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Why I Stole Your Art

By Sean Monett

            I’m an author whose newest book cover uses AI art elements, collaged and painted over, to depict a startling scene. I’ve been a working webcomic artist, poet, and illustrator for years. I stand with the creators of AI art generators and the end users who are creating amazing content every day. I am also currently fighting the urge to rant, now. I could easily slip into railing against laziness and negative trends in this new art form.

            When we enter a new age, do we walk timidly and reluctantly, or do we walk in with full acknowledgement of the potential for upsetting weirdness? The upended applecart of the art world is easily salvageable. So many people have been drawn to AI-powered text-to-image generators for great reasons, not the least of which is the medium’s accessibility. Automation has come to stay. As artists, we should embrace the new tools and those who are excited by them.

            Serendipitously, my debut novel, Your Brain Has Fleas, is focused on terrifying speculations about the future of AI-powered systems. The nature of our daily reality is changing. We have looked to outer space for years in search of intelligence. We found it earthbound. I find it exciting to imagine a world in which AI and copious automation can improve the quality of our lives. My novel shows a more realistic near-future scenario that involves lasting trauma and diabolical deceit.

            AI tools will inevitably be used for greedy and unpleasant ends. But the same problem plagues so-called “Traditional art”. We all work for evil ends as long as we sustain a culture of scarcity and reject a transition to abundance. And we DO have the tools to achieve abundance. We don’t need new machines or supernatural intervention to provide for citizens adequately and equitably. We simply need an attitude adjustment. And you don’t need AI wired into your brain, like Victory Mission from YBHF, to recognize the potential of AI upheaval.

Our society can use the current increased focus on the art world to pursue collaboration rather than collapse. Collaboration with machine learning systems can bring the work of disadvantaged artists to a new level. It’s inspiring to see people begin to use AI art generators. I’ve seen so many people in online groups speak about the amazement they felt after getting an idea out of their heads and onto the screen. Through a simple sentence plugged into a text box, dreams deferred or abandoned have been brought back to life. Encouraging young people to pursue their dreams ought to be a central function of YA books like mine.

            The story of YBHF has a calculated sloppiness a la Jean-Michel Basquiat or Dav Pilkey. The smeary, unpretentious ease also links in with the diegetic conceit that this is a story told by an unreliable teenage narrator. It’s exactly the sort of book I wished to read as a young person. I was always interested in writing and illustration which made me feel as if making my own stories was an achievable goal. To my mind, the best way to explain that is to point at ‘Captain Underpants’. YBHF has a similar delight in foolishness and mischief motifs. The effortless-looking style hides years of frustrated tinkering and rewriting behind that affable flair of achievability.

            It is always this way. The perceived ease with which a person can create a new work of art with AI is fundamentally an illusion. Mastery of a powerful new tool like this will take practice and dedication. The lack of repeated and meticulous effort is always evident in a piece of art. I don’t believe that our human capacity for tolerating the uncanny and wrong-looking aspects of AI art will be increased. It does not matter how saturated the art market will become with AI-generated images. Our brains catch patterns easily: misshapen limbs or a double-pupiled eye can stick out to us like several sore thumbs.

            The major complaint among professional artists calling for a boycott of text-to-image models is the idea of being emulated without one’s consent. There’s such an interesting interplay here of dedication, hard work, luck, privilege, and the fear of change. AI art presents troubling questions of ownership. We are entering an age of synesthetic juxtaposition. Poetry can become a painting. Inspiration and imitation are separated by an increasingly blurred borderline. Of course, professional artists deserve to make enough money to live and have their unique and impressive abilities celebrated. But they are not the only people with those rights.

            There’s an inequity inherent in the boycott against AI art tools. There are staggering swaths of people who feel called to share their creative work with the world, but many are experiencing the strangleholds of poverty, disability, or prejudice. AI tools can help surmount those obstacles. It would be erroneous to assume that the use of these tools is a “shortcut”. Experimentation and ambition are still required to make art that is truly transcendent. Planning and post-work are the paths toward the best possible product.

But should we treat artistic exploration as a commodity? I have always conceived of creativity as more of a sacred and spiritual practice than an economic one. In that context, it would be criminal to fight against the rising wave of new artistic talent. Talent, as a concept, has a troublesome tendency to dismiss the hard work of art. In this case, though, I feel that it’s the correct word. There is so much untapped talent in our world, hidden behind physical or circumstantial limitations. Will we embrace the new age that is coming our way? Will we foster and grow the work of those disenfranchised folks who are finding strength in AI art? Only time will tell.