Putting the “art” in artificial intelligence

Many digital artists are using their craft to protest the popularity of AI-generated art. Photo courtesy of artstation.com 


It’s like something lifted straight from an episode of “Star Trek.” Open the app on your phone or computer, type in a string of choice descriptors and create a digital masterpiece in less time than it takes to reheat last night’s leftovers. Finally, the age of paint stains and painstaking practice is no more, seemingly swept into oblivion by an army of artificially intelligent programs. Welcome to the era of AI-generated art — where nothing could possibly go wrong. 


Social media aficionados are probably familiar with the sudden popularity of AI-generated art on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. But the potential ramifications of AI software have been a hotly contested topic well before the invention of our modern-day computers. Novelists like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, for instance, both tackled the dangers of intelligent technology during the early twentieth century, and the famed cryptographer Alan Turing developed his “Turing test” for AI technology in the 1950s, hoping to draw distinct lines between the capabilities of human and artificial intelligence. 

In 2023, however, AI technology has escaped the realm of science fiction, transforming into just another convenience of our digital age. And as long as this technology continues to make our lives easier, not many people seem to be concerned with the consequences. 

But in this case, there are definitely consequences. AI-generated art may be easy to produce and enjoyable to look at, but it’s also highly unethical. These programs use keywords suggested by the user to scan the Internet for any and all applicable images — regardless of whether they’ve been copyrighted. But most people don’t realize that copyrighting anything is a bureaucratic nightmare, including processing fees and extensive documentation. For small-time artists who are looking for exposure instead of profit, this process often isn’t feasible. This means that, in the age of AI-generated art, these artists don’t have a legal claim to their own work, and any AI generator can steal their images without crediting, compensating or even acknowledging the original artist. 

As an English major, I’m not a professional artist by any means, but over the years I’ve posted a handful of original pieces on various social media sites without the slightest concern that someone might spend the time and energy to plagiarize them. Now, however, plagiarism has become an automated, instantaneous process, barely requiring any effort at all. In short, it’s never been easier to take credit for someone else’s work. 

But unlike me, Alex Poore, a sophomore chemistry and art and design double major, is a professional artist. When I spoke to her about the trend of AI-generated art on social media, she was quick to express her frustrations from a more personal perspective. 

“AI can never replicate the creativity and self-expression that humans make with art,” Poore said. “It can’t generate new ideas. It’s just an algorithm.” 

In Poore’s own words, she’s been creating art for as long as she can remember, with an extensive range of mediums including ceramics, digital art and makeup. She’s certainly not afraid to blend modern technology with traditional art forms, but in her opinion, AI-generated art programs just aren’t the same as the other tools and mediums she has experimented with. Instead, these programs are virtually replacing the artist in favor of some cleverly designed code. But at the end of the day, that code — no matter how ingenious it may be — can’t think or learn the way humans can. 

“It’s really upsetting to me, honestly,” Poore said. “I feel like it completely removes the point of creating art in the first place.” 

Admittedly, the art produced by these AI programs can be aesthetically pleasing. But this line of thinking raises even more questions about what it means to create and consume art. Even if AI art is pretty, it’s also incapable of being original or possessing any kind of intrinsic meaning. In fact, its sole function appears to be just that — looking nice on a screen. 

Gansey Elliott Petroff, a senior psychology and classics double major, agrees that just because an AI-generated image looks nice, that doesn’t mean it should qualify as “art.” 

“I think the human factor is what makes art, art,” Petroff said. “Without that creative aspect, it just feels a little bit empty to me. And it’s really frustrating to see a picture that someone had no hand in actually making beyond just typing some words, and they’re like, ‘I made this!’ And it’s like, ‘Well, did you?’” 

Anyone who has spent thousands of hours practicing a skill is likely to empathize with Petroff’s frustration. Making art is extremely difficult, which may be why so many people are turning to these instant generators. Now, instead of investing valuable time, energy and money into creating art, anyone can sit at their computer and produce a visually stunning masterpiece. But as Petroff indicated, these images aren’t the result of real skill. Instead, they trample on the efforts of other artists who have dedicated so much of their lives to honing their craft. 

And the reality is that without the efforts of these artists, AI generators wouldn’t have any images to plagiarize in the first place. 

However, some users of AI art-generating programs have taken to various social media platforms in order to argue that these programs allow for more accessibility within the art world. For people who don’t have the time, money or energy to dedicate to art, such programs would allow them to create art without making sacrifices in other parts of their lives. 

Bee Pilarz, a sophomore English and political science double major, believes that although improved accessibility is an important issue within the art world, AI art generators aren’t necessarily solving that problem. 

“I feel like the bigger problem here is that disabled artists aren’t being given the resources to do things themselves,” Pilarz said. “And now artificial intelligence is becoming this crutch, and I can see how it would seem to be useful, but it’s solely dependent on taking from existing works and existing artists.” 

While lack of accessibility should never be a barrier for any skill or hobby, there are plenty of solutions that do not require plagiarism. Furthermore, disabled artists shouldn’t feel forced to rely on computer algorithms that ultimately are incapable of allowing the users to practice art as a genuine skill that can be improved upon through time and practice. 

Instead, we should focus on developing and dispersing other aids that would preserve the integrity of art, including specialized pencils and paintbrushes, digital art tools such as iPads or 3-D art kits. It’s also important to remember that a certain type of aid won’t work for everyone, even for people with the same disability, so providing a wide range of options and resources is absolutely essential. 

Unfortunately, Pilarz, Petroff and Poore all indicated that they felt AI-generated art wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. In our fast-paced world of instant gratification, the ability to effortlessly produce beautiful works of art is undoubtedly attractive to many people. But even though these AI-generated images may seem beautiful, they aren’t truly reflective of what art means or why it’s so important. Time, effort, energy and practice — all of these qualities are intrinsic to the process of creation. While AI art may be here to stay, I believe that people will come to recognize the difference between the stale, meaningless images created by computers and the genuine, heartfelt masterpieces that every human is capable of creating. 


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