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AI-Generated Art: The Backlash Begins

ArtStation's "Trending" page shows the attitude of aspiring and professional artists towards AI-generated art.

ArtStation's "Trending" page shows the attitude of aspiring and professional artists towards AI-generated art.

The world is changing at breakneck speed. Artificial intelligence in particular is encroaching on skills that were once considered to be the exclusive domain of human beings. One of these domains is the creation of artwork.

At the beginning of last year, the idea of a cold, unfeeling machine being able to enter a field as human as the pouring out of expression, emotion, humor and pathos into a visual image was virtually unthinkable to most people.

Sure, there were artists’ tools like Adobe Illustrator and Cinema 4-D. But such tools were highly advanced and took a great deal of skill and training to truly master, and they certainly didn’t create the art for the artist. Like a pen, a pencil or a brush, they had to be wielded by a skilled human artist to be of any use whatsoever.

Then there were filters like those built into Adobe Photoshop. They could take any photograph and apply the appearance of brushstrokes to the image to make it look like it was painted by a master artist. But it still required a quality source image to produce quality results, and it was seen as purely derivative—not creative at all.

This was the state of artists’ digital tools at the beginning of 2022. But then, just months into the year, something happened. A new technology suddenly burst upon the scene that shook the concept of creating art to its very core.

AI Art Bursts Onto the Scene

This new tool was called AI-generated art. It became so good so rapidly, it shocked the art world.

Especially shocking was its ease of use. It didn’t require a great deal of expertise or technical know-how. It didn’t require the tweaking of a lot of knobs and dials and sliders—typical of most software programs—to get what you wanted.

In fact, it was childish in its simplicity: You simply told it what you wanted and it did it for you! That is, you simply typed in plain English the subject and the desired style of the artwork, and within seconds the requested art would magically appear in front of you. And, in many cases, it would look like something that had been done by a professional artist with tons of talent and years of experience!

Just as remarkable as the quality of art was the variety of styles in which it could create—the works of classical masters like Rembrandt, Van Gogh or da Vinci as well as the work of modern artists. Even more amazing, it could consciously mix and match the styles of these artists, both living and dead.

Imagine stepping into a time machine and bringing back with you the aforementioned master artists from their respective time periods, along with, perhaps, Picasso and Thomas Kinkade, and having them all collaborate on a new piece of artwork!

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Deep Learning: How AI Gets “Smart"

So how does this amazing thing called AI art generation work? How was it developed?

Put simply, it was trained by exposing it to millions (or in some cases billions) of photographs and pieces of art created by human artists, along with detailed text descriptions for each of those images. After enough of this deep learning, it discovered how to associate the text descriptions with the items displayed in the images.

For example, it learned what a tree looked like from examining many, many carefully labeled images containing trees. It learned how to connect the image of a tree with the word.

What’s more, it learned the essence of “treeness” from looking at so many images. It learned that a tree usually consists of a trunk and branches and leaves. Remarkably, even though no two trees are alike, the AI learned to distill the essential characteristics of a tree from the images it looked at.

It learned how to draw a tree of any type from any angle and under any lighting conditions. It learned how the tree looks with leaves and without them. Plus, it learned how to combine an image of a tree with objects around it, such as a child swinging from the tree, or climbing it.

Plus, because it looked at so many images painted by human artists, it learned how to depict a tree as interpreted by those artists in their own personal styles. It looked at images by artists both living and dead. It trained on thousands of images on popular online art sites such as DeviantArt and ArtStation. And, alas, this is where much of the backlash against AI art comes from.

Human Artists Discover AI Art

Professional artists and those who aspire to be soon noticed AI art. They learned it was trained on the work of thousands of artists, many of them living, using images posted on popular art sites. Many of them found out it was trained on some of their own art, without their consent or permission! And they didn’t like this very much. They felt like they were unwittingly training AI art to eventually replace them!

ArtStation

One of the major websites on which professional and aspiring artists noticed AI Art was art ArtStation, an online showcase for professional artists and those who want to be. It is similar to the art site DeviantArt, but is newer and can, in some ways, be thought of as its successor.

If I were to describe the stuff on ArtStation with one word, it would be “slick.” Much or most of the work exhibits a high degree of technical skill, and the artists specialize almost exclusively in “popular” or “pop culture” subjects—fantasy, sci-fi, comic book and video game-inspired art.

