AI Art: Are Artists Doomed?

One of the issues with art as an industry is, for the past 100 years or more, it has been a corporate appendage. All of the biggest artistic endeavors are corporate. TV shows, movies, books and magazines, all corporate. Star Wars, Avatar, the MCU, all corporate. Art, when not being productized and sold, serves as advertising leading to the next corporate product. The Super Bowl half time show, the Super Bowl ads themselves, top 40 pop music, all hyperbolically corporate. Buy fast food! Buy beer! Buy sneakers! The only successful musicians are those with contracts from big labels, and they make many millions of dollars.

The art industry isn’t about the small artist desperately seeking commissions to put food on the table. It never was. Entertainment is one of the biggest economies there is. In the United States alone, entertainment is a $717 billion market. Practically zero of that goes to small artists. In today’s world, the best gig for an illustrator is a staff role at an ad agency. A lucky few might get salaried positions at Disney.

The problem isn’t that AI-generated art is going to crush small artists. The problem is that small artists are already crushed.

The automation of artistic output will put enormous power in the hands of all artists. The ones who will benefit the most are those who today hold the least clout. Big studios are already burning billions of dollars seizing every opportunity to monetize their content. It’s time a bit of that power trickled down to those who need it most…artists at the bottom.

I’m old enough to remember video before YouTube. The advent of ubiquitous video didn’t crush small producers because the ocean of competition was suddenly much larger. Instead, it empowered them. Back in the days of network TV, nobody knew what a tutorial video was. The only product reviews you got were those in a literal paper magazine called Consumer Reports. With the advent of online video and streaming, whole new categories were created from nothing. There was no such thing as ASMR, because video wasn’t personal. Video was a glowing box in the living room that everyone gathered around to watch. Today, gamers can broadcast their gaming sessions, build audiences and directly monetize them. Some of the biggest entertainers are YouTube and Twitch stars.

The art world, and particularly that of the small artist, stands on the precipice of such a revolution. On the horizon, we see an era of independently generated movies. Within our lifetimes, individual artists will gain the ability to write scripts, develop screenplays, and cast them with their own carefully crafted characters, in movies created entirely on their own! No longer will you have to bribe your way into a studio executive’s office to beg for his approval. The power to create whatever content you like is being placed in your hands. Whatever the goal, be it to titillate, educate, or simply have fun, the ability to achieve it is at your fingertips.

You have a choice to make.

On one hand, you can fight. You may indeed win a few battles. Maybe an AI company will lose a court case and be put out of business…but others will fill the gap in its wake. Companies will build AI that satisfies all moral and legal obligations, and has even greater capability than we see today. Where will you be, then? Still trying to convince everyone they should only purchase art produced with the sweat of the human hand? Meanwhile, the kid down the street will be learning, developing, and building his audience, just like the biggest YouTube entertainers of the last decade.

On the other hand, you can seize the opportunity that is being offered and find new ways of honing your craft with the most powerful tech ever created. The privilege of creating commercially successful art will no longer be monopolized by corporate executives backed by billions of dollars. That privilege will be yours. …But only if you choose to embrace it.

Bob Burrough
January 19, 2023