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Creative Machinery

DALL-E shows us a future of art without artists.

DALL-E is a neural network from OpenAI that is able to generate a stunning range of images from text prompts. Its website shows off its capabilities: an illustration of a baby radish walking a dog; an armchair in the shape of an avocado; a storefront with ‘OpenAI’ written on the entrance. 

I saw some of these images while scrolling through Twitter, and my response was immediate. I did what anyone who has immediate responses on Twitter is wont to do: I quote-tweeted the announcement and declared the invention satanic. This will ruin art, I continued.

Yet OpenAI’s CEO and former president of the startup accelerator Y Combinator Sam Altman also went on Twitter and flexed DALL-E’s talents even further: a painting inspired by Banksy’s art showing human-computer interaction; a rabbit detective sitting on a park bench in a Victorian setting; an elephant tea party on a grass lawn, among other, more fantastical images. 

After my own tweet, two-hundred techno-optimists flooded my replies. I either don’t understand artificial intelligence or I don’t understand art. It’s simpler than that: the techno-optimists don’t understand people.

Defenses of DALL-E range from the cynical “It’s garbage, what are you afraid of” to the more optimistic “You aren’t afraid of cameras, are you?” 

Both of these are, of course, myopic. The cynics don’t seem to appreciate that DALL-E can only get better from here. They can’t envision a world where it has exponentially more data to work from and prompts that aren’t generated by engineers who want to see things like, “an astronaut riding a horse on the moon.” The optimists seem to miss that artificial intelligence and cameras aren’t equivalent technological leaps.

We’re throttling towards a strange future. Not necessarily a bad one, but not one I’m excited for. It’s a future where media has reached a quality stasis. Movies have become big, studio blockbusters; television shows algorithmic slop from Netflix or Hulu. Though smaller-audience independent films still achieve distribution, and are sometimes even fervently discussed, the preference for broadly produced, mass-audience media creates an inhospitable atmosphere, where finding them on streaming services that aren’t Criterion is the luck of the draw.

In the future, more human art – art that’s someone’s baby, in a real, emotional sense – might still exist on the local level. You could argue that’s how it is now, not just with visual art, but with any ‘dead’ form. There’s interesting theater, but it’s tucked away in scenes. Theater has gone the way of film, with big dramas like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen crowding out Off-Broadway and local productions. But even the larger productions are only relevant to a small group of people who consciously and deliberately seek it out. I would imagine the same is true of puppetry, opera, and dance. 

In this future, humane art is closer to folk art, driven by idiosyncrasy and singular passion. You don’t need to do it this way, you do it this way because you’re called to. It’s not something you have in common with just anyone on the street. You need to seek people like you out.

We’re most certainly already in that future’s orbit. I just couldn’t imagine a world where it could get any worse. DALL-E is symbolic of that.

A well-intentioned tech bro reached out to me and reminded me that DALL-E can only work from what’s already been created, so there’s always more room for human innovation. We don’t know what we don’t know. He didn’t like my response: we’ve had mixed results with that so far.

We can see this by the effect the internet has had on photography. There are more photographs taken a year than at any other point in the camera’s history. And yet, even in the halcyon days of Facebook photo albums, which came long after digitization, it felt like people cared more about photography than they do now. It’s too easy to take a photo now. The photo is as meaningless and ephemeral as a text message.

I long for a smaller world. It doesn’t matter if you’re unexceptional globally if you’re remarkable locally. It’s not about my own potential – it’s about anyone’s potential.

It’s not enough to be Miro. I am one of those people who believes there were likely many people with his potential, with his talent. Whose paintings were just as worthy of being known, perhaps more worthy. The beauty of Miro–the beauty of any artist is not just their work; it’s that they were lucky enough for us to have ever seen it.

What’s human about art isn’t only located in a single person’s perception. It’s that anyone can do it, yet only one person does, either because of luck, or follow-through, or whatever else.

On some level, I recognize this is terrible. It’s not fair.

As an artist myself – one without an impressive network or a lot of money or any particular handicap that propels me ahead – I should share that dream of a world that’s more democratized. We should all have access to everything all the time.

But that diminishes work’s value. It diminishes art’s value. There is such a thing as too much.

I think of my grandmother, who hasn’t traveled the world, who hasn’t eaten at every restaurant under the sun, who hasn’t seen everything a person can see. What does that mean for her? Did she “miss out” on a full life? Or is her ocean the most beautiful ocean, if only because it’s the only ocean she’s ever known?

I don’t mean to do nothing, to see nothing. I mean there is value in seeing less. There is value in some things just being ‘luck of the draw.’

There is something wonderful about the fact that the artists we know aren’t the most talented people to ever have existed; they’re just the ones blessed enough to be remembered by history. With that comes collateral damage, but there’s some dignity in the loss.

The alternative is that nobody is remembered.

That art is just momentary, hyper-personal, hyper-local. Another hobby, condemned to a niche.  Only for the people who really seek it out. But if history has taught us anything: they won’t.

Lots more where that came from.