The Real Threat of AI-Generated Art

A thumbnail of artist Brinkelai and the Terminator

"AI is killing art"

AI is killing art. You may have heard something like that over the last few weeks or months. AI is worrying people and, although I don’t believe it is killing art, I do believe it poses a threat to entry-level artists. It all comes down to our ability to be fooled when it comes to who, or what, creates the art that we enjoy. So let’s start by talking about those entry-level artists and the reasons we should rally against AI-generated art as a form of art versus a useful tool for creatives.

How new artists work with commissions

Let’s say you’re a new artist with a couple years of experience under your belt. You’re ready to go out there and offer your services in the form of commissions. Your prices are low because you want to be able to attract jobs in the eternal race to the bottom that new artists go through. The people who are typically hiring new artists are non-artists who need work for their book covers, D&D characters, start-up business or comic book. These people don’t tend to have big budgets and their I.P.s are often unproven which means there’s a lot of risk involved. This is why they tend to go for the newer artists to help mitigate the cost of the risk. That’s the general ecosystem of the internet.

Now with AI-Generated Art, that could change. A lot of people who look at AI-generated art cannot see any artistic errors within the pieces it generates and for a lot of people it looks like professional quality work. That’s because it is, but we’ll get onto how AI-generated art generates that art in a bit (spoiler alert: it steals art). Sticking with entry-level artists, it’s an issue for them because if you’re a non-artist and you see a quick and affordable option that delivers, to your eyes, professional work, it makes sense to go for that option. Which means the jobs that would’ve been available for those new artists to hone their skills, develop working relationships and bulk out their portfolios are under threat.

The goal of this post is not to panic anyone or try and catastrophise this new toy, but it’s something we need to be aware of and not get complacent about it. I know some artists feel that it’s nothing to worry about and that people will ultimately choose human artists over AI artists. I hope they’re right, but most people cannot tell the difference between a professional artists’ work and work created by an algorithm. So let’s do an experiment. I’m going to show you 3 paintings.

Paintings by Georgia O'Keefe, Congo and an AI

Can you guess which one was created by an AI? If you chose the third one, you were correct. I asked a small sample size of artists and non-artists which one was AI and they guessed correctly at a rate of about 50%. So, basically, a coin flip. Now the first painting was created by Georgia O’Keefe, but it’s the one in the middle that I want to focus on. It was created by an artist called Congo and I want to focus on him a little bit more.

The story of Congo

Congo was an English artist whose style was described as “lyrical abstract impressionism”. I don’t know what that means, either. His career began in the mid-50’s and lasted until his death in 1964 and one of his paintings sold for $25,000. Even esteemed artists like Picasso were a fan of his work.

Congo the chimp
Congo, being a better painter than me

Oh, this is a picture of Congo, by the way.

Yep, Congo was a chimp. And he’s not the only chimp to become a successful painter, either. There’s more examples than you might think.

The reason I brought this up is partly because I think it’s funny, but also because it matters who makes the art. When people don’t know a chimp made a piece of art, they can be fooled into thinking an established painter created it. Their view changes dramatically when they find out a chimp did it. Is that discrimination against chimps? Maybe, but the point is that the creator matters.

When it comes to AI-generated art, the creator barely matters. Their input is the minimum amount it can possibly be when it comes to creating art. And we’re already seeing how AI-generated art is impacting the career opportunities of other artists today. But before I get into how that is happening, I’m going to explain how the AI-generated art works.

How does AI Generated art work?

I’m not going to pretend that I actually know how it works, because I don’t. I’m not sure how my car works, so I’m not in the best position to explain it. But, from what I’ve found on Google, the algorithm has two sides to it. One where it accumulates thousands of images and another where it reacts to the input of the… "artist", and picks out the images that best fit that input. It uses the information it gains from the previous images to create new images because science, or something.

I’m sure there are lots of technical and cool things that goes into it, but they’re the broad strokes. One of the other controversies about this AI is that it doesn’t really know what it’s making. So it can, and will, steal and plagiarise other artists’ works and this can either be subtle or pretty blatant.

Alice in Wonderland fan art
AI will get better at disguising the plagiarism

Take this example I found on Twitter. The artwork on the right is the original art and on the left is an AI's output using prompts. It’s not quite sophisticated enough to realise that the shape I highlighted is the artist's signature. Woops!

It's not just stealing work from artists though, it’s stealing competitions.

AI Art Wins a Competition

Midjourney AI-Generated Art
Art created "via" MidJourney

This year, at Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition, first prize went to this work. This was generated by an AI programme and “touched up” in Photoshop. Some people say that it’s no different to photo manipulation while others are heralding it as the end times for art. I don’t really agree with either of these, but it’s worth addressing the artist in this scenario. Can you be an artist if 90+% of the work is done via an algorithmic program?

Well, no. You can’t.

The defence these artists have is that the ideas or prompts that they feed the algorithm is the art and that the AI programs are just executing their ideas. For me that’s pretty weak. Imagine I ordered some food at a restaurant. I say to the waiter what meal I wanted and the chef cooks it. Now imagine I make the claim that I’m the chef, because it was my idea for that particular meal to be cooked. That would be pretty absurd, right? Well, that’s how I feel about AI artists.

But does that mean we should disregard AI-generated art completely? I don’t think so. I think we can embrace this new technology in an ethical way.

AI-Generated Ethics

AI-Generated art can be a really effective tool for artists. In the context of comic books, you could use it to storyboard your script in a fraction of the time it would take you otherwise. You could use it to bash out some ideas for character designs really quickly. It’s like a more advanced version of pinterest.

Where it becomes unethical is when the program is used to create the art piece and my fear is that this will happen more and more if it’s left unchallenged. Technology becomes more sophisticated and powerful at an alarming rate and the potential is unlimited in terms of what artwork the AI can generate. That’s why I’m proposing that anyone who insists on using AI-generated art must tag that art appropriately. In defence of the person who won the competition, they did mention that it was created “via MidJourney”, which is an AI-generated art programme. And if people want to enter their AI-generated art in future art competitions, they should be judged separately from everything else. Hopefully that’ll happen.

Protect New Artists

Anyway, back to the people who I think are most vulnerable in this whole debacle which are entry-level artists. For people who are looking for art for their projects, it’s worth remembering just how difficult art is. One of the best ways for new artists to improve is by collaborating with others and so when you’re looking for artists to visualise your projects, choose a human. Regardless of skill, humans can exchange ideas in ways that AI cannot and the human element is what makes art unique and therefore will make your project unique.

So, will AI-Generated art be the death of art? No, but that doesn't mean it's benign and we should do everything we can to keep it in check. Sky Net may be fictional, but the threat to entry-level artists is very real.

Have fun drawing and, just in case, all hail Sky Net.