The Demise of the Digital Artist – Part1. Orwell Against ‘Mechanical Progress’
Since text-to-image diffusion AIs started making an impact on the Internet, I have seen a number of timid complaints emerging from creatives. These were barely noticeable in the stream of an overall euphoria about the new ‘tools’, and since professional networks like Linkedin are proving to be no different than Twitter or Facebook in terms of nudging, pushing compliance and shadowbanning dissent, I though I was one of very few who thought the adequate answer to these text-to-image AIs was principled opposition.
Over the past week I was surprised to discover that 80.lv, a major publication covering video game technology and art, had been supportive of a protest against AI taking place on Artstation. On the 14th of December 2022, 80.lv wrote on Linkedin: ‘Dozens of ArtStation creators have united in protest against AI-generated images and demanded that ArtStation removes AI content from the website.’ The post was liked by roughly 3.800 of its followers, most of them digital artists. I immediately went to Artstation and discovered that the protest was supported by some of the most gifted artists – Steven Zapata, Jonas de Ro, Andreas Rocha, Einar Martinsen, Juan Pablo Roldan, Adrian Dudak, Julian Calle, David Metzger, Guillaume Berthoumieu, Andres Rios, Yuri Hill and many other names digital artists are familiar with.
There was also an immediate pushback from the programmers developing the AIs in question. The pushback consisted of cheap mockery (they called the protesters ‘luddites’), moral grandstanding (software developers are on the side of change and progress, while artists are on the wrong side of history) and a series of old recycled arguments which have already been addressed by the artist community. Two noteworthy efforts are Steven Zapata’s video (The End of Art: An Argument Against Image AIs) and an article by Daniel McGarry titled ‘Arguments Against AI’. I strongly encourage anyone reading this to take a few minutes and have a look at these two links.
When asked what they have against the new technology, most artists try to prove that image AIs are different in essence from all existing digital technologies – 3d modelling, texturing, parametric tools, photobashing etc. ‘These are tools for artists’, they say, while image AIs are a *replacement*, which is totally unprecedented. This is partially true, and the software engineers are quick to point out that all digital art is made with AI; that computers use algorithms for everything, from Photoshop painterly filters to magic wand selections. Although this is a convenient expansion of the definition of AI, used for rhetorical purposes, arguing over a correct definition of ‘image AIs’ is a complete red herring and a waste of effort. The existential threat posed by AIs to digital artists is just a new iteration of an old phenomenon – that of mechanical automation, which should be distinguished from technology writ large. And although very few contemporary artists would dare to criticise automation as a dangerous phenomenon, George Orwell did it almost a century ago.
The following paragraphs are from chapter 12 of Orwell’s book, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. Very little commentary is needed and yes, quoting Orwell feels like a tired cliché. His prescience, however, never ceases to amaze us.
“The function of the machine is to save work. In a fully mechanized world all the dull drudgery will be done by machinery, leaving us free for more interesting pursuits. So expressed, this sounds splendid. Why not let the machine do the work and the men go and do something else. But presently the question arises, what else are they to do? Supposedly they are set free from ‘work’ in order that they may do something which is not ‘work’. But what is work and what is not work? […] The labourer set free from digging may want to spend his leisure, or part of it, in playing the piano, while the professional pianist may be only too glad to get out and dig at the potato patch. Hence the antithesis between work, as something intolerably tedious, and not-work, as something desirable, is false.
The truth is that when a human being is riot eating, drinking, sleeping, making love, talking, playing games, or merely lounging about–and these things will not fill up a lifetime–he needs work and usually looks for it, though he may not call it work. Above the level of a third- or fourth-grade moron, life has got to be lived largely in terms of effort. For man is not, as the vulgarer hedonists seem to suppose, a kind of walking stomach; he has also got a hand, an eye, and a brain. Cease to use your hands, and you have lopped off a huge chunk of your consciousness.
There is scarcely anything, from catching a whale to carving a cherry stone, that could not conceivably be done by machinery. The machine would even encroach upon the activities we now class as ‘art’; it is doing so already, via the camera and the radio.