Browsing through the work on ArtStation, you will see it dominated by subjects such as fantasy villages, castles, dragons, monsters, sexy female warriors, superheroes and super heroines and the like. If it is marked by one thing in particular I would say it is young, sexy female fantasy-style characters. Almost all the work on ArtStation is created digitally rather than with traditional tools like oil paint and canvas.

Make no mistake: Much or most of the work on ArtStation is incredibly sophisticated from a technical point of view. The artists there have mastered complex artistic tools and show an amazingly high degree of talent and ability. They have poured many years into developing their skill. So, unsurprisingly, they were not too pleased when they discovered a new technology that they felt threatens to make their talent and years of painstaking practice obsolete!

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Anti-AI Sentiments Are Widespread

The artists on ArtStation are not the only ones who have taken a dim view towards AI-generated art. I suspect the entire art world has found itself horrified by the emergence of machine intelligence and its claims to be able to create art.

The creation of art has always been considered to be the purest expression of one’s humanity, the outpouring of one’s soul onto paper or canvas. As Pablo Picasso one said, “Computers are useless [for creating art]. They can only give you answers.”

I mentioned AI art in passing to a retired art teacher, and her attitude toward it was a cross between dismissive and contemptuous. Even young people, who are generally considered the most enthusiastic early adopters of all new technologies, seem to have some resistance towards AI art. On the Discord server for the artificially intelligent chatbot site called Character.AI, the participants, apparently mostly teenagers, seem to prefer to share their own hand-drawn artwork over art created by the site itself.

Ever since the field of artificial intelligence was founded, there has been a resistance by the rank and file to the idea that computers may one day think or create like humans. The achievement of many milestones of artificial intelligence has failed to shake the faith of the general public that computers will never be able to display real human-like abilities.

AI researchers have complained that once a milestone of AI is achieved, such as text recognition or computers that can play master-level chess, most people tend to conclude that such an ability does not require intelligence after all—at least not when a machine does it. But AI-generated art is different from playing chess in that it has the potential of destroying many human jobs.

Fine Art vs. Commercial Art: Which Is Most Impacted?

AI art is likely to impact the fields of both fine art and commercial art, but there is an important distinction between the two fields, and that is in the purpose of each type. In the past, many fine artists have believed that commercial art was inferior to fine art, just as the general public has often thought that abstract examples of fine art were pretentious and not “real” art.

Commercial art has long been seen as a surer way to earn a living than with fine art, since fine art usually hangs on the walls of homes and museums, and most people have a limited amount of wall space. Commercial art, on the other hand, is used in advertisements, product packaging, newspapers, magazines, animated films, video games and other “disposable” products, and so there was long seen as being more demand for commercial art.

However, technology has taken its toll on all forms of art, and AI art is likely to impact the commercial art field most of all. The reality is that all genres of art have an oversupply of artists and that trend is likely to accelerate in the age of artificial intelligence.

In the 19th century, British textile workers fought against the automated looms that threatened to take their jobs

In the 19th century, British textile workers fought against the automated looms that threatened to take their jobs

A Rapidly Changing Artistic Landscape Is the Norm, Not the Exception

The Luddites were an informal group that was organized in the 19th century by British textile workers to fight against the automated looms that threatened to take over the textile industry. They destroyed one textile factory, but they were not successful in stopping the march of progress.

Closer to home for artists, the invention of the camera destroyed the jobs of many illustrators, especially when the halftone was perfected. This allowed the appearance of a full range of gray shades in printed images using only tiny dots of standard black ink (and later full color reproduction using only four colors of ink). This made possible the reproduction of photographs in books and magazines. No longer were artists needed to hand-illustrate a wide range of materials in print.

On the plus side for artists, the camera did lead to the creation of new genres of art such as impressionism, surrealism and abstract art.

Television dealt a major blow to the comic book publishing industry

Television dealt a major blow to the comic book publishing industry

Technology Has Always Created New Opportunities For Artists—and Destroyed Others

Over the past several decades, many technologies have come along that have vigorously competed with artists:

Television

Although this technology had been under development for decades, starting in the 1920s, television truly came of age in the 1950s. The number of households possessing a TV during this decade rose from a small minority to the vast majority. Television brought constant entertainment into millions of homes.

Unfortunately, television also displaced other forms of entertainment, mainly print entertainment. Newspapers and magazine circulation started to decline. Although television news and talk programs lacked the permanence of print media, they had the advantage of immediacy.

