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Is AI Art Really Art?

In August 2022, a piece of artificial intelligence (AI) art, Theatre D'opera Spatial, won the Colorado State Fair’s digital art contest. The piece was generated using an online AI program called Midjourney, which can make a text prompt from the user (e.g., ‘two dogs in the style of van Gogh’) come to life. The win presents a unique conundrum inside the art world: does having a human creator (outside of entering text prompts, or at all) matter?

Opera singers at the theatre. Theatre D'opera Spatial © 2022 Jason M Allen

Theatre D'opera Spatial © 2022 Jason M Allen

There are literary theories of criticism, such as New Criticism and impressionistic criticism, that provide pro-AI-generated art arguments.

New Criticism claims that anything outside the piece itself doesn’t matter. In other words, aspects such as the time period a piece came out in or its author’s biography don’t matter. The logical extension of that theory is that if there is no creator, then the lack of intent or biography wouldn’t matter either. Critics of the theory say that seemingly extraneous elements, such as an author’s biography, are actually integral sources of meaning, which an AI piece lacks.

Similarly, impressionistic criticism says that the effect upon the audience is the only criterion to judge by; so if the art piece elicits a strong emotion, that’s all that matters. Since there can’t really be any meaning behind AI art in the sense that it cannot embody sentiment that a human artist applies to it, the emotions that it elicits may be all that really matters about AI art. Critics of the theory say that it is too subjective, lacking any objective criterion with which to base the merit of the work on.

Midjourney picture by Leo Reynolds, prompt used: 'ice on fire'

Midjourney picture by Leo Reynolds, prompt used: 'ice on fire'

On the other hand, Sean Dorrance Kelly, a Harvard philosophy professor, says that AI-generated art, in any form, can’t be truly creative. He says that while we may be able to see a machine’s product as great, if we know that the output is merely the result of some arbitrary act or algorithmic formalism, we cannot accept it as the expression of a vision for human good.

Kelly also conjures the common analogy of a monkey accidentally typing Shakespeare to argue that just because a monkey, or AI, accidentally stumbles upon something beautiful, doesn’t mean it understands what it has created or why it’s meaningful. But if AI becomes sophisticated enough to reliably churn out masterpieces, does it really matter?

Our attitude towards AI art is important because situations like what happened in Colorado are only going to become more frequent and involve even less human direction. Judges and art consumers need to start exploring whether AI-generated art is considered as valid as art created by humans. Acceptance or rejection of AI art may drive new human artists away from entering space. But in the end, it's up to you to decide whether inclusion of AI art accelerates or diminishes its sense of sophistication and validity.


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