An AI-Generated Painting Won First Prize at a State Fair & Sparked a Debate About the Essence of Art

Théâtre D’opéra Spa­tial by Jason Allen Jason Allen via Dis­cord

The tech­nol­o­gy behind arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence-aid­ed art has long been in devel­op­ment, but the era of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence-aid­ed art feels like a sud­den arrival. Since the recent release of DALL‑E and oth­er image-gen­er­a­tion tools, our social-media feeds have filled up with elab­o­rate art­works and even pho­to­re­al­is­tic-look­ing pic­tures cre­at­ed entire­ly through the algo­rith­mic pro­cess­ing of a sim­ple ver­bal descrip­tion. We now live in a time, that is to say, where we type in a few words and get back an image nobody has ever before imag­ined, let alone seen. And if we do it right, that image could win a blue rib­bon at the state fair.

“This year, the Col­orado State Fair’s annu­al art com­pe­ti­tion gave out prizes in all the usu­al cat­e­gories: paint­ing, quilt­ing, sculp­ture,” reports the New York Times’ Kevin Roose. “But one entrant, Jason M. Allen of Pueblo West, Colo., didn’t make his entry with a brush or a lump of clay. He cre­at­ed it with Mid­jour­ney, an arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence pro­gram that turns lines of text into hyper-real­is­tic graph­ics.” The work, Théâtre D’opéra Spa­tial, “took home the blue rib­bon in the fair’s con­test for emerg­ing dig­i­tal artists,” and it does look, at first glance, like an impres­sion­is­tic and ambi­ence-rich past-future vision that could grace the cov­er of one of the bet­ter class of sci­ence-fic­tion or fan­ta­sy nov­els.

Reac­tions have, of course, var­ied. Roose finds at least one Twit­ter user insist­ing that “we’re watch­ing the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes,” and an actu­al work­ing artist claim­ing that “this thing wants our jobs.” Allen him­self pro­vides a help­ful­ly brash clos­ing quote: “This isn’t going to stop. Art is dead, dude. It’s over. A.I. won. Humans lost.” Over on Metafil­ter, one com­menter makes the expect­ed ref­er­ence: “It has a sort of Duchamp-sub­mit­ting-Foun­tain vibe, only in reverse. Instead of the propo­si­tion being that the jury would wrong­ly fail to rec­og­nize some­thing triv­ial and as art, now we have the propo­si­tion that the jury would wrong­ly fail to rec­og­nize that the art is some­thing triv­ial.”

How­ev­er lit­tle desire you may have to hang Théâtre D’opéra Spa­tial on your own wall, a momen­t’s thought will sure­ly lead you to sus­pect that, on anoth­er lev­el, the con­di­tions that brought about its vic­to­ry are any­thing but triv­ial. Mid­jour­ney, as the orig­i­nal poster on Metafil­ter explains, “can be run on any com­put­er with a decent GPU, a Google col­lab, or run through their own servers.” The abil­i­ty to gen­er­ate more-or-less con­vinc­ing works of art (often lit­tered, it must be said, with the bizarre visu­al glitch­es that have been the tech­nol­o­gy’s sig­na­ture so far) out of just a few key­strokes will only become more pow­er­ful and more wide­spread. And so the “real” artists must find a new form too vital for the machines to mas­ter — just as they’ve had to do all through­out moder­ni­ty.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Dis­cov­er DALL‑E, the Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Artist That Lets You Cre­ate Sur­re­al Art­work

The Long-Lost Pieces of Rembrandt’s Night Watch Get Recon­struct­ed with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

What Hap­pens When Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Cre­ates Images to Match the Lyrics of Icon­ic Songs: David Bowie’s “Star­man,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stair­way to Heav­en”, ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” & More

AI & X‑Rays Recov­er Lost Art­works Under­neath Paint­ings by Picas­so & Modigliani

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Brings Sal­vador Dalí Back to Life: “Greet­ings, I Am Back”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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