The enduring cycle of disruptive technologies: AI art in historical context
Last Updated Jun 12, 2023
José M. Duque
Table of Contents
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about AI and how it can shape human creativity going forward. Today, we’re going to place this discussion in the proper historical context. While it can be tempting to assume that the modern debates over AI and art are unprecedented, they’re just the latest example of a far larger trend.
Art and technology have always been intertwined: AI is no different
While art and technology can seem like polar opposites, the reality is that they’ve always been inextricably linked. As Louis Anslow has noted, art has always been artificial. At its core, art is about using tools to give form to the imagination. When early humans decorated the walls of their caves, they were using a tool–pigments. At a basic level, all human art can arguably be described as an attempt to use an ever-diversifying palette of tools to express the intangible. However, humans have a tendency to forget this link.
An AI prompt is worth a thousand words
In 1839, Louis Daguerre pioneered the first photographic process that could be widely adopted. Previously, the creation of visual images was the domain of highly trained artists, but with the advent of daguerreotypes, anyone could potentially create a dramatic image. Naturally, many in the art world were scandalized. Paul Delaroche memorably declared that, “from today, painting is dead,” while Charles Baudelaire described photography as “the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies…[that] bore not only the mark of a blindness, an imbecility, but had also the air of a vengeance.” Some artists accepted that photography could provide useful reference material while denying its status as true Art because it lacked “something beyond mere mechanism at the bottom of it.” Still, there were some artists, including landscape painter John Moran, who recognized photography as a valid art form, noting that it “speaks the same language, and addresses itself to the same sentiments” as the other fine arts.
Photography also had a democratizing effect on the art world. Formerly, you had to be a person of some means to afford to commission a portrait, but photography made portraiture accessible to a wider range of people. It also contributed to the rise of new artistic movements. For example, Impressionists accepted that photography was a superior way to capture realistic vignettes of the world around us. However, instead of mimicking reality, they sought to play with color, light, and movement in ways that the photographs of the day could not. Impressionism was just the beginning. Fauvism continued the trend toward deliberately ‘painterly’ art marked by bold colors and brush strokes, while Expressionism created works grounded in feeling rather than objective reality.
In the end, the critics' fears were overblown. Photography didn’t kill off painting. Instead, it inspired painters to take their work in new directions. The kind of realistic art that dominated the art world before photography still endures as well. When Queen Elizabeth II died last year, the BBC chose a painted portrait of her to illustrate much of their obituary coverage.
Ars ex machina
The story of digital art’s acceptance by the art world is also informative. When it began in the 60s, computers were the size of rooms and only a tiny fraction of artists (e.g., Frieder Nake) could use them to create art. But as computers shrank in the 1970s and 80s, collaborations between artists and computer scientists began to take off. Even big name artists such as Andy Warhol got in on the action.
As with photography, some in the art world questioned whether digital art was ‘real’ art since the artist was being aided by a machine. Nowadays, many critics would recognize digital art’s place in the creative pantheon. Indeed, many of them recognize that computers have opened up new creative possibilities by allowing artists to work in ways they couldn’t before. For example, The Johnny Cash Project by Chris Milk blends still images submitted by fans of the late singer’s work to create a moving, collaborative portrait of him, while Eric Standley uses laser-cut paper to create elaborate forms reminiscent of Gothic architecture and fractal geometry.
Collision vs collaboration
It can be tempting to imagine that AI and flesh-and-blood artists will inevitably fall into two opposing camps. But this isn’t a given, and it’s definitely possible for artists to have a collaborative relationship with AI. As we discussed last week, many artists already use AI to shape their work. Example of this include:
Manas Bhatia, an architect, used AI to come up with concept art that explores the concept of buildings that grow.
Georgia Perry, an illustrator, used Midjourney to devise custom interiors.
Refik Anadol, an artist, used generative AI to create the colorful backdrops that were seen in the background of the 65th Grammy Awards.
AI can also be tremendously freeing for creators, as it can allow them to circumvent writer’s block. For example, a creative writer could use a generative-AI tool like Sudowrite to come up with an engaging and memorable description of a minor character’s house. In the end, an artist using AI to fashion a work is no different from a musician using an instrument to make a particular sound.
For more discussion of how AI can help the creative process, check out this article from Towards Data Science or this one from Wired.
A hopeful future for AI art
For thousands of years, humans have sought out new tools to express the wonders of their imagination, from the simple pigments of cave paintings to the myriad instruments of a symphony orchestra. However, this utilitarian truth is often forgotten, and as a result, new technologies are often greeted with suspicion by established creators. The current debate over generative AI should be seen against this backdrop. In the end, it’s just another tool that artists can use in their quest to give form and substance to their imaginations.