AI art and the advice of Gamaliel
Anyone who has spent any amount of time on Twitter has seen the products of the AI image engines. It is uncanny how precise they can be; they are routinely capable of creating images which are very aesthetically pleasing and even disturbing. Last May, I wrote that this would be my benchmark for considering AI-created artworks as actual “art” in a communicative sense; well, Midjourney and DALL·E 2 seem to have arrived at that threshold, so I’ll have to retract my dismissal of them. Of course, the AI engines have room to improve—they simply cannot draw human hands. But in all other ways they have managed to achieve a truly impressive level of technical competence.
The text generators are almost as good; they are rather predictable, but that might be an asset for nonfiction or genre writing. ChatGPT3 can give you basically whatever you want, but it won’t surprise you. Whether this is an asset or liability depends on what you want to create; if you want dadaesque unpredictability and surreality, Inferkit is what to use—but ChatGPT3 is just fine for producing things like technical writing (although its inability to understand context can be hilarious).
I’m told that video generators are coming along as well. Soon you will be able to create whole movies to your exact plot specifications using AI. Can AI make music? Not as well as it can make text and images, but it’s getting there, and I don’t doubt that it is just around the corner. I’ve heard talk of video game generators. There are AI quilt pattern generators. There are AI fashion assistants that you can use if it’s too hard to pick out what clothes you want to wear. Basically, whatever artistic or creative expression you want to do, you can get a machine to do it for you.
Is this a bad thing? Many people have loudly exclaimed that these products of AI art do not count as art in one way or another and sound an alarm against their further use. Yet people still keep using them and posting their creations on Twitter and Reddit, so what’s the deal? By now we have enough alarmist takes on AI art to make anyone who doesn’t like the stuff totally certain that it is pure evil; we also have enough benign examples of AI art to confirm any fan’s belief that these things are perfectly harmless. There really isn’t anything more to say about AI art, except to repeat the advice of Gamaliel.
In Acts chapter 5, the disciples of Jesus are creating quite a stir in Jerusalem by preaching that Jesus is the promised messiah, the Christ, sent to redeem the children of Israel and defeat the enemies of God. The high court of the religious leaders meets to discuss the Jesus problem after taking Peter and John into custody. Gamaliel says what may be some of the most prescient advice ever given about human relations, change, and acceptance:
Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.
It could be that Gamaliel was simply being a casuist here and propounding an intellectually palatable way for the Pharisees to disengage from the debate and abdicate their responsibility. But there are some situations where Gamaliel’s advice is exactly what’s needed. In the case of AI art, it seems notable that there are several big thinkers in the Twitter / Substack cohort who dislike it and wish it to be exposed as a fraud. But I haven’t heard many artists talking about it. I assume this is because the artists are either too busy actually using it or have decided for themselves that it isn’t worth their trouble.
If these new tools are of actual use, artists will find a way to use them. They will be incorporated into the working methods of actual, real, human artists, who will explore the capabilities and utilize the new tools’ strengths—and weaknesses—to create valuable, good, important art which will communicate with depth and richness, and global human culture will thereby be enriched.
And if the tools have no value at all? Artists will soon discover that for themselves; the AI tools will be discarded; and life will move on.
We don’t have to engage in public campaigns to stop the spread of “evil AI art” or get mad when it is shown at state fairs or sold at auction houses. If it is indeed worthless, it will go away on its own. If, however, it has value, there will be no stopping it.
In this piece for The Hedgehog Review, Tara Isabella Burton (author of Strange Rites, the best book I read last year) discusses her realization, via the “Grand Inquisitor” section in The Brothers Karamazov, that the narratives of doom and gloom so frequently bandied about the more pessimistic places of the internet are, in fact, based on an aesthetic myth at odds with a Christian concept of hope. “What would it mean to understand ourselves not as tragic heroes, solitary in our revelations, but as ordinary people, whose lives are lived entwined with one another, maybe even in prose?” she asks. Her conclusion is not as glamorous as some might want, but it is grounded in a much more stable and faith-informed reality.