Gatekeeping AI art


Euclid wrote the Elements, laying out the foundations of geometry and axiomatic mathematics, without any algebra. This doesn’t seem surprising (geometry is just pictures!) until you remember that the book contains a chunk of elementary number theory. For example, here is Euclid’s proposition which implies that $\sqrt{2}$ is irrational:

If between two numbers there fall numbers in continued proportion with them, then, however many numbers fall between them in continued proportion, so many also fall in continued proportion between the numbers which have the same ratios with the original numbers.

If you have trouble seeing $\sqrt{2}$ here, don’t worry; so does everyone who reads the Elements. (Professor David Joyce, explaining how to parse this, remarks “If 1 is considered to be a number, the argument simplifies.”) With all due respect to Euclid, in hindsight we know that mediating all of mathematics through lines and circles makes some things more difficult than they need to be.

Things are better today now that we have symbolic notation, though on occasion people fall into a Euclid-style trap and say that mathematics is symbol crunching. If you can move the right funny letters around in calculus, linear algebra, or differential equations, then you’re a “good student.” But of course math is not just symbol crunching, just like it isn’t just lines and circles.

This historical outline guides me when thinking about AI generated art. There has been a lot of uproar over the past few years from concerned artists about AI tools like Midjourney. Are these tools going to take jobs from already-struggling artists? Are they just stealing original work and repackaging it with fancy post-processing? And whatever you think, can’t we agree that “AI art” is not real art?

This sentiment that “AI art is not real art” seems mistaken. I understand that creating art is very difficult, in the same way that drawing and reasoning about complicated geometric diagrams is difficult. But are the techniques used to create art today what art is? Can it really be said that if you aren’t drawing lines on a tablet, or putting paint on a canvas, you aren’t making art? I don’t buy it.

I suspect that artists lashing out at AI art are more concerned about job security than they are artistic ideals. And fair enough. AI art might not be taking their jobs now, but it probably will. Just look at Cosmo’s cover from 2022, or read the story of Kelly McKernan, whose distinctive art style was reproduced by an AI startup that McKernan is suing for copyright infringement. It is demoralizing to devote a chunk of your life to something only for a newfangled machine to do it better. And yet, like the old folk hero John Henry, you can fight progress your whole life and accomplish nothing but dying.

AI art does not need to be the end of human art. If we, as a society, think that human art is important, then we can fund it. We already do fund it in various ways, like through the National Endowment for the Arts1. I would be happy to see more money go that way. We fund lots of things that no one would ever pay for on their own2, and art is one of the more noble things we could pick.

It’s great that I can ask ChatGPT to explain things, and it’s great that more people can make art using tools like Midjourney. If you are worried about a future where these tools are so widespread that AI does everything, a future where your economic opportunities are extremely limited, a future where humanity is left to passively observe a digital world, then you better start writing blog posts saying nice things about ChatGPT before it takes over.

  1. NEA has a very neat map where you can see how much money they put into individual states

  2. Like most of academia. Does New Jersey need 100 math Ph.D students at its flagship university? No, of course not. But it’s a nice, fairly cheap thing that brings in smart, motivated people and might pay off in unexpected ways. I’m very grateful to citizens of the Garden State for their generous support!