AiArt: Why Some Artists Are Furious About AI-Produced Art

Sam O'brien
Published 11/29/2023
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Artists Growing Angry with AI Produced ArtFrom saving the bees to supporting research of all kinds, technology has the potential for a massively positive impact on the world. Tech is how we, as a species, grow and get better.

But not all tech is created equal, and not all tech enjoys an equally positive reception.

In particular, AI-produced art has been a topic of considerable debate, both for artists and non-artists. Many people who count themselves as artists, whether professionally or for leisure, are less than delighted about the rise of AI art – but why?

We’ll explore the reasons for their disdain below, to gain a deeper understanding of the complex reaction that AI art has provoked in the public.

Art generators vs other AIs

Firstly, it’s important to note that the people who are opposed to AI-produced art aren’t angry about the existence of all types of AI. Art generation tools in particular are the subject of people’s fury, and that’s because they’re fundamentally different from a lot of other AIs.

Something like, for example, a call center AI exists to support the work of human employees. It flags up keywords to show call center agents helpful information during their calls, and can alert a manager if an ongoing call needs intervention. That’s highly useful to these employees, and instead of threatening their job security, it makes their work lives more comfortable.

AI art generators don’t have the same impact on human artists.

Instead of supporting them in their creation process, AI art tools use pattern recognition tools to ‘remix’ existing work into something new. They don’t help artists figure out how best to shade that tree, for example; they can only create a new facsimile of a tree out of data from other artists’ work featuring trees.

Unethical data collection

One of the biggest problems digital artists cite with AI art generators is the issue of how they got the data they use to create new works. Or rather, the pieces they splice together, since the works in question aren’t actually created from scratch.

The following points often influence artists’ anger about AI art.

Questions of copyright

Despite the fact that AI art doesn’t rely on breaking copyright laws, many artists feel cheated by the fact that that’s even true.

Imagine, for context, that you’re part of the team behind a popular piece of remote support software. You put in hard work to make sure the code was just right, and that all major bugs were ironed out. You’re proud of the finished product.

A week later, an imitation of your work shows up on the market, retailing for half the price. The code they use looks suspiciously similar to yours … but not quite similar enough for you to be able to take them to court over it.

Did they violate copyright laws to create the imitation? No, not quite. But you’ll likely be left feeling frustrated about the lack of legal protection, instead of relieved that no rules were broken. The fact that it’s technically fair play is the problem, which is the same for digital artists.



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Consent, and lack thereof

A common theme among artists’ complaints about AI art generators is that they’re unhappy about their work being used without their permission.

This is true of the vast majority, if not all, of the art generator tools available. They were trained using data scraping, without consulting the people whose work they were trained on.

And since AI tools can’t generate art out of nothing, that training wasn’t passive either. It’s not the same as a human learning from Da Vinci by studying his work and trying to paint like him. If anything, it’s more like a human tracing the Mona Lisa and then claiming they made it themselves.

In both cases, the artist never gave consent for their art to be used in this way.

A question of respect

A big reason for plenty of artists’ anger is the apparent lack of respect for their work. Why should the pieces they poured time and energy into be cut up and put back together by anyone with access to an AI art generator?

That’s plainly not a respectful way to treat someone’s hard work.

We’ll consider a software development analogy for context. Imagine learning that an app you worked hard on was bought from your original client, and it had its name changed. The new owner then decides they ‘created’ the app all alone, merely because they changed a few lines of the code (while still using large chunks of what you and your team wrote).

The only difference is that in this example, you were originally compensated for your work. In many cases, artists posted their work online for free in the first instance.

Devaluation of human work

It might be tempting to say that modern technology (like AI) just helps people get things done more efficiently. Instead of going from machine to machine to provide IT support, you can just use a remote desktop manager and resolve problems no matter where you are, for example.

But AI art doesn’t work this way.

If anything, the way AI art has suddenly exploded onto the scene is more comparable to the introduction of computers that could handle complex calculations. Back in the day, this came as a shock to human calculators at institutions like NASA, who were left wondering whether their work would still have a place in the future. AI art generators can’t fully replace human artists right now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still devaluing human art all the same.

Here’s how.

Negative impact on income

While not everyone who calls themselves an artist makes a living off of their work or aims to sell art online, plenty do. These people are running a business, and need sales to stay afloat.

Business growth is difficult to achieve when losing clients and leads to cheap or free AI art generators.

Of course, there will always be people who value human art above the works of AI, and are willing to pay for it. However, not every artist has access to these kinds of captive audiences, which means that AI art generators make it harder for them to earn enough to get by.

Creation vs prompting

People who value AI art and human-made art at a similar or identical level rely on certain assumptions. Firstly, there’s the idea that both count as ‘art’ – and that’s a philosophical question for another day. Secondly, however, there’s the idea of making art, and what that means.

For better or worse, AI ‘artists’ create their pieces by entering prompts into a machine. They may or may not choose to edit the results they get from that machine, but that’s the extent of the work they contribute to its initial creation.

Digital and traditional artists, meanwhile, usually start with a blank canvas. They have to learn how to create art, put in hours and hours of practice, and then finally use all their accumulated knowledge to turn a thought into something others will appreciate looking at.

And those two kinds of creation processes are not alike. To suggest they raise quite serious ethical concerns and is a big factor in angering some artists.

Time and effort

No artist is born knowing how to create masterpieces. Everyone who’s interested in creating art has to spend time practicing, learning, studying, and generally working on their skills to reach a point where they can consistently create pieces they’re proud of.

AI-produced art casts a grim light on all of this time and effort.

When art is available with a quick prompt instead of hours of hard work, the value of that hard work goes down. That’s bad news for artists, because it makes it much harder for them to both charge living wages for their work, and to see value in the effort they put in.

It’s a little like spending ages coming up with the perfect names for your Canadian domains, only to learn that there are already many similar domain names being used and yours are going to get lost amongst the many.

Unique styles and their value

Before AI art, an artist could spend years developing a unique and difficult-to-imitate style. People who loved that style would then be able to commission that artist for a one-of-a-kind piece, so they could enjoy the specific art style for themselves.

However, AI art generators can now be taught to copy almost any kind of style. This disincentivizes original approaches – why put in all that work just for someone to come along and feed all your pieces to a generator without paying you a penny?

This might be less infuriating to artists if they were compensated every time their work was used in this way, but this is almost never the case.

Final thoughts

Decades ago, futurists dreamed of a time when computers would take over all the drudge work so that humans could be free to spend their lives doing what they most enjoyed. For many people, this vision included an idea of creativity: writing poetry, composing music … and making art.

So it’s not surprising that many artists are a little disillusioned that the modern reality of AI seems to be making the opposite happen. While we’ve only really scraped the surface so far in terms of what AI is capable of, AI-produced art is likely to remain controversial for the foreseeable future.

In the end, it’s not realistic to expect the AI art generators on the market to wink out of existence, or for everyone to immediately stop using them. But it might be possible, at least, to make sure that human artists are better respected – and compensated – for their work.

After all, without them, the AI art models would have nothing to train on.


Disclaimer: The author is completely responsible for the content of this article. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent IEEE’s position nor that of the Computer Society nor its Leadership.