September 29, 2022

An A.I.-Generated Picture Won an Art Prize. Artists Aren’t Happy.

Young people are increasingly at ease consuming culture via digital avatars or made with artificial intelligence. Should the same moral guidelines and laws apply to those works?

The story of FN Meka — a fictitious character billed as the first musical artist partly powered by artificial intelligence to be signed by a major record label — might seem like a bizarre one-off. In August, Capitol Records dropped FN Meka, whose look, outlaw persona and suggestive lyrics were inspired by real-life music stars like Travis Scott, 6ix9ine and Lil Pump, amid criticism that the project trafficked in stereotypes.

But to seasoned observers of technology in pop music and the debate over cultural appropriation, the rise and fall of this so-called robot rapper, whose songs were actually written and voiced by humans, has raised important questions that are not going away anytime soon.

Last month alone, an A.I. artwork won a prize in Colorado and a computer program improvised a classical music solo in real time in New York City. From DALL-E 2, the technology that creates visual art on command, to Hatsune Miku, a Japanese software that does something similar for music, the arts world may be on the precipice of a sea change in how its products are created.

And young people feel increasingly at ease consuming culture via digital avatars like FN Meka. It has already been happening in hip-hop: A hologram of the rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996, performed at a music festival in 2012; Travis Scott gave a concert through his avatar in the video game Fortnite in 2020; and Snoop Dogg and Eminem rapped as their digital selves and their Bored Ape avatars in a metaverse performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last month.

In this brave new world, do fake characters based on real people amount to unseemly borrowing, even theft, or just the kind of homage that has always defined pop music? Even when artificial intelligence does help write music, should the humans behind it be accountable for the machine-created lyrics? And as far as race is concerned, how do the rules of cultural appropriation work when the person doing the appropriating is not a human being with a unique cultural background but a fictitious identity backed by an anonymous, multiracial collective?

“A lot of our moral intuitions and codes as humans may have evolved for a context where we have discrete human actors,” said Ziv Epstein, a Ph.D. student at the M.I.T. Media Lab who studies the intersection of humans and technology. “These emerging technologies require new legal frameworks and research to understand how we reason about them.”

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. “I felt like it was demonically inspired — like some otherworldly force was involved.”

Eventually, Mr. Allen got the idea to submit one of his Midjourney creations to the Colorado State Fair, which had a division for “digital art/digitally manipulated photography.” He had a local shop print the image on canvas and submitted it to the judges.

“The fair was coming up,” he said, “and I thought: How wonderful would it be to demonstrate to people how great this art is?”

Several weeks later, while walking the fairground in Pueblo, Mr. Allen saw a blue ribbon hanging next to his piece. He had won the division, along with a $300 prize.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I felt like: this is exactly what I set out to accomplish.”

(Mr. Allen declined to share the exact text prompt he had submitted to Midjourney to create “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial.” But he said the French translation — “Space Opera Theater” — provided a clue.)

After his win, Mr. Allen posted a photo of his prize work to the Midjourney Discord chat. It made its way to Twitter, where it sparked a furious backlash.

“We’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes,” one Twitter user wrote.

“This is so gross,” another wrote. “I can see how A.I. art can be beneficial, but claiming you’re an artist by generating one? Absolutely not.”

Some artists defended Mr. Allen, saying that using A.I. to create a piece was no different from using Photoshop or other digital image-manipulation tools, and that human creativity is still required to come up with the right prompts to generate an award-winning piece.

Olga Robak, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which oversees the state fair, said Mr. Allen had adequately disclosed Midjourney’s involvement when submitting his piece; the category’s rules allow any “artistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.” The two category judges did not know that Midjourney was an A.I. program, she said, but both subsequently told her that they would have awarded Mr. Allen the top prize even if they had.

Controversy over new art-making technologies is nothing new. Many painters recoiled at the invention of the camera, which they saw as a debasement of human artistry. (Charles Baudelaire, the 19th-century French poet and art critic, called photography “art’s most mor­tal enemy.”) In the 20th century, digital editing tools and computer-assisted design programs were similarly dismissed by purists for requiring too little skill of their human collaborators.

What makes the new breed of A.I. tools different, some critics believe, is not just that they’re capable of producing beautiful works of art with minimal effort. It’s how they work. Apps like DALL-E 2 and Midjourney are built by scraping millions of images from the open web, then teaching algorithms to recognize patterns and relationships in those images and generate new ones in the same style. That means that artists who upload their works to the internet may be unwittingly helping to train their algorithmic competitors.

