Being an artist—Now and Forever
Updated: Apr 13
To my art guys, gals and non-binary pals: I’ve done a few essays addressed to the A.I. art community. Now I thought I’d say some things to my fellow artists. We may be in the midst of an apocalyptic event. I think we should talk about that.
I’ve never preached the value of struggle in itself with respect to the artistic journey. Talking about the importance of struggle can sound like a puritanical pain / reward scheme. You are not worthy unless you've suffered. That’s not quite how I see it. If someone can find their art in a relatively painless way, I say go for it. If laziness works, great! But there are certain corners that cannot be cut.
The misinterpretation of “they need to suffer like us” is that we artists must simply resent someone freely acquiring what we have had to work so hard for (of course, they don’t know how hard we have worked, but that is another matter). What they don’t understand is that A.I. is not giving them what we have. The struggle is a component of the journey, and the journey is what we have that they don’t. They are explicitly not interested in the journey.
I have certainly struggled in my voyage of artistic discovery, in every possible (i.e. all the usual) ways: disappointment with my work, catastrophic self-doubt and defeatism, misguided notions of what doing my own work even is, trying to be other artists, trying to be all artists, the slog of learning the craft, the delay of worrying more about craft than about saying something, time wasted pursuing erroneous dogma, long periods of not making art, and so on. Struggle and suffering have been the side effects of what to me are the critical components of the journey: exploration, risk taking, and failure.
So it’s no wonder many people give up. This is why I mostly stress the importance of simply not doing that. JUST KEEP GOING. I think that is still the most important thing to keep in mind, wherever you are on the path.
Step two is try to focus on practicing just what you need to in order to do your art, or even to get the specific job you want (though these things may change as you go). Most artists can’t afford to spend time padding out their tool kit with lots of things they would like to be able to do, skills they believe would make them feel less insecure. There isn’t enough time, and finding your art, achieving fluency, requires diligence and focus. There is a double danger in the ostensibly secure approach: you end up less happy, not particularly good at anything, and with no unique voice, and more insecure because you’ve just shown yourself how much stuff there is that you’re not particularly good at (ok, that’s quadruple).
Because finding your art is, weirdly, a process of elimination in many ways. It’s a process of clarifying what of the things you see out there have a role in your art, vs. satisfaction as a viewer. It’s about working through then abandoning your influences, using them like a ferry to reach your own inner artistic voice. There is a fundamental misconception on the part of A.I. users about how this works.
We love and appreciate our peers and predecessors, and the last thing we would want to do is steal their work and put them out of business, for starters. But we further readily and humbly cede credit for our achievements to the host of masters that have taught and inspired us. I do not see even a whisper of this sentiment coming from the A.I. art community. They simply cannot bear to see how limited their own role is in all this, how superfluous they are. We, on the other hand, see ourselves as part of a continuum of creativity stretching back centuries, transcending boundaries of country, gender, sexuality, language, age.
Because this life we pursue, where in order to achieve any fluency at all we must devote most of our time across years to an endeavor for which we are grossly underpaid, often the subject of ridicule and various, shall we say, humbling experiences, engenders a very particular kind of camaraderie. We’ve discovered recently, to my sadness, that there are many artists or potential artists out there who misconstrue this loose band of mostly middle and lower class individuals as an exclusive club of elites. Then they are quick to claim they don’t want to be part of it anyway, which brings to mind a certain fable concerning a fox and some grapes.
Well, I’ve said before: it’s not an elite society, it’s a lunatic asylum (in my case, literally). They’re damn right they don’t want to be a part of it! Because the requirement for membership is this: we can’t stop ourselves from doing it. We can't help ourselves. We have to make art no matter what, and that’s what they really envy.
