The human creative process has historically defied description. As the American writer and journalist Theodore Dreiser once said, “Art is the stored honey of the human soul.” The 19th-century painter Vincent Van Gogh once said, “I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.” For many draws art from a deeper source of unconscious imagination.
How then do we fit the art created by AI into this understanding of art? If humanity defines art, is it enough to reduce the definition to keywords fed into a generator?
It is a question that is no longer theoretical. In late August, an AI-generated artwork won a state art competition. Jason Allen entered the Colorado State Fair in the digital art category with a collection he selected from the Midjourney AI art generator. The winning play, Théâtre d’Opéra Spatial, shines with potential, dominated by a glowing sun or portal and elegantly spaced figures.
How did the “Théâtre d’Opéra Spatial” come about?
Midjourney empowers anyone to create unique, creative pieces with just one command. The only element the AI art generator asks of a human is a prompt: the user types in what they want and the AI gives them four new images in 60 seconds.
As long as you can access Discord, you’re good to go. Midjourney is in beta mode for public use.
Allen created many images with Midjourney, narrowed down his top 3, increased his selection and had them printed on canvas. He announced his first place win on a Discord server, Write:
I set out to make a statement in a competitive way with Midjourney and wow! I’m really happy to have won with my favorite piece “Théâtre d’Opéra Spatial”.
What was the reaction to Allen’s win?
The reaction was mixed, as you can imagine. A designer on Twitter commented on that The bigger problem was that “the judges didn’t realize it was AI… [which] Doesn’t bode well for the discussion between human and AI illustrations.” The win was a testament to how AI can create art with little human input.
My problem with this isn’t that they “used AI”, but that using AI means that literally everything here has been stolen from the work of a bunch of artists in a way that even a tribute or study doesn’t.
The worrying element here is what defines creativity. Is it enough to write to a command prompt, take an output, tweak it, and claim it as yours? Maybe the prompt was your idea, maybe you typed “baroque in space” or “royalty clustered around blazing sun” or something more specific, maybe you selected an output from hundreds. Does that really make the art your own?
Coming back to Van Gogh’s quote, for him the dream of painting was only the starting point; the intention to create wasn’t where it ended. After the dream came the action: “I paint my dream.” In the harshness of daylight, dreams soften and vanish, but the artist somehow captures them. This may be an overly romantic view of art, but isn’t there something mystical, something magical about the experience of pouring your soul onto the canvas?
AI-generated art takes the mystique out of the idea of a new work of art, but it still creates stunning, thought-provoking images — and it gets nowhere.
How can I use AI art?
If you want to experiment with AI art to get inspiration for your next piece, or just see what it can do, there are a few technologies that have come to the fore. Midjourney, the software used by Allen, is the middle ground generator. I tried it myself and entered “happy couple in love in space” as the prompt. I got the following pictures:
Very pretty. The style is simple and lively, the color choices consistent.
Midjourney is free for the first 25 prompts, after which a subscription is required. The Basic plan is $10/month for 200 prompts/month, the Standard price is $30/month for 15 hours or 900 prompts/month, and the Enterprise plan is $600/year for 7,200 prompts/year.
If you click “Join the Beta” on their homepage, you’ll be invited to their Discord channel. From there you can join a bot channel like #newbies-1, type “/imagine” and click on the command prompt box and then type your command. For detailed instructions and GIFs, see the official Midjourney documentation.
A high-end generator is DALL·E 2, which is now available in beta. This AI creates photorealistic images based on a prompt you type and not only identifies objects but also learns from relationships in between objects.
The images that DALL·E 2 produces look like photos – they are amazingly realistic. The koala dipping a basketball image in the video above made me think it was from an alternate reality as realistic as our own.
If you join the DALL·E 2 waiting list, you could be among the first millions to use the system. You get 50 free credits during your first month and 15 free credits for each subsequent month. A credit corresponds to an original four-frame prompt, such as Midjourney, or an edit to an existing image that yields three frames.
The easiest generator to use that doesn’t require a subscription or Discord account or anything other than a web browser is Craiyon.
Craiyon, formerly DALL E mini, is a completely free generator that uses AI to draw images from any input prompt. Everything happens in your browser and it takes less than two minutes to generate nine images.
I tested Craiyon with an intentionally more abstract prompt: “luck”. I got the following images back:
The center image looks like my betta fish before she attacks her breakfast. The face to the right of it is actively melting metallic yellow drops. The bottom right image, with pink drops in the background, shows a face that’s a little too close for comfort. This is an impressive series of images that evoke a reaction from the viewer. At least I could see an artist interpret one of these and use it as inspiration for his own work.
What makes art innovative?
Perhaps most interestingly, these tools challenge us once again to think about what exactly art is. Is it the intention, the execution and/or the reception of art that makes it art? Far be it from me to guard the definition: artistic expression encompasses many forms. The puzzling thing about AI art, however, is that in selecting the images and presenting them, the AI artist takes on the role of a curator in a digital museum of the work, rather than the standard artist who delivers the work from start to finish.
Isn’t that the direction art is going? We are in an era of postmodern contemporary art that is rejecting many of the traditional assumptions about inspiration, the nature of art and what art can be, and the role of the artist – a process that has now been going on for a century or more.
Likewise: Can AI help solve big data problems in education?
After experimenting with these tools, I understand the appeal. They’re fast, personalized, and fun. Perhaps art as “the stored honey of the human soul” can extend further to anything human beings can create to bring out that sweetness. Midjourney, Craiyon, DALL·E 2 and other AI generators are undeniably innovative and expanding the capabilities of artists.
That’s a side of me. The other side feels that the artist’s intention, the tools they use to create, the work they put into a work should be honored and rewarded. “I dream of painting and then I paint my dream” speaks not only for the immersion in the expression of art, but also for that boat. Sure, everyone can marvel at correctly composed colors, but the hard work of an artist who takes the time to master techniques and create something step by step is the artist I want to support.
I think modernism and postmodernism support my stance. Take Warhol’s iconic screen printing process. According to Sotheby’s, “Once he discovered the process and implications of working with screenprints, the content of Warhol’s work as a painter was inseparable from the process by which he had created his art.” Content and process are inseparable, if not always visible. I then ask myself what determines whether a process is valuable. Will AI generators be the next screenprint?
Watching these generators at work is like seeing the mystical clouds of creativity that artists drew from and could not accurately describe themselves dissipate in less than 60 seconds. With AI generators, the process of creating innovative art, for better or worse, is moving out of the indescribable and onto the assembly line.