Robot overlords win blue ribbon (not really)

I’m teaching Philosophy of Art this semester, and a student pointed me to an Ars Technica story with the headline AI wins state fair art contest, annoys humans. Jason Allen used Midjourney (the same AI that I was playing with recently) to make some images and enter them in the Colorado State Fair art contest. One of those images won first place in the Digital Arts/Digitally Manipulated Photography category.

There’s lots of discussion about whether this is the end for human artists (it’s not), whether this shows that AI are now making real art (no), and whether the submission of AI-generated images to the State Fair was dishonest (maybe).

After my recent blogging about Midjourney, Jeff tried using it for making game illustrations. He gave the program a couple of rather specific prompts. When he asked it for an “overhead view forest clearing imp who steals coins”, the results lacked a coin-stealing imp. He concludes, “I don’t really see using these tools for a prototype and certainly not a production.” For inspiration or placeholder art, though: “Might be quicker than Google image searching.”

That, I think, is the relevant comparison. The best images that come out of Midjourney are the result of multiple runs, refining the prompt and iterating on runs that are not quite right. Certainly Allen has done that with the winning image.

So it is not so different from searching through archives, the internet, or collections of stock images. When there’s a particularly apt or poignant image at the end of the process, it’s not because the algorithm fit the brief. To get a particular outcome, at some point an artist is likely to edit and composite multiple source images rather than keep searching for the magic one. There’s craft involved in using images.

So, contra Ars Technica‘s headline, it’s not an AI that won the art contest.1 The story describes Allen as a “synthetic media artist”, but he really just used off-the-shelf technology. Whether that violates the conditions of the State Fair’s Digital Arts category depends on their specific policies, but judges seem not to have been aware that it was an algorithmic work.

Allen comments that he “set out to make a statement using Midjourney in a competitive manner”— so maybe the art here isn’t the image hung on the wall but the performance of winning a blue ribbon with it. As performance art, though, it strikes me as kind of banal.

An AI generated image and a blue ribbon from the Colorado State Fair
Théåtre D’opéra Spatial, controversial blue-ribbon winner of the Colorado State Fair.
  1. As a curmudgeon, I feel obligated to add that even calling it AI is out of place.

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