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  • Writer's pictureChris Beatrice

A Lesson From Photography

A friend commented despairingly that she can’t always tell the difference between an A.I.-generated image and a piece of human art. I think there’s a lesson there, but it’s not what A.I. users think. It's not that A.I.-made images are as meaningful as human creations. For all their claims of being more in the know, it is that interpretation that is backwards, limited, and outdated, based on a desperate selective blindness resulting from a limited understanding of both history and creativity.

We tend to assume, we want to believe, that art should speak for itself—but that's never really been true. It matters where a picture comes from. Before the days of photography and A.I. this wasn't as much of an issue, but it was an issue. A 19th century European painting featuring Japanese motifs has to be understood differently from a Japanese painting with the same motifs. They each tell different stories. They each mean different things.

Similarly, a photograph of a real family experiencing struggle and hardship moves us in a different way than an illustration of the same subject can, though we value both types of pictures for different reasons.

And here we discover the real insight provided by the example of photography with respect to A.I. image generators. The power of photography as a form of art, self-expression and communication actually undermines the argument that A.I. images should be put on the same level as human creations. Photography has given us another way to connect with the world, people, our shared reality called LIFE. Because LIFE is what’s on both sides of the lens. A.I. “art” has given us nothing remotely on that level.

A.I. image generation is new so most of us are not sensitive to the need to know where a picture came from, what produced it. Many people are bedazzled by the unusual (especially if it looks realistic), which A.I. delivers fairly easily, thanks to a massive training bank of images misappropriated from me and countless other artists. A.I. images will almost certainly be of enormous impact in the commercial, capitalist world, but that is by jettisoning the highest aspirations of art, creativity, and self-expression.

The A.I.-dependent MUST believe that what they’re doing is not only making art, but is a superior form of 21st century creativity that the slow-witted can’t grasp, and are therefore afraid of. This shouldn’t be surprising, because what psyche would not prefer the mantle of creative genius vs. mere onlooker?

When I look at the work of an artist, whether seasoned expert or naive beginner, I see a human's life, their particular magic, even though I may know nothing about the person other than their art. I see a living creature facing life the same as me, my dog, my pet mouse. I see an artistic journey in the stream of evolving images. I SEE A PERSON THROUGH THEIR ART. I see a person not always in control of what is coming out. THAT IS THE WHOLE POINT OF ART.

In this social media landscape we've come to think the point of art is to get attention and followers; in the capitalist culture we think it's to make money. A.I. is going to help some people (but mostly companies) get those things. But those achievements are hollow and meaningless relative to the contribution of artists to civilization.

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