‘Starry Sky with Cats’, or Musings on AI-Generated Art

How do you guys feel about AI-generated art? I think by now I’ve seen as many opinions about it as there are people, ranging from joy at this easy new way of creating graphics quickly, to dread from artists seeing years of hard work stolen and their livelyhood at risk. Most of the debate seems to be about who exactly gets the rights to these mix-and-match artworks and whether you can ever truly own an AI-generated art piece. And my own opinion..?

It’s complicated.

When I went to art school, there was this teacher whose idea of art was to put pencils in a pile, glue them together and sell the resulting ‘piece’ to the highest bidder. I used to frown at this. To me art was making an effort and creating something beautiful from scratch, not spending a couple minutes gluing ready-made pencils together. What he said to me was this:

‘An artist’s greatest value lies not in the effort she puts in, but in providing the idea‘.

I imagine he loves AI-art, seeing as it’s crafted almost entirely on ideas and very little effort. But you know what? In a way, he was right. Without his idea those pencils would have remained pencils, never turning into art to be bought and enjoyed by fans of modernism creations. In the same way, no AI-generated art piece would ever exist without an artist feeding their idea into the system and deeming the output worthy to save and display.

Let’s use a live example, using this rendition of van Gogh’s Starry Sky (with a cat!) that we’ll pretend you made just now using NightCafé:

‘Van Gogh’s Starry Sky with Cats’ (although I only see one)!

Van Gogh would never have been able to make this version of his famous painting (with a cat), because he wasn’t you and he hadn’t your ideas to feed into an art generator. And even if he was you and did have your ideas, the AI wouldn’t give him the exact same rendition of the piece that you got this very moment.

So we can conclude that this – very impressive – version of Starry Sky would never have existed if it wasn’t for you.

‘Van Gogh’s Starry Sky with Cats’ actually gave me four options, but only one got chosen – the one with the actual cat.

On the other hand, it also wouldn’t exist if van Gogh never made the original painting in the first place.

The only reason we get beautiful pictures out of AI is because artists before us spent entire lives perfecting not only their ideas but their craft. People like to talk about ‘talent’ as if people are born with brushes in their hands and pieces like Starry Sky pop up at will, but I’ll let you in on something: Talent is a myth. Anyone can make something beautiful – if they put enough hours into it. What people call ‘talent’ is applying yourself to your craft for years on end until you learn how to make oil paint behave and figure out how to use them to depict that starry sky just so. And every hour you spend honing your craft is one you could have spent with those loved ones you don’t see enough of, on preparing better, healthier meals, on sleeping an extra hour every night or playing your favourite game.

Now that any one of us can become the next van Gogh by simply typing in the right words on a website, the artists of the future won’t have to make those sacrifices – which is good – but rely on it too much and we risk losing the opportunity for better art in the future. If we collectively give up on honing our craft, will we ever see another great artist or will there only be variations of the old?

I also wish for a system of giving credit where it’s due. Van Gogh may have been gone for a very long time, but there are many living artists today whose works heavily influence the AI algorithms, yet we know nothing about them or who influences what part of our creations. Yes, we may provide the ideas, but it is their craft that makes the output possible.

In conclusion…

Deciding who owns what in AI-art seems like a nightmare, especially in pieces clearly influenced by multiple artists. I wouldn’t claim any AI-art I generate as truly my own. I wouldn’t sell it directly or tell people I made it from scratch. But I do love the beautiful things the AI creates and I appreciate the fragility in that they would never have existed if I hadn’t clicked a button on a website at a very specific moment in time.

In many ways it would be a waste not to showcase AI-art as inspiration for what’s possible – with ideas and craft.

Some Recent AI Art

On this website I’ve used AI-generated art as placeholders in certain blog posts. In the future I might use some as reference for my own art. But I will always endeavor to make it mine by providing not just the idea but my own craft to these building blocks made from the sacrifices of artists before us.

That much we owe them, and ourselves.

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