Art, Artificial Intelligence and Etch-a-Sketch

Who is to say…
copyright 2023, Molly Larson Cook
24″ x 20″, Mixed acrylic media

The hottest topic in the American art world today, even hotter than inflation and the 2024 election, is AI. Artificial intelligence. It’s important to remember that the A stands for “artificial.” This computer/robot/even a 4-year-old can do that convergence may be stealing from real artists, but AI remains artificial as does the art it “creates.”

Reading a story about the so-called painting that won a prize at a summer art fair, I noted that the so-called artist claimed it was not easy. He spent 80 hours on it. 80 hours on his rear end clicking keys and writing prompts.

Not quite the same as 80 hours at an easel, my friends. Not quite the same as 80 hours mixing colors or applying the paint to get the right image. Definitely not the same as 80 hours cleaning tools and brushes, choosing paints for a new work and gessoing the canvas.

These might seem like tedious tasks to a non-artist, but they are acts of love to the working painter. Acts way beyond what AI can do no matter how many clicks or buttons or stolen images you use.

Yes, there’s that truly dark side of AI art. Stolen images. Stolen from everybody everywhere. This is not the friendliest planet I’ve ever landed on, but here I am. On my
planet, people are good to each other. We don’t steal. On the AI planet, at this time, thievery is the standard. Word is that if any of us are putting our art images online, they’ll be stolen if they have not been already. Egad! Discouraging at best. Infuriating at worst.

It’s not so much that AI, in and of itself, is wrong any more than any technology, in and of itself, is wrong. What’s wrong is the misuse of the technology. Any technology. One reviewer referred to AI used to create art as “a fun toy.” Well, so was the Etch-a-Sketch, but there’s little Etch-a-Sketch art on anyone’s walls.

I don’t want to spend our time together today lamenting technology, but I do want to remind those who keep bringing up how artists feared that photography was going to eliminate art that artist Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Steiglitz were happily married for many years and fully supported and inspired each other’s work.

No, photography did not replace art, and despite the claims, AI will not replace artists.

I’ve been reading again…and found some great statements about creativity that counter the AI mindset from such as Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All. Robbins has one of the best senses of humor in the literary world and he says this:

“In the haunted house that is Life, art is the only stair that doesn’t creak.”

Then I read a delightful book about writing by author Richard Russo, who has his own great sense of humor. Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, The Risk Pool to name a few. In his book on writing, The Destiny Thief, Russo emphasizes the link between humor and creativity, and herein is my main point about AI and art. Russo quotes critic Katherine Powers:

“We humans worry about humor, confusing it with a lack of seriousness. But look here. Along with art and immorality, it is humor that distinguishes human beings from animals…It is, furthermore, a truly civilizing force, nemesis to the big battalions, and a vexation and puzzlement to the purveyors of mediocrity.”

And there, I believe, is what will save us from Artificial Intelligence – genuine humor. This is not to say that artists and other creatives are laughing all the time. But let’s at least agree that we do not think of our mistakes as tragedies. No, we mostly call them “happy accidents” and we do that for a good reason. We do that because we are human, we have emotions, we know good riding from bad. And we recognize that perfection is not our goal. Art is our goal. Human art. Imperfect art. Beautiful art.

I spent part of this day working on the painting you see here. I made a serious mistake and had to fix it. As I was working, a goofy thought came to me. If this were an AI painting, I told myself, I could just hit “delete” and be done with it. I laughed. And I was grateful it was not an AI painting because, no matter what, it’s mine, all mine and I can sign my own name to it.

The title and the quotation for this one comes from a series of poems I wrote after my return to the northwest about life in my cottage on the Presumpscot River in Maine. The poem is titled “Presumpscot” and here is the section with this line:

Why is it I will never say “Home” again
without two thoughts,
two pictures on the screen?

Who is to say a lazy Maine river cannot
flow outside my window, here, by western mountains
and the sea?

2 thoughts on “Art, Artificial Intelligence and Etch-a-Sketch

  1. I have read about, and heard musicians complain about, a similar phenomenon in the music realm called “sampling”. If I remember correctly, it led musician Jon Pousette-Dart to write a song called “Sample This” in protest.

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