The Demise of the Digital Artist – Part3. Perpetual Revolt, ‘Creative Destruction’
In order to offer my support for the current protest against ImageAIs, I previously provided a classical definition of art as an elevating arrow harnessing technique in the service of virtue, virtue in the service of wisdom and wisdom in the service of the Sacred. I also argued that art is participative, performed for the enjoyment of human communities and thus not to be outsourced to automation.
If anyone reading my previous article perceived it as anachronistic, they were correct. That understanding of art is a relic of the past; technology is rarely driven by these pompous-sounding moral values and we all realise that a bunch of online atomised ‘artists’ with free accounts on ArtStation are nothing like an 18th century ‘Society of Artists’ or a ‘Worshipful Company of Painters-Stainers’ (what cringe-sounding names are these anyway?)
In this article I am attempting to describe the shift from the classical understanding of art to the one we currently have; this will help us make sense of phenomena like Image AI and the different responses they are triggering.
THE MODERN REDEFINITION OF FREEDOM
In his book, ‘Why Liberalism Failed‘, professor Patrick Deneen argues that modernity departed from the classical understanding of ‘freedom’ defined as the ability to control one’s tyrannical impulses (individually and collectively) – to a negative definition in which freedom simply means ‘autonomy’, or being left alone to pursue your private interests. This shift happened with John Locke and Stuart Mill, but also with Machiavelli, who attacked the old political orders, previously devoted to the inculcation of virtue and the common good, exposing them as ‘imaginary republics’ that refused to take humans as they are. Deneen writes:
‘This new political technology was designed to liberate us from partial loyalties to particular people and places, and make us into individuals who, above all, strive to achieve our individual ambitions and desires. […] The ancient commendation of virtue is replaced with the unleashed ambition of individuals, an emphasis on private pursuits over a concern for public weal, and an acquired ability to reconsider any relationships that limit our personal liberty’ – Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed.
I should note that the historical process described here is quite distinct from what contemporaries mean by the term ‘liberalism’. In our age it is more common to hear conservatives invoking this negative definition of ‘freedom from’, while liberals talk about the common good – in terms that are also very different from its classical understanding. Words change meaning over time.
A few hundreds of years ago, various ideological and political developments led to a series of irreparable seismic shifts – the proliferation of idiosyncratic faiths, the decoupling of science from metaphysics, of reason from faith, of will from reason. The rejection of any existing forms of unity in favour of factional interests and private beliefs. Under this new logic, technology was also decoupled from all moral or aesthetic considerations, eventually leading to the industrial revolution.
If we travelled back in time to any civilisation in history, we would expect all their artefacts – pyramids, palaces, temples, granaries, stoas, basilicas, statues, castles – to be intelligible materialisations of the vision and ideals of that particular civilisation. However, when we think of our own age, we apply an entirely different view of technology as developing chaotically and subject to the whims of individual inventors, business magnates or chief executives. Deneen observes:
‘Technology does not exist autonomous of political and social norms and beliefs; its development is shaped by such norms. Liberalism introduces a set of norms that lead us, ironically, to the belief that technology develops independent of any norms and intentions, but rather shapes our norms, our polity, and even humanity, and inevitably escapes our control. In our remaking of the world – through obvious technologies like the internet – we embrace and deploy technologies that make us how we imagine ourselves being. And in a profound irony, it is precisely in this quest to attain ever-more-perfect individual liberty and autonomy that we increasingly suspect that we might fundamentally lack choice about adoption of those technologies’ – Idem.
This negative definition of freedom (or autonomy) is the main criterion by which a technology is adopted or rejected in contemporary societies. Anything that threatens the bodily integrity of individuals or impedes their free movement and association is rejected and regulated against. There are, of course, slight differences in which the principle is applied. In societies driven by freedom of trade, the logic of autonomy is applied to commerce, innovation and freedom of speech; in societies driven by social welfare, the logic is applied as an equalising force, so that a uniform level of economic, sexual and religious autonomy can be enjoyed by all. Our societies have their moral coercion and technological selective filters firmly planted (the last 2 winters proved that), they are just more opaque and, whenever questioned about them, immediately hide under the guise of private matters. Deneen then offers a few case studies, showing how this new morality shapes our technological artefacts.