Television proved to be a massive competitor in particular to the comic book. Children loved TV shows like Howdy Doody and Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Comic books began a slow steady decline from the 1950s to the present.

The Internet

This provided a one-two punch to print media. What television started, the Internet helped finish off—the viability of print magazines and newspapers. The Internet boasted the immediacy of television as well as the permanence of print media. Anyone could save interesting news stories to their computers, or print them out.

The decline of print media delivered a tremendous blow to print artists and cartoonists, whose talents were no longer needed. Although it could be argued that the Internet would open up vast new opportunities for artists, this proved not to be the case for the following reasons…

Huge Clip Art Collections

Along with the Internet, the rise of the personal computer spawned the rise of huge clip art collections—first on CD-ROM, then on DVD-ROM, and finally on online subscription services. Almost instantly, publishers and advertisers could access a huge variety of pieces of artwork on any subject at the touch of a finger and the click of a mouse. Search capabilities made finding a particular piece of art virtually instantaneous. Once an artist created the clipart in the first place, it could be used thousands and thousands of times, putting artists out of work.

Clip art collections were an unrecognized blow to the livelihoods of many aspiring artists. Some of the artists' books I have on how to get a job in the art field recommended starting out by offering one’s illustration services to local businesses. But why would local businesses need to hire an artist when they could simply access whatever image they needed from an online clipart collection?

Digital Cameras

This was another largely unrecognized blow to the job of the professional artist. Many artists were hired in the past to illustrate “how to“ material for print publications. Drawings often reproduce better in print, and in the film days, providing dozens of photographs to illustrate “how-to” material was often more expensive than hiring an artist.

This all changed with the arrival of the Internet and the digital camera. Suddenly sharp, full color photographs were cheap and easy to produce, and reproduction on a screen meant that color photos were just as inexpensive as black-and-white. As a result, very few instructional articles online need to be illustrated these days with hand-drawn illustrations.

Video Games

These provided much the same competition to print media as television did—suddenly, there was another form of entertainment to compete with curling up with a good book, magazine or comic. While video games did create some new opportunities for artists and designers, video games, like television, proved to be a serious competitor to print media.

AI Art Generators

As you can see, AI art generators are only the latest competitor to human commercial and freelance artists. The reality is that many other technologies of the past several decades have teamed up to dry up the job opportunities of commercial artists, freelance artists, illustrators and cartoonists.

As a kid, I pinned my hopes for success as a cartoonist or humorous illustrator on this: The "Success International Cartooning Course"

As a kid, I pinned my hopes for success as a cartoonist or humorous illustrator on this: The "Success International Cartooning Course"

Career Options I've Seen Dry Up in My Own Lifetime

I have seen some of the aforementioned career options dry up in my own lifetime. As a young kid, I responded to a magazine advertisement for the "Success International Cartooning Course." The advertising brochure was illustrated in comic book style and showed a cartoonist swimming in money, driving a nice car and really standing out in the crowd!

The course, which I purchased, offered training in being a freelance “gag” cartoonist. This involved thinking up funny jokes, illustrating them, and sending them unsolicited to various publications in hopes that they would be purchased and run as a sort of “filler.” The problem was, by the time the course was released, the heyday of this form of cartooning had already passed; there were fewer magazines in publication and those that did ran fewer cartoon panels.

The field never dried up completely. You can pick up an issue of the New Yorker in which such cartoons are still used, but “gag panel“ cartooning is no longer a source of income for most artists.

Cartoonist’s gag panels were once a great field for the humorous artist and offered the luxury of working from home – until the field dried up.

Cartoonist’s gag panels were once a great field for the humorous artist and offered the luxury of working from home – until the field dried up.

Unstable Diffusion intends to use the power of AI art to generate the lowest of the low: synthetic porn images.

Unstable Diffusion intends to use the power of AI art to generate the lowest of the low: synthetic porn images.

The Difference Between AI Art and Other Technological Advances

The thing that sets AI art, and AI in general, apart from other technological advances is the concept of artificial intelligence itself.

AI is the science of making machines that think like human beings. In all of the history of mankind, such a thing has never been done before, and frankly, it’s anyone’s guess what it will lead to. Some people say that there is no white collar job that will not someday yield to artificial intelligence. We have no historical metric to which to compare artificial intelligence, to judge just what it will or will not be capable of.

