Every year the Colorado State Fair & Rodeo draws scores of visitors seeking a variety of entertainments. This year’s fair, however, laid the groundwork for a rising conversation involving one of the more popular attractions: the fine arts competition.
With the submission of Jason Allen’s “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” into the annual competition, controversy was brought into the spotlight. The sumptuous print was an immediate hit amongst crowds and judges alike, beating 20 other artists in the “digitally manipulated photography” category to win the first-place blue ribbon and a $300 prize. What the artist only hinted at throughout the event, was that the artwork had been created mostly through an artificial-intelligence tool, Midjourney, that can generate realistic images at a user’s command.
The portrait shows three figures, dressed in flowing robes, staring out into a bright beyond. The foreground is braced by a dark and industrial landscape, ascending into light through the portal-like opening that splits the landscape. Its fine details are so masterfully layered, judges failed to even realize that the artwork was AI created – offering a new example of how rapidly AI-generated art has advanced.
But it has also sparked a massive debate over the meaning of art, as Allen has faced numerous accusations that he had been deceptive by submitting an artwork he had asked a machine to create. Allen claims that his art shows people need to “get past their denial and fear” of a technology, believing that it “is a tool, just like the paintbrush is a tool. Without the person, there is no creative force.”
He was even quick to air his defiance at the critics he believes did not appreciate the message of his piece. “You said AI would never be as good as you, that AI would never do the work you do, and I said, ‘Oh really? How about this? I won,’” he said. “It’s here now. Recognize it. Stop denying the reality. AI isn’t going away.”
Over the last few months AI-generated art has become increasingly more criticized as automated plagiarism due to its reliance on millions of ingested art pieces that are then parroted en masse. Programs like Midjourney, DALL-E 2, StarryAI, and Lensa all run off this model, their AIs trained to generate images using the images and texts fed to it by developers and users alike, specifically the work of other artists.
Debates have now shifted to that of ownership rights – and whether companies like Prisma Labs are unethically stealing from human artists. The company has since stated in a twitter thread that “The AI learns to recognize the connections between the images and their descriptions, not the artworks, hence the outputs can’t be described as exact replicas of any particular artwork.”
But people in the art world still see a problem inherent to the technology itself, and while there currently exists little legal precedent that governs artificially generated artwork, many advocates, artists, and lawyers have begun working to codify protections for human creators.