Since my teens, I have wanted to create these portraits, showing the sacred in everyone and all life. I initially thought it would be in oil, but life took a different direction and now they are digital instead.
A modern art exhibit envisioned by me and Midjourney, as a (kind of) homage to Yayoi Kusama.
I keep noticing a few things about AI-generated images.
THE COOL THINGS EXISTENCE CAN DO
For me, AI-generated images are not so much about me, and much more about humanity as a whole. It’s very clear that these images are based on the collective artistic production of humanity. And that’s a reminder that all art is that way, even if it’s expressed through a local and temporary individual.
When I show the AI images I create with Midjourney, it’s not so much “see the cool things I can do” but “see the cool things we can do”. It’s about the cool things we as a society, humanity, and existence as a whole can do.
Really, it’s about the cool things existence can do through and as its local and temporary expressions we call humanity, culture, society, individuals, and technology.
BLURRED BORDERS BETWEEN AI AND HUMANS
Some assume there is a clear boundary between AI-generated images and human-created images.
Yes, it’s good to make that distinction.
And no, the boundary is not as strong as some like to present it. The AI is created, designed, trained, and modified by humans. It’s also trained on a specific set of human-created images and is dependent on new human-created art to continue to evolve and get new impulses. A human needs to envision the image, design and refine the prompt (which requires some skill and knowledge of visual arts), and select and edit the image. And many use AI images to inspire hand-made images and art.
The AI is created, trained, and modified by humans. It depends on human art to get trained and find metaphorical inspiration. It influences human-created art. The distinction is not as clear as it may first appear, and there is certainly no fixed or strong boundary anywhere between AI-generated images and hand-made images and art.
THE LIMITATIONS OF AI
Any AI that generates images – and other things – will obviously have limitations.
Midjourney (MJ4) can do some things very well, and other things not so much. It is good with faces but has trouble with hands and the number of fingers. It knows some styles very well and is less familiar with other styles. (This goes for both general styles and the style of specific artists.) It’s familiar with some geographical locations and less familiar with others. It is good with individual objects and has trouble producing images with several unique objects with specified relationships. And so on.
These start-up problems will be fixed, but any AI will always have limitations.
There are several misconceptions about AI image generation as it looks to me right now. And that may and will likely change, and what I write obviously reflects my own biases.
One of my biases is that I currently love AI-generated images. I have a decades-long background in both art and programming, and I love anything to do with the future, so I naturally love AI-generated images.
AI IMAGE GENERATION FUN
Some judge it as they would fine art. For me, it’s different.
I don’t see or present it as fine art. I see it more as fun, with a few specific applications.
Personally, I am exploring it because I am drawn to it. It’s fun. It helps me get in touch with different sides of myself and I explore my AI-generated images as I would a dream. (The image above is an example – it’s a water person, someone completely at home in the water which for me mirrors a wish in me to be more at home with my emotions which are watery like an ocean.)
Exploring it also helps me get in touch with my fire and passion, and image creation which I haven’t done much of for several years. It helps me get back into it again.
THE APPLICATIONS OF AI-GENERATED IMAGES
As far as I can tell, AI-generated images have a few specific applications, and I am sure this will become more clear over time and we’ll probably discover applications most of us – including me – are not yet aware of.
What are these applications?
An obvious one is illustrations, especially for blogs and smaller organizations and businesses. Many wouldn’t hire an illustrator for hand-made illustrations since it’s too expensive and not worth it for what it’s for. But we may use AI-generated images instead of public-domain images or nothing at all.
Many use AI-generated images for inspiration and ideas for illustrations, graphic design, and even handmade art. It can give us different ideas and angles than we would come up with on our own. It can expand our horizons.
And, as I wrote in another article, AI-generated images can be a blessing for people with disabilities. Many of us don’t have the energy or possibility to engage in handmade art to any real extent, so this is a good way to spark our interest in or passion for image creation. It’s far more easy to create AI images than spend hours and hours and days and weeks and months on handmade art. It’s far better than nothing, which is often the alternative. (For me, because of the limitations of my disability, the two realistic options are AI art versus nothing, and I make several of the images while horizontal.)
NOT AS GOOD AS WE HOPE, NOT AS BAD AS WE FEAR
Most things turn out not being as good as we (or some of us) hope, and not as bad as we (or some of us) fear. I suspect AI-generated images are like that too.
