About four years ago I was part of a pioneering group that typed text to create pictures using a catalog of images and textures. It was a clumsy and tedious process that produced strikingly similar work and ultimately held my interest for only a short time. But technology moves fast. The past year has seen a proliferation of sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) text-to-image programs that will blow your mind and make you worry about the future of artists. Illustrators and graphic artists may as well surrender their aspirations or learn to code. Online programs such as Stable Diffusion, Dall-e 2, Wombo, Pixray, Canva, Starryai and others create art out of words better than any stable of Chinese slave artists I have ever tried to liberate. Any style, any topic – the variety and sophistication of the art is incredible. These are no longer just simple art filters (Texture, ‘Watercolor’, Pixelate etc.) included in popular graphics programs like Adobe Photoshop or Corel Draw and ‘mapped’ over personal images or photographs… these are full art styles applied to an image derived solely from a written description. Nor are they popular app filters like Pixma, Toonme, or Deep Art Effects, that need you to provide a base photograph or image to apply their styles – just words will do. Much has been made of a prize won by an AI-generated ‘photograph’ this past August in Texas but the distinction between human and computer creativity has never been thinner, and more examples are bound to arise – that is if they are revealed, because there is little to distinguish one from the other. Of course these text-to-image programs rely (like my prior experience) on a database of visual images created in the past by human artists – but the variety derived from this trove is unique to the text proposed and the genesis of the image is generally hidden from the author. Technology has their bots recycling old art but seems incapable of creating new movements or aesthetics like groups of artists have in the past. Of course nowadays many artists cycle between past styles and ‘appropriate’ images from other artists with impunity – and in doing so erase acceptance of the same from artificial intelligence. It seems contemporary art is presently stuck in a vicious circle of refinement and regurgitation. Meanwhile, the bots match our most famous examples in the visual arts… and from the fringes wear down and corrupt the inspiration of emerging artists and any originality they can dream of inventing.
Checking through Artnet news recently I found an article titled ‘When is artist-on-artist theft okay?’. This is how bad it has gotten when contemporary critics even have to ask these questions – and most declare such crimes legit! For the record… NEVER should it be OK to steal images from a living artist and copying from dead artists is forgery – or inspiration, depending on the provenance LOL – check out www.nobilified.com for crass commercialism of old masters by exploited painters, most likely cheap Chinese labor. “Welcoming the masses to the 1%” indeed! I think it’s clear that theft is morally bankrupt and image appropriation is creative bankruptcy (or modern art capitalism depending on whether you collect the genre or been ‘nobilified’ haha). Why can’t contemporary artists create their own images and when did it become so acceptable to appropriate? Has visual plagiarism been encouraged by the web and easy, immediate access to images? I think it was Dada or Pop when the practice of appropriation first became acceptable as art, since it’s clear Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism didn’t need other images for affirmation or subject matter. Old masters interpreted life and nature and even Hieronymus Bosch images were based on a ‘personal view of reality’ – this standard formed the basis of western art for centuries. Are global visual arts stuck in a feedback loop like an M.C. Escher drawing? Maybe GIF animations are the future of art after all! Everything in the art world seems derivative today and it can only get worse if artists keep regurgitating other images instead of attempting to develop their own. No, theft is never morally acceptable, except perhaps when you are destitute and starving. It seems that even with its gluttony of contemporary sales, that’s the appropriate analogy for the art world today.
Judging from the artists that accomplish success in our time, making Art in the 21st century can seem like a struggle to reach stardom and the status of the rich and famous. But what about the 99%, the salt of the earth, the struggling masses? There are so many wonders in the common and everyday to inspire us as artists it’s not surprising Pop is pacing the contemporary Art scene with its exultation of shared subject matter – even as the movement can be condemned for appropriating most of their imagery. But why celebrate sharing the extraordinary nature of a Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse, or Michael Jackson when you can immortalize the potato, the suburban lawn, the monotony of shaving? This post is an ode to those ordinary images we share extending back through time… the things we eat, the routines we follow, the people we know, the places and panoramas of nature – that unite us to artists in the past and present. Seeing the sacred in the commonplace and giving it a place of honor by making it Art is true inspiration and the challenge that faces those of us who long to glorify the mundane. It is also the test for those that want to create Art with a camera where most of the artistic process is accomplished by interpreting reality through the lens of a machine. This is why I paint fruit in a bowl or rows of trees on a hill. What better way to liberate Art and pay homage to the joy of living than through searching for the essence of the commonplace? Color and form is in everything we see. Viva the ordinary!
