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AI "Art": Why Artists Still Matter

Following the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strike in Hollywood, major studios such as Disney, Netflix, Paramount, and Warner Bros Discovery have doubled down on hiring Artificial Intelligence specialists. The writers’ strike began on May 2nd, 2023, and was swiftly followed by a strike from the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) on July 14.

These artists have been striking for various reasons, including better pay, but one of the major bones of contention has been the usage of AI-based tools such as ChatGPT as an alternative to paying artists and writers for their work. After all, which studio wouldn’t simply delight at such a deal? All one has to do, to get a fully formed script from ChatGPT, is type in the correct prompt, and voila, a screenplay is fresh for you in a matter of seconds. It sounds much better than dealing with temperamental writers who may take days, weeks, or months to write a screenplay. Worse, these artists have opinions and views that are often inserted into these screenplays which could prove controversial to advertisers and the general audience, which means taking a hit in the revenue department.

Furthermore, one doesn’t even need actors to come in, as AI tools like Midjourney and Stability, can create fully formed shots, with characters even blinking or showing that they are alive. Surely, AI seems like the end-all-be-all for producers who no longer have to deal with pesky actors and writers who constantly want better pay and, god-forbid, have opinions.

AI and its place in artists, whether it can replace artists or not

And if the popularity of the various AI-generated videos and social media posts that imagined "what if different filmmakers directed" things like the World Cup, Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Avengers, and so on is anything to go by, it seems as though the general public seems excited by this prospect. These are mostly trailers, written by AI, with images generated by AI, animated by AI, and voiced and narrated by AI. Some have even attempted to craft full scenes out of these programs. However, they are lacking, to say the least. For starters, there are errors such as Midjourney simply not being able to comprehend having more than a few people in a group shot and inevitably messing up the body composition as a result. The faces are distorted and not resembling the actors they are supposed to be. Some are just quite horrendous to look at such as Bill Murray as Gandalf in a popular video titled “Lord of the Rings by Wes Anderson”, created by Curious Refuge, making both look quite horrendous. However, lobbying these as criticisms against AI-Generated art is missing the point. AI is being improved at a rapid pace, and these errors, though valid points of criticism, would be improved upon quite soon.

The more concerning problem with AI is that it is being seen as a viable alternative to real-life artists. And this is good for no one, except for maybe the producers whose sole goal is to earn as much money as possible as soon as possible, as is evident by the issues highlighted in the ongoing strike in Hollywood. For the writers, actors, directors, and every other creative mind that works for a film’s completion, not only does it mean that their jobs are in danger, but it also is a complete devaluation of their art. Many of them spend months and even years perfecting their art, learning and honing their craft with each new project they make. Now that a subpar imitation of the same art can be produced within a matter of minutes, it feels as though the hard work they put in is devalued to be simply content.

I use content advisedly here, for art can never be content. And content can never be art. Art requires an artist. This is why AI like ChatGPT cannot create art. After all art is meant to communicate a human experience. These AI are simply large language models (LLMs). When a prompt is entered, it does not think of a response on its own. It scours the web for responses and uses it to craft a response, often doing so without crediting the original creator. In other words, it essentially plagiarises other artists’ work, not creating its own. So does Midjourney. So when we watch Midjourney try to emulate the work of a filmmaker, it is simply plagiarizing their style and placing it on an already established property. Therefore, since there is no artist behind the work generated by an AI, rather a simple case of plagiarism of art, the work generated by it should really be called content.

A common defense of this is the use of a commonly spouted adage, that these AI are “stealing like an artist”. All art is inherently inspired by other art, and all artists take inspiration from other artists. Simply put, this view holds that these AI are doing the same. However, that is simply not the case. When someone like Quentin Tarantino (I am using him as an example here simply because his wide range of films copy a lot from other films), uses other filmmakers’ work in his cinema, often using entire shot sequences lifted from other films, he is doing so to communicate his own unique vision of the world. He adds his own spin to it, the context of his own work is very present within the work he takes inspiration from. He does not do it simply because a prompt was entered. Instead, his copying indicates a love for cinema that only a human can foster, not a program.

Moreover, the popularity of these programs might discourage people from going out and making art the old-fashioned way. These platforms do not democratize filmmaking or make it more accessible. The invention of the phone camera and basic editing software, with the rise of YouTube, already did that. All it does is give those talentless people who are looking to make a quick buck while putting in as little labour as possible an easy way to do so. And it is doing so at the cost of the jobs of real people, artists who are passionate about their craft, and those who have had to work in quite terrible conditions since time immemorial. Despite that, they continued to work, simply because they love their craft. A love AI cannot physically feel or express.

This is not to say that artists are completely against the use of Ai in art. AI is, rather, quite helpful in the pursuit of creativity. Various artists use software like PhotoShop or After Effects, all of which employ the use of predictive AI to enhance and edit shots. So is the auto-complete tool that many writing software offer. In both of these instances, however, AI is being used as a tool to enhance creativity, not being relied upon to be creative in itself. They are seen as tools for artists, not replacements and that is key. Interestingly enough, the people most excited about the prospects presented by AI art are not artists themselves, but your average crypto-bros, who are less interested in things such as art and creativity, and more concerned with how they could earn the most money in the least amount of time and effort. In other words, AI art is a sham, a grift, and a fraud, but one that is being used to influence producers with similar mindsets and therefore, one putting real artists in danger. So as a member of an audience who cares about the quality of what they watch, what can we do? As consumers, the most powerful thing we can do is let those in charge know what we want, that we care about the artists who are making things for us, and that we do not want robots taking over their jobs for them.

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