If you haven’t asked yourself if AI art will put artists out of the job, you aren’t paying attention.
AI art has been flooding online channels like Instagram, Pinterest, and Artstation. And people are starting to ask themselves a very simple question:
Are artists going to lose out to AI?
In this article, I’ll tell you my take on this as an experienced professional artist and an active member of the digital art community. You can also check out my full conversation with fellow artist Adrian Virlan on the subject right here.
UPDATE Oct 26, 2022: Due to the popularity of this article and my own continued research on the subject, I have amended some parts of the article. I would like to take the stronger stance that AI generated art should not be dismissed or ignored. It presents an active existential threat to artists and art itself, if allowed to continue unchecked without legislative intervention.
I would highly recommend you check out this video from Steven Zapata for a more in-depth discussion of this potential.
If you are interested in taking a stand against AI Art, please make your voice heard. While the technology may not be going away, we can still fight to preserve the livelihood of artists.
Support the Concept Art Association’s efforts to support artists right here, or sign petitions like this one to limit the use and sourcing of AI art generators.
What is AI Art?
You may have read a recent Vice article about this AI artwork that won a digital art competition in Colorado. It’s one of many recent examples of situations where AI art has outcompeted other forms of artwork.
Artist Jason Allen created this piece using a software called Midjourney—a program that uses artificial intelligence and a huge database of internet-sourced images to generate digital artwork.
The software, and others like it, have become increasingly popular among both artists and non-artists. The algorithms have become advanced enough to replicate Renaissance-level master works of arts in a matter of minutes simply by typing in a few word prompts.
At the moment, many of these raw products have noticeable flaws, and can still be identified as AI-created art.
However, the untrained eye might easily be fooled. Take this AI generated piece that sold for over $90,000, and the reaction of the buyer:
Buyers of artificially generated art may not be able to catch an AI artwork when they see it. And this will only become more frequent as the algorithm becomes more advanced.
So what’s the big deal?
Creating AI art is currently an imperfect science. When I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed, I can usually spot an AI artwork. The programs still have trouble getting eyes right, and hands, and usually lack a general sense of design.
But for most people, many of these works are now indistinguishable from an artist’s hand. Already, people are flooding social media with AI art, selling prints, Patreon subscriptions, and more.
If you look at the comments on many of these artworks, you’ll see clearly that 90% of their followers are unaware of this. Not only that, but some of these individuals actively take credit for these AI creations.
And the technology is only getting more sophisticated by the day.
Not only that, but its vastly quicker and cheaper than hiring an artist, and requires no technical artistic skill, often with incredible results.
What do artists think about AI art?
Many artists are excited about the possibilities, while others are gripped with fear. How can an illustrator make a living, charging $500-600 per piece, when anyone with a decent computer can create 10 artworks of higher quality in a matter of minutes and sell them at 50 bucks a pop?
As a concept artist an illustrator myself, I cannot ignore this threat to my profession.
I’ll be honest—AI art scares the hell out of me. And I think a lot of other artists are feeling this, too.
Still, I see a lot of artists in my community getting excited about it. What they can create in Midjourney totally amazes them, after struggling for so long to develop their own art skills to a comparable level.
And I don’t blame them. Being an artist is hard right now.
The threshold for technical skill has dramatically increased in recent years, even while demand for art remains high. Already, art directors expect concept artists to be competent in a variety of digital softwares, including Photoshop, Blender, Zbrush, and more. And they expect smaller turnaround times to meet the demands for huge film and game titles.
It’s only natural to jump on the first thing that lets you create better quality art more quickly.
I think what many of these artists don’t realize is that they are themselves perpetuating the increase in demand.
The more artists use this software, the more advanced it becomes, and the higher the skill threshold rises.
Unethical image sourcing
Not only this, but many established artists are publicly taking issue with how the images that fuel AI art are sourced.
Take Greg Rutkowski, for example, who is one of my all time favorite artists whose name has become the #1 most used artist name to generate AI artwork.
AI art programs are drawing from a massive database which includes both copyrighted and non-copyrighted material, which includes works from living professional artists, photos of living faces, and even confidential medical records.
Not only is this a massive violation of copyright, but it’s allowing anyone with access to the software to churn out thousands of artworks in the style of an existing artist.
Check out this article about Greg Rutkowski’s stance on AI art image sourcing.
So will artists still be needed?
When I first wrote this article, I was feeling somewhat optimistic about this. Even with inevitable advancements in AI software, we would still need artists to “curate” the work. That might mean making adjustments or compositing the results in Photoshop. It might mean inputting the correct prompts for the project, or designing a base for the AI to work from.
However, following conversations with other artists and my own personal research, I feel now that the threat is far greater than I originally imagined.