When photography came on the scene, some feared it would be the end of fine art. After all, why would anyone be interested in a portrait or landscape painting if we could just do a photograph? In reality, the existence of photography sparked an artistic revolution. Artists were free to move in a more abstract direction and it led to the modern art we have seen from impressionism to today.
I suspect something similar may happen through the existence of AI-generated images. At the very least, it will co-exist and inspire handmade art. And it will likely lead to a revolution few if any of us can envision right now.
PROTECTIVE ABOUT PROMPTS
Some folks into AI image generation seem protective about their prompts. One guy wanted to copyright his prompts (!) and I see folks in social media groups for AI images say “don’t even think about asking for prompts, nobody will tell you”.
First, it’s not entirely true that people won’t share them. Many seem more than happy to share their prompts, me included.
Second, the individual element in AI-generated images plays a relatively small role. Yes, I come up with prompts and often spend some time refining them to get an interesting result. But I often get my prompt ideas from others or the general culture and what I know about art history (which happens to be quite a bit since I studied it for years). And the AI that generates the image draws metaphorical inspiration from millions of images created by millions of people from many cultures and times. The AI reflects image creation from the whole of human culture.
Our individual role in AI image creation is quite limited and minuscule compared with the role of human culture as a whole. And for me, that’s one of the beautiful things about AI-generated images. It’s a reminder that culture is collective. What individuals create, whether through handmade art or AI images, reflects our culture as a whole and is colored by our (small) individual contributions.
One thing I love about Midjourney is that we can see the prompts others use. It’s a way for all of us to learn from each other and collectively learn and progress.
This is not exactly a misconception about AI art, just an oddity I find interesting. And I feel the prompt protectivity is a bit misguided for the reasons mentions above.
ONLY AVERAGE DRUMMERS ARE ANGRY AT DRUM MACHINES
In summary, I feel there are several misconceptions about AI-generated images in our culture.
The presence of AI-generated images likely won’t be as bad as some fear, nor as good as others hope.
It will take its place along with handmade art, photography, and other forms of digital image generation.
I see it more as illustrations than fine art, and that’s not at all a problem.
For myself, I use it to explore my inner life and images and I often explore them as I would a dream. I imagine many others do the same whether they are consciously aware of it or not.
AI-generated images are a blessing for many of us with disabilities. It allows us to give form to our imagination in ways we otherwise wouldn’t be able to. (And that goes for many without a disability too.)
And, to end, a quote from a social media group for AI-generated images: Only average drummers are angry at drum machines.
Good artists are not threatened by AI image generation since they can do things far beyond what an AI can do and there will always be a demand for their work.
A collection of water people, an undersea dream by me and Midjourney.
What would this represent in a dream? Being completely at home in the watery world of the emotions?
I love to explore AI images as I would a dream. The AI and I dream up images together, and they resonate with something in me. I can explore them as I would a dream. In this case, these water people seem to evoke a wish in me to be completely at home in the watery world of the emotions. How would it be to be as comfortable with my emotions as these people are in the water?
Why am I fascinated by AI art? Isn’t it artificial? Cold? Impersonal? Doesn’t it steal from artists? Make artists superfluous?
I have some general answers and a few more personal ones.
The general answer is that it has come to stay, and there are many ways to use it that make sense.
For instance, many use it to inspire and get ideas for hand-made art and design.
People who normally wouldn’t hire human artists use it to spiff up advertisements, websites, and more.
Many like to explore it just for fun, just like it’s fun to explore a lot of different things in our culture. (And it’s more engaging and involving than some other common activities, including passively watching movies or series.)
And there is no reason to assume it will replace old-fashioned design and art. The two will likely co-exist, just like photography and hand-made art co-exists. I also suspect that the existence of AI art may make human-made art more prestigious and sought after.
For me, it’s also fun. I find myself fascinated by it. Even if very few see what comes out of it, the process of exploring different styles and scenes is inherently rewarding to me, at least for now. It sparks my imagination.
There are also some other reasons I am fascinated by it.
It ties in with my background in programming (I started programming in the early ’80s and have worked with it in periods since). It ties in with my art background. (I did art full-time in my late teens and early twenties, and was a student of Odd Nerdrum.) It ties in with my formal and informal studies of European and international art history. It ties in with my architecture training and occasional work with graphic design. And it ties in with my fascination for the future, including technology and AI.
