In the early 20th century, advancements in audio-visual recording technology gave the world the ability to mass-produce art. This mechanical production and reproduction not only changed how art was developed, but it challenged the very definition of what art was. In 1936, Walter Benjamin, a Marxist Jewish philosopher living in the age of mechanical reproduction and under the Nazi regime, wrote about this shift in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
Benjamin wrote, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Throughout this work, Benjamin argues that though these new semi-automated, duplicable, creative disciplines such as film and photography cannot be equated to the unique existence of traditional art, they have the potential to enrich society in ways traditional art cannot. In other words, the mass-production of art can have certain benefits.
In the year 2023, a new mechanical frontier is challenging both the way art is developed and understood: artificial intelligence (AI). Programs such as Lensa, DALL.E, Midjourney and even TikTok’s own “AI Art Filter” have made very sophisticated image processing technology available for public consumption. Programs such as Lensa work by using a model called Stable Diffusion. The model “learns” patterns through a large database of images from the internet called LAION-5B and applies them to the input prompt, instantaneously producing a piece of “art.”
Dr. Jose Luis Garcia del Castillo, a professor in the Laboratory for Design Technologies at Harvard University, hesitates to use the word ‘art’ when discussing the products of these AI systems. “I prefer to use the word ‘images’ rather than ‘art’…art is something much different,” he said. As a specialist in architecture, Garcia del Castillo studies how these sorts of programs can enhance the creative process, not replace it.
People tend to become anxious about automation replacing human roles. Though true art can never be replaced by machines, artists do face a new kind of competitor that works much faster and much cheaper. Because efficiency is prioritized in a society trying to maximize profits, pattern-oriented industries are easily absorbed by technology. According to statistics from Zippia, since 2000, at least 260,000 jobs have been lost due to automation, such as accountants and bookkeeping clerks.
Since the dawn of the age of mechanical production, the rising demand for art has bred a heavy tide of commercialization and reproduction that could never be fulfilled by traditional art alone. Though AI poses legitimate threats to the job security of artists, many argue that it will add more value to human-made creations.
Prisma Labs, the creators of Lensa, wrote in a tweet, “We also believe that the growing accessibility of AI-powered tools would only make man-made art in its creative excellence more valued and appreciated, since any industrialization brings more value to handcrafted works.”
With such a rapid explosion into the public sphere, there are many ethical standards and legal regulations yet to be established in the developing world of AI processing. As of Jan. 13, Stability AI, the inventor of the Stable Diffusion model, is facing a class action lawsuit due to their alleged copyright violations.
The official complaint contends, “Every output image from the system is derived exclusively from…copies of copyrighted images. For these reasons, every hybrid image is necessarily a derivative work.” Because the program learns from copyrighted images, the accusation has labeled these AI generators as “21st century collage tools that violate the rights of millions of artists.”
Though it goes without saying that AI has a long way to go in correcting its ethical standards, this new technology can make art available to new audiences. Garcia del Castillo recalls a friend of his that was able to affordably transform his child’s bedtime story into a physical picture book using AI art programs.
Before the printing press only the elites could learn to read, before film only the wealthy could enjoy dramas, and before photography only the upper-class could afford portraits.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin states that “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Artificial intelligence may have the potential to emancipate art from the clutches of the world’s elites and deliver it to the masses.