Decorating digital publications
On the commercial journey of a 165-year-old magazine, discounted prints of fine art from the Met, and illustrations made by computers
In an article reflecting on the trial of Alex Jones, The Atlantic put artificial intelligence to work in producing an illustration, crediting "AI art by Midjourney". It isn't great and it isn't terrible; it's just middling, serving a discrete purpose: To give social media previews of the article an accompanying image.
■ Artists are upset anyway. Some have assumed that the emergence of AI-generated artwork spells the death of their craft. Others assume the development translates directly to job losses for artists.
■ While it is understandable that people will fear for their incomes whenever automation gains the capacity to do new work. Electric lights were bad for lamplighters, too. But was it unfair to illustrators when The Atlantic first introduced photographs? Was it bad for the engravers when they adopted color printing? Did it squeeze out hand illustration when the first digital illustrators got their work?
■ All of the discussion about the impact of computer-generated illustrations is moot if either one of two possible conditions is true. First, if it's the difference between a publication surviving or folding, then adaptation may well be necessary in order for any jobs to survive at all. Note, after all, that what was once The Atlantic Monthly (exclusively a printed publication) is now known more ethereally as The Atlantic (largely a digital outlet that continues to print a monthly edition).
■ Likewise, if the digital publication is generating new content that it would not have generated before -- like an electronic newsletter, as in the case of the article in question -- then turning to a computer to add a feature to the content isn't putting people out of work. Articles posted online now require preview images in order to get viewers to click through from their social-media feeds. And if the image used is an original produced by artificial intelligence rather than a stock photo or an old file photo (which is very often the case!), then no displacement has taken place.
■ Artists experienced a disruption with the mass-production of beautiful objects during the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne eras, too. We risk losing touch with the point of art altogether if we divorce it from the quest to maximize human encounters with it in ordinary life. Not everyone is capable of producing great art; they are made better-off when they can encounter the work that others have done.
■ If someone purchases a print to hang on their wall, the alternative was not necessarily that they would have commissioned an original piece to hang there instead. It might simply have remained an empty wall.
■ Besides, we shouldn't separate works of art themselves from the embrace of the process itself as the outlet for human creativity. People pay good money to get together to drink with friends and make homemade art. The resulting works aren't putting vocational artists out of business. Humans create art because we are compelled to do it by our creative instincts.
■ A world with a surplus of art -- created by humans, by computers, or by the collaboration of the two -- will not be worse off. The presence of works of art enhances human life generally, and the process of creating it will always be intrinsically rewarding for some. And just as there will always be room for both mass-produced and custom-made artworks inside of homes, offices, and public buildings, so too will there always be room for both computer-created and human-created art in the media.