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  • Writer's pictureKatie Hughes

The Emperor is Fucking Naked: The State of Art in the Age of AI and Why it Makes me Sick

Now, I know what you’re thinking - another think piece about AI, no thank you. And what a low hanging fruit for a critical writing debut! But bear with me. In the 1960s, John Canday won the hearts of many (as well as the ire of many others) by writing his art criticism column for The New York Times. His tenure there spanned the rise and fall of abstract expressionism, and over the course of almost two decades, his was a leading voice of reason in a field that has always had so few true and stable goal posts. One of the main points of pride for the writer was that he could see through what were often financial, political, and socially driven forces in the art market that masqueraded as issues of taste and beauty. I’d like to pick up where his legacy has left off, although I can only imagine what he would have to say about the state of art today if he were still alive.


It would not be an exaggeration to say that the past year of AI development has spawned what could only be described as cosmic horrors. Very soon, if not now, every single photograph, video, and audio clip on the internet has a high chance of being completely fabricated, with the gap between real works and fake ones closing tighter every day. It is becoming increasingly difficult to tell between what is an unaltered photograph, and what is a completely fabricated image that has no roots in reality. Every political speech, government document, celebrity interview, and image of anyone on earth is on the verge of easy fraud, and it won’t take more than a few keystrokes to push them gently off the edge.

The real and important ramifications of this had echos in the pre-AI 2016 American presidential election - phony Facebook accounts spreading false news reports and propaganda were able to tip the scales in favor of Donald Trump, resulting in an election marked by scandals and chaos a contemporary Orwell could only dream of. The underlying problems of AI - and those willing to use it to exploit others - have always been there at the heart of human desire. We will always find ways to cheat and manipulate to get our team to win, and there’s nothing new about political corruption. But the possible ramifications of a public not primed to understand clearly when something is real or fake makes this turn one of existential magnitude, rather than some small armchair philosophical debate.

But this is all background. The fate of the world and public knowledge is backseat to something much more important - the arts. My particular field is hemorrhaging taste, and we need to talk about it now, lest there be nothing to talk about tomorrow!

In all seriousness, the issues plaguing the arts and everything else in culture and politics have the same root causes - namely, products and services are made that will garner the time and money of the general public, and so long as these products and services are profitable and able to manipulate the masses, someone will continue to make them regardless of ethical side constraints. This isn’t a radical philosophical theory unique to AI - it’s a statement about the market as it is. As a corollary example, every year over a million people die in car crashes, but getting around by car is so integral to our way of life in contemporary times, that we see the risk as being worth it when we leave our houses every morning. AI is the latest shiny convenient invention, but it too comes with its proverbial train wrecks.


Before diving into the merits and drawbacks of AI, I’d like to give you a reason to listen to what I have to say, as one prophet on a hill among many. Last year I graduated from one of the most experimental art schools in the world. My tenure there spanned the rise and fall of NFTs, the meteoric rise of art AI, and a swift crash in the design job market. Before this, I was a philosopher and (therefore) cultural critic, and even before that, I was one of the top debaters in the nation. All of this is to say that I’ve learned a lot about how to craft an ideal argument - it requires specificity and tact.

The specificity part of this argument here is that not all AI is bad. There are infinite uses of AI that I can imagine that would actually be good for the world by way of making things like human connection stronger, helping solve medical issues, and allowing education to become more seamless. We have already been living in a world of forward facing algorithms for at least the last decade, and these have been implemented to make everything from shopping for groceries to answering medical questions online easier. AI is just an extension of that, and it can be a real star for humanity when it does things like identify whether a spot on a medical scan is cancer more accurately than a doctor, or translates from one language to another in real time to allow people from two different cultures to connect with one another across the language barrier. It would be foolish to write an article claiming that all of a certain kind of technology is bad without diving into the positive use cases of it. My argument here is simpler - the rise of AI technology specifically within the arts speaks to the uniquely human problem of embracing meaning and beauty in life and abandoning it all for the sake of corporate profit. We will have nothing but ultimate cultural ruin if AI is left unconsidered and unchecked.

I look at AI in the field of art as a test case for AI in the fields of everything else because I think art is always a canary in the coal mine of a civilization. It tends to be the case that when we look back thousands of years at a culture, we see its remnants in the form of pottery and mosaics and written and painted scraps of beauty. One need not poetically gaze back at the cave paintings of Lascaux to know that there is something deeply and innately important to the human experience that comes from leaving our physical and aesthetic impression upon the world. How far have we traversed from daubing our palms with the red ochre reminiscent of our blood to asking a machine made of metal to feed us paintings mangled from the minds and hearts of men who have had no say in the stealing of their work in the name of “modern” invention?