When I walk through the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston I feel a direct and visceral connection to the long line of artists that came before me, whether European painters, African mask-makers, Native American potters, Japanese swordsmiths, Chinese sculptors. Unless you have faced the colossal chasm between what you think you can create and what you can actually create, then forged ahead, driven to make your art, hitting unbearable frustrating, wanting to give up, actually giving up, discovering that you can’t give up, never being satisfied, wondering what the point of it all is, questioning why any sane person would want to do this, then you won’t see the same things I see, and that I know many of you see in the art museum. I see artists who loved their work, artists who hated their work; I see insecurity, boldness, mimicry, adherence to popular style or subject matter, all of it. All of it which many of us have touched upon at various times in our journey. It’s natural to want to avoid all that difficulty and jump right to the end—but there really is no end. And there isn’t even a direction, without a journey. And the journey is difficult, but it is the only way to find your art.
I started my "commercial art" training 45 years ago at the age of 13, when our tools were things most young artists would not recognize now: the ruling pen, the balopticon, the occasional polaroid camera shot if I could afford the film. This is not to claiming that things were more difficult back then—not at all—but to demonstrate how open and eager I have always been to adopt new artmaking tech as it has come along. I’ve been doing this since before there was art tech, and now I use the very latest. I routinely experiment with new tools, adopting what works for me and rejecting what doesn't.
I have ridden the wave of every new artmaking technology from pixel art to digital painting/ sculpting and CGI, in both games and in publishing. Digital tools have allowed me to do things faster than I was doing them with traditional media, but my work is still the same work. That’s what artmaking tools do for artists. A.I. technology, however, is not an artist tool, it's an artist alternative, a replacement for artists.
The power of A.I. may take some things from us, for example: jobs. But our art cannot be transplanted to another person via A..I in any real sense. So we’re not going to lose our art, and they’re not going to get it, no matter how it looks to simplistic eyes blinded by the promise of money and followers. The promptsmiths may feel like they’re driving the car, but the engine is still us. In fact the whole car is us. It works the way we made it work. We and countless artists before us designed that thing. Anything it can do is only a reflection of what we have already done. Yet it still knows more than most of its users, and from what I’ve seen so far it has more to say than they do as well.
Still some of us may have to face hard questions about what our art ultimately means to us. Is it a career? Just a job? A way to earn money that’s less unfun than other jobs? Or would it be better if it were not a job at all? Maybe your style will change when you realize A.I. can do what you’ve been trying to do, but faster, and, come to think of it, you didn’t like doing that kind of work anyway. You just thought you had to.
When CGI and stock photography became ubiquitous, I veered off the path of working realistically from photo reference, because I saw the decreasing need for that in the marketplace. And then I realized, I didn’t really like working like that! I hated that process! So I started focusing on drawing from imagination, and gesture, and I drifted toward children’s stuff, because that’s apparently where my art soul lives.
So, in all honesty, I don’t know how any of this is going to turn out, overall, for me, for each of you. I do believe this current crop of A.I. image making systems is built on unethical and probably illegal foundations. Will that matter? I don’t know. What I do know, and I’m completely sincere about, is I am proud to be on the just and righteous team with you all. I use such language partially tongue in cheek, but, honestly, I see A.I. in the creative arts as mostly a destructive force. But it’s not going to destroy what matters, and it’s not going to destroy us.
To the hordes of young artists out there wondering what to do I say this: follow your heart (or your gut, or your bliss). Please don't adopt A.I. artmaking technology simply because you think you need to in order to keep up. If you find joy from making your own marks, from coaxing images out of your own subconscious, that is REAL. That is as real as it gets. Don't let fear take that away from you. We have no idea how any of this is going to turn out, and the worst thing is to give up something you love out of panic, only to find out you didn't have to.
A commenter recently said that Hayao Miyazaki would be irrelevant in five years. My response: he will never be irrelevant because he taught the A.I. you are for some reason boasting about and taking credit for. It’s you who will be irrelevant, and in fact already are. But to my fellow artists I say, in creating your own art you will never be irrelevant. You have contributed to the art and insights of the infinite universe, and that can never be taken away or diminished.