What Am Art?

What is the value of art? What is the purpose of art? How do we define who is and isn’t an artist? And also, what the hell is even art?

These are big questions. The AI rise didn’t create them, but it did put them in the spotlight for many people who never considered them before. Great thinkers have struggled with these questions since probably a week after the first person painted a buffalo on a cave wall. There are no easy answers. Not until I arrived on the scene.

You’re welcome in advance.

The thing about art and creative expression is that there is no single answer to any of those questions. Some art tears apart cultural and societal conventions, challenging what we hold sacred. Some art is dinosaurs fighting robots because dinosaurs fighting robots are cool.

Why do we create art in the first place? I can’t answer for everyone because there’s no singular answer, but can say that I create art to get paid. It might sound mercennary, but it’s part of the calculation. I still want to make art worth the audience’s time because art that the audience doesn’t like isn’t great for my bank account, and as much as we like to put capitalism and artistic integrity at odds I don’t think they have to be enemies. Maybe they’re more like frenemies.

I’ve been doing this for a few decades, and I don’t know if I’d write on my own if I wasn’t getting paid for it. I do like writing, but I also like cartooning. I used to do a lot more of that, but I don’t do it as much as I used to. Only so many hours in the day. I only write this blog because it keeps me in the habit of writing. If you like it, thanks for stopping by.

But let’s remove the aspect of getting paid. People still generally make art because they want other people to like it. I can’t speak for every artist, but every writer I know would love to be more popular than they are. It’s not that we expect to get movie and TV deals, expect to form a staple of the publishing industry, expect to create something that becomes iconic. But if it happens . . . well, it definitely won’t happen.

But if it did . . . .

While many people probably do create art only for themselves, any art you’ve stumbled across is probably made by someone who wants to reach an audience. Even if we’re talking about art that was never meant to be commercial–like much of fanfiction–there are still websites devoted to sharing it with the world in hopes of getting a reaction. To “Publish” is to “Make Public”, and even me writing this silly little blog and clicking the post button is a form of publication.

There’s a difference for art that we keep for ourselves and art we choose to publish. We can write pages and pages of She-Hulk marrying Grimlock and then the two of them going off to fight evil Doctor Bombay on the moon, and as long as we keep it to ourselves there’s nothing there to really judge. It’s your thing. For you. Cool. Good on you.

But when we dare to publish everything is different, like it or not.

I’ve heard some people refer to AI tools as “democratizing” art, taking it out of the hands of artists and putting it in the common person’s reach. This is a supremely bad take because artists are not special. Artists are just people who create art, which is anyone and everyone who is willing to sit down and create art. All it takes for most of us is a pencil and paper to become an artist.

What the above sentiment really means is that people can now create “good” art without wasting all that time learning how to be better artists. If the reptilliods approached me with a computer program that could create a great novel and all it needed from me was a few prompts, I’d see the temptation. Because writing is hard, often confounding and disappointing.

Every book I’ve written is hours upon hours of my labor on the page. Mine and so many others. And then the books comes out, and we’d like a moment to appreciate it. But no, it’s onto the next story. Like a shark. Keep swimming. Keep writing. Keep putting stuff out there and hope to the Mighty Robot King that somebody gives a damn, maybe enough somebodies to keep your mortgage paid.

Welcome to art, sucker.

The moment you start putting your art out into the world is the moment you have to accept that the world may not care about your art. One way to get around that is to not invest in your art either. “Hey, here’s some art or whatever. Hope you like it or whatever. I don’t really care.”

That last part is always a lie. Not a new one. I’ve heard variations for as long as I’ve been writing.

What is the difference between an AI using influences to create new images and an artist doing the same? That can be a blurry distinction if taken at face value. Most artists wear their influences in some way. If I were to tell you I grew up reading superhero comic books and watching monster movies you’d probably not be surprised.

I could say that AI is derivative by default, but there’s a lot of derivative art out there, most of it made by humans, much of it very successful. Creative expression doesn’t require a vision or even much in the way of talent. Talent is an overrated element anyway. While I do believe it plays something of a role I’m more convinced that putting in the time is how to get better. Trying to skip putting in that time isn’t a good way to do that.

Once at a convention I watched a ceramics artist’s demonstration on how to make a simple pot. He explained as he went that he didn’t have any secret ingredients. All the recipes for the ceramic and the paints and the glaze and material components were freely available on his website. When you bought one of his pieces, you weren’t buying the components. You were buying the skills he developed over the years.

I’m no different. There is nothing special about any of the tools I use to create my stories. It’s the same letters, arranged with the same set of rules, that anyone with fluency can use. You probably don’t even have to be that fluent, if I’m  honest. You aren’t buying my knowledge of words or vocabulary when you buy my books. You’re buying my creative training and labor.

If all that keeps your art interesting is your secret cache of catch phrases then you’re not much of an artist, if you’re an artist at all. It’s like having a trained monkey locked in a room that can spit out beautiful poems. Does having the key to that room make someone an artist? I’d say no.

Using AI to generate stories isn’t much of a threat to human-written stories at this point aside from those who will flood the market with yet more algorithmic generated garbage, but it’s not so much a new problem as a new volume of the problem. Technology often makes these leaps, and it’s only after it’s all over that we have any idea of what it can accomplish and how it will change our world. We can only wait and see.

But back to those questions at the beginning:

What is the value of art? Whatever value someone can find in it.

What is the purpose of art? To explore, to feel, to amuse, to thrill. Y’know, human stuff.

How do we define who is and isn’t an artist? If you make art, you’re an artist. But you gotta be the one who makes it, not merely the one who enters some words in a program that spits out something.

What the hell even is art? Anything involving robots fighting dinosaurs.



3 Replies to “What Am Art?”

  1. Lee, your nagging SoonerCon friend here again.
    FIRST I’m reminded of Joni Mitchell’s song “For the Roses,” in which she describes a guy who pours out his simple hole to the soundhole of his guitar. That’s my audience mostly,too. But art IS intended to communicate! And without an intentional, organic brain behind the message, it ain’t art.
    SECOND listen to the song “ADSR” by Mo from 1982, about soulless music generated by fingers. It has the same idea. Techno wizardry is great, but as Rick Springfield said, “We all need the human touch.”
    But, you knew all three of these songs already, yes? Love from OKC!

  2. I stopped in the middle of reading “The Automatic Detective” to look you up. I really like this post. It seems accurate.

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