This isn’t mere moralizing - there is something deeply concerning about the arc of what art means and what art is in the last hundred years. Regardless of how you feel about modern art or abstract art or corporate art, you should be able to sense with some uneasiness the way in which the label of the word “art” has become more of a sale sticker and less of a blue ribbon. It seems easy to blame the current artless art on an easily descending slope from the post-camera non-representational slide of painting of the last century to the emptiness of AI compositions now, but there seems to be something more going on than mere philosophical snowballing.

In the early 1900s, the Dadaists and Surrealists took a stab at undoing many of the aesthetic norms and strictures that had been upstanding pillars of the art world for centuries. But even in their warping of beauty and form itself, they still stood for something - namely they actively participated in a political and philosophical dialogue about what art means and why we make it. Post-modernism in all its various forms spanning decades never could be as purely and soullessly defiling to the practice of art making as AI has made it all so in the last year.

But maybe now would be a good time for some proof and examples to back up the dramatic concern. Within the last year we’ve seen a few different trends in AI art which I am here criticizing. One was a brief weeklong fad which had ongoing ramifications - several different apps were created to churn out AI portraits of anyone and everyone who would spend a few dollars for the latest circus trick. The back side of this all was that the images used to train these AI models have always been based off of stolen images made by real artists who live in the real world and require things like money and food and shelter to live. None of them were reimbursed by the tech juggernauts for their contribution, nor were they even made aware of it until too late.

These same backlogs of data are responsible for the engines creating all the AI art for AI artists. You can simply type in “poppies and sunflowers in the style of Degas” and the black box will spit out a dozen paintings fit for printing and selling. Degas doesn’t care so much - he’s dead - but the millions of contemporary artists who are alive and have their livelihoods cut into (or worse, their styles hijacked for images and topics they would never in real life paint) do care.

Imagine, if you will, that you have spent decades perfecting your art style. You have reached a point where anyone who follows you online immediately knows when a painting is done by you - it just has that you-ness about it that everyone loves and finds so beautiful and unique. Everyone loves your work because it is an encapsulation of how you see the world as a human. The poetry of your color choices, your brush strokes, and your choice of subject matter and how it is framed leads everyone to marvel at your work, and you can finally be proud of yourself after so many years of trying to be good at something you love.

Now, a mega corporation steals all your images to make a perfect little cloning machine of your style. Anyone on earth can type in your name plus the topic they are interested in - even topics you find unsavory or upsetting - and they can make a work in your style, pass it off as your own, and sell it on their own pages. It seems unfair, because it is. Centuries of copyright laws aren’t catching up to this modern storm of technology, fraud, and carelessness. And as a result, we’re all the victims.

But I don’t even particularly care about the artists being abused by all of this (including myself) in the sense that artists losing their livelihoods is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s really going on. But this I have to explain more fully.

First, we have to discuss what it means to be an artist and what art is. In brief, there is a perennial emotional turmoil when it comes to being “in the arts.” You wouldn’t want your child to be an artist or to marry one. When your son comes home from school and says I want to be a painter or a poet, you do not imagine he will have an easy and fruitful life. This is of course a stereotype, but it exists for a reason, especially now. There has always been a double-edged battle when it comes to being an artist - everyone will love and respect the idea of your work, most people will secretly wish they could perform their creative passions day in and day out for a living, and they will pay money to see something created by you as seen through your eyes, but they will also walk through life critical of the artist, knowing in their hearts that it is not an easy way to go through life.

This strange dichotomy - the mix of being the pinnacle of human endeavor and also a pitiable way to make a living - is at the heart of the dilemma here with AI. There is a joke circulating about how instead of taking all the jobs we didn’t want, AI has replaced one of the few things that actually makes our spirits sing. I don’t know whether it is because training models on paintings is an easy computational task or whether there was some undercurrent among engineers to want to be able to enter the creative arts through technological channels instead of physical ones, but there seems to be something demoralizing about turning human expression into a computerized game.

When I talk to my father about all of this, he of course gives me the line about clearing snow with a snow shovel or a thousand spoons - and he is right. In the same way that the advent of electricity or the internet changed every company, the advent of AI will change it on a technological basis. But the question is whether this new change is just one of continued magnitude, or of a different type all together. The camera replaced painting, but AI will replace the painter. This seems to be something worth worrying about.

