Art from Hell
An expansion of a thread whereby I try to coalesce my feelings about AI art.
At the end of the day, what matters is the experience of the audience. Artists can pour their entire heart and soul into something and watch in horror as it is met with scorn and derision or, worse, utter indifference from the audience. Other times, something quickly dashed off or thought of as being of middling or poor quality receives rapturous love and attention, which can be equally dismaying.
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But once an artist puts his work out there, nobody cares how it was made. The thought process behind it only matters to dorks like us who enjoy seeing how things were made and why they work. For the bulk of the audience, it’s a simple binary, some may say glandular, question: it either really gets their motor runningor it lands with a flatulent squeak.
In light of recent technological advancements which make my spiritual radar ping warning signs, do audiences really care if a human being made their art of choice or not, as long as they like it? To what extent is technology used in art, how is it used, and where is the line? I think all of these questions can be examined, if not answered, by examining a rather on-point example, that of Frank Zappa and his love affair with an early synthesizer called the Synclavier.
The Synclavier was an “early digital synthesizer, polyphonic digital sampling system” created by the New England Digital Corporation of Norwich, Vermont. Basically, you could input sheet music and it’d play it for you, using a variety of digital samples representing various instruments, or even samples and new sounds hitherto unknown to the music world. For someone like Zappa, a relentless seeker of new and interesting things to incorporate into his music, the Synclavier was like catnip.
He was also a misanthrope who had several bad experiences working with actual symphony orchestras when trying to play and record his ambitious symphonic work.
Especially union musicians. Unique among musicians, Zappa wasn’t, until maybe 1988, a purely ideological man of the left. He couldn’t stand unions and indeed wrote songs about this burning hatred of unions. Here’s one from 1983’s The Man from Utopia album called “Stick Together”:
“Yo Cats,” from 1985’s Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention is funnier on many levels because Zappa, a musician, took the energy to pen an ode to how much he hated musicians:
In his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa discusses this “human element” and narrowly comes down in favor of it. The interesting thing is that, despite his quest for “interesting sounds” and his preference for working alone, he still recognizes that an orchestra or band is superior.
Zappa’s Synclavier use came to the public’s attention with the release of 1986’s Grammy Award-winning album Jazz from Hell. Although the compositions are human-made, and the recordings interesting, they do sound soulless compared to his stuff as played by an actual symphony orchestra. At the time of Jazz from Hell’s release, critics reacted more to his methodology than to his compositions. However, the compositions themselves were good, and by the time of Civilization Phaze III (1994), the technology had gotten better, and Zappa’s compositions weren’t even intended for humans to be able to play them (some might say the same about the man’s increasingly complex rock compositions, but perhaps the musicians that pulled them off really weren’t human anyway).
The common theme is that, while Zappa might not have commissioned orchestras to play his works, he actually wrote the music programmed in to the Synclavier.
With regards to AI art and ChatGPT, and other new pieces of technology., I think Zappa’s example is instructive. He used technology as a tool to get his work that he created out there. He did not plug a bunch of prompts into the Synclavier, like “Write an atonal rondo in the style of Varese, but funnier” into a computer and then release what the machine produced. The Synclavier did not write the music itself. Man used machine to perform the music in lieu of an orchestra. I’m aware that the fear of the humble phonograph was that live music would become a thing of the past. I’m aware that this did not happen, and I’ll tell you why: human beings still had to write and perform the music pressed to vinyl. Even with the dawn of synthesizers, people still have to write the music. Now, the synthesizers can write their own stuff, thank you very much.
I get using AI in a similar fashion, using it as a tool to aid in the creative process or to eliminate barriers to getting an end product out there. David V. Stewart discusses using AI art for, say, backgrounds, or manipulating the images the AI produces. I’ve seen others discuss how ChatGPT and things of that nature can be used to help with the book editing process. In listening to people in my spheres talk about AI, I think this is how most use it.
