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Local Artists Weigh in on AI Art

As an arts reporter in Door County, I try to keep up with what’s going on in the art world beyond the peninsula as well as within it. Lately, that means reading article after article about artificial intelligence (AI)-generated art. 

AI art is “artwork made with the assistance of generative AI – a technology that finds patterns in big datasets and uses that information to create new content,” according to Adobe. One of the most common forms of AI art involves typing a prompt into an AI art generator like Dall-E or Midjourney and getting a digital picture that illustrates your words.

A painting of Cave Point by human artist Jeff Boutin. File photo.

Perhaps needless to say, the topic is a divisive one. While some regard AI as an exciting new tool, others think of it as a threat to human artists, and still others see it as a mixed bag. 

Personally, I’m not sure where I fall on the spectrum – so I asked some local artists and gallerists for their thoughts on the matter. Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Ernest Beutel

Artist and Manager of Sturgeon Bay’s Artists Guild

I do consider AI art to be real art. The AI found in many art apps is not real artificial intelligence; it is more of a massive storage system for data. We are lightyears away from having real artificial intelligence that could replace human intelligence. Since we are just harvesting massive amounts of data from the internet to create it, AI art is nothing more than a variation on a theme; just about every artist starts by copying the “old masters.”

I don’t feel that AI art presents a threat to human artists. It’s just a tool; a computer is just as much a tool as a paintbrush. New media is always frowned on when it first appears in public, because people fear change and the unknown.

AI art will probably become a more common tool with time, but it’s unlikely to replace the paintbrush entirely. Artists like to get messy and humans have the desire to create, whether it’s with AI or with a stick covered in crushed fruit. 

Karen Hertz-Sumnicht

Avenue Art and Co. on 3rd in Sturgeon Bay

AI art is a new bone of contention in the art world. It is being discussed far past just the visual arts world; people in music, literature and film are trying to grapple with it too. 

I remember years ago that photography sustained a similar scrutiny, but clearly, it has settled into a strong new medium. When we gained access to computers and started drawing, editing and manipulating images, it was suggested that this was not original art, but again, these new techniques and tools have settled in and are far less distressing to viewers. 

So here we are with another debate as to whether AI is an acceptable art form – though with photography and digital art, a human still had a hand in the creation process.

Claudia Scimeca

ARTicipation, Sturgeon Bay

I don’t think a definition of “real art” exists. What AI generates when prompted to create art will be an amalgam of artistic data mined from the internet. If it was asked to create art, then let that work be enjoyed, reviewed, critiqued, celebrated or ignored. 

I don’t feel that AI art poses a threat for human artists; maybe AI art will inspire artists and open our minds to new realms in AI-generated art. Collaboration between human artists and AI could be incredibly interesting.

Stephanie Trenchard

Popelka Trenchard Gallery and Glass Studio, Sturgeon Bay

Earlier this week, I read a short story in The New Yorker by one of my favorite authors, Sheila Heti. At the end of the story, I learned that the piece was written mostly by AI, with a few prompts by Heti. I felt betrayed and disengaged from the piece, though while I was reading it, I thought it was interesting.

As an artist, I am curious about the use of AI and what deeply creative minds will do with it. Many tools have changed the definition of creativity and art: the camera, spell check, even the thesaurus. The painter Lucian Freud believed the worst thing one can believe is that

something is good simply because someone made it; the only important point was the quality of the work itself. The art world has been slowly disentangling from the human touch and eye since 1917 when Marcel Duchamp submitted Fountain, a urinal, to an art exhibit.

I believe other features of AI, such as its propagation of racism and its potential to replace human artists and workers, are dangerous to society as well as to humanity. To truly outsource the thinking part of art will take away from the transformative experience of making it.

Allin Walker

Margaret Lockwood Gallery, Sturgeon Bay

I have no doubt that good art can be produced, and is being produced, by AI sources. AI art can be creative, evocative and powerful.

That said, it is also initially generated by human inputs and insights. Those should be acknowledged. Where AI takes them is for viewers to enjoy and appreciate, as is the work of any human artist.

Sandra Martinez

Martinez Studio, south of Jacksonport

Art remains totally unconcerned with whether people consider it real or not. 

I can hear Marcel Duchamp chuckling in my head. It’s been a hundred years since creative minds stretched art theory beyond boundaries of materials and processes, and arrived at intent as the primary driver. But the audience is often decades behind the creatives.

I have watched established artists in the photography, graphics and illustration fields weather the digital wildfire that decimated old ways of doing business. Each one shouldered the shifts with determination and creativity. True artists are endlessly inspired to make something out of nothing.

AI art is a screwdriver – just another tool, or, arguably, a new material. Some artists will be called to it and some won’t be.

