AI: The Death Knell of Traditional Art, or the Dawn of a New Creative Era?
Updated: May 17
The advent of photography in the mid-19th century acted as a catalyst for a fundamental shift in the art world. Prior to its invention, artists were largely tasked with the duty of capturing reality as accurately as possible, serving as the primary means for visually documenting people, places, and events. With the advent of the camera, this role was usurped, and artists were suddenly relieved of their obligation to represent reality with meticulous accuracy. Instead, they were offered a newfound freedom to explore alternative modes of representation, giving birth to an array of artistic movements that sought to interpret rather than depict reality. Referencing Aaron Scharf's "Art and Photography" (1968), this shift can be seen as the point where art started to transition away from a representational function towards a more interpretive one.
Impressionism, for instance, emerged in the late 19th century as a direct reaction to the newfound ubiquity of photography. Artists like Monet, Degas, and Renoir began to experiment with capturing fleeting moments of light and color, focusing more on their subjective perceptions than on the photographic accuracy of their subjects. This marked a significant shift from art as a means of rigid documentation to art as a means of personal expression and sensory exploration. As John House points out in "Impressionism: Paint and Politics" (2004), the Impressionists essentially sought to capture what the camera could not, thus redefining the very essence of what art could be.
From Impressionism sprang forth a series of increasingly abstract art movements, such as Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism, each pushing the boundaries of representation further and further. Modern art, in essence, owes its existence to this liberation from photorealism, which began with the advent of photography.
Fast forward to the present day, and we find ourselves in the midst of another technological revolution that is reshaping the art world: artificial intelligence. AI, like photography in its time, is liberating artists in unprecedented ways, allowing for the exploration of creative realms that were previously inconceivable. Machine learning algorithms can generate compelling artworks, and are capable of creating original images that blur the line between human and machine-made art. As noted by Elgammal et al. in "CAN: Creative Adversarial Networks, Generating"Art" by Learning About Styles and Deviating from Style Norms" (2017), AI is not merely replicating human creativity, but is fostering an entirely new form of it. As such, we stand on the precipice of a new era of artistic innovation, one that may redefine art in the same way that photography did over a century ago.