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December 8, 2022

Is AI art bad for artists?

This conversation is all the rage right now - so much so, that I decided to stop my regular programming and take a moment to talk about AI art. AI art - artificial intelligence generated art is here to stay, and it's been experiencing a bit of a breakthrough lately. How do human artists feel about AI art? Is it stifling or helping human creativity? Is there an ethical way to approach AI art generators? Let's figure this out together.

This was generated with Midjourney.

How AI art generators are created

Most AI art generators right now are two-step algorithms. One step produces an image creation from a prompt, usually a text prompt, and then the second step checks it for accuracy.

For example, if I give it the prompt "banana" in step one, the algorithm may produce a yellow oval on a canvas. The second step of the algorithm will then provide feedback on a scale. 0 is not close to a banana, 100 is that it's a banana with 100% assurance.

After step one receives its feedback, it'll adjust its AI generated art output, and then send a new image out to the step two algorithm. Maybe now the yellow oval has a bit of a crescent shape to it. It gets a higher score from the judge, and back to the drawing board.

This is, more or less, the same process that human artists use to create their own art styles. But in the human art world, it can take hours or days to produce something that we finally feel satisfied. With AI art generators, it takes minutes.

The reference library of art generators

This is because the reference library and knowledge of AI art generators is massive. Popular AI art generators have digested millions of labeled images from public places like Google Image Search. This real art, labeled for accessibility purposes, is used as the matches for both parts of the algorithm.

While we have to learn how to draw straight lines and high quality images, an AI art generator is trained on lifetimes of data. Even commercial artists who can work quickly to produce realistic images can't out compete computer programs, because they essentially have access to "all the art" available.

Now that you know how artificial intelligence generated art works, we can talk about the ethics behind it. Is it legal? Should it be legal?

Issue 1: Theft and copyright

There's a big social media discussion going on right now about how AI algorithms - Lensa, in this case - are stealing art generated by human artists and feeding them into a big algorithm. There are a few aspects of this, and I'll try to break them up to make the most possible sense.

Part A: Original theft of images

If you're an artist and you've posted an image of your art, on the internet, with a description, there's a chance that it has been used to feed an AI model.

If you've ever posted on social media, written a blog, written on Medium, or shared your prize-winning essay online - chances are, your words have been used to feed an AI model.

The GOOD news is that any given AI model will not directly copy a single individual unless they are in the 1% of well known, distinctive styles. No AI art generators are going to produce exact copies of my work based on my name (Sam Davis) or my art business (Nonbeenary Designs).

The BAD new is that if you're successful, or your art is of rare items, it's possible to be directly copied. If I asked an AI text generator to talk about the species of rare butterfly that I studied in graduate school, there is a chance that it may plagiarize me. But that's because I was one of just a few people who dove deep into that subject.

The IMPLICATIONS of AI model creation are somewhat apocalyptic. Most of us can't function in the real world without some sort of imprint online - in online art communities, on social media, or on blogs. Most of us have an online presence, which means that we have a public presence, which means that our generated products - images, words, video - are all possible sources of data for AI models. There are currently no standardized ethical standards for feeding AI models data.

Part B: Theft of styles

If you are in the 1% of artists who have a distinctive style and a long-ranging body of work, there's a chance that other artists can use your name or style to generate images or create artwork that looks similar to what you do.

The BAD news is that, while unethical of those other artists, unless it's a direct copy, you probably have no legal standing unless you hold a trademark that covers some aspect of what was created. For example, if an artist is using AI to generate Mickey Mouse, and it is recognizable as Mickey Mouse, Disney gets to sue. If you tend to use bright colors and draw extra eyes on your creatures, chances are that you're out of luck if someone uses your name to generate images. It's not specific enough.

The GOOD news is that these AI models are owned by specific companies, and some of them are trying to be as ethical as they can while allowing users to create artwork. You can directly petition the major AI art models to remove your name as a prompt from their AI artwork image generator. This is the solution that some popular artists have already latched onto. If this is you, I'd recommend reaching out to: Lensa, Midjourney, Jasper Art, OpenAI, Playform, and Creative Fabrica. Those are the top six AI art generators that I'm most familiar with.

