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  • Writer's pictureChris Beatrice

On the Subject of Tools

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

I keep hearing from the AI community (and some others) that an AI image generator is “just a tool.” To me this characterization is the result of backward thinking with a healthy dose of denial.

I've painted hundreds of pictures for clients who I typically never meet in person, and only communicate with via text. They give instructions, I present options, they provide a little more direction, then I give them the finished art. Sound familiar? I’ve also done this from the other side of the table, as the client. In neither case would I characterize the artist as a “tool.”

A pilot does not even refer to their plane as a “tool” (except perhaps figuratively) because at a certain point there is so much advanced functionality in that thing that doing so would trivialize it and exaggerate the role of the operator. Now take that machine and add intelligence to it. Still want to call it a “tool?” I know some of you do.

Because attempting to relegate intelligence-based technology to mere tool status is a convenient fiction for those who must believe that the inadequacy of available tools has been their only problem all along. To maintain this delusion they must also believe that they themselves are the most important component in their AI-driven creations. It’s not the tens of billions of hours of work artists and photographers have put into the images in the database, and it’s not the engineers behind the AI learning systems. No, it’s the promptsmith and their keyboard. Just them using the latest tool.

So far I’ve seen the AI art community express nothing but resentment toward the lucky few who seem by magic to be able to make beautiful art using actual tools, including tools that are the most basic technology, having remained unchanged for centuries. Even the most hardcore digital art maker, (me) can still make art with nothing more than a pencil, or anything that makes a mark.

Not so for most of you in the AI art community. For you are of a higher order. You are not stuck in antiquated notions of what artmaking is. And your vision demands a much more sophisticated “tool.” Now, finally, you have it. At last you are allowed to express the creativity that was always locked inside you. And with this you are no longer unfairly excluded from the wonderful world of making art.

Only one thing…

You’re not making YOUR art—you’re making MY art. Or at best you are making THE AI’s ART.

That little fact is great for the marketplace. Because what the marketplace wants is MY ART, and the art of my peers. And if they can get our art for free, all the better. In fact you, too, only want OUR art—because you don’t appear able to produce much of anything without it.

And the reason you don’t realize you’re not making your own art is due to a little thing called the Dunning-Kruger effect. See, I am fluent at art making. It doesn’t mean I make great art, it just means pictures come out of me without my having to think about it, because I've done it a lot. Just like spoken language comes out of everyone without their having to think about it. Doesn’t make everyone Shakespeare, doesn’t make me DaVinci. I’m just fluent, so in DK terms, I’m an expert.

As an expert, I am keenly aware of the ton of stuff I do not know about making art. You, however, generally have no idea how any of this works, and do not know that you have no idea how any of this works.

So if what comes out of an AI system is a powerful picture, that’s because the AI, not you, has learned (or at least learned to mimic) the abstract principles of artmaking, from me and other artists. The powerful image is speaking in a language that sounds nice to you, but which you can’t speak, because you never bothered to learn how. You still don’t even get that it IS a language. Put simply: AI knows how to make pictures and you still don’t. So who or what is the “tool?”

The AI system is an intelligence that is LITERALLY USING YOU, and it only needs you for a little while longer.

You know that thing about how an advanced alien species would see humankind the way we see ants? Well, brace yourself: you’re the ant. And that “Oh, shit” moment when you see that is not going to be fun.

You could instead have discovered your own art, and found that there was plenty of room in the world for it. You have access to an unprecedented array of actual creative tools and teaching, largely for free. No excuse whatsoever for not making your own art. But that wasn’t enough for you. You had to gobble up all the art in the world and claim it as your birthright. Well, it’s not going to work. AI may destroy a lot of things, but it won’t give you the experience of artmaking. That’s something you need to learn to do yourself.

So, my peers and I, we are under no delusion about how the art marketplace may be affected by the continued advances of AI. But we will keep making OUR art using OUR OWN intelligence (and actual tools).

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