…But Is It Art?


When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,   

Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;   

And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,   

Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

-Rudyard Kipling


Art. The je ne sais quoi factor sets it apart from all else and fulfills the soul of the artist, along with its witnesses, painting the human element; how art is a true, raw, and an unadulterated reflection of the artist and often times, of thoughts buried deep in one’s mental abyss. All of us, either consciously or subconsciously, had assumed that art was something that couldn’t be automated, per se. Something that couldn’t have the same effect if it was done artificially. 


Sure, there might be things that technology has made better, but art? Does that go alongside the central ethos and essence of what art is? How can the human and innate connection that one feels with art be replicated? With the dawn of a new year, that’s the sentiment we’ve heard being echoed all across the internet, and to varying degrees of both awe and concern.


AI has snowballed to include everything under the sun in its spectrum. Events that have taken place in the past few years (and especially the last few months) seem to be answering all our questions, in a way that has left most of us incredulously speechless. Whether it be having ChatGPT write a song for you or use Raspberry Pi, an AI that can seemingly replicate Nirvana’s sound years after Kurt Cobain passed away, or the umpteen AI platforms on the internet that can literally paint a vivid picture in seconds based on a long and annoyingly particular prompt. One thing’s for sure, none of us saw this coming. Or maybe, we always did, but  never really anticipated this level of surprise, and uncertainty. Naturally, it has people walking two different roads.


The first: Purists– they believe that art should retain its roots and stay synonymous to human creativity. Every AI algorithm works on collected data sets. The only way for a visual arts AI model that creates art to maintain its data set is to scour the internet for everything it can find, which includes every piece of art, published by every artist ever and every picture available on the internet – and there lies the first and most volatile conflict in this scenario. 


Corporations that run these AI models blatantly invade the rights of artists worldwide by using their intellectual property, that is freely available on the internet..


Laion 5B, one of the most sought after data sets for visual art which has a whopping 5 billion bits of data, claims that it uses its data for research purposes only. However, noted artists such as Sam Yang and Greg Rutowski explain that Stability AI, the corporation behind the popular AI model ‘Stable Diffusion’ as well as the funding group behind Laion 5B, use legal loopholes to exploit their protected rights all while  stealing work from them. Rutowski claims that his name has been searched on AI art platforms over 1,25,000 times and all those times, they have used his artwork – that is supposed to be protected under copyright – to improve their datasets, entirely without his consent. 


Another issue that comes up with AI art is that eventually, the algorithm starts repeating. Twitter has recently entailed a galore of users sharing AI generated artwork that looks strikingly similar to one another. A more personal experience that you may relate to is the repetition of words and sentences when using ChatGPT. This proves that at the end of the day AI is exactly what it sounds like, “Artificial” Intelligence; it has a limit to its creativity, while humans don’t.


This realization and perhaps reluctant acceptance, past the initial panic and distress, is where the second half of people seem to find themselves–that while this change is inevitable, it will bring in a dawn of a newer, more mature understanding of what “art” means to us. As we become increasingly aware of AI’s presence in the art world, we will also begin to see very clearly signs of replication on human creation. A machine, on its own, cannot replicate the struggle of an artist pushing beyond the boundaries of their human mind to make something bigger than themselves, which, at the heart of it, is what art is all about. As musician Nick Cave puts it in an article responding to a song written by ChatGPT, what artificial intelligence is doing when it imitates the human experience of art is “replication as travesty.” It might seem indistinguishable from the original lyrics of the artist, some might even prefer the computer-generated melodies, but beneath the surface, those notes will always remain a grotesque imitation of an emotion a computer simply cannot understand – the human struggle of “creation.” 


The act of making art requires both the artist and the viewer to come to terms with one’s own vulnerability, one’s internal dialogue of conflict and resolution. It is the fact that creating art is such a gargantuan, defiant feat of human invention, that endows it such great value. A supercomputer built on a billion datasets doesn’t suffer to create a piece of art that moves people with its unique and original narrative. All it does, as it is programmed to do, is make something look like everything that’s come before it. And when it does so with relative ease, nonchalance and swift pace, we learn to see that art created through an algorithm maybe doesn’t bear as much value as one touched by the hands of human life. The feeling of having art being ripped from the grasp of our conscience has slowly but surely made us realise it’s worth.


The invasion of AI into the art scene will mean the doom of many things. It might be the last time we see art as something to be commodified through the square lens of Instagram, it might be the last time we stamp everything that is “pretty” as “art.” But the two million year-long timeline of our species is testament to the fact that nothing will ever be the death of art itself. This disruption in the art scene is uncomfortable at the moment, but it is forcing us to dabble with art in unexplored and revolutionary, yet beautiful ways. We will stop looking at art as something that is only meant to be pretty or beautiful, and realise that without the human context of creation, without the cluttered, imperfect story of the person behind the canvas, all art is pointless.


What a joy it is to be able to sit at the crossroads of this historic transition and watch in awe, as the most human experience of making art reinvents itself, time and time again. 

Written by: Chaitanya Pandey and Udita Gowdety for MTTN

Edited by: Aayush Niraj for MTTN

Featured Image courtesy of pcmag.com

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