AI AND DISABILITY
More to the point, it ties in with my disability. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME), and that makes it difficult for me to engage in traditional forms of art like drawing and painting. It takes time and energy to engage in it to the point where it’s meaningful for me and I get results I enjoy. And my life is full enough so there are few resources left over for painting and drawing. It has fallen by the wayside, to my regret.
With AI-generated images, I get to explore and bring to life images similar to what I likely would have explored if I had continued with more conventional forms of art, and I also get to be surprised and explore things far outside of my what I imagined I would do by hand. It’s fun. It’s fascinating. And it doesn’t take that much time or energy to do it. Similar to photography, the results come quickly.
And similar to photography, the results are not quite as personal or human or full of character as we find in hand-made art. That’s OK. It’s much better than nothing.
I assume I am not the only one. I assume many people with different forms of disability have found making AI images fun and rewarding. It opens up possibilities for us that we otherwise may not have since our disability makes traditional art more difficult to engage in.
I haven’t seen any mainstream articles on AI art including the perspective of the disabled. And I understand why: disabled people make up a minority and often don’t have the resources or platform to have their voice heard. Still, when the public discourse on AI art leaves out the perspective of the disabled, it is one of many examples of how disabled people are ignored by the mainstream.
The pandemic shifted many things to benefit people with disabilities: Many office jobs were now done from a home office. Many doctor appointments were done online. A lot of events were streamed. Classes and workshops were taught online.
All of these are things disabled people have requested for a long time.
I have personally asked for it more than once, and the answer in each case was: No, it’s not possible. (In each case, there was no curiosity about the situation, no further discussion about it, no acknowledgment that it would make it easier for me and for others with a disability, and a dismissal of the suggestion.)
When the pandemic impacted healthy people and society as a whole, then it was suddenly possible. It wasn’t just possible, it happened quickly. Funny how that works.
This is an example of ableism. If something is requested mainly by disabled people, it’s ignored or not possible. And when it’s of interest to healthy people, it’s suddenly relevant and possible.
The mainstream discussion on AI-generated images is another example of how the perspective of disabled people is left out.
Of course, the mainstream tends to focus on the mainstream, and most people don’t have disabilities. But many do, and it’s important to acknowledge the situation for those with disabilities.
I have explored AI art for about ten days, mainly using Midjourney. (AI art is, in short, software that creates images from text based on having analyzed perhaps millions of images.)
I am not all that familiar with the discussion around this, although I have picked up a few things here and there.
Here are some additional thoughts from my side.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
There is obviously a discussion about intellectual property related to AI-generated images.
Personally, and so far, I am just exploring it for fun and I share a few images on social media. It’s perhaps a bit similar to creating collages using other people’s works, which is what people did before AI art.
If someone makes AI art in the style of a specific artist and sells it for money, that’s more questionable.
But what if the style is a more generic one or one that cannot be pinned on any one particular artist? Is that too a problem? Some will say yes since the AI is trained on the art of many artists who unwillingly contribute to the AI result.
It also seems clear that to many, AI art is an exciting new frontier. It brings professional-grade image-making within reach to more people. And AI art may inspire human artists, just like human art informs AI art. It’s likely not possible to put the genie back into the bottle, and would we want to if we could?
For me, what it comes down to is: (a) It’s good to have these conversations. (b) This is a kind of wild west where the law has not yet caught up with the technology.
AI art is informed by images in our western and global culture, and obviously reflects biases from the material it’s trained on.
For instance… Jesus and his human parents are depicted as white Europeans, not Middle Eastern. A secretary is assumed to be female. Unless something else is specified, people come out young, white, fit, and beautiful according to western conventional standards. The default man comes out very muscular. And so on.
Some are concerned that this will reinforce existing stereotypes, and that will probably happen in some cases.
The upside is that the inherent – and quite obvious – AI bias leads to conversations among people and in the public. It makes more people more aware of these biases – the standards, norms, and expectations – in our culture.
When I was little, I loved stories about the exotic – other parts of the world, other people and cultures than my own, other landscapes than I was familiar with, science fiction, and so on.
I wonder if this is a natural fascination. We may be drawn to what we don’t know, partly because it helped our ancestors be familiar with more of the world and this aided their survival. The unfamiliar and exotic are also good projection objects, which tend to create fascination.
