From the outside, recent years have seen an unbroken series of revolutions in the art world.
Since gaining widespread notoriety early last year, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have cost tens of millions of dollars for digital artwork. But critics paint them as a basically worthless rip-off that offers nothing substantial to patrons of the arts, and artists themselves have complained that their work has been stolen and “hit” without their knowledge.
At the same time, the Web3-based metaverse has been touted as the new home of this art – a digital environment in which Facebook has sunk billions of dollars, even if its own employees don’t embrace its use.
And more recently, AI art (which can create art from text prompts or just an unfinished sketch) has been touted as a path to the “democratization” of art, allowing those without the technical capabilities to create artwork themselves cheaply and quickly – but only after the systems have been trained on billions of examples of existing art, often without consent or compensation original creators.
So what gives? Why has the art world been rocked again and again over the past year with changes marketed as benefiting artists, but seemingly upending the way art is made and consumed? Why have innovations from the tech world meant to affect the functioning of society as a whole seemed to explode and spark controversy, especially in art spaces?
“These technologies are coming forward, looking for ways to get the art world talking about them,” said Rob Horning, technology editor and founding editor of Real Life magazine, pointing particularly to the rise of NFTs.
An NFT is a creation operating primarily off the Ethereum blockchain – effectively a system that publicly records and tracks online transactions. The main purpose of this system is to enable the Ethereum cryptocurrency – which uses “fungible” (exchangeable) tokens, meaning they can be exchanged for each other as functionally identical items – to work.
In contrast, the “non-fungible” nature of an NFT means that it is unique – no two are interchangeable. This means that they can be linked to a piece of digital art (which itself is very rarely stored on the blockchain itself) to give it authenticity.
Essentially, this means that the valuable part of an NFT in the visual arts world is the perception of value. While the digital art it links to can be copied an unlimited number of times, only one person can say they own an “authentic” copy.
This technology, Horning said, had little or no clear purpose before inventing a market for selling digital artwork.
Pushback, critic of tech in the art world
While the original expressed goal was to give artists without representation the opportunity to sell their work, NFTs have proven to be much more divisive among artists.
Whereas flight and piracy have proven to be huge problems in the space, there has been a pronounced pushback against the NFTs of the group they were originally meant to help: smaller artists who, instead of finding new avenues to sell their work , find themselves crushed against tech and crypto subcultures using – and selling – their work without the consent of the artists.
But despite the setback, the technology continues to be launched and promoted, Horning said, as NFTs and cryptocurrency remain only “as important as the buzz around them.”
“There’s constant pressure on people who invest in crypto to get crypto into the headlines, to get people talking about crypto,” he said. “And one of the ways to do that is to get artists to talk about crypto, or to get artists to do things that tangentially involve crypto or NFTs.”
The bumpy intersection of the worlds of art and technology is experiencing a more recent, but not unheard of, collision with the art of AI. Using machine learning models such as DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney, anyone with an internet connection can enter a few prompts and generate whatever image they want.
As with NFTs, some artists objected. Artists such as Simon Stålenhag – whose sci-fi scenes inspired the Amazon Prime series Tales from the Loop — and webcomic artist Sarah Andersen have complained that these systems are formed from publicly available art, including their own works. This gives users the ability to request that images be generated in the style of a living artist, mimicking their work – and potentially taking business away from them.
AI art generators “are not in the hands of the artists right now. It’s in the hands of the early adopters of the technology,” Stålenhag said. Business Insider in a recent interview.
Blair Attard-Frost is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto studying the impact of AI and ethical ways to implement it in industry. They said these artists fall into the camp of “displaced workers”, those whose labor is used for the creation and implementation of AI for little or no play.
But these problems arise in many industries that implement artificial intelligence. The reason it is more visible in the art world is the central place art has in people’s daily lives.
“One of the reasons this ‘AI artist’ thing is getting so much attention is that it’s so much more generalized, isn’t it?” said Attard-Frost. “It affects everyone, and it unlocks all sorts of new abilities for many people…in a way that these more specialized apps don’t quite do.”
As to why these technological inventions have established such strong ties with the art world as opposed to other fields, there are a number of reasons. Robert Enright, editor of Manitoba’s Border Crossings magazine and research professor of art theory and criticism at the University of Guelph, said this is partly because the industry favors the sale of art rather than its creation.
“One of the things that’s happened – and I think that explains why NFTs and why there’s this kind of search to find something new to sell – I think in many ways the marketing of art became a very, very important part of that process,” Enright said.
“Because there’s so much money in the world now, and because the rich have to find things to do with their money, one of the things they do is pay exorbitant sums for art. .”
At the same time, as Attard-Frost explained, these are technologies that arrive sooner or later in all areas of life. They simply took their first stumbling steps into the art world, while the regulation around many of these technologies is still in its infancy, they compared it to the “Wild West”.
But Sara Ludy, an American artist whose work often uses new technologies, says that’s just an indication of the field. The nature of art is experimental, which will always attract artists to new mediums and techniques, which have yet to be widely understood.
While this can make it incredibly difficult to keep up with the changing demands of the tools an artist must master – and lead to potentially predatory business practices by those outside of the art world who see opportunities – art and technology will always find themselves intertwined, she said.
“Artists are driven to expand our definitions of the world and of self. Technology is there to expand our definitions of self and connection and all of those things,” Ludy said. “So…our motivations run very parallel to each other.”