AI isn’t an existential threat to human art

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Jason Allen, a contestant in a recent digital art competition, sparked controversy by an using Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool called Midjourney to win. The competition’s rules didn’t explicitly declare AI-generated art ineligible, but that doesn’t mean Allen did the right thing.

Technology and art share a history. Much of human-made art depends on technology as digital art software is growing in popularity thanks to its convenience and sustainability.

We should hesitate to be anti-tech, as technology and art often have a symbiotic relationship. However, using AI to create art to be judged against people-made art is insulting to artists and what art means to people. When it comes to art, Allen’s attitude is dismissive of its value and of those who have honed their skills and talents to create it.

AI-generated art is interesting and valuable as a technology, but its value is different from art created by people. More than aesthetics, the humanity behind art is what makes it valuable.

However, with digital art exploding worldwide, the fine line between “art” and “not art” is blurrier than ever. The descriptive words Allen typed into the software to produce the winning piece are arguably art, as effective word choice is considered an artistic skill in other contexts.

Unlike in some fields, objectivity is impossible when assessing art. The value we place on a piece isn’t always proportional to the effort taken to create it, further complicating the AI question.

There is a place for AI-generated art, but it should remain separate from human art.

As questionable as Allen’s actions are, they forced us to acknowledge how AI is threatening to turn the art world upside down. Rather than outright excluding it from future art competitions, we should consider ways to regulate it as the technology evolves.

Whether what Allen instructed the AI to create is art will depend on who you ask. Either way, our parameters for ‘art’ will have to accommodate AI’s growing prevalence.

A lot of the backlash prompted by Allen’s win stems from our frustration that AI can create art better than a human—at least according to the contest judges.

The last bastion of human supremacy is the idea that computers can’t make art. Now that they’re coming close, we’re uncomfortable.

Art and other highly creative fields had been assumed safe from the AI takeover that’s transformed some industries, but that may no longer the case. No one likes feeling useless, and that’s why effective art-generating programs like Midjourney are so disturbing. 

The arts are already gravely undervalued in society compared to STEM fields. If AI can produce art that's cheap, fast, and effective, human artists may soon be forced to compete with AI for jobs.

However, AI doesn’t eliminate the need for artists in society—human creativity and our capacity to translate emotions into art is unique. The whole basis of Midjourney and other AI art-generating systems is pre-existing artwork. The AI can’t do what it does without human art.

Regardless of how good AI gets, human art will always exist. We need to approach the use of AI in the art world cautiously and with respect for creative labour. 

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