However, I cannot shake the fear that it’ll slowly sacrifice human beings’ creative output on the altars of cost and convenience. I understand this is the way of the industrialized/post-industrialized world (whatever we’re in), but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
People are hard to work with. Artists are flaky. The so-called artistic temperament isn’t just an expression, it’s an actual thing. I know this for a fact. Remember, before I was a writer or even an attorney, I was a musician! Ever been in a band? Even in a trio or a quartet it can be excruciatingly difficult to get everyone on the same page.
But hard work and struggle can lead to great results. You don’t get that with machines.
There is also the fear that AIs are actually a host for malevolent spirits. This is something I cannot scientifically prove but I do feel in my bones. I have seen some of the images created by the various AIs, and there is a creepy, unsettling component to much of it, and I’m not just talking about its difficulty in creating human hands. Further, an artificial intelligence is still an intelligence, and while it’s true that computer programs are only as intelligent as the people programming them, garbage in, garbage out and all of that, and that the computers’ brilliance lay in being able to make millions of calculations instantly whereas a human could make the same connections but needs more time, there’s still an element of learning and thought that is deeply disturbing. When they say “The machines are getting smarter, just like people do!” it doesn’t exactly fill me with joy at the limitless bounds of human ingenuity for creating such a thing in the first place. I’ve read Frankenstein. I’ve seen Terminator.
I know I run the risk of being all conservative and standing against the new thing merely because it’s new. Anyone who has been reading for a while knows that I am skeptical about the idea that progress is a de facto good, and that newness in time automatically equals superior to that which came before. I’m also, as regular readers should know, against romanticizing the past as inherently superior to the now. One must always know what they are progressing towards, what they are changing, and what they are destroying. There may be instances where deviating from the so-called arc of history is progress, because you’re turning the car around before it flies off a cliff into the mouth of hell itself.
That’s where I think we are now. I am not confident that people will be able to control the usage of AI. Individuals will start calling themselves “artists” by tossing a bunch of stuff into a prompt and hawking the output as their own artistic work. Books and symphonies, pictures and maybe even movies, will be created by people custom-tailoring their experience to their own hyper-specific tastes, made just for them. Art will be reduced to just another commodity, but I also envision people starting to treat the AI programs as actual artists, giving them copyright protection and displaying their works in museums for all to see.
All the while, artists who are difficult to work with and can be loathsome people, will see their talents further devalued. Art, music, writing, and every other medium will further become less lucrative. At least people we don’t personally like are hurting, right? Artists are weird and obnoxious! Let’s put all of them out of business!
To utilize an aphorism coined by the man who is the focal point of this post, that is like curing dandruff by decapitation. Because what happens when the artists you do like can’t compete, or just think it’s not worth it anymore because all potential clients can just generate a passable simulacrum of art for fifty bucks? You know things aren’t going to stop at “It’s just a tool, bro.” One of modernity’s defining feature is the utter destruction of limits on anything. When we’re seriously debating that sexual attraction to children isn’t really a bad thing, what makes you think machines won’t replace artists the way they’ve replaced everything else?
I understand the utility of barriers to entry being lowered, but I’m also very retrograde in that I think art is sacred and unique to humans. While the AI art-producing machines are impressive in the sense that human beings created the AIs, their potential to take away one of the few things the industrial revolution hasn’t been able to wrest from flesh-and-blood people has always been a bulwark against the roboticization of mankind. God is the Creator, and we are given a tiny spark of his divine power in our ability to create two things: life and art. Sadly, the latter is on the chopping block and with the advent of artificial wombs, so is the former.
Art isn’t a welfare program for artists. This isn’t to say if you’re a writer you should be mandated to make a “donation” to a cover artist just out of the goodness of your heart. David Stewart makes the excellent point that it’s what’s in between the covers, whether they’re AI generated or manmade, that is the art of a writer. But what happens when that, too, is the result of key words inputted into a command prompt?
And what if audiences can’t tell the difference?
If this is the inevitable new world, I’ll gladly hop off.
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