First, it’s absurd to think that artists are a “necessary” part of the AI art equation. At first, many AI artists will consider themselves “curators” or “promptists”. Even now, many artists boast about the skill needed to input the right word prompts to get a particular result.
But to think that AI software requires human input to do this is absurd. The capacity for AI to generate the prompts needed to generate the artwork is built into the programs themselves. And the more people use the software, the more it learns what prompts will generate the most desirable results.
In short: AI does not need us to generate artwork. Human creative input is a facade to aid in the refinement of the technology that has the absolute potential to fully replace artists.
The best case scenario
Without active intervention, the best case scenario will be likely be something like this:
The highest levels of professional art, an artist-AI symbiosis is would be required to keep up with the demand. The most adaptable artists are already incorporating AI into their workflow as we speak. They’re already skilled enough to use the software to improve their workflow and work quality.
As for the rest of us, I would expect two things to happen.
First, AI generated art from non-artists and artists alike will likely become widespread and cheap. It will outcompete amateur and professional artists in most commercial realms. If you simply want “great art”, it will make more sense to simply have a robot create it for a fraction of the cost than paying some amateur right out of art school.
Second (and here’s the silver lining for you purists), I expect that quality hand-crafted (yes, even digital) art could become far more valuable. Not necessarily for everyday commercial projects, but as part of an artist’s brand.
Oil painters, artisans, and ceramicists have not gone out of business, despite the widespread availability of cheaper, even higher quality products.
I have a friend who makes a killing selling hand-crafted animal jewelry, and makes a decent living at it, too. Now, you could go online and get a pair of fish earrings for $10 on Amazon whenever you want (and guess what—people do).
But some people don’t want just any fish earring, they want a fish earring from her.
Because they see her making them on Instagram, and they know her story, and she has a whole identity around this. And they’re willing to pay a higher price for them. They want the earrings from “the girl who makes the fish earrings”, not from “fish-earrings-to-go.com”.
However, this will cement human-made art firmly in the realm of collectible curiosities of the upper class. It would be highly competitive, subjective, and based largely on collective perceived value—which, in my opinion, is compounding some of the worst attributes of the professional art industry.
AI art will change everything
Of course people are going to buy and trade AI art and it’s going to become a huge part of a highly competitive art industry. It’s going to put a lot of people out of work. It’s going to force others to adapt.
It is possible that in some cases, people will still want to hire a person. They won’t want art created by Midjourney. They want art created by Artist X, who may or may not use AI in their work.
Basically, some people may want an artist who uses AI and some people will think it’s cheap and soulless. Either way, it’s tied to the creator and their brand somehow. Take the earlier AI piece that was sold for 90K. The buyer was totally thrilled about it. Maybe they didn’t know it was AI and they were fooled. And people should absolutely be accountable for that.
But maybe they’re just thrilled to get a cool art piece created by someone that they know uses AI, and they’re ok with it.
Also, people love to see the process. I imagine that’s what brought a lot of people to my community, to see all of my live streams and process videos (like this one here), where I create the artwork from scratch before your eyes.
And honestly, who wants to see process videos of artists plugging words into an algorithm and watching the program spit out different paintings?
Maybe some people will, but it sounds pretty boring to me.
What can we do?
Personally, I empathize with many artists and non-artists who are compelled to use AI to create art. It’s already such a competitive world out there, and developing the skills to make a living from your art can take decades. And I’m sure it’s endlessly fascinating to watch a program spit out beautiful images from your prompts.
If you follow me and my art, you’ll know that I started out drawing as a kid, and studied oil painting and ceramics in college. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by new technological tools I can use in my art—Photoshop, Blender, all kinds of stuff. I love learning new things, and experimenting with new media.
But make mo mistake: this is not just another tool. This is a marked transition in the history of art itself, and human creativity itself is at stake.
I personally do not want to live in a world where machines are responsible for telling our stories, for generating our ideas, and expressing the most ancient and essential quality of being human—our art.
Unfortunately, I can’t justify simply ignoring this trend either. I believe concrete legislative action needs to be taken to curb the unchecked growth of AI art technology, and the unethical sourcing of images upon which it is based.
If you want to be part of this movement, make your voice heard. Use social media platforms to show your support for artists, contribute to fundraisers like this one from the Concept Art Association, sign petitions, and push for the labeling of AI artworks and ethical image sourcing. Already, there is a growing body of artists resisting this trend, as evidenced by the massive movement on Artstation posting the above image to their profiles.
Either way, I’m undeterred. I will continue to fight for the right for artists to be valued members of society, and for the restriction and limitation, and ethical use of this technology. Meanwhile, I’m going to continue creating art and improving my skills, and I’m grateful for all of you who are following and supporting my work.