To be considered “derivative” in the artistic world is a death blow. For an album or sitcom or film or book to be called “derivative” means it has nothing to offer. It is trite, boring, and not truly original. And yet, as I wrote about AI’s likely influence in the sphere of religion, that is the word that kept coming up again and again. That’s when it dawned on me that AI, by definition, is derivative. That is, it relies on the past culture, knowledge, and work of people to produce what it produces.
As one who has striven to create art in a variety of media, I feel some sympathy for a human artist who is labeled “derivative." Nirvana was worried that everyone could tell they had ripped off the Pixies, for example. As artists, we are all products of the art we consume, and we can’t help but to copy in some degree what has gone before- that is just part of human nature. We are formed and molded, and when we create, we regurgitate out what we put in. Sometimes we manage enough difference to escape notice. Other times, we are labeled “derivative” and our career is over.
AI’s Unoriginal Originality
AI is derivative. It depends on humans to be the original creators in order for it to create anything. And that means the luster will soon wear off…at least when it comes to AI generating art. After all, if being derivative is bad for someone actually trying to create a meaningful contribution to culture, why wouldn’t it be equally damning for AI? For example, these images reflect an incredible technological breakthrough. Even the graininess of a particular film type can be replicated.
One can immediately see how this impacts our world. After the shock wears off that these are not “real,” my next thought is that there is basically no need for stock photography anymore. If there is a particular image you want (“happy couple picnicking” or “child crying in church”), AI can generate it for you. There will be a cost to that, mainly some number of artists will be out of work while the rest of us will have the convenience of perfect, cheap art. One can even imagine the ability to create whole films out of such images. Render a bunch of characters and sets, animate them, have ChatGPT write a script, and bam! We’ve “created” even more mediocre content to clog our streaming feeds.
But as amazing as those images are, they are all derivative. All AI did was take an existing culture (in the smallest sense of that word) and recreate it. For example, to create those images, there had to be an “editorial” genre. There had to be Christian Dior Style. There had to be Fuji and Ektachrome film. There had to be Mid-Century Modern furniture. And on and on.
However, Rearranging culture is not the same thing as creating culture. And while AI may be able to “create” culture - new styles of writing or clothing or art, for example - in the future, we likely will hate it. It will not have come from us. It will look more like a glitch in the matrix rather than the project of coherent thought. So I suspect that while we may be wowed on the front end, we will likely get bored with it as just another new technology rather quickly. Incredible recreations, after all, are only that: recreations.
Recognizing (or Ignoring) Art’s Transcendental Nature
So that is good news for humans: there will always be a need for original creators. The not so good news is that we will still have foundational problems to solve, and the deeper questions of life really haven’t changed, even with the advent of AI. For example, “To what end is any art created?” The process by which anything is created is secondary to the reason anything is created.
Again, AI will soon be able to create “original” cantatas in the style of Bach with a few prompts. They will be okay. But no one will listen to them. Why bother? We don’t even listen to Bach anymore! But Bach himself created for the glory of God, and that is the only reason AI has something to rip off today. It is already the case that too little of our artistic creation is for a higher purpose and the culture it shapes is vulgar, lewd, and even satanic. At best, most modern art is basically meaningless.
AI won’t solve that problem. The key to good artistic content in any medium is its telos, its design, its purpose. AI can’t offer a telos and Modernists won’t. So we are right back to where we started. The door is wide open for valuable artistic content. That requires the unique spark of human ingenuity and creativity.
Creation should be an extension of the Creator, the giver of life, the God of resurrection. Art should inspire and propel us to higher ways of thinking and living because our lives have God as their final end and design. Until creators put an end to creations that celebrate basic, simple, and profane human desires, most of what is created will prove to be uninspiring.
As always, the “why” is way more important than the “how.” But the “how” will be grabbing a whole lot of headlines in the coming months and years.
Photo Credit- sustainablereview. com