when ai imagery destroyed my dream, it saved me as an artist.

All my art life (which is actually all my life now that I think about it) I have worked to become a better and better artist. At some point, this became practicing every day to become a more technically excellent artist. I wanted very much to have a more steady hand, more economy of line, better compositions, superior color combinations, more dynamic movement, a better grasp of anatomy, and a better command of an ever-growing box of tools, including digital tools.

Then AI generated images came along.

At first, I watched with amusement as AI made extremely hideous muddy faces and hands with 14 fingers. But as I followed the different things people are doing with it, I came to notice several truly disturbing things:

  1. The best-looking AI images directly scrape the art of existing artists, without their consent and very often explicitly against their wishes. This happens everytime someone writes a prompt that includes “in the style of Heather Landry,” or “Artstation Trending Works” or etc.
  2. People are belligerent that they should be able to do this, that it is completely legal, and that it is not in any way a violation of the artist’s rights. They accuse artists of trying to “cling to their monopoly on visual media” and say that artists are just being small minded and short-sighted as people once were with all art and technological advances.
  3. Businesses are extremely interested in developing the AI technology further so that they don’t have to spend nearly as much money on artists, writers, and other creative people. And since businesses have all the money, what they want is what generally comes to pass.
  4. An AI script can make several variations of an idea, instantly or very quickly, and depending on whose art style(s) were scraped it can create very technically precise and compelling pieces.
  5. Average people and businesses often like these AI pictures just as much as art made by human artists, IN SPITE of extra fingers or strange inhuman faces. They often do not even notice these aberrations and focus instead on the overall image being pleasing to them and fulfilling whatever their goal was for the picture.
  6. Non-artists and non-writers are extremely eager to call themselves “artists” and “writers” for the mere act of writing prompts, and their emotional reactions to being told they are “prompt-writers” instead show that they hold a great deal of resentment towards creative people.
  7. In many instances, AI generated images can achieve more technically excellent strokes and more interesting compositions or color combinations than I am capable of doing quickly. And I cannot do anything instantly at all.
  8. I might be replaced by AI at some point, whether or not this would result in the best work for my employers and clients, because it is economically just too tempting.
  9. I experimented with AI images too, so I wouldn’t just be talking out of my hat. I found it to be fun and exciting for a short period of time (2 days to be exact) but ultimately it was a very empty and isolating experience. Simply put, I did not feel connected to the images at all. Any prompts that came out nicely did not feel like MY WORK. I also couldn’t use any of it, since I knew every image scraped the hard work of some human artist somewhere in order to exist at all.

So. I found AI generated images to be cold and empty, often ridiculous on close examination but already “good enough” for many businesses and would-be creatives, and far cheaper and faster than I can ever be as a human. Over the course of two months or so, I watched as I became obsolete and superflous to many people who drew no distinction between my art and AI images.

For that matter, I can’t always tell AI generated images from the art of a person I know nothing about. Knowing this, I can see all too well why my human contributions would be deemed utterly irrelevant by someone in this new playing field.

In the blink of an eye, Forty years of work was nothing. my future was nothing.

I’m not one to hide from reality, so I faced the nightmare head-on and considered how to survive it.

First and foremost, I knew I wanted to keep making art. It’s one of my chief sources of happiness. And just as I think of myself as a “mother” or a “human,” I think of myself as an artist on an absolute and cellular level.

So that was all right, I would never stop being an artist. At least I didn’t have to worry about that.

Whether I would ever be a paid artist again was another matter!!

All right, I tackled that next. I currently know a lot of people who love human art. They love being able to communicate with me and get exactly what they need from me, a machine’s approximations would not be “good enough” for them. So it may come to pass that I can continue helping them for years, or possibly even for the rest of our lives. But freelance work is not guaranteed. I have always known that my next gig might be my last.

Very well, I always knew that my freelance work could dry up and that I could one day be fired from my full-time art job for any reason. Nothing new there to fret over.

That just left my dream of artistic improvement and technical excellence.

I always strive to compete with myself foremost, so I still have the ability to become better than myself. But any dreams of being recognized as a talented and special artist, an expert at a certain style or technique, or a fast and efficient artist, have been burned to the ground. The simple truth is, the machines will win against me every time in battles of speed, precision, and versatility of technique.

