Jason Allen recently lit a fire under the art world. The Colorado-based artist has used artificial intelligence software to create art, submitted it to the State Fair fine art competition, and won first prize. The event attracted widespread attention, with Allen’s work being covered in outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and sparking a debate on social media that, needless to say, went from the sophisticated to the unbalanced. .
“Yeah, it’s been a crazy week with everything going on,” says Allen, the man in the middle of this intersection of culture and technology. “There was a lot of love from the community but also a lot of hate, I got hate mail.”
The hate mail is that the internet is the internet, but the most compelling anti-AI artistic argument is that it automates much of the creative process and therefore should not be directly compared to art produced by traditional methods. There’s also the larger argument that these AIs are trained on work done by humans, though I’m not going to get into that particular ethical quagmire here.
However, many assumptions are also made about what these AI tools can do and about Allen’s creative process. An important part of his victory is that Allen awarded the job to Midjourney as well as himself, being upfront about the process, and so it immediately struck me as another in the long line of stunts that artists drew to get eyeballs on their work. It’s a recurring feature in art history that half the battle for any artist is noticed, and to complain that Allen used software to help do that feels a bit like a curse against the “factory” practices of many modern artists like Damien Hirst. Perception isn’t everything, but sometimes it can be.
I asked Allen how he felt behind the backlash. “I believe part of the problem is that some of the artists were denying the ability of AI to achieve a level of power that could mimic the same level of creative expression that a human could, let alone compete with them”, writes the artist. “We haven’t seen AI do this on its own yet, however, I demonstrated that the technology should be taken seriously by winning the Colorado State Fair fine art competition in the digital arts category This technology exists, and it’s creating parts that prove it can do it now.”
Allen thinks the AI image-generating software’s capabilities are causing “some kind of existential crisis right now” in the art community, referencing the disruptive technology of OpenAI as well as DALLE-2 and Midjourney (the software he used).
“Denial is the first step in the grieving process, maybe (and I am deliberately saying MAYBE) artists should go through the healing process to come to their acceptance of AI,” Allen writes. “Because it won’t go away and will only get more powerful. I think the backlash is normal for any major technological advancement when it comes to art. Such was the case with the camera, threatening portrait painters of the past, where the guy “had nothing to do but press a button. Sure, we know that’s ridiculous now, but it takes time to embrace new eras of artistic advancement.”
The method is particularly interesting because there’s definitely a perception that it’s an “easy” way to create art, and you won’t have to look far to find people who consider that This is cheating. I asked Allen if he could say how important the human element was in his work and estimate how long it took him to produce it.
“I’ve done over 900 iterations of Space Opera Theater and spent over 80 hours conservatively,” Allen says. “I picked my top three, cleaned them up in Photoshop, and scaled them with Gigapixel AI. I’m a creative writer and art director, and I think my work is obviously reflected in the prompt that I created to create these pieces.”
I mentioned both Duchamp and Jackson Pollock to Allen, because I felt like the contemporary resistance these artists’ techniques were facing came from almost the same place as the objections to the use of AI in the creative process. “In the end,” Allen says. “Pollock was the one with his art in museums and those ‘more skilled’ or ‘talented’ artists at the time [were not]…”
A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Agriculture told The New York Times that because Allen disclosed the use of Midjourney in his submission, it fell under contest rules. They added that the judges didn’t know what Midjourney was at the time, but Allen’s work would have won regardless.
Allen thinks the award shows will eventually create an “AI category,” which seems like a sensible solution. Likewise, he is ready to face those who criticize his work.
“The ethics are not in the technology,” Allen told The New York Times after his win. “It’s in the people. It’s not going to stop. The art is dead, man. It’s over. The AI won. The humans lost.”