“What makes this AI different is that it’s explicitly trained on current working artists,” RJ Palmer, a digital artist, tweeted last month. “This thing wants our jobs, its actively anti-artist.”

Even some who are impressed by A.I.-generated art have concerns about how it’s being made. Andy Baio, a technologist and writer, wrote in a recent essay that DALL-E 2, perhaps the buzziest A.I. image generator on the market, was “borderline magic in what it’s capable of conjuring, but raises so many ethical questions, it’s hard to keep track of them all.”

Mr. Allen, the blue-ribbon winner, said he empathized with artists who were scared that A.I. tools would put them out of work. But he said their anger should be directed not at individuals who use DALL-E 2 or Midjourney to make art but at companies that choose to replace human artists with A.I. tools.

“It shouldn’t be an indictment of the technology itself,” he said. “The ethics isn’t in the technology. It’s in the people.”

And he urged artists to overcome their objections to A.I., even if only as a coping strategy.

“This isn’t going to stop,” Mr. Allen said. “Art is dead, dude. It’s over. A.I. won. Humans lost.”

What People Read

Yvonne Orji Reflects on the End of ‘Insecure,’ and Tells T a Joke

The comedian looks back on her years working on the career-defining show and demonstrates her trademark wit.

YouTube Opens More Pathways for Creators to Make Money on the Platform

The video platform will let more creators earn payments and place ads in Shorts, its TikTok competitor, according to audio from an internal meeting.

Yankees Close In on Division Title, but Still Have Trust Issues

Frankie Montas, Aroldis Chapman and Aaron Hicks are question marks for a team that is on the verge of clinching a first-round bye.

Yankees Clinch a First-Round Bye as Judge’s Wait Continues

A win over Toronto gave the Yankees the American League East title, but Aaron Judge remained stuck at 60 home runs.

Woman Gets 4 Months After Shoving Flight Attendant, Spitting on a Passenger

Kelly Pichardo, 32, will also have to pay more than $9,000 to American Airlines for the altercation, which came as incidents involving unruly passengers unnerved airline workers and the public.

Just For You

How the Passage of Time Softened the Fury Over Diana’s Death

A quarter-century ago Princess Diana’s shocking death provoked outrage at the royal family. Queen Elizabeth’s passing, in contrast, has been draped in civility and respect.

White House Student Loan Forgiveness Could Cost About $400 Billion

The estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office gauged the cost over 30 years, though the bulk of the effects to the economy would be felt over the next decade.

Kushner’s Company Reaches $3.25 Million Settlement in Maryland Lawsuit

The apartment company charged illegal fees and failed to adequately address leaks, mold and rodent infestations in its properties, the Maryland attorney general said.

As Trump’s Legal Woes Mount, So Do Financial Pressures on Him

The lawsuit filed by New York’s attorney general is the latest indication of how an array of investigations is affecting the former president’s business and personal wealth.

N.Y. Attorney General Accuses Trump of ‘Staggering’ Fraud in Lawsuit

Attorney General Letitia James of New York filed a sweeping lawsuit on Wednesday that accused Donald J. Trump, his family business and three of his children of lying to lenders and insurers by fraudulently overvaluing his assets by billions of dollars.

Why Candidates Owe Voters Full Medical Transparency

The principal intent of campaigns is to give voice to the candidates’ positions on major issues. When casting their ballots, voters consider personality, party allegiance, character traits and other factors.

Russians Are Terrified, and Have Nowhere to Turn

In the days since Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization,” clearing the way for hundreds of thousands of men to be conscripted into his failing war effort, we’ve fielded tens of thousands of messages like these.

How Seriously Should We Take Putin’s Nuclear Threat in Ukraine?

Across almost eight decades the possibility of nuclear war has been linked to complex strategic calculations, embedded in command-and-control systems, subject to exhaustive war games.


How the Passage of Time Softened the Fury Over Diana’s Death

A quarter-century ago Princess Diana’s shocking death provoked outrage at the royal family. Queen Elizabeth’s passing, in contrast, has been draped in civility and respect.

This Might Not Be a Cold War, but It Feels Like One

Even at their worst moments, the Americans and the Soviets kept talking. Today, U.S.-China contacts are scarce, while Beijing and Moscow move closer together.

Apple Extends Reach With $800 Watch, as New iPhone Inches Along

The Apple Watch Ultra is aimed at endurance athletes, a market dominated by Garmin. Apple also introduced updated AirPods.