It’s the question that is defining our century: are computers taking over? For years pop culture has predicted our society will head into a technological frenzy, and the rising popularity of smart-homes and autonomous vehicles suggests we are already in such a world. This rise in technology also raises the question of how to determine the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the arts.
In the August 2022 Colorado Fine Arts Competition, contestant Jason Allen was awarded first place in the category “digitally manipulated photography” for his piece titled “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” rendered entirely with the computer program Midjourney. Allen never used a brush stroke or a digital stylus; Midjourney created the art by processing words that he typed into an image searching algorithm. The algorithm, known as a “text-to-image” tool, sifts through millions of images of pre-existing art pieces and mimics their style and features.
Online there was a wave of frustration at the result of the competition and towards Allen for having an advantage. As the Washington Post stated, critics and other artists at the competition compared this method to “entering a marathon and driving a lamborghini to the finish line.” Critics also called Allen’s work plagiarism. From Allen’s perspective, he did not have an edge, and he did not plagiarize — he used Midjourney as a creative tool.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Allen defended his method. “Where did you learn how to do your art? You looked at art,” he said. “You learned their techniques, you studied their art, you added it to your repertoire.” He makes the claim that all art draws inspiration from other art, and that Midjourney’s algorithm only digitized this process.
But there is another debate to be had: should Midjourney be considered a tool or a second artist of the piece? The program’s ability to create in-depth and breathtaking visuals means it’s only fair that Midjourney itself gets partial credit for the piece. It’s true that Allen directed the program on what to do and used it like a paintbrush or pen, but Midjouney’s equal role in the piece’s creation can’t be denied. With the acceptance of AI into so many facets of our lives, it makes sense that computers deserve a place in the arts world as well, not as tools or mere programs, but as co-artists.
This begs the question, does AI count as an artist? And does it belong at events such as the Colorado Fine Arts Competition dedicated to human expression? Some fear the domination of AI artists over human artists. However, the emergence of AI artists does not mark the death of human expression, it’s a collaboration between the two. They have the ability to co-exist and collaborate on artistic creation as long as we agree that the beauty of art lies in its fluidity and ability to adapt to modernity.
Another prominent trait of art is its ability to create conversation and reflect the state of society. The DNA of Midjourney may be lines of code, but the tangible piece its algorithm and Allen created reveals a new means to explore artistic expression and humanity’s relationship to AI. Like groundbreaking artistic pieces before it, “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” encourages audiences and critics to challenge what we know to be creative expression, to push our moral boundaries, and cause discomfort. It’s clear that the results of the Colorado Fine Arts Competition have begun a conversation which will continue long after the buzz surrounding its 2022 finalists dies down.