Are AI art tools like Midjourney or Stable Diffusion ushering in the Death of Art?

Prelude to an Obituary

Before beginning my elaboration on The Death of Art in light of recent developments in artificial intelligence, I must first address the elephant in the room: the absolutely justifiable outrage and concern that many skilled, meticulous, and thoughtful artists, designers, illustrators, and more feel with regard to these powerful black boxes. 

While MakersPlace is excited to support original creators introducing new ideas and art-making methods through human-computer collaboration, this technology is new, and we recognize the concern that it may pose a challenge to many who make their living with their laboriously trained skill and artistic insight. 

There are many questions concerning these technologies, including how they are trained. Our hope at MakersPlace is that through time and meaningful discourse, we can and will collectively create an equitable future that embraces technological progress while valuing human contribution.  

What is “The Death of Art”?

To define the death of art, we must first define art. Otherwise, we can’t know what’s died. 

I lean on Duchamp, whose work shattered previous definitions of art, thus making way for how we currently understand it. Duchamp said in 1959, “Can we try to define art? We have tried. Everybody has tried. In every century, there is a new definition of art, meaning that there is no one essential that is good for all centuries.” 

He then goes on to say, with regard to the creation of ready-mades in defiance of artistic norms, “As we know, ‘art,’ etymologically speaking, means “to hand make.” And there [the object] is, readymade. So it was a form of denying the possibility of defining art because you don’t define electricity. You see the results of electricity, but you don’t define it.”

Implicit in his response is the opportunity to define art not as an object but as an effect that can be traced back to a stimulus.  Let’s put a pin in this. 

While Duchamp denies “the possibility of defining art,” he gives a glimpse into how the birth of conceptual art hints at a 20th-century definition.

“I thought [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)] was a reaction against the retinal conception of painting, and I think it still is because of the introduction of the conceptual. This is literary painting.” (emphasis added). 

“Literary” here implies authorship or intentionality, so we can put a pin in that concept as well. 

Save for a few unforeseeable innovations in art-making, these ideas jive with Aristotle’s conception: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” 

Though Aristotle’s definition seems refreshingly contemporary, it was followed by a couple of millennia of narrower views, exemplified by the following contention from Renaissance painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari, who wrote, “painting is just the imitation of all the living things of nature with their colors and designs just as they are in nature.” (Boring!)

Without belaboring prior centuries’ definitions of art too much, Roughly 100 years ago, with Duchamp’s early work, is an agreeable place to start with a working definition: Art is an intentionally staged experience for communicating or evoking ideas and emotions. 

But Duchamp downplayed the stimulus in favor of the response. In other words, art is not a thing it’s a thing that creates a response. But what response? Again, Duchamp, ibid

“I have a very definite theory…that a work of art exists only when the spectator has looked at it. Until then, it is only something that has been done that might disappear, and nobody would know about it.  The spectator consecrates it by saying, ‘This is good. We will keep it.’ The spectator, in that case, becomes posterity…” 

This “consecration” describes the work’s effect on culture, and so, we proceed to our definition. 

The Death of Art is either:

  • the end of intentionally staged experiences for communicating or evoking ideas and emotions or…
  • the end of those experiences’ ability to have a meaningful impact on culture. 

Because it’s just silly to declare the end of a given human activity, the first definition is useless. So we’re left with the latter:

The Death of Art happens when intentionally staged experiences for communicating or evoking ideas and emotions cease to have a meaningful impact on culture.

We’ll later debate what constitutes “a meaningful impact on culture,” but for now, let’s move on. 

A Brief, Incomplete History of the Death of Art

In 1840, French painter Paul Delaroche first saw a daguerreotype and is said to have cried out, “From today, painting is dead!” As we know, painting did not die, and it’s believed that Delaroche’s declaration was something of a PR stunt. 

But what Delaroche was referring to was the end of a craft, not the end of Art. Many 20th-century artists did not paint, so painting isn’t totally germane to this discussion. 

The end of a craft is not what we’re talking about. No prominent declaration of the death of art is premised on the idea that people will stop creating aesthetic experiences. The Death of Art refers to art’s decline in cultural relevance. 

