What is art in the age of AI

March 2021

There’s a thought experiment about forgeries, where you imagine that you fall in love with a painting — it elicits a powerful emotional response in you, you love the finish, the craft, by also the overall effect of it. You later discover it was a masterful forgery. Is your enjoyment of the painting diminished? Is it less aesthetically pleasing? Would you still want to hang it on your wall? Why/why not? (And would you rather have never found out?)

I was reminded of this while having a debate over whether AI, or a computer, could come up with emotionally powerful creative work. It was a heated debate, around whether something created by a human is innately more powerful, more emotional, more creative.

It’s an interesting challenge that gets to the heart of the intuitive discomfort many of us have with the role of AI and automation in the creative industries. That of being replaced or duped by machines. It hints at complex philosophical questions about the nature of creativity, of consciousness, of aesthetics. Can a computer have a soul? Does it need one? And if something created by AI ends up (shock horror) being good, is it cheapened because a computer came up with it? Does that diminish whether it works? Would, or should, anyone care? I suspect we’re not about to start enjoying films, novels and plays written solely by an AI (although I wouldn’t rule it out as impossible). But I think that misses the point. Rather, can creativity be improved by AI?
As a creative industry, we can be too precious and protective of creativity. We like to create a mysticism around it, as an almost religious or spiritual act. But by presenting it as an ineffable, mysterious thing, we miss out on learning and improving the creative process.

This is the reason that much of the potential of AI is being overlooked. It is more comfortable to relegate AI as a tool for automation of the grunt work. “It can automate my taxes, but it can’t help me create art.”

So of course the mountains of performance marketing collateral being created by machines don’t give us great confidence in its ability to make something actually creative. But that doesn’t matter — it’s not meant to be creative (another debate for another time).

However, the idea that AI can dabble in actually making the main event, our big beautiful brand comms, that’s treated with a certain suspicion or even hostility. But the most progressive creative thinkers embrace the potential of new technology. Just look at Hockney’s iPad art, or how David Bowie created a Verbasizer programme that spewed out random sentences he would then use as the stem of a song. Ed Cartmull at Pixar was driven by a belief that 3D graphics could allow a new form of storytelling and developed the tools to let him do it.

The Washington Post launched its AI- powered audio updates for the 2020 US election results. Powered by Heliograf, The Post’s audio election results were automatically inserted into its political podcasts and read by an AI voice assistant. Listeners heard state-specific results personalised to their location.

This progressive creative approach should be pushing boundaries. It should be raising these difficult questions. It should be causing arguments and soul- searching. Art continually pushes boundaries. So, as we try to push the boundaries of the creative process, the question “but is it art?” should show that we might just be onto something.