The Habitual Dangers Of AI-Generated Art
One of the core selling points of AI-generated art is it’s a labor-saving tool. By pressing a button—or in this case, typing into a chat box—the AI can create art in seconds. No more pesky thinking or doing! No more paint on your fingertips, your clothes, your floor! No more wrestling with emotional or spiritual ideas! No more surprising yourself! No more feeling of accomplishment!
I’m beginning to suspect that someone doesn’t want us here anymore.
AI-generated art is a capitalist fever dream. It seeks to remove the process, the labor from art creation. But making the art is the thing itself: the creation of art is art. Art-making is a bodily, sensuous experience, as in requiring total awareness of the senses. Outsourcing art-making to an algorithm is a sad and lonely experience.
This is an extension of Western hyper-rationalism, which has produced a profound schism at the core of Western society. There are those who believe the material world is supreme: everything can be understood mechanically, and any other belief is superstition or hippie woo-woo. And there are those who believe the immaterial world is supreme: emotions and thoughts and feelings are the only reality. Matter is just an illusion. But the material and immaterial worlds cannot be divided. They go together, like two sides of the same coin, like space and time in Einstein’s discovery. The universe creates us, and we create the universe. We are co-conspirators. We are artistic collaborators.
I’m currently reading and enjoying John Higgs’ William Blake Vs. The World. Through his art-making, the 19th century artist and poet William Blake intuited a lot of what science is now finding. “What is now proved was once, only imagin’d,” he once declared. Reason alone isn’t enough; careful artistic and spiritual observation is needed to truly see the world as it is. It makes me wonder: why do we divorce art and science in school? What would happen to our understanding if the two were more united, like in Blake’s example or Leonardo Da Vinci’s example? I wonder if we’d have a more profound respect for the nature of things. There could be more of an ethical or spiritual backstop to AI research, to prevent faulty assumptions from metastasizing. There could be a “why” that guides AI development, to make sure it doesn’t come with the same hierarchical, ends-justify-the-means baggage.
The common pushback against this sort of technological critique is that things always change; there’s no stopping progress. But as Neil Postman points out, technological change is ecological rather than additive. It transforms the ecosystem in unpredictable ways. Or there’s L.M. Sacasas’s astute warning: “The most important thing about a technology is not what can be done with it in singular instances, it is rather what habits its use instill in us and how these habits shape us over time.”
Good art has both surface and depth. AI-generated art is all surface; it cannot deliver depth because there’s nothing behind it but randomness, lack of meaning, and a simulation of pleasure. What happens when we instill the habit of never finding depth of meaning in art? The receiver of the art grows a deep spiritual loneliness. And I think that loneliness extends both ways. If I can just push a button to create, pleasure is distorted, replaced by the shallow, short lasting pleasure of a finished product. I lose the sense of accomplishment, of finding out what I feel and think in this moment. I lose transcendence, and I am less human. “What you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations,” Kurt Vonnegut once put it.
Artists know art, and through that, they know something profound about the brain and human nature. I wish AI engineers would be humble enough to seriously study art-making before they attempt to transform it irrevocably.
The Strange South: ‘The Elephant 6 Recording Co.’ and ‘This Is Sparklehorse’
When we talk about ’90s music scenes in America, we tend to think of the usual suspects: Seattle’s grunge takeover, New York and LA’s rap innovations, Chicago’s alternative nation. But the American South was happening in its own strange way. Two new films, covering two very different Southern artistic expressions in the ’90s, subtly push against the idea that Southern music is exclusively traditional or conservative—after all, the region pretty much birthed American music as we know it. In the ’90s, The Elephant 6 Recording Company and Sparklehorse forged new links in that chain, making exciting, boundary-pushing music that remapped a new South for a new generation.
C.B. Stockfleth’s The Elephant 6 Recording Co. is a joyous, heartfelt look at the DIY collective that gave rise to the bands Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples In Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, of Montreal, Elf Power, and dozens more. It’s astounding the level of creativity that exploded out of Elephant’s Athens, Georgia home base, but what’s interesting is how it all started. Most of the principals grew up in tiny Ruston, Louisiana, a world away from Athens’ freewheeling circus—and a universe away from American music culture at large. Two ingredients were in Ruston’s petri dish: a good college radio station and boredom. “I feel like kids in places like that tend to get deeper into the things they love…because they need to,” Julian Koster (Neutral Milk Hotel, The Music Tapes) says in the film. “They have to escape into something.” The podunk atmosphere fed the musicians’ desire to create on their own terms. No cowboy hats or blues riffs here. Instead, the Elephant 6 bands loosely gathered themselves around psychedelic pop and punk rock.
