The Back Road: Should we consider AI-generated images art?

The Back Road: Should we consider AI-generated images art?

Andrew Malekoff

“Should we consider AI-generated images art?” asks Adam Hencz in an article he penned for Artland Magazine.

Although not in direct response to Hencz’s query, writer and artist Molly Crabapple and Marisa Mazria Katz, executive director of the Center for Artistic Inquiry and Reporting, issued an open letter on May 2 calling on artists, publishers, journalists, editors, and journalism union leaders to take a pledge for human values against the use of generative-AI images to replace human-made art.

I reached out to Crabapple and Katz to learn more. They agree to allow me to incorporate portions of their open letter into this week’s column, which I have formatted retrospectively as a Q & A.

I cite their letter liberally, so as not to distort or contaminate the essence of their critical message and call to action. I also add some of my own thoughts on the matter.

What is missing with AI?

“Since the earliest days of print journalism, illustration has been used to elucidate and add perspective to stories. And even today, the illustrator’s art still speaks to something not just intimately connected to the news, but intrinsically human about the story itself. The unique interpretive and narrative confluence of art and text, of human writer and human illustrator” with the advent of AI technology, “is now at risk of extinction.”

What leads you to this conclusion?

AI technology can create highly polished replicas of what are generally hand-drawn illustrations. They can complete the work exponentially faster than the human hand can create it, “because no human illustrator can work quickly or cheaply enough to compete with these robot replacements.

If this technology is left unchecked, it will radically reshape the field of journalism.” Consequently, only a small number of elite of artists can stay in business, “their work selling as a kind of luxury status symbol.”

Why does this matter?

“AI purports to have the capability to create art, but it will never be able to do so satisfactorily because its algorithms can only create variations of art that already exists. It creates only ersatz versions of illustrations having no actual insight, wit, or originality.”

Does AI take the heart out of art?

I am reminded of the work of Devon Rodriguez. He is a twenty-something street artist from the South Bronx who has gained notoriety drawing portraits of subway riders and catching their reactions on film. You may have seen him on social media platforms such as TikTok or Instagram, where he has generated millions of followers.

Rodriguez films the process of his drawing portraits of strangers and then handing over the finished product to the unsuspecting subject, who is seated directly across from him on the subway. When he completes each portrait, he signs it, stands up, and reaches over to present the unexpected gift to his previously unaware “model.”

At first, many of the subjects are cautious, suspicious about why he is approaching them.

One individual noticed him glancing up at her while he was sketching. She later told him, “You were starting to creep me out.” When he attempts to hand over the portrait, some initially wave him off anticipating trouble. He draws people of all backgrounds, genders, religions, politics, ages, colors, shapes, and sizes.

When each piece is completed and he hands the portrait over, he says with a beaming smile, “Here, I drew you.”

When his subjects finally relent and tentatively take hold of the drawing, suspicion turns to widening smiles, sometimes accompanied by genuine surprise and tears of gratitude and joy. Most of the subway riders he draws cannot believe that a perfect stranger would create something so wonderful and present it to them out of the blue.

Rodriguez typically ends the encounter by saying, “You can keep it.” It brings a tear to my eye every time. He makes people’s day with his spontaneous gift of art. The transformation in their facial expressions in less than 10 seconds is something to behold. It is as real as real can be. There’s nothing artificial about it. A heartfelt connection is made. Viewers like me can feel the connection in our core, even from a distance.

In our deeply divided nation, Rodriguez offers a micro-lesson on how art can connect people, one by one, despite their differences.

It is possible that some may see Rodriguez’s subway art as gimmicky in contrast to a piece hanging in the Louvre or MoMA. For me, Rodriguez is a precious public example of how important the heart and sensitivity of the artist is in producing their work and getting out their message. Each artist does it in their own way. Banksy paints and runs. Rodriguez gets in your face.

In stark contrast, as the open letter states, “Generative AI art is vampirical, feasting on past generations of artwork even as it sucks the lifeblood from living artists. Over time, this will impoverish our visual culture. Consumers will be trained to accept this art-looking art, but the ingenuity, the personal vision, the individual sensibility, the humanity will be missing.”

Can machines can create aesthetics that are considered novel and original?

“As the debate around AI art continues,” Hencz ponders, “the ultimate decision on whether machines can create aesthetics that are considered novel and original seems to still rest within the hands of us humans.”

Hear, hear!

To see the open letter in its entirety:

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