The other day the post below caught my attention. In its characteristic bad-grammar-ambiguous-origin-meme style, Neo’s sentiment is one I share.

As an artist of sorts (it’s the only thing I’m actually qualified for) I see art as more about transformation than creation. I find we (and yes, I include myself) tend to mythologise art, attributing to it an undeserved magical or spiritual significance, rather than recognising it as basic graft.


In a way, art is creative plagiarism*; when creating an artwork, I can only combine my own experience with my understanding of what art is, which is an amalgamation of the art I have consumed. I literally have no other material to draw on. In fact, it turns out that too much originality in art can actually be counter-productive, as Derek Thompson in his fabulous TED Talk The four-letter code to selling anything states:

“To sell something surprising, you have to make it familiar.”

Software like Stable Diffusion and Midjourney took people by surprise because we imagined art and creativity as something magical, an echo of the human spirit, irreducible and therefore something AI would have trouble replicating. As late as 2020 in “Unlocking the Universe”, Beth West wrote this about ‘Cities of the Future’

“… lots of things can’t be done by machines: creative jobs such as writing books and creating art… These areas will continue to need people…”

We are all now aware that visual art in particular has turned out to be one of the lowest hanging fruits of all, and regarding writing… it seems that the writing may be on the wall (that was my own pun by the way, chat GPT isn’t the only author who will resort to the lowest form of wit, given the right conditions).


My admittedly cynical view of art is informed by experiences at art school and in the gallery scene, where I’ve had some small opportunity to glimpse behind the smoke and mirrors used to multiply art’s perceived value and shroud it in illusory significance.

Don’t get me wrong, creativity is fun, and rewarding, and can be impressive—it is an essential part of life, but it’s not magic. Art is work. It’s no wonder that AI can replicate and even improve on this process, it’s put in the hours (which, for AI, take seconds). AI has absorbed more material than we can imagine (in part because our imagination is limited by what we have absorbed!).


Creativity is about connection. The reason we like to consume art is because it makes us feel connected to an artist, and, by proxy, humanity. Whether it’s an actor playing a part, a musical compositon or an author’s words, an artwork is a telescope that let’s us see someone else’s island of internal experience. And a good work of art, a work of art that we love, makes us feel seen too. As Zefrank says:

“The things that make us feel most alone have the greatest power to connect us.”


We can understand the impact of AI art by analogy with photography in the 19th Century, a technology that threatened the essence and purity of art. Charles Baudelaire, in 1859, went so far as to call photography…

“art’s most mortal enemy”

… and yet rather than having “supplanted or corrupted it altogether” , photography actually drove a profound reevaluation of art, leading to radical new movements from Impressionism through Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and the other modernist and post-modernist art that furnished the Twentieth Century and beyond (thanks BFA).

Not only did photography broaden the scope of art-making beyond mere representation, but it eventually influenced representational art in the form of photo-realist painting. Artists like Chuck Close, actively subverted the photographic medium, by replicating it!

Photorealists produced art that seemed eeriely more realistic than the perfection of a photo, and made audiences gape in wonder at another human being’s talent and toil. We rediscovered that art is about connection.


Another example of disruptive technology enhancing a field rather than destroying it, is the popularity of chess. From the time Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 1996, chess popularity has accelerated. It turns out we thrive on challenge.

The world is already beginning to lose the romance of our first brush (I promise, I’m not usually like this) with AI art—as it becomes increasingly ubiquitous, we are no longer swooning. That which can be produced cheaply is soon taken for granted. At the same time, I don’t mean to denigrate the form. I think AI art will be as impactful as photography continues to be, it has its place, but it won’t devalue a Chuck Close or a Banksy, and it won’t stop me doing my own crappy drawings.


The joy of creativity, whether it’s painting, photography, AI art or playing chess is the joy of connection with another sentient being. If we know there’s no experience there, no toil, no message then the level of attention viewers pay to the work will diminish accordingly. At the same time regarding AI, I think we can appreciate the beauty of connecting with humanity as a whole, knowing that it is the big data of humanity that has informed AI art—I suspect this is what we find so magical about it. AI art does say something to us and about us, it reflects us in the same way as a photographic portrait can. When the subject gazes directly into the camera, it creates a connection, bridging the viewer with the human at the other end of the lens.

In my writing and art I want to connect with you, and I will continue to do so with the cutest animals I can muster.

  • * Noam Chomsky has famously described chat bots as “plagiarism software”.
  • † Beth West is the Head of Development for London, Landsec Real Estate, and featured as the writer of the ‘Cities of the Future’ chapter in Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s “Unlocking the Universe”.
  • ‡ Also from Charles Baudelaire “If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.”
  • If you’re interested in AI, you might like to check out our alignment series


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The reason we like to consume art is because it makes us feel connected to an artist, and, by proxy, humanity.

To be quite honest, I have never consumed things called art with this goal in mind.

Well, yes, good point—people consume art for all sorts of reasons.

Though I wasn't meaning to say that anyone consciously looks at an artwork with the intention of connecting with the artist, only that it's an implied prerequisite, as in, if we're impressed by the skill, we're impressed because we have a sense of how difficult that would be for a human (being a human ourselves) or if we think the work has captured an emotion we might implicitly assume that the artist recognised that same emotion in creating the work. These features of the art-consumption experience are largely absent in AI art, when we are pretty certain that the "artist" has no conscious experience.

But, yes, I take your point, and people can appreciate AI art for many reasons besides.

