Finally, someone brave enough to tell us what art is
Discourse around AI art is mostly built on the bedrock of deliberate confusion.
The word “art” is pressed into so many different meanings, and then those meanings get conflated and pulled apart and re-conflated to support whoever’s talking at the moment.
It seems like a good moment to clarify what I talk about when I talk about art.
I don’t have any kind of a comprehensive or exhaustive accounting of the term, but here are a few distinct things I talk about when I talk about art.
Starting with the simplest, “art” can just mean “something to liven up a space, make it prettier or evoke a particular vibe.” As in “that wall looks a bit bare, we could use some art for it,” or “we’ll need some art for the new website.”
I’m very comfortable saying that by this definition, Midjourney is quite capable of making art. I’ve generated AI images that are at (and well above) the bar for the art I see on many websites, on the walls in offices and restaurants, etc.
2. A Way of Looking
“The whole world is art, if you know how to look!”
This definition doesn’t depend at all on the artist, but on the viewer. A waterfall has more depth and meaning than any gallery, if you know how to look at it. A streetlamp shining through green leaves at dusk can outshine most rooms in the Louvre.
Art is a spontaneous style of experiencing reality, an open-hearted examination of objects and events that perceives each moment as a crystallization where time meets eternity.
If a broken bottle reflecting moonlight can fit this definition, then yeah, AI art does too. So also a pigeon shitting midflight (just looked up and saw that while writing).
3. Emotional/Energetic Transmission
When you make something, the state that you were in while making it gets encoded into the thing somehow. I won’t pretend to know how this works, but I’m definitely not the first person to notice it. This is one of the core definitions of art, the transmission of am emotional, mental, or energetic state from one person to another.
Notice that I’m not defining this in a one-sided way, as in “this song wants you to feel happy, it’s changing your mood so its art.”
I’m pointing not only at the intention behind the art, but the actual process of transmission. So for example, if someone writes a song that they want you to feel joy about, but while playing it they’re actually furious about something and trying to hide it, the song will transmit to you a sense of repressed rage—potentially a subtle sense that you never quite trace directly to its source, but nonetheless, the creation state has been transmitted to the experiencer.
AI gets very weird around this definition, because it’s technology that was trained on tons of these human moments, but @hormeze’s description of AI art’s energetic texture works quite well I think:
“little microbursts of collective humanity poking through an organizing blanket of dullness. like a down pillow full of white diamonds.”
4. The ~Creative Process
Art is a transformative process. It’s the shaping and unfolding of experience, the shaping of a download from the divine Current of being, the bringing-forth of something within you that wants shape.
It’s still stunning to me that people treat paragraphs like the above as fluffy mumbo-jumbo, while at the same time taking similar paragraphs about meditation or yoga at face value. It’s the same thing. It’s all transformative practice.
This is the one where the advent of AI generated art and text feels most sad and dangerous to me.
I really reeeeaaally didn’t think there would be confusion about this one. I didn’t think anyone was going to conflate “typing some words into Midjourney and getting a cool image out” on the one hand with “the inner and outer process of unfolding a creative Current, leading to a deeper metabolization and understanding of yourself, your emotions, your reality” on the other hand.
And yet, it seems to have taken no time at all for people to begin the conflation. It started well before the generated text or images even got particularly good.
Just to say it plainly: thinking that AI generated images or text are a transformative process akin to this definition of Art is very much similar to thinking that a conversation with GPT-4 about your inner world is akin to meditating—or thinking that a conversation with GPT-4 about fitness is akin to working out.
5. And So On
I could go on, but from here a lot of the definitions I sketched in my notebook start to get fuzzier, more overlapping, and harder to describe. Doesn’t feel like I want to invest the time at the moment—especially given that the particular definitions aren’t my central point.
The main point is that right now is a good opportunity to really break down what we mean by “art”—to spend some time with the plurality of definitions, and to deeply take stock of which parts of those definitions are perfectly reasonable to cede to the increasingly competent AI image generators—and which ones we should be fighting tooth and nail to claim space for in the emerging landscape.
(My own two cents is that definition 4, “The Creative Process,” has been lost and degraded for a long time, buried under concerns like economics, popularity, high culture, technical skill and so on. This is a perfect opportunity to re-center art as a transformative tradition, a suite of spiritual practices and metabolic possibilities. Best case scenario, in a few years I’m seeing people like Silvia and Anansi running week-long Creative Retreats as an alternative to yoga or meditation retreats. I’d go to one of those, wouldn’t you? [this idea is free, I ask only that y’all give me a free ticket in if you take it.])