SOCIAL MEDIA – SOCIAL ISOLATION
Deneen argues that the main change induced by social media over the past two decades was a destruction of real-world communities.
‘In her book ‘Alone Together’ MIT’s Sherry Turkle reminds us that the root of the word ‘community’ means literally ‘to give among each other’ and argues that such a practice requires ‘physical proximity’ and ‘shared responsibilities’. The growing presence of social media fosters relationships that avoid either of these constitutive elements of community, replacing that thicker set of shared practices with the thinner and more evanescent bonds of ‘networks’. The same thickness that gave rise to such contentious relations, she writes, also inspired people to take care of each other in times of need. Turkle fears that we are losing not only that experience but also the capacity to form the thick bonds that constitute community, and that our attraction to social media at once undermines these bonds and provides a pale simulacrum to fill the void’ – Idem.
In an article for the Atlantic titled ‘Is Facebook Making Us Lonely’, Stephen Marche shows how Facebook is contributing to an epidemic of loneliness and the corresponding symptoms of sadness and depression. About 20 percent of Americans (60 million) declared they experience unhappiness due to being lonely. Unlike the mainstream critiques, Marche avoids blaming Facebook or social media for this epidemic. ‘Rather, he notes that Facebook, and technologies like it, have facilitated or even enabled a preexisting predilection – the long-standing American desire to be independent and free. Facebook is thus a tool that elicits loneliness from a deeper set of philosophical, political, and even theological commitments. As Marche points out, “Loneliness is one of the first things that Americans spend their money achieving…. We are lonely because we want to be lonely. We have made ourselves lonely.” – Idem.
THE INTERNET – LOSS OF FOCUS, MEMORY, LANGUAGE USE
Other authors such as N. Carr have argued that persistent occupation with the internet changes the configuration of our brains, making us addicted to frequent changes in images and content, and less capable to focus, remember and use language properly. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have proven there is a strong correlation between Instagram use and mental illness in teen girls (incidents of self harm doubling between 2009 and 2019), or between the phenomenon of helicopter parenting and a variety of mental health issues in children.
PERPETUAL REVOLT, ‘CREATIVE DESTRUCTION’
‘There is also an established tradition of critics of technology (L. Mumford, J. Ellul, Postman) who emphasized the ways in which it destroys long-standing ways of life, attacking the very core of our culture and belief systems in the name of utility and efficiency, and more recently to Wendell Berry, who has argued that machine technology has its own logic, which tends to destroy the practices and traditions of a community. Perhaps the most representative voice in this tradition is that of Neil Postman, whose book Technopoly—published in 1992—was suggestively subtitled The Surrender of Culture to Technology.
In that book, Postman describes the rise in the modern era of what he calls Technocracy. Preindustrial forms of culture and social organization used tools no less than technocratic societies, Postman writes, but the tools they employed “did not attack (or more precisely, were not intended to attack) the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced. With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization.” The tools adopted by a Technocracy, by contrast, constantly transform the way of life. Postman writes, “Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. . . . Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.”
From technocracy we have entered the age of “technopoly,” in which a culturally flattened world operates under an ideology of progress that leads to “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.”
The residual cultural practices that survived the era of technocracy now give way to a transformed world in which technology is itself our culture—or anticulture, a tradition-destroying and custom-undermining dynamic that replaces cultural practices, memory, and beliefs’ – Idem.
Deneen’s critique is by no means luddite in nature. It simply shows how the cultural norms we have enshrined as sacred are mere inversions of classical values, leading to a state of perpetual revolt and techno-dystopia. When you exalt negative freedom, every moral norm can be framed as oppressive and limiting, while untrammelled appetites and momentary impulses will always be framed as triumphs of liberation. The word ‘limit’ itself receives a negative connotation, and societies start to look like cars with no brakes going down a slope at a speed that’s increasing exponentially.
HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO IMAGE AI?
a. Classical Education
If we now turn to visual arts, we notice that – contrary to popular notions – inborn talent and authentic self expression are never enough to guarantee the fulfilment of one’s potential. In classical fine arts, the student must undergo years of training which start with basic skills: using pencils correctly, drawing perfect lines – straight and curved; applying texture; measuring relative proportions, drawing geometric objects; assimilating rules and principles of linear and aerial perspective; principles of constructive drawing. The student then proceeds to study classical orders, still life, organic objects, animals, draperies, materials, architectural interiors, exteriors, skulls, human anatomy and proportions, classical busts and headcasts, hairstyles, multi-figure compositions, portraits of live models etc.
3d modelling, rendering and post-production tools can then be easily assimilated by those who have the skills mentioned above. This is done in many architecture universities as well as in atelier schools. An atelier is a small art school offering training in sculpture, drawing, and painting based on studio practices that were primarily taught from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Although universities are experiencing a nationwide decline, ateliers have flourished and appeared in every major American city, with local architecture, 3d design, video game and visual effects companies recruiting directly from them.
b. Perpetual Revolt
Rejecting the classical definition of art led to the excessive politicisation of art schools; this was observed by the cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin in his 1935 book, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Other consequences of the revolutionary redefinition of art are the loss of skills and creativity. While Atelier Schools thrive, art colleges are closing at an alarming rate:
‘Art colleges struggle with the toxic perception that their graduates are qualified for nothing and have been bankrupted by their education. They take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt, only to be employed as burger-flippers clutching a worthless degree in their paint and grease-splattered hands. Their prospects are dismal: A 2018 Bankrate report noted that over 9 percent of them are unemployed, and fine art degrees ranked last of 162 different majors for their employment prospects—more than triple the average. Appallingly, with a 7.7 percent unemployment rate, high school dropouts are more likely to get a job than art majors. Of an estimated 2 million arts graduates, only 10 percent make a living as working artists. It is difficult to know exactly how many art schools have closed nationally, but they are arm-in-arm with the closure of campuses across the nation. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 1,200 college campuses have closed in the last five years, displacing 500,000 students’ – source.
3d tools can also harness and expand one’s skills, or atrophy and replace them. With 3d rendering and post-production software, both routes are available to digital artists. If one is serious about mastering perspective, hand drawing, colour theory etc – he will apply those skills while expanding his knowledge of new software and produce fine bespoke digital artworks. If one is complacent, he can always skip the technical knowledge and compensate by importing entire scenes, pre-set lighting settings, pre-made 3d assets or LUTs. He can then hit ‘render’, ‘save’ and charge money for his low effort. The difference between these opposite predispositions is noticeable and the art portfolios always speak for themselves.
With ImageAI, things change drastically. The process of generating imagery is completely opaque to the human artist, whose only input is relegated to a string of words. As Iain McGilchrist showed in his book, ‘The Master and his Emissary’, the brain area involved in language is rigid and a lot less connected or creative than the area related to eyesight and imagination.
We can thus say that ImageAI makes the acquisition of skills virtually impossible (remember Orwell’s quote), while also hindering the imagination effort. It’s also not hard to predict their role in accentuating loneliness (on their own or in conjunction with social media) and who knows what potential correlation with mental issues will be uncovered by the likes of Haidt and Lukianoff? ImageAI is, however, the most perfect example of unleashed technology and perpetual revolt against norms, participative art and mastery of any kind. And this is exactly how its manufacturers are selling it – as a maximiser of individual autonomy and self-expression; a freeing, equalising force, giving creative voice to the disenfranchised and lowering the barriers between elitist communities and wannabe storytellers. Deneen’s analysis is solid and the book is worth a listen on Audible.