UL student artists ponder creating or competing with AI

Have you ever wondered what a monkey riding a bicycle on Mars would look like? Artificial intelligence can help you visualize that and other fever dreams — just don’t ask it to draw hands.   

Besides using advanced chatbots like ChatGPT to spit out that quick office email, there are emerging AI programs that focus primarily on generating “artistic” images. Programs like DALL-E 2, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion create these images based on user inputs called “prompts.” Users tell the program what image they envision through a brief description, and the AI dutifully re-creates it, sometimes with bizarre results. 

Users can include prompts like “in the style of [artist name]” to create parodies or homages to the greats, and this is where things get murky. Using AI to generate art based on another artist’s previous work raises ethical concerns.

Art students at UL Lafayette are facing potential competition with this emerging technology and how it sources material from existing artworks. The question of how to properly use AI creatively and its lasting effects on the art industry looms beyond graduation.                  

Last month, animation students gathered in a darkened classroom, and a compilation of “greatest Real Housewives moments” played on a large screen. Their class assignment involved sifting through antics and thrown drinks to develop a parody of the show.      

In the rear of this room, Dylan Sapp sat over a drawing tablet, absorbing the discord. Sapp is a computer art and animation major rounding out his senior year. He and his peers are the latest crop of artists cultivated by the university’s digital arts program. In Sapp’s opinion, artists shouldn’t view art AIs adversely but as a tool to further one’s creative process.  

Artwork of a tree with a bridge behind it in black and snowy white
“Woman and the Fairy Tree” by Dylan Sapp

“Artists that are making art without it won’t go away. They’ll find ways to use AI to further their own art,” Sapp says. “It’s not something I believe was made to hinder us.”  

Sapp spent years learning art theory and how to incorporate programs like Clip Studio Paint, Paint Pro, Adobe After Effects and Adobe Illustrator into his creative process. Art AIs operate similarly but much faster, using a deep learning model that teaches the program how to generate content using the internet as a source.       

Derek Gremillion is also a computer art and animation major in the home stretch of his senior year. Gremillion says he’s experimented with art AIs, but only to get the creative ball rolling.   

“If I’m using it for concept art, just trying to get a rough idea of what I’m trying to do, then that might be OK,” says Gremillion. “When I know that it’s pulling from other people’s actual work, I feel an internal dilemma.”   

Mentoring young artists like Sapp and Gremillion at UL Lafayette is Jamie Baldridge. Baldridge is a new media and digital art professor with 26 years of experience working with the medium. His surrealistic works are known for having a “living picture” aesthetic, blending the human form with ethereal dreamscapes.   

The professional artists Baldridge knows don’t feel threatened by this emerging technology, as AI-generated images lack the copyright protections granted to conventional works of art. The fundamental lack of humanity might also be AI’s biggest flaw, he explains.  

“Art is defined as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, and a machine has neither of those things,” says Baldridge. “It’s not thinking. It’s not being creative.”    

However, Baldridge says that art AIs grant individuals without artistic skills a medium to express themselves creatively. Working with art AI may be inevitable for future artists like Sapp, but he wants to address the issue of sampling works from other artists.    

“How do we give credit to the artists that we’re taking from, for it to learn? If AI art is ever going to continue to be a useful tool,” says Sapp.    

As AI technology advances, its applications will increase exponentially. However, we still don’t know how the proliferation of this technology will affect skilled labor. We can see the effects of automation in grocery stores and fast-food chains, as people find themselves looking at screens rather than human faces. In the future, Baldridge says society will have to adapt to the disruptive effects of automation and artificial intelligence.   

“There’s an old Chinese proverb that was a curse that says, ‘may you live in interesting times.’ I think we’re about to live in some very interesting times,” says Baldridge.       

The origin of this adage is hard to trace, but much like the nature of AI, only time will tell if that curse comes to fruition.  

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