Issue 2: Employment

Most people are getting riled up by this idea that AI artwork is going to take jobs from real art creators. This argument feels like it's been around for decades, and it basically boils down to, "the machines are taking our jobs!" We've seen this happen in:

  • automobile manufacturing
  • forestry
  • other manufacturing, shipping, and packing facilities
  • the rise of the digital art world
  • grocery and retail (self checkouts come to mind)

The thing is, machines are always going to be taking our jobs. This is what innovation does. We live in capitalism, and we're always trying to find more ways to be efficient - maximize revenues, reduce overhead.

But as we've seen in grocery and retail, and in the other places as well, we may lose jobs, but more often, the jobs just change. Instead of fifteen employees at registers, now we have employees that are trained to monitor self checkout. With the rise of grocery pick up and delivery, some of those front-end works have shifted to the back-of-house to do picking and filling. It may be a net loss, but it hasn't wiped the industry out.

I'm not celebrating the rise of self check outs here, but merely acknowledging that this type of change comes whether or not we go kicking and screaming into the night.

Are real art and artists really losing their jobs?

Right now? Probably not. If people are using artificial intelligence generated art, for the most part, they're using it in places where they would not have paid a photographer or artist anyway. For example, blogging. In the olden days (early 2000s), many people just stole images and posted them on their blogs. After everyone got sued for that, we switched to putting stock images on our websites, usually from free places, like Flickr and Pixabay and Pexels.

The people who are using tools like Midjourney to create art for blogs weren't paying for images before. And let's be real - paid stock photo sites aren't a wealthy payoff for artists. While a consumer may pay $3-5 for an image, the artist usually only gets about $0.30-$0.50 of that. They, like most of us, rely on volume and diversity in sales to get by on their photograph or illustration capabilities.

Will real artists lose their jobs in the future?

It's definitely possible. If I just need a quick image to support an article at a big newspaper, I'm not going to go through three weeks of revisions with an artist when I can generate something "good enough" in five minutes.

To those artists, I would encourage you to consider your business strategy. If that's the niche you want to occupy, you should get some training and exposure to AI generated art. Figure out how to use AI generated art, tools like Photoshop, and freshen up your graphic design work. You're going to want to be able to act as the AI generated art liaison if you want to keep blogs and magazines paying you money.

For higher class brands and branding, artist jobs may be safe. Places like the New Yorker or Nat Geo may be afraid of being snubbed for switching to an image generator instead of paying an artist. If that's the type of art you want to pursue, then building relationships in the art community is critical. Standing out as an artist is critical. Create art that is distinctive, has a strong story, and that rockets around the online art communities.

Should I consider an art career with the rise of AI art?

If you want to create art, then you should create art. AI-generated art is going to change the art world, but there will always be room for human creativity despite the presence of any particular AI image generator. This is because AI art generators are basically giant art spinners right now. They don't generate novel concepts, they just work by remixing and rehashing a giant library of human creativity and art styles.

Artists aren't going to be able to avoid AI art generators for much longer. We're going to need to adapt. Railing against it might feel good, but it's not going to really do much else. Learning how an AI image generator works, understanding how to spot AI generated art, and continuing to develop your own distinctive art styles is really the best way forward.

Final thoughts

Most artists don't sell their art. I've found that the pieces that I've made that are most meaningful to me are not meaningful to my customers. Selling art images, paintings, and reproductions applies to a small minority of artists. Most artists are just happy to produce their fan art, paintings, and real art as a hobby.

Much like AI writing tools, the artificial intelligence algorithms are here to stay. Understanding the scope of what this means for you and your work is important. An AI art generator has the power to change the world, but only because most consumers don't care. They just want their stuff, and they want it now.

The best antidote to the AI generated art craze is to focus on substance, quality, and value. Continue to shop small at independent artists' websites. Tip your artists. Pay your artists. AI generated art is a tool - nothing more and nothing less. Don't let the hype push you into an overreaction.

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