On the other hand, I do love the idea that AI could make the difficult or unsafe or mundane parts of existence not something that humans have to worry about. I love the old idea that computers would turn the work week from 40 hours to 10 so we could all have more time with our families. I love the dreams. But this isn’t how the economy actually works in a place like America - there isn’t some wellspring of desirable intellectually and creatively stimulating jobs that will replace the tedious ones - there will just be fewer jobs total. And unfortunately our economic system is such that we need to have jobs to afford food and shelter and all the joys of modern city life. I would love to sit at home in my garden and write poetry and essays all day because the robots have taken my office job from me, but no one will pay me to do the new thing I really want to do, and the robots have come for the poetry instead of the office job anyways.

And so we find ourselves at this cross road - painting used to be a way to exalt religious figures, then it morphed into a way to honor wealthy patrons, then it became the realm of the public and fractured into thousands of new directions in the hands of everyone who could afford a paint brush. The democratization of art, though it operated hand in hand with an abstraction that often was more pomp than beauty, had its merits. Bringing more voices into the fold of what was considered desirable and expensive art meant that diversity in art at all levels could become the norm.

And this is an important point too - art as it exists in the money-making gallery scheme of things is only a sliver, a funhouse mirror twisted sliver, of what art truly is. There is a wide gulf between the teenager teaching herself watercolors at home to relax and shine back the beauty of the world to itself at the end of a long school day and whatever someone who throws paint at a wall and calls it a million dollar art piece is doing. But they are both artists, and they are two voices in a chorus of conversation about what it means to look and see and feel and be human.

When we allow market forces to create artificially generated images, and we use those images as the stock for every campaign and poster and book and piece of consumed media, we feed ourself junk food for the soul. This isn’t a question of taste or beauty or liking something a little bit trashy and being proud of it - it’s a question of what it means to look at society and how it dances with art, and what that dance says about what it means to be alive.

In the 1800s in Japan, woodblock prints became an easy and accessible way for common people to afford to beautify their homes. Anyone with enough money to buy a bottle of sake could also have an absolutely beautiful full color piece of artwork hung in their house, and this explosion of visual art reflected in theme and content the multiple stories of every day life that were so stunning and importantly normal about existence then. Having these prints now and seeing how they portray the wonder of doing everything from walking through a farmer’s market to eating a bowl of food is what art, and common art, is all about.

When I think about how I engage with and consume art now on the endless ephemeral scroll of social media, I think about what it would be like for Hokusai to live here now in the Los Angeles of 2024. One part of me, the old man in my brain screaming at someone to get off my nonexistent lawn, is saddened by the thought that the creator of The Great Wave would have to make tiktoks to sell his work, and would be drowned out by millions of mediocre AI pieces. But I know this is schlocky nostalgia for a time I am not a part of. Another part of me wants to be optimistic and hopeful for the ways that AI will challenge artists to be better about their work, to work harder to find their true callings and styles - but this isn’t something I feel so sure about. Hasn’t it already been hard enough to be an artist throughout all time? Why should we always have to keep fighting to preserve the slimmest sliver of prestige?

This week I stand in my friend Annie’s house and help her prepare to shoot her next short film. A cadre of artists has assembled to help her realize her dream - a girl sits in the corner and whips out a masterpiece painting of Topanga Canyon in an hour, another friend sits in another corner as he glues together remnants of his 3D printed clocks to make extra props for the film, I paint a banner and learn how to blow up balloon animals (a skill I hope will help me charm people of all ages for the rest of my life whenever someone is down and needs a little bit of joy). We have all coalesced to help someone make something beautiful, and to spend a night drinking soup and whiling the hours away. When life is as short as it is, you find ways to seek out the most meaningful and happy memories, and you go about your way in the world in search of the best ways to make your time here on this planet count. At least I do.

When the painter and her friend, a translator, find themselves lost in conversation with me in the hallway, our talk becomes conspiratorial - we are discussing how AI is going to change everything, and yet how there are still some things we hope that cannot be changed. I start off on a tangent about poetry and how so few real people have the ability to write a beautiful poem, so how could we ever hope for AI to be better than most of humanity at something so inherently human? But I get cut off as I have to go do something mid-thought, and I leave the conversation saying, “let ChatGPT fill in the rest of my argument for me.”

It seems like being a beacon of humanity and recorder of the small poetic beauties of the world for future generations is worth the battle, but in the long war ahead, I only hope I have many friends on my side to make the time feel less harrowing than it really may be.

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