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 imagind,” 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 Blakes example or Leonardo Da Vincis example? I wonder if wed 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 artists 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.

March 21, 2023