been cast by the wayside. Supposedly anti-capitalist artists have adopted the mindset of Disney lawyers: “Inspiration is theft, because art is a commodity like gold or oil.” This is a ridiculous response to a technology capable of so much positive change.

“AI-generated art” is as much a misnomer as calling paintings “paintbrush-generated art.” Regardless of the medium used to create the art, there is still a human artist behind it, responsible for the most important part the idea. For many talented people, it is not hard to paint soup cans or to silk-screen many copies of Marilyn Monroe’s face. But Andy Warhol had the idea to call that art, and so he is revered as an artist.

AI art is showing itself capable of doing things other media never could. In January, an artist on X (formerly Twitter) used AI to complete Keith Haring’s “Unfinished Painting,” a canvas that the legendary queer artist deliberately left unfinished in 1989 as a memorial to the lives lost in the AIDS epidemic, a year before Haring himself died of AIDS. Altering such a hallowed work of art ticked off a firestorm of criticism. 

I have to admit, that gave me a frisson of excitement — not the anodyne image itself, but the reaction to it. Art has many purposes, not all of which need to be present in a single work. But one of them is to shock the gatekeepers of the art world. One of the most iconic moments in 20th-century art history was when Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal into a sculpture exhibition in 1917, calling it “Fountain.” Today, we laugh at the pompous event organizers who were scandalized by it. Who gave them the right to define what art is? 

Alas, art seems to have lost that capacity to shock. Until recently it seemed difficult to imagine what could provoke a new “Fountain” moment in the art world. These days, art that attempts to be shocking and transgressive more often comes off as pretentious and lazy. When artists do things like dunking a crucifix in urine (Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” 1987) or building a toilet out of solid gold and calling it “America” (Maurizio Cattelan, 2017), most critics just yawn. Art should push boundaries, but those works did not. I am immensely grateful to AI art for revealing that yes, the art world still has boundaries to be pushed.

Art should not be a circle of high status people congratulating each other. Works of art should be in conversation with each other. The point of  “Unfinished Painting” is that it is unfinished. Therefore, the most clever, subversive, authentically artistic response is to finish it. At long last, humanity is once again producing art so groundbreaking that the chattering classes are sneering that it is not art — and getting people talking about the purpose and definition of art is one of the most important purposes and definitions of art.

AI art has the capacity to breathe so much new vibrancy into the world. As corporate consolidation marches on, popular culture has grown staggeringly bland. Every blockbuster movie is a sequel or remake. Radio stations all play the same 10 to 20 hits. But the media conglomerates’ days are numbered. If AI image technology keeps improving, within just a few years, an intelligent, creative person with a good plot in mind will be able to generate a feature-length movie all by themself. The barriers to making great pop culture will be reduced to nearly nothing. In the same way that everyone today is a scribe in medieval people’s eyes, everyone in the future will be a filmmaker and a pop star in our eyes.

This world is ours for the taking, as long as we want it. A society that does not believe in technology’s ability to change our lives for the better is a small, sad and fatalistic society. It is time for our kneejerk technophobia to end. Otherwise, culture will continue to stagnate, and people of the future will say that our generation was so preoccupied with whether or not we should, that we did not stop to think if we could.

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About Tor Parsons 50 Articles
Tor Parsons '24 is a well-known figure on campus. I interviewed three random LC students to gauge the public opinion on Tor. "Who?" - A student with a really cool backpack "I have no idea who you're talking about." - Some dude on the Pio Express "He's cool, I guess." - Tor's roommate

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