As I read some of the reactions to AI, I'm reminded of what the French painter Paul Delaroche said in the 1800s upon seeing one of the first photographs: "From today, painting is dead." Although he was woefully wrong, we can certainly understand his exasperation. Artists suddenly had to face the implications of a machine that, with a mere push of a button, could conjure an image that seemed to mirror nature herself. In a very short period of time, painters found they were no longer the primary creators of visual imagery. Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." However, this magic can seem more like sorcery if it threatens your livelihood and even your notion of what creativity is. For a brief time, that's how photography felt to painters.
While the camera was undoubtedly disruptive to certain kinds of painters (such as travel artists or miniature portrait painters) many either embraced photography as an incredible new painting tool or simply treated it with benign neglect. For the Impressionists, it served as a useful foil to further differentiate themselves from the academic realism from which they rebelled. They framed the situation as the cold, objective lens of a machine versus the warm, human expressiveness of Impressionism. The invention of photography sparked an ongoing conversation about the purpose of painting and, more broadly, the nature of perception and creativity. This conversation eventually subsided (or at least became less existential) as photography found its own voice.
Now, almost overnight, this conversation has been revived with the extraordinary rise of AI like ChatbotGPT and image-based DALL-E, Midjourney, and StableDiffusion. Over the last few months, I've been researching and experimenting with AI to better understand it (I gained early access to the more well-known AIs). In my next few articles, I'll be writing about what I've learned about AI as it relates to art and painting, and where it might be going. Warning: you might have a brief Delaroche moment. Sign up to find out.