The Death of Painting? It's time to talk about AI
They have been announcing the death of painting for centuries. Since the invention of printing back in the Han dynasty (about 100 AD) artists have been looking over their shoulders with trepidation at the latest technological breakthrough. We have always felt threatened by the ability of the machine to subvert us, to replace our skills and expertise. When the printing press came along, artists had good reasons to be concerned, but eventually they harnessed the new powers of mechanical reproduction to replicate their work and reach a much wider audience. However, with the advent of photography, it was evident to all interested observers that the representation of reality could be delegated to an optical device, and one that would achieve breathtaking precision and detail. From that moment on, artists had to adopt new strategies to ensure long term relevance and economic survival. The decision to focus on elements that could not readily be captured by light-sensitive film and a lens was a masterstroke. The artistic gaze shifted to inner thoughts and sensations, towards imagery inaccessible to the dispassionate eye of the camera's aperture, towards the psychological world of sensations and feelings.
But is AI a game changer, are we at a creative crossroads where the production of individual paintings can be subcontracted to a collection of algorithms and a 3D printer? The AI developers, or more specifically the marketing industry behind the technology, would undoubtedly strive to convince you of this. You can buy a custom-made masterpiece AI painting of your choice right now, today; just like ordering a big mac with fries and a soft drink. The tagline, 'taste a new kind of food for your imagination'. Artists proclaim the inviolability of human creativity and invention and maintain the impossibility of reproducing the idiosyncratic personal touch, the unique idea, or the individual's personal perception. I'm afraid I have to disagree; I think it will be all too easy to generate the appearance and reality of any given artwork or indeed produce a work of art executed in the style of an existing painter. We won't be able to tell them apart. I believe the problem lies elsewhere. In a world flooded with fakes and flawless fabrications indistinguishable from the 'real thing' a number of outcomes are possible.
I remember producing work as a stock photographer, just as the price of high-quality digital cameras became significantly more affordable. Overnight, the 'barriers to entry' collapsed and the value of stock photography fell dramatically; it hasn't recovered to this day. The availability of a limitless supply of inexpensive stock photography images, often taken by 'hobbyists' with a camera, undermined the market value of existing and future stock-related imagery. When immediately after this, high-resolution mobile phone cameras became ubiquitous, a further fall in prices ensued. This is the financial, economic and social impact of technological progress and why artists are not immune from these cycles of change. However, this isn't the entire story, there are still photographers who produce exceptional work and many are now adopting AI technology to enhance their work. Whether in the long run, they will survive the tsunami of AI-generated imagery is altogether another question.
In the near future, it may not be possible for us to distinguish between an original artwork and an immaculate facsimile. But maybe 'we' won't have to, a machine will do it for us. Of one thing I am certain, the art market will move heaven and earth to protect investment value and algorithms will be designed to detect fakery and establish incontrovertible evidence of authorship and provenance. It will be a scanner or app built into your mobile phone, ready to be deployed whenever the price of an artwork is more critical than the emotional attachment. When so much energy and enterprise are already deployed to keep prices artificially high and protect investor value, these kinds of developments are virtually inevitable.