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When Jason Allen entered his work into the Colorado State Fair's annual art competition, he was hoping to make a splash. But he couldn't have anticipated that his artwork Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, which took home the blue ribbon in the digital art category, would cause such a stir. Allen's artwork, which was created using the AI image generator Midjourney, has sparked a fierce debate about the role of artists and the use of AI in fine art.
Allen, who owns a gaming company, proudly wrote about his win on the Midjourney Discord. Midjourney creates images based on text prompts, and Allen explained that he'd spent 80 hours and created 900 images before honing in on the perfect combination. That result is Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, which he printed on canvas and entered into the digital art category, stating that it had been created using Midjourney.
His post was quickly picked up by Twitter, where artists felt slighted by the fact that an AI-generated artwork could win an art competition. “We’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes—if creative jobs aren’t safe from machines, then even high-skilled jobs are in danger of becoming obsolete,” tweeted @OmniMorpho. “What will we have then?”
For his part, Allen knew that his win would ruffle some feathers, but he was also hoping that it would spark conversation. “How interesting is it to see how all these people on Twitter who are against AI generated art are the first ones to throw the human under the bus by discrediting the human element! Does this seem hypocritical to you guys?” he wrote on Discord.
TL;DR — Someone entered an art competition with an AI-generated piece and won the first prize.
Yeah that's pretty fucking shitty. pic.twitter.com/vjn1IdJcsL
— Genel Jumalon ✈️ ARTapalooza Cedar Falls (@GenelJumalon) August 30, 2022
One issue that several people worried about was whether or not the judges understood that the artwork was generated using AI. This is a similar issue that has concerned many AI ethicists. While Allen said that he disclosed the program that he used to create his winning artwork, at least one judge told journalists that they had no idea that AI had been used.
Author and art historian Dagny McKinley, a judge in the category, was immediately drawn to the otherworldly image of three women dressed in historic clothing standing near what looks like a glowing moon. “It had an immediate story: People looking out into another world, everyone with their backs to you, no one facing or engaging with the viewers,” she said. “You get interested: What are they seeing?”
While McKinley confessed that she did not know that Midjourney was an AI image generator, she did state that it wouldn't have changed her vote either way. For her, it was Allen's concept and vision that won him the top prize, not whether or not he'd used a digital paintbrush or created a Photoshop collage.
In some ways, this debate between the merits of the idea versus technical execution is nothing new. Throughout the Italian Renaissance, scholars debated whether it was the idea or who actually painted the canvas that mattered. Allen's victory is a contemporary version of that same debate.
For Allen, who broke no rules in the contest, the hours of meticulous curation and tweaking that he spent to create the image is what's important. For others, his victory is an affront to human artists who manually create every part of their art. No matter what side of the debate you fall on, it's impossible not to see that AI is here to stay. In fact, My Modern Met often features artistic projects that use AI. Therefore, these conversations are an essential part of making the public aware that computer-generated materials are everywhere—even in places they might not expect.
When Jason Allen's AI-generated image won the Colorado State Fair's annual art competition, it sparked debate online.
For the record, I think AI can be a useful tool for artists. The issue I have at hand is someone straight up taking full credit and in this case not properly informing the judges what Midjourney is.
Going forward AI art should have it's own category. pic.twitter.com/6qBzVkfeey
— Genel Jumalon ✈️ ARTapalooza Cedar Falls (@GenelJumalon) September 1, 2022
Some were outraged that the image, which was created using the AI image generator Midjourney, won.
Something made with literally zero skill or effort should not be rewarded over actually thought out works.
— 🍂🍁M1KE (School hiatus) (@M1KE_504) August 31, 2022
This sucks for the exact same reason we don't let robots participate in the Olympics.
— fluxophile (@fluxophile) August 30, 2022
And many were worried about what this meant for the future of artists.
The bigger issue is that (presumably), the judges didn't realize it was AI, and still thought it was good enough to win. Doesn't bode well for the “human vs AI” illustration discussion.
— Seth Rutledge BLM/TLM – End Russian Tyranny (@eldritch48) August 30, 2022
We’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes — if creative jobs aren’t safe from machines, then even high-skilled jobs are in danger of becoming obsolete
What will we have then?
— OmniMorpho (@OmniMorpho) August 31, 2022
At the same time, others pointed out that new technology in art has precedent.
People had similar concerns with photography in the 1800s. Some artists feared it would replace other forms of traditional art completely, but it didn’t. Like photography, AI is just a new tool/medium that can be used for art making. It has its pros and cons like all art forms.
— Sienna Laine (@PaintandSipYT) August 31, 2022
Are we though? Or are we watching a new genre emerge? These negative reactions are the same that were thought towards cubism and impressionism. I think these AI created pieces are incredible.
— Your Mom Uses Tinder (@Urmomusestinder) September 2, 2022
And some felt that good AI artwork still requires creativity.
The guy in his discord message says this took him a long time. It's not like he just typed in one thing and submitted it. Plus either way what's wrong if people without art skills can now create the art they envision in their head. That's a great thing
— Just Chris (@TheChris_Dude) August 31, 2022
The art is in the idea you want to transmit, not in the skill to draw a fancy picture. An artist must invent new ideas (a thing that an AI is probably not capable of). In any case, imagine what the horse breeders were thinking when cars were invented (the world did not end btw).
— Vali Draganescu (@VFDraganescu) September 2, 2022