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What Makes Art: The Head or the Heart?

by Joe Sutphin

I’ve never considered intelligence to be the defining factor in the acts and processes of making art. I’ve never once thought to myself, “Human artists could finally be supplanted if there were just something else out there with enough intelligence.”

Humans are intelligent, and there is a high level of intelligence required in order to process artistic concepts and overcome the various challenges presented by any artistic medium. But to me, art has always been an extension of the person making it—the result, in part, of their personality and individuality, their hopes, fears, love, brokenness, spiritual nature, sense of longing, joy, passions. Intelligence is certainly a key factor in being able to process these inner feelings and senses, and then employ them in the act of making art. But intelligence alone does not produce art. Art is built upon the whole of the human experience.

If you aren’t aware, AI art has become a very complicated and contested topic within the visual arts community. Not too many months ago, Artificial Intelligence image generators became available to the public. These generators allow any user to type descriptors into them, describing any form of image they would like to see created. The generator, loaded full of countless images found throughout the internet, essentially follows the specifics of the text prompt and then contrives several variations of an image. As users start to learn the quirks and better descriptors, they can refine their prompt vocabulary to get even better results. Then by tactfully refining result options down, over and over, users can come to some very striking imagery.

But the generator/software is not able to come up with images from a blank slate no matter how intelligent its artificial intelligence seems. The machine has no “life experience”. AI possesses no memories of a life lived. Instead, the entirety of mankind’s digital record of visual art is fed into the AI generator, which then fuels this new virtual technology, and all done without the consent of millions of human creators, deceased or living. And the person typing the prompts into these generators does not need to have any artistic ability whatsoever. The results are impressive.

AI image generation is still growing and is the equivalent of a rampant, unruly toddler who is about to transition into a fully functioning facsimile of an adult. But when I look into its eyes, I find it has no soul. Yet if there’s no soul, why do I care so much? Why does this concern me? It’s concerning because the technology is actually producing very impressive results, and it’s only just now getting its legs under it. The results, in some cases, are so impressive that, when used effectively, it can pass as true artwork made by human hands. Untrained eyes will be convinced of what they see in many cases. And as technology advances, the lines between AI and true art will begin to visibly blur together until they are indistinguishable. We start to enter a world of art inundated with imagery, yet devoid of humanity.

Are we entering an era where the artist is no longer a central component in the creation of new art? Joe Sutphin

As AI generators were first heavily explored earlier this year, the imagery being generated and shared was oftentimes outlandish in nature. Some of the trends being explored leaned into an otherworldly vision of sci-fi and fantasy that felt garish and preposterous. Envision, if you can, an endless plethora of Baroque-informed, sprawling dreamscapes of lattice-weave mountains, seemingly composed of crystalized spider silk, jutting from a formless darkness and jarringly interrupted by ominous, vaguely familiar yet somehow ambiguous shapes and forms of cloaked figures, birthed out of the chiaroscuro of undefined fire and fog—all as if it were painted by some ghostly, spectral amalgam of Rembrandt, Casper David Friedrich, Christopher Nolan, and Alan Lee. But as the months have passed, the growing community of AI image generator users has continued to fine-tune the terminology being used, and the results are sometimes frighteningly deceptive.

It’s imperceptible to the majority of the public at the moment, but AI imagery is already being dropped into articles, and used in visual development. Somewhere, someone is being paid some amount of money to input pertinent verbiage into an AI generator in order to quickly create attractive images to aid text or inspire creative development for larger projects. At some small rate, there are definitely freelance art jobs that are no longer available to artists at beginner and intermediate levels in publishing. I believe that will become a trend in periodical publishing, and in some publishing for print. In the film industry, set, environment, costume, and character designers will have new competition for freelance jobs now that comparable images can be generated in a fraction of the time, and not at the cost of a team of traditional artists. Given enough time, Google image searches for specific artists could easily become a swamp of visual misinformation, making it a daunting task to truly know which results are actually the work of the artist being searched for, or simply part of the myriad of mashed-up or emulated AI forgeries.

Today, everyday people are regularly generating incredible images through AI generators such as Dall-E 2, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney among the most popular. Anyone with access to the correct artistic terminology, descriptors, and metadata can type a sequence of these words into a text field, click a button, and the image generator begins cutting years off of your road to an original work of art. With enough experience and savvy, the right person entering those words can cut that artistic journey—not in half, but by generations. With no natural talent or practical artistic skill at all, one can prompt an AI generator to create unique combinations of artistic components that our eyes instantly recognize as fine art. As viewers, we’re taken aback by this image that feels so familiar and effective, and that person never had to learn or attempt anything other than to type in the correct words.

However impressive AI art is to take part in and to look at, many who are working in visual arts are desperately speaking out against AI imagery generators that are beginning to threaten their livelihood and their artistic identity. I’ve personally come across artists who have discovered AI imagery that was made by pulling from their own portfolio of work, creating images that mimic that artist’s style, aesthetic, medium, and subject matter but with none of the personal sacrifice and hard work. All across social media, working artists are echoing a sentiment that AI generators are now stealing from entire generations of artistic individuals.