For the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, art had reached its cultural exhaustion point by the time he delivered his Lectures on Aesthetics in 1818. I’m no Hegel scholar, but this is my understanding. Hegel saw art in three distinct phases: 

  1. Classical, referring to the golden age of Greek and Roman cultures, when it was closer to folk art that people tangibly interacted with. In other words, it was in the culture, not about the culture. 
  2. Symbolic, circa medieval times, when art represented the culture (i.e., Christianity) back to the culture. This is when art began to require interpretation (and was useful to a largely illiterate society). 
  3. Romantic, circa Renaissance and beyond, as the Symbolic approach became increasingly secular and ever so gradually personal.

According to Hegel, because “art no longer affords that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it,” art as a cultural good “remains for us a thing of the past.” This is a little bit like believing that because composers are no longer solely supported by religious institutions (i.e., music is no longer “sacred”) that music is no longer relevant to the culture. 

More than a hundred years later, critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin saw the death of art in its commodification and mass reproduction. Coining the term “culture industry,” Adorno believed that mass production and mass culture were destroying the authenticity of artistic expression. At the same time, Adorno’s compatriot, Benjamin, argued that the mass-produced reproductions of works of art were reducing the aura, or unique presence, of the original work.

Despite the merit of the critiques, one could argue that the cultural impact of a given piece of art has the potential to be far greater than ever, thanks to mass production, which could arguably increase its gravitas and aura when finally encountered in the flesh. Authenticity of artistic expression is a term that might require its own blog post, if not its own multi-volume tome. 

Finally, in the timeline of the Death of Art, we shift to philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, whose most famous essay is called “The End of Art,” which he wrote in response to seeing Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes

Danto’s point can only be understood by dismantling the idea of linear progress in history, which is to say that there is no Point A or Point Z. “Progress” made sense in the context of a western monoculture defined by a small literate class of white men. 

When History exploded into a million strands of histories, the dominant conception of “historical importance” went with it, and that is what Danto refers to when he declares the end of art. In his words, “The story comes to an end, but not the characters, who live on, happily ever after doing whatever they do…The age of pluralism is upon us…when one direction is as good as another.”

Historical importance hasn’t gone out the window, but the definition of historical importance has changed. As art critic Jerry Saltz has written, “Modernism’s arrow of progress has finally been scrapped, replaced by a new model of evolution that is more like an ever-changing cloud formation, expanding, condensing, never predictable.” 

Are We Experiencing the Death Throes of Art?

To decide whether AI is the death of art, I’ll return to Duchamp by way of Arthur Danto, who said: 

“… art works have to be about something – have a meaning – and, unlike sentences, they embody their meanings. Aesthetics is not a separate condition, though it can be part of how a meaning is embodied. But I felt that it was quite possible that something could be a work of art without having any aesthetic qualities at all. I think that was true of Duchamp’s ready-mades. If there can be artworks that are not aesthetic, then being aesthetic is not part of the definition of art.”

Put another way, art may have aesthetic qualities, but those qualities are unnecessary to art. Art is, as we said earlier,  “intentionally staged experiences for communicating or evoking ideas and emotions to audiences.” This is what Danto means when he says that art must “be about something – have a meaning – and…embody their meanings.”

What AI allows for is a mind-boggling proliferation of aesthetic experiences that are not necessarily art, though they can be

Jerry Saltz gives more personal, qualitative criteria for spotting and connecting with art, which isn’t the same thing as a definition. It’s actually more in line with how Duchamp denied the possibility of defining art while allowing for a description of its effects.

“Art is the greatest operating system our species has ever invented, a means of exploring consciousness, seen and unseen worlds. It is an instrument, medium, matrix, or miracle that transforms old impressions into new thoughts; that makes thousands of insignificant details light up and draw you in.”

So are we, in fact, experiencing the death throes of art? 

No. We are not.

AI can be a powerful tool for artists and non-artists alike. AI, for example, gives non-artists the tools to create aesthetic experiences. It also allows those not so adept at creating aesthetic experiences a new means of creating art. But it also provides a new canvas for existing artists to express their creativity. 

Though there will certainly be an unimaginable glut of lazy dross from those who merely churn out pretty pictures, I’d have to say that we’re not nearly at the end of the road for capital-a Art. The only challenge henceforth for artists is grappling with Benjamin’s contention that mass production diminishes art’s aura and Adorno’s argument that commodification diminishes authenticity. 

As lowercase-a art gets easier for the masses, creating capital-A Art — with AI or not — will be harder. That ineffable aura won’t come from virtuosity but thoughtfulness and the ability to evoke ideas and emotional responses. Though making great art that ripples through cultures will only become more difficult, the art that manages to make a genuine splash will be all the greater for its ability to stand out. 

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