What do an Afrikaans singer, an ostrich with a Kitkat and Vermeer at the Voortrekker Monument have in common?
At the recent Klein Karoo National Arts Festival, I spoke to Magdaleen Krüger about Skatryk, the Afrikaans version of Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom. One question from the audience had me thinking: how will artificial intelligence change our lives? I ventured aloud that repetitive tasks would soon be outsourced to software, but perhaps the creative arts will remain a realm where humans still reign supreme. My answer will undoubtedly be different today, just more than a month later. Artificial intelligence is no longer limited to chess-playing software, self-driving cars, or customer service firms that incessantly try to imprint their annoying robot voices on human ears. Now, even art is artificial.
Last week, I signed up to Midjourney, a platform that allows users to create images by simply entering a short command, similar to how ChatGPT generates words. Above are four options of Afrikaans musician Bouwer Bosch on a tractor in the Free State. Admittedly, it's not perfect. The tractor doesn't have a seat, and one of the images has words that don't make sense. But at first glance, the quality is quite good for an exercise that didn't require me to do anything except type a few words on a screen and wait 30 seconds for the result. (Also: Bouwer Bosch wouldn't have even known about this "photo" of him (or his AI counterpart, at least) if I hadn't asked for his permission.) And it's free, to boot.
The interaction between art and technology is certainly not new. Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the natural sciences, and it often manifested in his art. He even used the optical technique 'sfumato' in the Mona Lisa, so that her eyes appear to follow the viewer. What most people don't know is that it was the very same Leonardo da Vinci who had the idea of a neural network, the underlying statistics behind these artificial intelligence innovations. This was revealed in a recent discovery of one of his lost sketchbooks - see the image below.*
Today, AI-generated paintings, music, and poetry are not only exhibited in galleries but also sold for staggering amounts at auctions. The sale of the AI-generated artwork 'Portrait of Edmond Belamy' for $432,500 by Christie's in 2018 (after initially being valued at $8,000) sparked a heated debate about the role of AI in the art world. And just last month, someone going by the name Ghostwriter977 uploaded a song sung by the artist Drake to online platforms, except that it was AI technology and not the real person. After it was played more than 15 million times on TikTok, it was removed. The point is: it is now virtually impossible to distinguish the real from the unreal.
So what's the problem with AI-generated art? Supporters will argue that this technology inspires us to be more creative, especially when it allows us to combine diverse styles and techniques. Let me give an example. I asked Midjourney to draw an ostrich eating a KitKat while sitting on the throne of England in the style of a Pablo Picasso oil painting. Here are the first four options. It is undoubtedly creative, which is why some commentators claim that #AIart can transcend human creativity and help us overcome our inherent limitations and biases.
Critics, on the other hand, emphasize that AI-generated art is the product of human programming. While algorithms can deliver aesthetically pleasing results, they lack the depth, emotion, and contextual understanding inherent in human creations. In this view, AI-generated art is a sophisticated imitation of human creativity rather than a genuine creative force. Moreover, AI-generated art can lead to a simplification of artistic styles as algorithms become increasingly skilled at replicating popular techniques.
However, it is difficult to believe this criticism will hold for long. Midjourney, for example, improves week by week. Take a look at the woman in the photo below. She does not exist. She was completely generated by my request to Midjourney: Draw Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' in Sepedi clothes in front of the Voortrekker Monument. What would have cost thousands of rands to produce, with talented models, makeup artists, clothing designers, etc., can now be replaced with the (un)creativity of an economist and the press of a button.
It is difficult for me to believe that this will not transform some industries. But hear me out: this does not necessarily mean more unemployment. What it does mean is that every profession will need to carefully consider how these types of platforms expand and support their product offerings and workflows. Artists directly impacted by this technology will likely need to shift their focus to aspects of the creative process that are difficult for AI to replicate, such as conceptualizing innovative ideas, engaging with local social issues, and ensuring they provide their clients with personal (emotional) experiences. I suspect this technology will lead to a flourishing rather than a decline in the art market, as many more people will now be exposed to it. As a case in point: before I used Midjourney, I knew very little about Tenebrism, impasto, or Moebius artistic styles and techniques.
Or let’s take a local example. I suspect that many South African teenagers have never heard of Pierneef. One way to expose them to his work is to play around with Pierneef's style. Here is Midjourney's visualization of Pierneef drawing aliens in the bushveld.
It is also striking to see the images that others generate on Midjourney. (Everything is public, so you can literally see how people unleash their creative ideas on the machine.) Many are practical rather than purely aesthetic: ideas about the interior design of a study, the creation of a new logo for a boutique brewery, or the making of a colouring book full of family photos. Such examples show that outsourcing art to platforms like Midjourney is not necessarily a matter of displacement but rather of collaboration. Hairdressers will soon receive a photo of their client with their preferred hairstyle 'designed' for their face.
More importantly, because visual media is so much more powerful than words – a picture is worth a thousand words! – technology like this allows us to communicate in entirely new ways. How do we bring the history of the Boer War alive for future generations? Well, make Koos de la Rey ‘alive’. In the picture below, a modern version of De la Rey is pictured in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria (in the most expensive Italian suit you can buy today). We will soon be able to communicate cheaply in new ways and to new audiences. Educators, marketers – basically anyone who wants to convey information to others – will have to start thinking anew about how they convey information to a new generation that thinks and acts more visually.
Like in many other fields, artificial intelligence will significantly change our interaction with the arts. The losers will be, as with any technological revolution, those who cling to the past. The winners, whether they are artists or anyone else who can see the power of this new communication medium, will experiment until they unlock value. This is not the end of human creativity. On the contrary, this synergy between art and technology will help us unlock the true potential of human creativity even further. I know how much I enjoyed playing around on Midjourney. And as the technology improves, and allow for videos, animation, music, and who-knows-what-else possible, the term ‘arts festival’ may soon take on a whole new meaning.
*This is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. There is no new Da Vinci sketchbook. Midjourney also generated this photo with the command: Draw a page from Leonardo da Vinci's sketchbook as if he discovered neural networks.
An edited version of this post appeared (in Afrikaans) in Rapport on 9 April 2023. All images were created using Midjourney v5.1.
Agreed Johan! It will be impossible to replace the "being" of being human, BUT we all need to explore future possibilities creatively using tech and not cling rigidly to the past. Andre
Spot on as ever Johan. Thank you.