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AI-Generated Artwork Wins Contest and Sparks Fierce Online Debate


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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.

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.

Some were outraged that the image, which was created using the AI image generator Midjourney, won.

And many were worried about what this meant for the future of artists.

At the same time, others pointed out that new technology in art has precedent.

And some felt that good AI artwork still requires creativity.

No matter what you agree with, it's hard to deny that AI is here to stay.

h/t: [NYTimes, Vice]

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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