Dan Cross

Idea Gallery, Egg Harbor 

I’m an artist who has spent well over 20 years mastering a signature style of digital painting. Early on, my digital work wasn’t perceived as real art because “the computer did it.” Today, it’s highly respected. 

For me, the difference between my digital work and AI art is that AI lacks the “human soul” which I believe is integral to a great work of art.

I feel that AI art diminishes the efforts of an artist’s years of training. AI may be fascinating to some, but for me, it looks slick and impersonal, lacking an emotive quality. I don’t feel the viewer can appreciate it on a deeper, soulful level. I’ve observed many viewers say an AI work looks “really cool;” that’s a response, but it lacks any real feeling for the work. 

Angela Lensch

Angela Lensch Gallery, Egg Harbor

Real art is an alchemy between a human being and the medium they are creating with. It takes time and energy, and whether we can explain it with our five senses or not, that energy is felt and appreciated on a conscious and subconscious level. Our arms and hands are an extension of our hearts; behind every art piece is the thoughts and feelings the artist was experiencing while making it.

AI images are like spell check – suggestions of what has been done before. It feels like a copy, an injustice. Even if a human artist were to copy another, they would at least need talent to do so, which is not an easy task when each artist’s work has so many nuances.

Technology can be a helpful tool in moderation; for example, CNC machines can reduce the need for human labor. I still choose to hand-cut copper cups for our kinetic sculptures. Even though my hands get sore, there is that much more of me in my art: more of my thoughts and feelings, more of me handling the material and intimately knowing every inch of each cup.

Joslyn Villalpando 

Woodwalk Gallery, Egg Harbor

As an art educator, I’ve always taught students, young and old, to use whatever tools necessary to get their messages, stories and perspectives into a form, whether that means using a projector to trace an image onto paper, or Photoshop to make photo collages. Our creative capacity is extended when we use a variety of tools to visually express our ideas. 

Like all new technology, AI will face a lot of resistance and it certainly has the ability to hurt human artists. But maybe AI can be seen as another tool for artists and a new technology to familiarize ourselves with, because it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s up to us to adapt to our new reality. 

It’s hard to say whether AI art is real art; making and experiencing art has so many purposes. One purpose art serves is to provide a visual that resonates with the human experience, so I suppose an AI-generated image can fulfill at least one purpose of art.

Cheryl Stidwell Parker

Chez Cheryl Artspace, Baileys Harbor

I have very mixed feelings about AI art. As the painter/author Brian Rutenberg says in his book Clear Seeing Place, “there is a fine line separating vital from vapid.”

Maybe AI would help artists with the process of working through their images to recognize that line – but I feel like we learn through experience, and AI may be removing that step in the artistic process. 

My own painting activity is very much an improv experience, working towards knowing when to stop. For me, AI would take the fun out of the picture (pun intended).

Diane McNeil

Ellison Bay Pottery Studios, Ellison Bay

Clay [McNeil’s main medium] is less likely to be affected by AI – though I’m sure if there’s a way, someone will figure that out. 

I’m also a writer, and I am concerned that other writers might take the easy way out with AI, and some readers may not notice or care.  People have been stealing authors’ work and pretending it’s theirs already, so there’s something to that worry.

Keven Wilder

K Wilder Art, Ellison Bay

I think of generative AI as another digital tool that artists can use. By issuing prompts to a platform like Dall-E [a popular AI system,] artists can summon all kinds of images scraped from the Internet, which can help if they’re looking for ideas to inform their art.

At the same time, AI can be hurtful to commercial artists, such as animators, who create repetitive drawings that can be done more cheaply via AI. AI programs could potentially put commercial illustrators out of work.

With the quality of AI art improving constantly, it can be hard to figure out what’s AI-generated and what’s man-made. Here are a few tips for differentiating.

1) Look for the human logic behind the work. While human artists often try to make their art reflective of the real world, AI programs use algorithms to place certain elements in their work without understanding how those elements work in the real world. For example, an AI system may understand that most bedrooms have windows, but it may place the windows too high up for a human to be able to look through.

2) If there’s a human in the work, look closely at their hands and eyes; AI-generated art tends to include too many fingers and expressionless eyes. Ears, teeth, buttons and text are other features AI often struggles to replicate convincingly. 

3) Many examples of AI art will look overly smooth or “perfect.”

4) Many examples of AI art will have a perfectly square composition; for example, images by MidJourney, a popular AI program, are 1024 x 1024 pixels by default.

If you want to test your ability to distinguish between human-made and AI-made art, play a round or two of Odd One Out. It’s a computer game made by Google where players can guess which of the four artworks shown is AI-generated. The game can be accessed at shorturl.at/bgEO5.