Going back to my own struggles when presented with an image of unknown origin: if I have been an artist for forty years and I can’t always tell if I’m looking at a piece of human art or an AI generated image, how do I justify my existence? How can I hope that anyone could ever tell that I am me, that a human hand has created my art?

Where does the artist exist in my art?

And then I saw it. My humanity is expressed in the stories and images inside of me that have originated from my human experiences, mistakes, and dreams. As a friend reminded me, our humanity exists in our imperfections and flaws.

My flaws are what make me unique. While I could strive to achieve the same crystal lattice and symmetry that any AI script could make, it will not tell MY story at all. There will be a million cold and perfect images like it.

And perfection is not human. It is certainly not me.

And that is when I gave up.

I once indulged in pipe dreams of fame and renown. But as of now, I am facing absolute obscurity as thousands upon thousands of instantly generated, good-enough images continue to flood the world. Before, I only risked being drowned out by all of the talented human artists in the world. Today I am facing down a horde of tireless, constantly improving robots which are available to anyone, all the time, without end.

With such extreme saturation no one may ever see what I create again, and if they do, no one may ever value it again.

This took a lot of pressure off me, and I began to see my way. Strangely enough, my way forward came to me out of the past, decades back, before I even had a computer and before social media existed.

When I was a student, a professor showed me Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà. It was rough, unfinished, raw. He wanted me to look at it with the same attention and respect that I looked upon the earlier works of the artist in his prime. He told me that in the Rondanini Pietà lay the beginning of Abstract Art.

I thought he was nuts.

How could this unfinished sculpture be taken seriously? It was rough, it was ugly, it lacked technical excellence. It was flawed. It was worth less than his more technically excellent works! What did it give to the world!

Yeah, I know. My excuse is that I was twenty.

Now that I face my own “death,” that is, my utter obscurity in an increasingly post-human creative landscape, I finally see it. I see the artist in the art. I see far more of Michelangelo in this last, rough piece than I can in any of his stunningly perfect pieces. I see pain, and fear, and weakness. I see a human heart.

Now it’s my turn. Michaelangelo may have been 80 and faltering when he worked on his last Pietà, but I’m no spring chicken myself. I no longer wish to be admired like the prize hog at the fair and given a big blue ribbon that says, HEATHER DREW THE VERY BEST. YES SHE WAS THE BEST ARTIST. I no longer wish to be perfect, or famous, or richly rewarded and collected by the men of means. I don’t need someone to approve of me anymore.

All I need to do before I die, is tell my story.

And with all pride in the “uniqueness” of my technical skills completely destroyed, and all threat of scrutiny removed, I can tell my story even if it’s ugly and awkward…and imperfect.

I always could.

But I was twenty then, when I dreamed of perfection…so forgive me.


3 thoughts on “when ai imagery destroyed my dream, it saved me as an artist.

  1. Your thoughts here are what most of us artists are feeling. At least the ones who aren’t playing with the AI. A dismal reality. It’s so easy to justify, people turn their heads the other way or the majority of the non artists simply have no clue. It’s amazing to me the people that still believe that if it’s on the internet then it’s theirs for the taking. The thing is, the beginning ai generator (I’m not sure if it was Stable Diffusion, Dall-E, Mid Journey or whoever) they were scraping/stealing art from the get go without any of us knowing and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. I fully believe they knew better.

    1. I agree, at the beginning I had no idea at all how it worked, where they were getting the information from. But they certainly had to have known, because they had to personally direct the AI to scrape particular “places” (ie, our personal photos and art posts on the web). Now that all of us are becoming aware that AI works explicitly through taking everyone’s art and chewing it up, spitting it out with the excuse this constitutes “fair use,” I presume the damage has already been done and Pandora’s Box has already been opened. I don’t know how you would “un” train it after everyone’s art is already in its belly.

      Up against such a ravenous beast with countless mouths like that, my only option as a continuing artist is to tell the stories from my HUMAN heart, and double down on valuing and growing the HUMAN connections that make life worth living and the HUMAN clients that bring me joy. I wish us all the strength and the grace to get through this tsunami of challenges, may we not be dampened by it permanently!

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