As somebody who makes AI "art" (largely anime tiddies tbh) recreationally, I'm not sure I agree with the notion that the emotion of an artist is not recognizeable in the work. For one, when you're looking at least at a finished picture I've made, you're looking at hours of thought and effort. I can't draw a straight line to save my life, but I can decide what should go where, which color is the right or wrong one, and which of eight candidate pictures has particular features I like. When you're working incrementally, img2img, for instance, it's very common to just mix and match parts of different runs by preference. So in a finished picture, every fine detail would be drawn by the AI, but the scene setup, arrangement etc. would be a much more collaborative, deliberate process.

(If you see a character with six fingers, you're seeing an AI artist who does not respect their craft - or who is burnt out after hours of wrangling the damn thing into submission. It's happened tbh.)

But also - I've seen AI images that genuinely astonished me. I've seen image models do one-shots where I genuinely went, "hey, I'm picking up what you're putting down here and I approve." Lots of features in particular combinations that were unlikely to be directly copied from the training example but showed something like a high-level understanding of sentiment, or recognition of specific details and implications of a particular preference. It's not something that happens often. But I have recognized sparks of true understanding in one-shot AI works. We may be closer - or possibly, simpler - than you think.

Hey, again good points.

But I have recognized sparks of true understanding in one-shot AI works.

I absolutely agree here, this is what I was referring to when I wrote...

I think we can appreciate the beauty of connecting with humanity as a whole, knowing that it is the big data of humanity that has informed AI art - I suspect this is what we find so magical about it.

I suspect that AI has an appeal not just because of its fantastic rendering capacity but also the fact that it is synthesising works not just from a prompt but from a vast library of shared human experience.

you're looking at hours of thought and effort

Regarding the arduous* process of iteratively prompting and selecting AI art, I think the analogy with photography works in terms of evoking emotions. Photographers approach their works in a similar way, shooting multiple angles and subjects and selecting those that resonate with them (and presumably others) for exhibition or publication. I think there is something special about connecting with what a human artist recognised in a piece whether it came from a camera or an algorithm. I acknowledge this is a form of connection that is still present in AI art, just as it is in photography.

* I caveat "arduous" because, while it might take hours of wrangling the AI to express something approximating what we intend, the skill that takes artists years to master—that of actually creating the work, is largely performed, in the case of AI art, by the non-sentient algorithm. It is not the hours of work that goes into one painting that impresses the viewer generally, it's the unseen years of toil and graft that allowed the artist to make something magic within those hours. The vast majority of the magic in AI art is provided by the algorithm.

This is why I see it as analogous to photography. Still a valid art form, but not one that need make actual painting obsolete.

I think the analogy to photography works very well, in that it's a lot easier than the workflow that it replaced, but a lot harder than it's commonly seen as. And yeah, it's great using a tool that lets me, in effect, graft the lower half of the artistic process to my own brain. It's a preview of what's coming with AI, imo - the complete commodification of every cognitive skill.

This is an excellent point about the value of human art: it creates a perceived connection between audience and artist.

This makes me wonder about the future of human-directed AI art. Would I like your drawings less if you had conceived them in detail, but not directed the brushstrokes with your own hands and brain?

I think I personally would appreciate them almost as much. The skill required to actually create them is impressive in one way, but it's not the aspect of creativity that I think about and value. Conveying ideas and mood through art is the part I value. So if you'd prompted an AI to create those same images, but in detail, I'd feel that same connection to you as the conceptual creator of the pieces.

This is making me hope that we see more detailed accounts of the creative process attached to AI art. If someone merely says "make me a cool picture", they have very little creative involvement and so I feel no attachment to them through the art. If they have a detailed prompt describing a piece they've imagined, then I do feel that connection to them as a creator, and more so the more detail, meaning, and creativity they conceived the work with. But it will take a detailed account of the creative process to know what happened; in many cases, a vague prompt could produces something the audience will resonate with.

This detailed account of the creative process is something I've always wanted more of in connection to visual art. On the rare occasions that I've heard artists talk in detail about the concepts and ideas behind their work, I've valued and enjoyed that work more deeply. I think this is rarely done because a) describing concepts isn't the artist's strong suit, so they avoid it and b) they want to let the audience see their own meaning in the piece. Both are reasonable stances. The first requires artists to learn a new skill: understanding and expressing their own conceptual creative process. The second can be addressed by making it optional for the audience to read or hear about the artist's conception of the piece.

But if the advent of AI art leads to more explicit descriptions of the creative process, I for one would greatly appreciate that trend.

And I look forward to seeing more thoroughly human art, like yours, that exists alongside AI art, and for which the creative process can remain mysterious.

Thanks Seth, great points.

Would I like your drawings less if you had conceived them in detail, but not directed the brushstrokes with your own hands and brain?

I guess, for centuries revered artists have been directing apprentices to render works for them, AI is not a significant departure from this practice, and I think you're right—there is still a connection with an artist even if their role was to prompt for an emotion, and then, in their selection, recognise that emotion when the AI successfully captured it.

This is making me hope that we see more detailed accounts of the creative process

This is really interesting. As your rightly state, making their intentions explicit is not a common practice for artists, my cynicism again tells me this could be c) part of the inflationary imperative of artists to play on the allure of ineffable qualities in art to make something relatively shallow seem deep and meaningful (and therefore valuable).

Imagine a space where truly deep thoughts, and profound messages well put could generate art that really connects people—not because it means something different to every person but because it evokes the very same thing, common humanity, among unique individuals. Pretty lofty.

Thanks again for your kind words and insight.