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Dali to Dall-E (2): Grieving Art for Art's Sake

Art has been an instrument, and later a weapon in the pursuit for liberation - for retaining our individuality, indulging the whims of our subconscious - or simply giving ourselves, and consequently our life - a purpose.

It is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known - a symbol of our personal identity and a marker of our existence - we leave a piece of ourselves in all that we do, but what happens when this mode of expression is not only threatened, but on the verge of erasure?

AI art has been catapulted from niche accounts into the mainstream. It is safe to say that world domination is not a far-fetched cinematic fever dream anymore - but a very real possibility; at least where art is concerned. With Dall-E 2, Midjourney and the likes being in the works - are we marching towards the culminating end of art; or is it simply a new trajectory?

Back to Basics: Salvador Dali and Surrealism

Dall-E is an endeavour by OpenAI, and an homage to the Spanish artist - Salvador Dali. To know why he was significant enough to have an AI system named after him, we need to take a trip down memory lane, right back to the times of Parisian Surrealism.

Surrealism, an art movement as well as a way of thinking and perceiving reality - is an avant garde approach to unlocking the creative potential of our subconscious mind - the realm of dreams and suppressed imagination.

It favoured the irrational and the incomprehensible - and artists reflected their inner complexities on paper - through paintings, theatrics or even literature. There was a clear rejection of oppression, and of the conventional way of living. Life as it was, was considered futile and meaningless - as though stuck in a rut.

“Surrealism is based on the belief in the omnipotence of dreams, in the undirected play of thought.” – André Breton

The artworks that emerged during this movement bear resemblance to the current explosion of digital art - not simply with relation to the elements and dreamscapes, but also the internal anxieties that affect our surroundings. An artist may die, but art persists and evolves forever - and this comeback of surrealism is a clear indication of just that.

Dall-E: Why, What, How

Dall-E, an OpenAI software is a product of machine learning - with the visual world at its fingertips. This tech gives new found meaning to the idiom - “an image is worth a thousand words” - because through this, an image is simply worth a few prompts and an intent to think outside the box.

Dall-E can create a visual form of anything you think about - with only a single sentence (it does not even need to be grammatically correct) It can basically conjure up images that represent our dreams, our warped desires, or simply the most ridiculous and nightmarish set-up you can think of.

While the software is still in beta testing, it has taken the world by storm. Prompts such as ‘McDonalds underwater’ or ‘A portrait of a cat in Van Gogh’s style’ or something as obscure as an ‘Among Us cave painting’ live up to expectations, and often surpass them as well.

All of this is a result of supersonic computers, access to tons and tons of data, and smart algorithms. Will there be a day where machine learning supersedes human creativity - and what does this cultural shift mean for our very essence and existence?

Another question that is slightly less existential crisis inducing, but still alarming is - Can this be considered as art? And if so, is democratising art - draining its value?

Borrowed, or Stolen: The Ethics of AI

Ethical constraints regarding Artificial Intelligence have always been a slippery slope - Can morality be compromised for progress, can informed consent be waived off for the greater good?

All art, even that which has been created by a software - springs from a human idea. Dall-E can be used to replicate not only objects, but also time periods, historical styles (surrealism, cubism) as well as the distinct styles of certain revered painters such as Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Picasso and the likes.

AI collates the data it finds from the internet - pre-existing content that can be warped with ease as per the demand - and that content has been created through human effort and labour - is it not right to ask for compensation regarding the same?

Dall-E, despite its association with the art industry - is not an artist. It is simply a computer algorithm, although at times it may seem as though it is nothing less than magic. Art is the expression of an artist’s emotions and sentiment, it is personal and social, it is their way of communication and rebellion. Dall-E has reduced this process into something almost mechanical - you have an idea, you type it in - and Dall-E picks up from there onwards. This reduction of value is almost insulting, although it makes artistic expression accessible to the layman - and not simply a select few.

The images generated by AI give no due credits to the artists that may have influenced that particular piece, nor is there any footprint of how the image is going to be used. Users are entitled to commercialise the images produced with DALL-E, letting them print, sell or otherwise licence the pictures borne from their prompts - even though the original idea may belong to someone else.

AI: A Real Threat, or Just Topical?

The advancement of technology is not a new phenomenon, it has happened in the past: and will continue on as well. Cameras replaced paintings - that did not render artists useless. Moving images replaced still ones, colour replaced monochrome - with every new idea and innovation, we progressively move towards a brighter future, and pave the way for our successors. But why is this a potential disrupting force?

AI art generators are redefining not only our relationship with art, but also how we perceive our reality. Art has always been a lens to look inward, and introspect - but with everything handed to us on a platter, will there even be a need for introspection?

The biggest threat here is also the aspect of time. It is impossible for an artist to conjure up an experimental image within seconds, much less provide variations. In a fast paced world such as ours, time is quite literally money - and the software becomes a tool of convenience rather than fascination. Commercialising art can then cause the death of imagination as we know it, unless we work in tandem with the technology to find some common ground.

Photography temporarily displaced artists, but also gave them a moment’s respite from constantly imitating nature. But the difference lies here: cameras are objects, they do not possess the ability to learn and evolve. A camera is simply equipment, but machine learning is so much more. Even if artists somehow stay on par with the pace of AI, and create more unique and idiosyncratic styles to separate themselves from digital art - Dall-E 3,4,5 will always appear out of thin air to replicate those styles and displace human art even further.

Art is only meaningful in its relationship with either the external physical world or our internal subjective world — and DALL·E 2 doesn’t have access to the former and lacks the latter.

But unwavering human spirit - and our competitive nature will be our saving grace. AI can follow us to the ends of the earth, but we will always get there first to blaze the trail.

While we experiment with these softwares, and create images that are equal parts fascinating and terrifying - it is important to remember the cultural impact that any form of technology has on society - because we can either work with AI, or let it consume us instead.

So while Dall-E can generate an image of the last selfie ever taken, we will ensure that the human race gets to physically witness it beforehand.

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