/ 11 March 2024

Art doesn’t end with artificial intelligence

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But is it art?: Artist robot Ai-Da paints at the Giardini della Biennale in Venice, Italy. (Stefano Mazzola/Getty Images)

I grew up thinking that art is aesthetic. Appearance above all else. The purpose of a painting or sculpture is to look beautiful, visually pleasing or, at the very least, recognisable as something. I was willing to be generous with what I consider recogniseable: it doesn‘t have to be objects; I’ll take abstract forms, colour, black and white. I can even accept, open-minded-me, the strangeness of some modern artworks: everyday junk assembled into bizarre sculptures. 

But central to it all remains the aesthetic. To me, art was a “thing”. If you argue that art is also an idea, it is the “thing” representing the idea that I considered art. 

Art as we know it is whispered to be changing. Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming better and better at producing representations of “things”. Often these representations are surprising, beautiful and even creative. So are they art? Or perhaps more pressingly, is AI the end of art?

I have come to enjoy writing short poems that capture instances in time in which life stood out particularly vividly to me. For example, that time I lost my hand luggage in Barcelona airport, a crowded travellers’ midsummer mayhem. Wandering aimlessly after being told by the lost luggage lady to meditate on it. Refusing to be hopeless, I miraculously found it again. 

Or that other time when it was pouring with rain in Seoul and I wished for an umbrella, at midnight. To my amazement the umbrella materialised out of thin air, in the form of a generous soul who walked me back to my hotel. 

I don’t know if those poems are any good, but I do know that AI cannot write them. Because the poem is not about the poem, it is not about the words, the rhyme or the rhythm. The poems are about moments in time in which I, one of eight billion people on planet Earth, had an experience that was etched into my mind. Moments I considered important enough to write a poem about them. Selecting the next word with probability or precision was utterly inconsequential. 

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A gallery assistant wears a virtual reality headset in the House of Fine Art’s Metaverse Gallery to view the digital artwork Agoria. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

AI will generate a lot of aesthetic “things”, things that we see, hear, feel and maybe even taste. It is not the first time that we find ourselves at this point. Record players, photography, every new form of printing has changed the tools that artists have at their disposal to interrogate, create, curate and comment on the world around us. 

New technologies demand new skills and invite new people to take on the journey of expressing their perspective through art. 

New tools also make the production of creative goods cheaper. Aristocrat or not, we can now afford to have aesthetic things on our walls at home. That is nice. And art still exists. In a world where AI can create any “thing”, it is worth pausing to consider what then still holds value. 

In the absence of an artist who chooses which one of a gazillion aesthetic things should exist, which experiences they want to express and which narratives they want to elevate, I don’t believe that AI “art” holds lasting value. 

Gazillions of pretty AI-generated things with no more significance than elevator music. Meaningless, non­descript time-fillers that patch a white wall to look a bit uplifting. When you step out of the elevator you have forgotten the tune, can’t remember the pattern or the colour. It’s affordable, but that too is inconsequential for art.

Through poetry I have come to understand that art is about much more than the aesthetic. Art is about the artist. It is the filter that the artist applies to the world they observe, or the life they experience. It is creation. The process of creation, filtered through the lens of the artist, makes art unique, and its uniqueness makes it valuable. 

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Art irony: A search of the picture agency for artificial intelligence art brings up the deeply personal work of the Chinese artist and dissident activist Ai Weiwei, and Rapture, his first solo exhibition at Cordoaria Nacional in Lisbon, Portugal. His works include sculptural installations, architectural projects, photographs and videos. Photo: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis/Getty Images

Art is not about what the artist can create, but about what they choose to create. But if art was only about the artist, it would be disconnected from the world. Art becomes meaningful to us when we resonate with the filter that the artist has chosen — for whatever reason. When art reflects our social fabric and collective consciousness. Art is us, art is you. Without you, there is no art.

Art is human. It exists because one in eight billion people experienced life in a particularly vivid way and cared enough to embark on a journey that lends an expression to our collective human experience through the unique filter of this individual. Whatever tool the artist chooses to express themselves, we will continue to value not the thing that is art, but the lens of the artist on the world.

We will feel intrigued by the artist’s unique perspective, enticed by the journey on which they invite us, and compelled by the possibility of catching a glimpse of a universe that extends beyond our own horizon. No, AI is not the end of art, no more than it is the end of people. Art has no end. Keep dreaming, imagining, creating, sharing. Keep living and art will continue to exist. 

Coda: AI is not the end of art, but AI poses a threat to artists. Around the world, the arts, humanities and social sciences are undergoing large-scale defunding. At the same time, AI is exploiting the creative works of artists, without compensation. These are major concerns. But I will leave them as the topic of another essay.

Dr Wiebke Hutiri is a research scientist working on ethical and trustworthy AI at Sony AI.