For ages, artists have taken pains in solving complex artistic processes in order to express their unique inner artistic concepts. The first human who conceived of creating an image for the purpose of instruction, record-keeping, or enjoyment, had to contemplate how to utilize the tools and materials readily available to them. Each subsequent creator of artistic imagery then worked their powerful minds and hands to refine those raw materials into tools and processes. They then experimented with new materials in order to devise new tools and processes. This slow and meaningful game of artistic leapfrog has continued throughout mankind’s chain of artistic growth. Figuratively speaking, while one artist is bent over their work, pouring their blood, sweat, and tears onto the page, the next artist gleans insight while peering over their shoulder. That artist then leaps forward, making something new from a mixture of their own personal experience and creativity and the inspiration and information they drew from those who came before them.

There have always been measurable leaps in visual art, but Immeasurable risks were taken, countless failures endured, and lessons learned and passed forward through instruction, admiration, and inspiration. A price was paid. Art was earned.

The sacrifice of an artist standing over their work, exposing their inner selves, trading away days, months, and years of life in order to bring something new into the world and connect with another living being is a true factor in why art has always held a sacred place in society. Are we entering an era where the artist is no longer a central component in the creation of new art? Is art at large still enjoyable if it all was generated by artificial intelligence? Personally, as I look at new art, I inevitably ponder who must have made it and what they were reaching for. What is their story? The artists themselves matter to me.

At times, I have scrolled through the Midjourney hashtag on Instagram scrolling through post after post of truly impressive AI baroque/chiaroscuro/sci-fi/high fantasy imagery. Now and then I’ll visit the account of the person who made a particular AI post and then scroll back through that user’s account. More than a few times, I’ve scrolled through months worth of AI images, posted at a seemingly frantic rate of inspiration. Post after post of various iterations on the same types of heavy fantasy-driven images, and then suddenly, as if the account had been hacked by another user altogether, I’ll hit an abrupt moment where they posted their last honest attempt at making traditional art. Oftentimes, it was a post showing a genuine effort to figure out some process in acrylic or watercolor, with plenty of apparent struggle but plenty of effort to try and figure their way through their limitations. Then they came across an AI generator like Midjourney, and like some dark magic, artistic imagery beyond what they could reach just yet became attainable in minutes. End of artistic process. End of their personal artistic growth, mid-journey. How horribly ironic.

There’s something truly unholy about it all in my eyes. By “unholy” I don’t mean to imply demonic. If you take a moment to contemplate what makes art a sacred and holy thing, then consider AI prompt-generated imagery and its purpose and uses, it’s unnatural, unholy. Part of what makes making art holy is that it’s real work by real people, contemplating and solving and overcoming limitations to create an image that didn’t exist before, and now does because a portion of life was traded away in order to bring the art to life.

But there is no true reward in art making without the risk of failure. Artists that endure failure learn from it in order to grow, and then they try again with new insight. Joe Sutphin

My heart behind writing this is that readers will become aware of what is taking place, and continue to lift up, celebrate and draw attention to real art made by real humans. I’m passionate about this topic because making art is emotionally, mentally, and physically hard work. We call it artwork. We take time out of our lives to visit museums and gaze at works of art. We describe the painstaking details in works of art. That very word describes hard work: painstaking, taking pains. Art-making is a true struggle. It requires strenuous effort, demands we make sacrifices, and dares us to take risks in order to receive the rewards. But there is no true reward in art making without the risk of failure. Artists that endure failure learn from it in order to grow, and then they try again with new insight. Making artwork is working and striving to make something new and beautiful because it’s good. And it honors God when we work hard and become disciplined in a craft in order to make something good.

My prayer is that humans will continue to desire to risk ruining their clothes with paint splatter, risk cutting their thumbs with a spoon gouge, risk spending too much money to find just the right quality of paper, risking the loss of sleep on a work night because they’re on the verge of an artistic breakthrough because it’s good. Because it’s a life lived well. Because the process contains and the product conveys the stories of the ones behind the work.

Genesis 2:15 says that God put the man he made into the garden to “work” and to keep it. I’ve learned that the Hebrew term used in that verse, avad, has multiple meanings and uses. It does mean to work and to labor, but it can also frequently mean to perform acts of worship. The very first directive God gave the man he created was to physically work in order to tend the earth. This act also honored God as an act of worship.

Making art can certainly be an act of worship. One of the ways in which we humans can bring glory to our Creator is by using the gifts He gave us in order to create new things, to make something good to uplift and be enjoyed by others. God is honored by it. But If mankind can manage to completely remove the work from artwork, what is left? If our own hands no longer skillfully manipulate brushes loaded with paint, press and mold clay into thoughtful forms, or scratch a pen nib around the pages of a sketchbook, what was gained by the shortcut? If the process involved in the creation of artistic imagery no longer costs anything, wasn’t something still of value still traded away? If art will simply exist because we tell it to, in the end, who or what was worshiped? Who or what was honored?


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