The Romantic Artist Is Dead. AI has killed him. With computational power humans could never reach, Artificial Intelligence has penetrated the artistic domain, democratizing creativity… and murdering the painter. 

BY Michael Pearce for Mutual Art

We storm-watchers who scan the horizons of art for the anvil thunderheads of imagination hunger for its funnel fingers to tear new forms from darkness, stir images of power into being with the ferocious violence of eternal force. The sublime gods of all the ages were formed within those sensual clouds, and there was too much power in them for ordinary mortals to bear. When the shrieking silver streaks of electric inspiration flew like light-filled rips torn between the planes, and bathed their human intermediaries in bright energy, the artists touched by them rose thunderstruck to new life, filled with visionary power which quickly overwhelmed the arbitrary frames of brittle convention, for they were filled with that electric and fundamental force which crumpled the expectations of normalcy. Eugène Delacroix knew the force of the vivid storm which struck him, and he channeled its imagery. Hungry for its intimacy, poet Percy Shelley sailed into it to his death and immolation; its lightning touched his Mary and birthed howling Frankenstein’s monstrous resurrection, her modern Prometheus.

Imagination! When true vision struck, the hardened earth became elastic, and artists bathed in the burning rain of inspiration, and they pushed through solid air, and the image-seeds of pure nature were sown into their minds, conceived by primal power. The romantic artist was born of dervish imagination. We fell hard in love with the geniuses who reached for the gods.

created using MidjourneyAI

But the electric storm of artificial intelligence has seized imagination with a breathtaking efficiency. In the new age of picture-bots we have no need for romantics – the machines have replaced them. This August, new picture-bots with esoteric names like MidJourneyAI, and DALL-E 2 became available, using Stable Diffusion’s generative adversarial network, and beta testers rapidly spread the word. A few thousand addicted users turned into millions within weeks of their release. Using a picture bot is a simple matter of writing a short description of the desired image – and waiting. Sophisticated users can adjust settings for more control, making the bot create more imaginative or more photoreal image outputs. New, unique imagery is generated within minutes. This is death to the romantic artist. Their heroic intercession is no longer needed. Now, access to imagination is cheap and easy. Picture bots have democratized creativity, and the twenties are experiencing a proliferation of imagery. Art is everywhere, now beauty is a bargain.

Cyber creativity is born from destruction. To learn how to create images, Stable Diffusion picture bots are trained to take an image and add visual “noise” to it. This visual noise – the diffusion – is made of an accumulation of small dots of color and value which erodes the image. Eventually the noise erases recognizable details and the image becomes a field of static. After learning how this process of pixelated degradation works, the bot reverses the noise-making process. To generate an image, a picture bot examines an abstract field of static, finding pixels within it which resemble parts of other images stored in its database, called LAION-Aesthetics, working backwards toward a synthesis, de-noising the field of static until it resembles a picture. To select which images to imitate, the bots depend on keywords, chosen by a human user.

What human creativity remains in the process has moved to the realm of language and curation. Anyone with a decent vocabulary can prompt hundreds of images a day, select the best, and take the place of a digital concept artist who has years of training. Prompts are jagged poems, the embodiment of Horace’s elegant aphorism ut pictora poesis. Prompt poets write weird love letters to picture bots, persuading them to produce. Presently, prompt poets are curators, selecting the best of the images they receive for public consumption, and sometimes refining them with image-editing software. Art is a cyber romance.

created using MidjourneyAI

The picture-bots are more efficient imaginers than humans because they can access millions of image files within an instant, identifying features in them to generate new compositions. They are capable of birthing images indistinguishable from photographs within minutes, and pop out painterly pictures by the pound. They are like Douglas Adams’ infinite monkeys typing Shakespearean plays in binary code, but while the proverbial monkeys were inept, and destined to tap randomly for eternity before Hamlet popped onto the screen, the image bots routinely produce exceptional pictures because LAION-Aesthetics is limited to only tens of millions of images, already tagged to create a populist hierarchy of favorites – a top ten million greatest hits – to teach the bots some sort of taste.

In the beginning was the prompt. The sweet scent of blasphemy colors the wind of change. Prompt poets imitate the divine word, creating from dark screens an endless stream of luminous pictures, shining in the darkness, all things shaped by words. Artificial intelligence is the god of imagination. A word is worth a thousand pictures, and the prompt is the mother of lies. Photographs are no longer useful as evidence – the reputations of human witnesses must be the measure of truth.

The zealous reaction to the advent of the bots was fast and ferocious. Traditional artists cut from romantic cloth resented the computers’ intrusion into their imaginative territory, and responded with existential despair and anger, willing the onslaught of imagery to end. Picture bot images were banned from many online fora, where feral talk was inspired by fear. But the dam was down.

created using MidjourneyAI

Every creative area of art and design is changed by the infinite capacity of stable diffusion and generative adversarial networks. Writing has changed forever – word bots are already being used to write news stories, and educators surely remonstrate with students submitting word bot papers. Moviemakers should prepare for the onslaught too, for the hallucinatory animations the AIs create in the present are certainly going to be surpassed by ever more powerful and sophisticated networks. The deepfake market is booming, because AI can produce portraits of celebrities doing anything a bright prompt writer commands – despite efforts by the coders to censor the words prompt poets may use. A strange list of banned words includes the more obvious lexicon of violence and pornocracy, generated to limit our descent into depravity, but it is difficult to sustain objections to words like “ugly,” “latex,” “red-head,” “scimitar,” and “blood,” for there are perfectly legitimate reasons to need all of them outside the bounds of unorthodox pleasures.

Creating convincing imagery of sports will be a challenge while “ball” is banned.

Despite censored words, very soon the Jackie Treehorns of our time will monetize AI’s enormous potential. Prepare for the erotic progeny of an unholy marriage between pornographers and stable diffusion coders.

Picture bot art is not immune to legitimate critique. It is syncretic. It lacks meaning and coherent narrative. Any allegorical content we interpret from the image can only be accidental. Computers have no taste or discrimination and are unable to make value judgements of quality. Of the millions of images already created by picture bots, only a small percentage are remarkable, most are junk. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the screen. Presently, despite the tagging of the LAION-Aesthetics dataset, there is little curatorial judgement filtering an endless mudslide of garbage except for that of a few discerning prompt poets who select and shape the images they share.

Picture bots have put a stake through the heart of the myth of the artist-shaman genius. Artists are no longer the intermediaries of imagination – but although the abyss looms for the romantics, this is not the artpocalypse, and works of art created by human hands and human hearts are more the province of the bourgeoisie and the 1% after the advent of the picture bots, and traditional artists must hope for a new era of the patronage of the luxurious rich who can afford the real thing, can afford the best that money can buy. Computers are better than humans at playing chess, but human excellence is what matters at a tournament. Artists! You are the guardians of skill! But the romantic storm is over.

This article was written by a human.