When I make AI art, I often find I follow my childhood draw to the exotic and unknown: Shamans, different ethnicities, fairy tales and mythology, UFOs, and so on.
Is this problematic? If we exoticize certain ethnic groups and people and think that’s how they are, then yes, to some extent. It’s out of alignment with reality and whether we idolize or vilify, it does these groups and people a disservice.
Is it inherently problematic? Perhaps not always, at least not in the sense that it harms certain groups.
For instance, I have a series of images of neo-druid shamans in the future and make sure to include a wide range of ethnicities and ages. This is a form of exoticism, and I aim at making the exoticism universal and include all types of people.
I have wanted to explore AI image generation for a while and finally got around to it tonight in front of the fireplace and with the neighboring café playing live jazz.
Here is one of my first experiments with Midjourney. A neo-shaman in Tokyo in the rain with dramatic backlighting. I love that he or she is covered in plants and flowers.
I have seen some discussions about AI-generated images.
CONCERNS ABOUT NEW TECHNOLOGY
Will it replace human artists? Will it make it possible for people to make their own illustrations instead of commissioning photographers and artists? Will it ruin creativity?
Yes, some of that will probably happen.
And it’s also important the remember that these are the type of concerns that predictably come up when new technology comes onto the scene. And each time, the new technology finds its place among everything that has existed before and continues to exist.
When photography came, people said it was the end of painting. What happened was that it caused painting to change. Much of it became more free, imaginative, and abstract, and photography and painting not only co-exist but inspire each other. When CGI became viable, people said it would replace practical effects and even actors. In reality, CGI co-exists with practical effects, and it has even led to new types of jobs for actors in the form of motion capture.
I assume something similar will happen now. Some will use AI for illustrations. Some will continue to hire artists and photographers. AI art will inspire human-created art. Human-created art will continue to inform AI art.
It’s not either-or, it’s both-and. And it may well be that the interplay between AI and human visuals will create a kind of artistic and creative mini-revolution.
It’s also very likely that human-created art will be valued even more. AI art will make it more prestigious.
CULTURE MEANS LEARNING FROM OTHERS
Some say that AI steals people’s work to create new work and make money on it.
I understand that argument and concern.
And I also know that that’s culture. That’s what people have done from the beginning. We learn and take good ideas from each other and do something different with it. That’s how we have a culture in the first place.
The AI is just a bit more comprehensive and effective than any human can be, and also a little less creative.
WHO DO THE IMAGES BELONG TO?
Another question is: who owns the images?
In a practical sense, it’s determined by the AI companies and the law.
And in a larger sense, they come from the collective experience and creativity of humanity and really from the whole of existence. It’s always that way, no matter which particular human or technology it comes through. It’s just a little more obvious with AI images.
Some also criticize AI-generated images because they reflect cultural biases. They learn from our culture so they will inevitably reflect biases in our culture.
For instance, if I don’t specify ethnicity for a portrait, I get a European person. If I ask for a god, even a traditional Hindu god, I get someone absurdly muscular. If I ask for Jesus or his parents, I get Europeans and not middle eastern people. If I ask for a general person, I get someone unusually good-looking in a conventional sense
I would say that’s equally much an upside since it brings cultural biases – picked up by and reflected back to us by the AI – more to the foreground. This leads to awareness and discussions – in the media and among those exploring AI art and the ones they share these reflections and observations with.
A lot of people are more aware of these kinds of cultural biases now because of these AI images.
MY OWN BIAS
I have a background in programming and in art, so I naturally love AI-generated visuals. I see it as a way for people without too much experience to still create amazing images. It’s a way to generate ideas. And it has its place and will co-exist with old-fashioned human skills and creativity.
UPDATE AFTER ONE WEEK
I have explored Midjourney and AI image generation for a week now, and find it seems to fit me well. It’s fun to see images created that I have had in my mind for a while but haven’t created in pencil or oil. It’s also fun to get to know the AI and sometimes be surprised by results better and more interesting than I imagined.
I also find I cannot really take ownership of the images, apart from in the most limited sense. They are generated by the AI, the AI is trained on perhaps millions of images created by others, and it’s really all the local products of the whole of existence – going back to the beginning of the universe and stretching out to the widest extent of the universe (if there is any beginning or edge). It’s always that way, and it’s even more obvious with AI-generated images.
The images are very much co-created by me, Midjourney, innumerable artists whose works have informed the AI, and all of existence.