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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Newhall

Photography and AI: Robots are Artists?!

Updated: Jan 10

Is AI art, art?

This is a question that's recently been bothering the artistic community. I have attended several lectures on the topic, and I find the answer to be fairly simple (in a way): It depends on who you ask!

What? That's not an answer! That's an excuse!

I agree. In all the talks I attended, I never heard them cover one particular part of it: history!

I know, many are bored by history. Hang with me for a second, it's more interesting then you think.

Philosophers and historians ask the question "What is art?" On the surface, that seems a silly question. Is it though? I mean, there was the case where an artist's work was mistakenly thrown into the trash by the gallery's custodial staff. That is rather embarrassing for the artist, in my mind. If an artwork's meaning is so abstract that it's not clear that it is artwork, then that's not a good sign. Shouldn't artwork be (at least somewhat) clear to all? I digress.

Suffice to say, what is and isn't artwork can be a rather heated topic. It certainly is with regard to AI. With AI in the loop there are lots of questions in the art community. For example: Is AI art created by the artist who put in the information, or the AI that produced it? Was there any creativity involved, or was it just the execution of computer programming? Was there even any effort from the artist at all?

Sound familiar? These questions are shockingly similar to the ones that plagued photography. Ex. "is the photo a creation of the camera or the artist?" "Was there any creativity at all? Or did they just click a button?"*

The questions/complaints between AI and photography feature the same concern; the use of new technology in art. Yet, there is one change. While the questions/complaints/concerns are the same, the technology is certainly different. In fact, I'd say it's a much wider technological leap then early cameras were. In order to adapt to these new cameras photographers, and the field itself, did have to adapt to them. So, artists could certainly learn how to use AI as a tool.

Great! Now we're back to the beginning! Is AI the artist or not? Well, while the technological leap is significantly different, the questions and context still aren't. That is to say: is the camera/AI creating the image? Or is it the artist pressing the shutter/typing the words?

I argue that it's both AND neither. I know, frustrating. I think that AI needs the artist just as much as the artist needs AI to create the artwork. AI can't create the artwork without the artist inputting the information they want. In that way, AI needs the artist.

But hold on. Isn't that... cheating? I mean, isn't part of the artistic process creating what's in your mind? Sure, it is; but isn't using AI to do that just using another tool to do that job? AI might produce an image in seconds. This image might be based an amazing piece of work. But, no matter how hard the machine tries, it might not match what the artist was looking for. If the artist is as picky with their work as I am, then they would almost certainly need to edit whatever image AI produces to create what they want. Why? Because AI can't read their mind!

So clearly, while AI produces the work, it can't be produced without the artist's input. Essentially, it's a tool towards the creation of art. Much like how a canvas can't produce a painting without the painter, nor can a camera create a photo without the photographer. The AI needs the artist to create the art.

Ok, but hold up. The AI is still producing the image. Arguably its doing most of the work here. Unlike a camera or a paintbrush, it can produce an image in a way that the artist hasn't even conceived of yet.

That is certainly true. On the other hand though, while it's not quite to the extent that AI does it, the camera also has effects that, while not entirely automatic, aren't necessarily within the control of the artist. For example, the position of the sun in a photo can have unintended consequences. So can the effects of slow shutter speeds. Sometimes these can be good accidents, sometimes bad mistakes. Regardless, these effects in images are not entirely in the artist's control.

You see? Art is arbitrary. What one considers art is not necessarily what another person considers art. In fact, it can take awhile before people are willing to agree whether the subject is or isn't art. We are seeing this with AI. Regardless of your position in the AI debate, it is important to consider how artwork has been done in the past and is done now. Art has changed in the past, it is changing now, and it will continue to do so in the future. That is just the way of progress.

What do you think? Is AI art? Email me your opinion!

*This last one is a personal pet peeve of mine. Photography is so much more complicated than "just clicking a button."

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