Read more of my deep dive into these great music docs at Aquarium Drunkard (my first piece for them! So excited!).
The other day, I was driving home, listening to my KUTX colleague Ryan Wen. He hit an inspired segue, the kind that all DJs slobber over: Can’s “Vitamin C” into Black Star’s “Definition.” Jaki Liebezeit’s kick pedal sounded like distant artillery strikes, setting up the percussive explosion from Talib Kweli and Mos Def. Pure bliss.
I’ve heard each of these songs dozens of times, but never back-to-back. The segue created a new pathway in my brain, and now these songs are tethered together in a wholly unique way. How can these songs suddenly sound so new to my ears, simply by existing next to each other?
For most of my adult life, there’s been a lot of talk about the death of the album and the death of radio, and even right now a possible death of the concert is floating around. But each of these mediums provide something so crucial to music: context. Like us humans, songs seem to fit best in a network of mutuality, where they play off of and enhance the other songs around it. For me, a good song can work well on its own, but it’s taken to some higher realm when slotted next to something that brings out its best qualities or throws off some different kind of light.
Songs are not objects or products because they aren’t static. They change over time and space. Hearing “Vitamin C” on a beautifully sunny winter day in the car with my daughter is different from when I first discovered it or played it on my own radio show. It’s different every time I hear it, which means, depending on the context, its possibilities are limitless.
We crave not just context, but meaningful context, where there’s a human heart and story and sense behind the meaning. An algorithm can only hit this randomly. It could be programmed to pick this same segue because the two songs are rhythmically linked, but that’s a shallow approximation of the artistic impulse. Ryan played these songs back-to-back because he heard something new in them together, and I heard it new with him, and we both leave the moment with something new in that friction. That’s an amazing thing, and these songs rule, and we should be putting songs in new contexts more often.
On ‘Doom Dub II,’ Austin’s Thor Harris Gives Doom A Dub Remix
Dub music is a paradox: it’s music made from the removal of music. In the late 1960s, Jamaican producers like Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, and others began playing with the molecular structure of sound. Starting with full-band reggae recordings as source material, the producers remixed them, questioning the very materiality of the songs themselves. What happens when you silence the vocals and melodies, leaving just drums and bass for measure after measure? What happens if you run every sound through echo machines like the Roland Space Echo? You get something new, something both ancient and futuristic sounding. Dub producers could alchemize a song out of thin air, making it haunting, odd, transcendent, even hilarious—just like life itself. The space carved out by these pioneers birthed entire musical galaxies: there would be no electronic music or rap without dub.
Thor Harris doesn’t remember exactly how he first encountered dub music, but it irrevocably sent him on another orbit. The Austin musician spent his junior high and early high school years learning the drums by studying prog rock, one of the more complex and technically challenging forms of popular music. “There was nothing to do in the suburbs but practice music and ride my BMX bike,” he says. “So I listened to prog rock and tried to become a monster drummer as fast as I could. But then dub landed in my ears and it was love at first listen.”
Read more of my profile of the amazing, unclassifiable weirdo Thor Harris at KUTX.
These days I’m really enjoying Longform Editions, a label from Sydney, Australia that only releases longform music, i.e. really long songs. Each release is a single piece of music, ranging from twenty to sixty-plus minutes. The label has a wide genre focus: electronic, folk, jazz, experimental, all united by the same prompt. My personal favorites focus on texture and color, conjure up landscapes and maps, stick to highly specific parameters, or move at a walking pace. They all play with time as the primary musical material, so the music plays with me as a listener. My perception of passing time changes, and so do my expectations for instant gratification or trying to find the ‘point’ to the song. My body slows way down to meet the music on its own unyielding terms. The music isn’t strictly ambient. It’s just slow, and that slowness is immensely interesting.
Andrew Khedoori and Mark Gowing, Longform’s founders, were recent guests on Aquarium Drunkard’s Transmissions podcast (which shares a patient, deeply immersive ethos with the label). They talked about how they envisioned the label as an art gallery that offers space for the musicians to experiment and for listeners to spend some serious time with each piece. And that literal spending of time really fascinates me. Longform is a purely digital label, which means there are no physical products to worry about. For me, streaming’s inherent downside is I can’t interact with the music outside of scrolling and clicking. Everything is ephemeral, so everything can feel sealed off and meaningless. Without the ability to sell physical objects, streaming banks on my attention (note it’s always the quasi-violent goal of ‘capturing’ my attention).
