What is an artist in the DALL-E 2 Era?

Recently, DALL-E 2 made headlines everywhere: an AI illustration program that turns descriptions of images into actual ones with believably good results.

For example, if you type “an astronaut riding a horse,” this is one of the options DALL-E generates for you:

With DALL-E, it is suddenly possible to ”express one’s ideas” without mastery of any artistic technique. So, that got me thinking: in a world where hyperrealistic and artistic content can be “commissioned” simply by uttering words of imagination, what will happen to artists in the future?

Or more precisely, what will be an artist?

I consider an artist to be someone who combines creativity and technique to create art, which is something that evokes a visceral response and consequently impart a message. At least this is how I interpret these two words.

One could argue that DALL-E is not unlike photography. Photography first appeared to have replaced painting, but it soon became clear that photography, by offloading the job of documenting people and things from painting, actually elevated its essence: artistic expression.

It feels to me that tools like DALL-E 2 can evolve in two different ways, which ultimately is a matter of perspective.

Scenario 1: artists will continue to evolve their skills as tools become more powerful, they will master new techniques that allow them to precisely control their artistic intent. In this scenario, “artists” are still an influential, “elite” group of people who have skills that most don’t. This group might even shrink due to its higher skill barrier.

For example, with DALL-E 2, an artist equipped with ML understanding can leverage it to generate and test out ideas, composition, palette, etc. quickly. They can then fine-tune its input parameters to create exactly what they envisioned before hand-painting over the nonsensical details that ML doesn’t understand. AI does 80% of the grunt work, and the artist elevates the piece to their unique vision with the last 20% of manual work. These future artists can output a larger quantity of content, supply to a larger base of audience, resulting in an even smaller demand for artists per unit of population, adding to the phenomenon of pop culture oligopoly.

Scenario 2: more and more people can express their imaginations with access to more powerful and more precise tools. “Thought → Result” becomes a reality, being an artist is simply an “activity” that anyone can partake with minimal experience needed. This is analogous to blogging: it used to take a programmer to publish a website, now any budding writer can.

In both scenarios, there will be an explosion of content. The net might be: both scenario 1 or 2 could be true, it’s just a matter of how you define what an artist is vs. what a remixer is.

You could argue that great meme gif makers are in an artist category of their own, even though their raw materials are creations from others. But then again, is any art truly independent of other people’s works? The best artists and musicians reference other sources for inspiration. Is DALL-E 2 simply a more efficient reference and brainstorming tool? Will DALL-E remove the burden of documenting ideas and let artists focus on expressions, like photography did for painting?

Bruce Barnbaum advocated the idea that what makes one an artist is their way of seeing, and an artist’s unique way of seeing is consistent throughout their entire body of work. Even if DALL-E takes away the laborious work of painting stroke by stroke, it would still take an artist’s eye to select the exact composition that matches the artist’s vision.

If we consider an artist to be not defined by their kind of technique or level of technique, then an artist is really about what happens in their head. Do they connect the dots? Do they know how to translate ideas into an artistic medium? If this is the definition, then the explosion of low-barrier tools paints an optimistic color for the future of art, where technology indeed unlocks the full potential of human creativity.

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