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White: University artists weigh in on AI-generated art

Is it art or merely an imitation?
Image by Mary Ellen Ritter

An art piece generated by artificial intelligence won an art show at the Colorado State Fair on Aug. 29, leading the art community to question the legitimacy of both the victory and the art itself.

Though the person who submitted the piece acknowledged it was AI-generated when entering the show, is it fair to expect humans to compete against a computer? Does a piece crafted by an AI constitute art, or does it undermine the humanity of the craft?

Sam Fleming is a third-year architecture student at the University of Minnesota and the cartoonist at the Minnesota Daily. He is staunchly against any award for the work of an AI.

“Winning an award I am in 100% opposition to,” Fleming said. “Countless hours spent honing a craft usurped by someone with no skill or ability.”

Fleming’s response raises a question: Is AI art inherently less valuable simply because it requires less work?

Fleming has been drawing all of his life. He started selling his art when he was 19 years old and has appeared in countless fairs and galleries. For someone like him, the idea of an AI-generated image, scraped together in seconds, replacing a piece that has hours or days put into it is a slap in the face.

There are direct, negative implications for the average artist trying to sell their work when an AI like DALL-E mini can pump out pieces thousands of times faster than the average human artist.

As it stands now, the technology isn’t that advanced — yet. Yang Chen, a third-year art student, doesn’t think AI is ready to overtake humanity, artistically or otherwise.

“AI right now is not good enough to do art,” Chen said. “It can make a pretty picture; it can make what people like, but it can’t capture what people can.”

Sure, AI can mathematically combine the works of a thousand different artists into something we have never seen before. But can it express emotion like a human being can? Does the artist’s lack of sentience detract from their art’s beauty?

Grace Dinzeo, a fourth-year art student, thinks something is lacking in the artistic work of a machine.

“There is something special about human creativity and spontaneous creation,” she said. “Nothing beats the act of touching and seeing things in reality.”

If reality is the concern, maybe digital and AI-generated art should be relegated to their own fields entirely, instead of being lumped in with traditional art.

Russ White, an artist who works in the art department at the University, seemed relatively nonchalant when asked about the rise of AI art.

“I’m not worried about it,” White said. “Artists will always make art, and coders will always code.”

He chuckled when asked about AI winning award shows. “No accounting for taste,” he said.

Ultimately, White is unworried.

“I don’t view art as a field made for competition,” he said.

Much criticism of AI art points toward the lack of human craftsmanship and skill. However, what about the code that created such an AI? Should the coder not be considered an artist for the artist they have manufactured?

Toward the end of our conversation in the Regis Center for Art, White pointed toward the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. The space currently houses “A Picture Gallery of the Soul,” a photographic exhibition celebrating Black history.

“The same things were said about photography,” White said. “Now it is accepted as its own art form. It makes sense to be wary, but we will always create new things.”

Sure, in an art show where first place gets a monetary prize, it is unfair to expect the average artist to compete with a computer. Beyond that, to pass off the work of code as your own creation is unethical, to say the least.

Despite this, will we one day see a world where AI-generated art stands on its own as a subsection of the art universe? Perhaps one day we will see galleries dedicated to the works of our AI compatriots.

For now, though, they should probably stay out of the average art show.

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