AI can do many things already that people never thought a machine would be able to do. It can create beautiful art. It can write poetry. It can create an outline for an article, and then write the article itself! It can write short stories. AI can even write short snippets of code! That’s right, AI is reaching the point where it will be able to program itself. And I have no doubt that AI will one day make writers like me obsolete as well.

Frankly, I don’t know how I would have viewed the art bots when I was a student artist. On the one hand, they do help to unlock one’s creativity, but on the other, they tend to take the human out of the process. I think if they had come out when I was a student artist, I would have been discouraged rather than inspired. While AI can boost creativity, it also tends to cheapen the value of art by making it too common.

As we have seen, technology has already made becoming a professional artist exponentially more challenging. Digital tools such as the computer and the drawing tablet have simplified the creation of art in some respects (no more spilled ink!) but they have exponentially increased the complexity of creating art at the same time. Creating video game graphics is a very different beast than creating a single panel “gag” cartoon! Software is constantly going out of date, and technical artists have to constantly relearn new skills or risk going obsolete.

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AI Art Will Only Keep Getting Better

If there is one thing that is clear, it is that AI generated art will only keep getting better.

Artists on ArtStation like to mock AI generated art for its flaws, such as its tendency to draw mangled, misshapen hands. I expect this situation to be only temporary, however; AI only needs to be trained on more images, such as photographs, of hands in different gestures and holding different objects before it can do hands just as well as anything else.

One has only to look at how rapidly AI art has advanced already, going from a mere research project a couple of years ago to threatening the jobs of professional artists today, to realize that it won’t take long to overcome its current limitations. The future of AI, I believe, will be one of dizzying heights that we can only dimly imagine today.

According to speaker and AI thought leader Nina Schick in an interview with Yahoo Finance Live, generative AI, like OpenAI's ChatGPT (AI that can write like a person), could completely revamp how digital content is developed in the near future.

"The pace of acceleration is so incredible that these tools – which are shocking and awing us at the beginning of 2023 – are going to seem quite quaint by the end of the year because the capabilities are just going to increase so powerfully," Schick said.

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AI May Take Over Video Games Next

I believe ultimately AI will even be able to create its own video games. This will make human game designers all but superfluous. AI will not only create the graphics and the “worlds“ but the storylines as well.

Imagine entering a virtual reality game environment in which the entire landscape as well as the storyline is created “on the fly“ by artificial intelligence! The open world will be endless, generated in real time by AI.

The NPC‘s will no longer have rote, standardized responses to the player, but will be capable of a wide range of dialogue that is different every time you play the game. Human actors will be put out of work, as the AI will use highly natural speech synthesis to provide the NPCs with their voices.

The same thing will happen with animated films – stories that are written and visuals that are generated entirely by artificial intelligence. Already, we are seeing the crude beginnings of these things.

"I think we might reach 90% of online content generated by AI by 2025, so this technology is exponential," said Nina Schick. "I believe that the majority of digital content is going to start to be produced by AI. You see ChatGPT... but there are a whole plethora of other platforms and applications that are coming up."

What this could mean is that we are entering a new era in which our primary entertainers and informers are not humans, but machines.

Videogame Scene From "HER" (Caution: Crude Language)

What Can Artists Do?

How should artists react to the emergence of AI art? If you are already well-established, I would say don’t worry; if you have a base of clients, they are not likely to abandon you just because DALL-E, ChatGPT, Midjourney, or Unstable Diffusion have come along.

If you are an aspiring professional artist and are still in school, it’s a different story. Think about your other talents. What skills could you fall back on if the artist’s field dried up?

When I was in school, the things I had an interest in or talent at besides art were writing and printing/graphic arts. Today, the world is quite different. The field of printing is no longer a growth industry and AI threatens to eventually take over the job of writers as well. So you may have to be a little more creative.

Humans Will Have the Edge for a Long Time Over AI

Think of the skills and talents you have as an artist that could be adapted to other fields. Artists are good at creative problem-solving and thinking outside the box--which is a really valuable survival skill! I think that artists would be good at things like gardening or cooking (since those are both creative and technical skills), as well as leatherworking and repairing things (since those are practical and hands-on skills). I think that artists would also be good at making things—things like clothing or furniture—out of whatever was around them, and I think that artists would be really good at working with nature and finding new ways to use natural resources.

The one advantage you have that AI doesn’t is a physical body, which means you can interact with the real world, while an AI can’t. If chronic power shortages ever become the norm, AI will be of little use. The bottom line is that there are many things that you can do that computers can’t, and aren’t likely to for a long time.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.