At a first glance this might not seem to matter. Why should you not get on with your ‘creative work’ and disregard the machines that would do it for you? But it is not so simple as it sounds. Here am I, working eight hours a day in an insurance office; in my spare time I want to do something ‘creative’, so I choose to do a bit of carpentering–to make myself a table, for instance. Notice that from the very start there is a touch of artificiality about the whole business, for the factories can turn me out a far better table than I can make for myself. But even when I get to work on my table, it is not possible for me to feel towards it as the cabinet-maker of a hundred years ago felt towards his table, still less as Robinson Crusoe felt towards his. For before I start, most of the work has already been done for me by machinery. I can get, for instance, planes which will cut out any moulding; the cabinet-maker of a hundred years ago would have had to do the work with chisel and gouge, which demanded real skill of eye and hand. The boards I buy are ready planed and the legs are ready turned by the lathe. I can even go to the wood-shop and buy all the parts of the table ready-made and only needing to be fitted together; my work being reduced to driving in a few pegs and using a piece of sandpaper. And if this is so at present, in the mechanized future it will be enormously more so. The tools I use demand the minimum of skill.
With the tools and materials available then, there will be no possibility of mistake, hence no room for skill. Making a table will be easier and duller than peeling a potato. In such circumstances it is nonsense to talk of ‘creative work’. In any case the arts of the hand (which have got to be transmitted by apprenticeship) would long since have disappeared. Some of them have disappeared already, under the competition of the machine. Look round any country churchyard and see whether you can find a decently-cut tombstone later than 1820. The art, or rather the craft, of stonework has died out so completely that it would take centuries to revive it.
But it may be said, why not retain the machine and retain ‘creative work’? Why not cultivate anachronisms as a spare-time hobby? Many people have played with this idea; it seems to solve with such beautiful ease the problems set by the machine. The citizen of Utopia, we are told, coming home from his daily two hours of turning a handle in the tomato-canning factory, will deliberately revert to a more primitive way of life and solace his creative instincts with a bit of fretwork, pottery-glazing, or handloom-weaving. And why is this picture an absurdity–as it is, of course? Because of a principle that is not always recognized, though always acted upon: that so long as the machine is _there_, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap. One sees a good illustration of this in the matter of travel. Everyone who has travelled by primitive methods in an undeveloped country knows that the difference between that kind of travel and modern travel in trains, cars, etc., is the difference between life and death. The nomad who walks or rides, with his baggage stowed on a camel or an ox-cart, may suffer every kind of discomfort, but at least he is living while he is travelling; whereas for the passenger in an express train or a luxury liner his journey is an interregnum, a kind of temporary death. And yet so long as the railways exist, one has got to travel by train–or by car or aeroplane.
In order that one may enjoy primitive methods of travel, it is necessary that no other method should be available. No human being ever wants to do anything in more cumbrous way than is necessary. Hence the absurdity of that picture of Utopians saving their souls with fretwork.
The tendency of mechanical progress, then, is to frustrate the human need for effort and creation. It makes unnecessary and even impossible the activities of the eye and the hand. There is really no reason why a human being should do more than eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and procreate; everything else could be done for him by machinery. Therefore the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle. That is the goal towards which we are already moving, though, of course, we have no intention of getting there; just as a man who drinks a bottle of whisky a day does not actually intend to get cirrhosis of the liver”.– George Orwell, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, chapter 12
If anyone living in the 20th century might have doubted that the logic of automation would end up cannibalising the purest expressions of art for art’s sake – concept art for film and video games – you have now arrived at the inevitable destination. And AI developers have gone so far in their ham-fisted, self-defeating criticisms, only meant to justify the machine, they now claim that drawing on a graphic tablet, rendering or matte painting are laborious, unpleasant activities which can cause physical harm. Like coal mining or working on the railway.
The following quote from a software developer, Timothy Stoltzner Rasmussen, is as self explanatory as it is contemptuous:
“You should be happy that Technology evolves, because art is so hard on the body, and many people get overuse injuries, so the more tools we have to save time sitting at a computer all day and get outside finding inspiration, the better. I’m just informed, and all of you make it worse than it is. It’s sad you react to change like this. It’s like talking to cavemen. Do you still use a brick of a phone or what?”