Adam Caudill

Security Leader, Researcher, Developer, Writer, & Photographer

AI: Art Without Expression?

Generative AI1 is changing the world, and is doing so faster than most of us could realise. While I don’t share the fear that it’ll destroy humanity (something we’re doing quite well at, without help), I do see that it’s having an impact on how we work, how we interact, and will have a growing impact on what jobs survive into the next generation. Just as switchboard operators, pin setters, and lift operators are all essentially extinct today, advances in technology will steadily eliminate some jobs, while creating new ones.

I have much to say on how it impacts developers, writers, graphic artists, and others, though for the moment it’s photographers I’d like to talk about. Photography is my art form of choice, and I’m something of a purest - I don’t edit my photos (other than minor corrections), and they are published just as they were when they left the camera. It’s something I have strong feelings about.

The Quote #

I recently saw a quote that pushed me to think more, and to experiment more. I wanted to understand, is what Generative AI produces art, or something else?

You’re Consuming Art That Has No Expression Behind It - Patrick Stump, Fall Out Boy

To start answering this question, we have to look at both how we define art, and how generative AI models are trained, and I’ll start with the later.

AI Models #

For a generative AI system to do anything at all, it needs to be trained on a vast quantity of samples - the more samples, the better the results. For a generative AI that produces photorealistic images, that means being trained on huge numbers of photographs. It then takes this vast dataset and uses elements learned from the countless images to produce what it was asked for. These elements are combined in unique ways, based on the description (known as a prompt) that was provided by the user, along with some randomness to produce different & interesting results. How this prompt is structured, what it contains, what’s left out, and what’s indicated as something unwanted all play a role in what is finally created (this is evolving into a new field of its own, prompt engineering).

While the AI system creates the image, it does so based on what the user tells it. It’s useless without training, and it’s aimless without careful decisions from the user.

What is Art? #

the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects - Merriam-Webster

There are some important words here that complicate matters for AI, in fact, almost every one of them:

  • conscious - AI systems aren’t conscious, so they aren’t able to do anything consciously.
  • skill - AI has great information to work with, far more than what a human could learn from working with more experienced artists, though it has no innate skill, only the ability to combine elements that it’s learned from other’s works.
  • creative - AI doesn’t create anything that’s truly new, it can only combine what it’s learned.
  • imagination - Without consciousness, imagination isn’t possible, seeing what doesn’t exist but could isn’t something that software is suited for, and may never be.

If you were to write a definition or art that was intended to ensure that AI could never meet the definition, this is exactly what you would likely arrive at. The definition is broad in meaning, but exacting in the exclusion of anything lacking clear consciousness.

Though, is it actually excluding AI? Let’s take another look at that list, and see how it could be read if we assumed that AI output is art:

  • conscious - While there’s no good argument for consciousness, the process is not unlike consciousness. The process is deliberate, goal orientated, and structured to complete the task using what it’s learned.
  • skill - Humans, like all animals, learn from others; our skill is built on the knowledge and experience of others. We learn what works and what doesn’t from others. We learn the foundations of our skills from others. We learn what others appreciate, what’s atheistically pleasing, what works, and what doesn’t, all from others. AI models do something very similar, though at an incredible scale, a scale no human could match.
  • creative - Humans create things that are unique constantly. This blog post is a unique work, it has never existed in the history of the universe until I wrote it. AI creates unique things as well, while elements may be built from the things it’s learned (not unlike most art today), the output is still entirely unique in the universe.
  • imagination - AI systems hallucinate fairly often, creating new things that aren’t based on their training, or anything else identifiable. This isn’t quite imagination as human’s know it - though we just may be better at managing it.

As you can see, there’s an argument to be made that it isn’t as simple as some people make it out to be. The expression of a generative AI system don’t directly represent the expression of a human, but it does indirectly represent the expression of millions.

The United States government has been clear that it doesn’t consider non-human expression to be subject to copyright protection, which doesn’t help the argument for this being art.

Though, given that art depends so heavily on the eye, opinion, and perspective of the beholder, it may be best to paraphrase Forest Gump and say simply that “art is as art does.”

The Experiment #

What you see above is an image created with Stable Diffusion, while I don’t often shoot portraits, this does align with my style. Creating this image required rendering a few hundred images and the final prompt consists of approximately 50 terms. Creating this image wasn’t a matter of feeding the system a simple command and getting exactly what I was looking for. It was a matter of trial and error, tweaking parameters, adjusting the prompt, steadily improving the image. After hours of work, I had something I was happy with.

This is something that I created, yet was also created by a machine. It is the product on many hours of effort - and honestly more time than I would put into most of the photographs I make. With most portraits, it is a collaboration between photographer and model, though in this case, the model isn’t the human kind.

Is it art? #

This is something I’ve struggled with. Looking at my role in the creation, the role of the generative AI, and the role of the countless people that contributed to the model that was used to produce it - it’s complicated. It’s impossible to say that this is purely my creation, as it isn’t. It’s creative, it’s new & unique, it’s my style, and it’s imaginative - from my own imagination, but is it actually art?

Yes. I would argue that generative AI can be a powerful tool for artists to guide creation of otherwise difficult or impossible works - just as Photoshop has been a powerful tool to enable the creation of otherwise difficult or impossible works. When guided by a human with a vision, generative AI can create amazing things that fulfil that vision. Where it becomes complicated is that it can also create something with no vision - just as a 5 year old can create something that is on the surface comparable to a Jackson Pollock work. It’s the vision, the purpose, the message, that separates a pointless creation into art. The tool used for creation is less important that than the vision behind it.

Greater & Lesser Art Forms #

Personally, I see art forms as being on a spectrum, with the extremes being the most difficult to create to the least difficult. The most difficult to create are those that require the most skill, the most creativity, the most imagination, and the most consciousness. These are generally those that are creations from nothing, creating from a blank canvas, starting with nothing but a vision. These are the greater art forms, they require a special level of skill, and a special mind.

The lesser art forms allow the artist to start with something, and build on it. For a photographer, this is the world around them - leveraging what people and nature have created. No true photograph is a work of pure creation, but capturing the world from a unique perspective.

What you see here is a “painting” - created with generative AI, and in about 5 minutes. It’s a unique creation, it’s a unique expression, it’s a unique work of art. It’s also a lesser form of art. Unlike a true painting, the level of skill, vision, and imagination are far lower. It may be art, but it’s a lesser form of it. As someone that has little ability to draw or paint, I would be proud of this if it was a creation of my hand - but it isn’t, it’s a few minutes of typing and GPU time.

Generative AI can serve to greatly reduce the skill, investment, effort, and vision required to create something, and in this, the art itself is less meaningful. While it’s possible to invest heavily in achieving a particular vision, the creation is reduced by the reduced influence of the artist. It’s a lesser creation, and its artistic value is thus limited.

Art is Art #

Regardless of the tools used to achieve expression, art is about expression and vision. As technology has changed, from simple beads and cave paintings, to generative AI, art has changed with it. Some forms become less popular, new techniques are created, realism comes and goes, but it’s the vision, the expression that matters. Just as photography changed the world of art, replacing paining as the way the world is captured, AI will push art in new directions. As long as there’s a vision guiding the creation, it’s still art.

  1. While I deeply hate the conflation of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (one we’ve been doing for decades, the other, we aren’t there yet), though I’ve given up that fight. I apologise to those still fighting the good fight. ↩︎

Adam Caudill