Why does it seem like every artist is vain and engrossed in a selfish search for meaning exclusively in their own work and on their own terms? Surely there is a need for self esteem and self confidence for the production of Art that goes beyond vanity but many artists arrogantly believe in the supremacy of their own imagery even under the harshest and most cohesive criticism. Is this some kind of artistic self preservation mechanism that kicks in so one does not get easily discouraged? Or is it an aversion toward the casting of any negative influence on your personal creations and dedication? Art is generally created in solitude but shared in public. In my experience even when looking at artwork of the most incredible talent in museums I am not so much awed as absorbing lessons from the masters – still believing my own personal search for imagery to be more significant in the present. It is as if I delude myself into thinking I could make any art in that particular style and technique to arrive at the same imagery if only I lived in that period or cared to dedicate the time and effort to the task. Do all artists need to feel this narcissistic impulse to validate their work? The process of absorbing historical imagery is the mirror of Art that most artists pass through in their visual development followed by being able to look at your own work and intuit the progression in your own personal experience. Artists are so immersed in their own pursuit of image and meaning that all other art becomes a kind of mirage, a distraction from their goal instead of a shared process or aesthetic. This seems to exclude us from really understanding other concepts in art except as a foil to our own goals while dismissing many images as inherently alien, banal or inferior in purpose. Artists need to learn to look through the surface illusion of their own reflections to the deeper significance that exists in creating Art. Every artist needs to examine the humanity and struggle of another artist’s pursuit of Art or suffer the consequences of getting absorbed in their own superficiality.
Originality validates making art because it confirms your creative efforts as an individual, but what about art ‘factories’ that are fashionable in the art world? Is art produced without personal physical effort really art or is it a manufactured object, a decorative commodity, a privilege of spoiled and lazy artisans? Is art produced in series by an artist without growing or learning from the creative process worth the label? Look on ebay and you will find ‘artists’ who produce ‘original’ art that is only unique in that each piece is created separately based on an existing ‘original’ image. The artist becomes a ‘copy factory’ whose process lacks originality – a human multiple-mono-printing-press. But let’s expand the discussion to include successful artists like Andy Warhol who copied existing ‘art’ faithfully (commercial labels like the Campbell’s soup cans or Tide boxes that were sadly misjudged as art when exhibited), and later established art ‘factories’ to reproduce original pieces to the point where provenance can be questioned by experts just decades after his death. But! you may argue… artists like Titian and Rubens had ‘schools’ that cranked out artwork largely executed by disciples but attributed to the masters! True, but there are clear distinctions and it is undeniable that the concept of ‘art factory’ is relatively new. There is no teaching of the creative process in contemporary art factories nor do such factories entail the learning of craft as those former ‘schools’ did. Art factories perform simple execution, a commercial transaction, delivery of a manufactured product or copy that may be designated as art by the client or some other self-serving art authority. Today, for a price, you can take a visual or simply a concept to an executive and have his art ‘factory’ produce artwork entirely for you – in the process you may become celebrated like Jeff Koons. Why bother with the tedious labor of personally manifesting your art when you can pay someone else to do it for you? In this way talent is reduced to being a good manager and salesperson – perfect fit for today’s capital markets. Yet even Marcel Duchamp maintained the integrity of ‘real life’ objects by appropriating them as found, not copying them (e.g. the R.Mutt urinal). Today’s ‘art factories’ are destroying originality by facilitating and applying a capitalistic attitude to the creative process and pushing the making of art further into the domain of the elite. After all, if you can afford it, why not have someone else deal with all the angst of producing the work? This is what the western aesthetic has evolved into – an extension of Corporate America ruled only by how little personal involvement by the artist the market will tolerate. Certainly the distinction between potentially mass produced objects and what has traditionally been considered unique art is being blurred. I would like to see the art world abolish the ambiguity of the ‘art factory’ and only support unique work produced directly by the artists who create them.