But Longform’s music sidesteps this issue by requiring immersive attention as its price. Because of the long time commitment, I engage with an individual piece on a deeper level. If most of streaming is heading towards shorter and shorter songs and less attention spans, Longform goes the opposite way and makes something bigger, weightier. Immersive attention feels like both an economic model and a more alive way of being. When you’re immersively attuned to the music, you’re bringing your physicality to the experience. I suspect this completes some sort of needed circuit, which is why it feels so good.
Zeitgeist & Sound
Really loved this newsletter entry (post? Edition? What are we calling these things in this Newsletter Golden Age?) from Damon Krukowski. He’s a musician, critic, deep listener/thinker, and he tackles the thirtieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind from the perspective of a working musician who was on the road at the same time as Nirvana in the fall of 1991. Two things were happening simultaneously in Krukowski’s life at the time: Nirvana and alternative rock were climbing to the top of the pop charts; and jazz, classical, and “world” music were entering his life (and public consciousness) on a bigger scale. He explains how CD technology—with its uninterrupted, generous running time—and globalization worked together to put less-popular genres into stores alongside all those Nevermind copies. So for Krukowski, the “sound” of 1991 is Nirvana and Qawwali, Mozart, and improvisatory music.
I’m fascinated by these limits to defining the zeitgeist. Yes, Nirvana was immensely popular (or well on its way to becoming popular) in the fall of 1991, but other strands of music were just as alive. They’re hidden from view now for two reasons. The first I’ll call the hindsight reason: Nirvana undoubtedly influenced a whole generation of music and we can still feel the ripples, so we keep repeating the Nirvana Was Important tale to explain its colossal impact, to explain where we are today. It’s simple, it’s tidy, it helps us feel a shared history, even if you weren’t/aren’t a Nirvana fan.
The second reason is related to this simplification, and I’ll call it the blindsight reason: it’s hard—though Krukowski tries—to trace the impact all of this newfound access to jazz, classical, and world music had on the public. To the best of my knowledge, not too many Qawwali-influenced bands rose up in early ’90s America. Teenage music fans didn’t start dressing in wigs and tights in homage to Mozart. We don’t explicitly see the impact, so we write it off as an untidy anomaly, a footnote to Nirvana’s royal reign. If Nirvana was an asteroid smashing into the Pacific Ocean, this newfound access to jazz, classical, and world music made a pebble-sized splash. You could see it in the early ’90s, but you can only feel it now if you actually experienced it.
Yet jazz, classical, and world music were just different strands of a larger 1991 musical tapestry. I’m interested in these personalized, weirder pockets of music history because they can make an era feel much more lived and alive than just rehashing the same Nirvana Was King history. Life, in any era, is much weirder and more surprising than we can possibly imagine from our vantage point.
And it gets weirder the further you zoom in. There’s the culture you live in, then there’s your culture, the hyperspecific way you curate or are curated by different forces. You’re constantly discovering artists/genres outside of their particular zeitgeist, playing catch-up with a vast wealth of music history, and this can coincide with the dominant “sound” you live through. In 2008-2009, I discovered and got obsessed with ’70s krautrock, so for me that sound reminds me of that era, just as much as Beyonce, Kanye, and Daft Punk do. This is why I don’t lament the supposed end of the monoculture. I think it was an artificial myth to begin with. Plus, monocultures—like monoculture farming—are probably inherently unhealthy. Give me the wilder forests of personal zeitgeist.
Krukowski also includes a 1991 documentary about improvised music in his remembrance. In the beginning of the video clip, jazz musician Douglas R. Ewart teaches a Chicago grade school class about improvisation. The lesson starts off chaotic: Ewart blows into a didgeridoo, the kids bang randomly on peanut tins and desks with drum sticks, there are a lot of confused and bored faces. Then the music starts to congeal into a rhythmic pulse. Ewart starts shouting nonsense phrases, the students respond, the pulse quickens and slows, the music moves with a life of its own. Everyone is having fun.
Ewart, in voice over: “Usually I say nothing to them. I come in and I begin playing and then they begin playing, and we experiment from there…in most subjects in school, students individually synthesize the lesson. Here, they have to work together…it doesn’t matter if they’re the A student or the D student to me.”
Compare this with your own experience of early musical education: if you went to an American public school like me, you were immediately taught what was a wrong note. You were taught compliance and competition. You were taught there is a hierarchy, between first chair and last chair, between “noise” and music.
Doesn’t music education need to start from Ewart’s position? We should teach sound first as an infinite possibility—the basic building block of music—before we teach the correct notes to play. Sound and music start with the body: how we perceive, how we listen, how we play, how we interact.
Teach noisemaking because it’s fun. Teach past the boundaries of instruments. Teach the unique personal expression of everyone, and the way those expressions can combine into something bigger. Sound is a marvelous, miraculous thing, and we shouldn’t be afraid of using all of it.