Art Fights Back

A comic artist took a journalistic dive into the knotty debates around generative AI—and found artists worried about the people even more than the tech.

By Ernie Smith

Over the last year or so, deep questions have been raised about the value of art in a world where you can generate as much “art” as you’d like by simply filling out a prompt.

(I’ve covered a few of them in the publication NEWART.)

Often left out of the conversations, for some reason, are the actual artists. How to solve that dilemma? A lot of it comes down to simply raising the voices of the people actually affected by disruption.

That’s the strategy David Blumenstein, a comic artist and visual journalist, took earlier this year when he published “Octane Render,” a long-form graphic article underlining the feelings floating around about generative AI and the potential effects on the art community.

He was inspired to write this because it seemed like the technologists were getting all the attention in the discussion—at the cost of the artists who face genuine risks to their livelihoods.

“This one was a bit different in that we haven’t heard much of what artists think about generative AI,” Blumenstein says of his work in an interview. “Essentially, media has largely reported on the ‘AI art’ phenomenon at a surface level, making use of quotes from artists for color, but taking AI companies’ hype at face value.”

The post proved a viral hit when it was published earlier this year, so now Blumenstein is expanding the initiative into a crowdfunding campaign to publish an expanded book about the endeavor.


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Octane Render

The Octane Render book, which is part of a crowdfunding campaign. (via Pozible)

The book expands on the insights first highlighted in the original work. Generally, the work highlights a diversity of points of views about the technology from the artists. Some jumped right into using it, no qualms. Others expressed deep concerns about their livelihoods. The key lesson, per Blumenstein, is that points of view on the art seem to be based around the behavior being undertaken by the technology’s biggest enthusiasts.

“The artists I’ve talked to differ on how worried they are about job security,” he says. “Some are incensed at being ‘replaced by machines,’ some are excited about new technology, but they all seem to agree that the problem is the tech industry’s unethical behavior around scraping without consent and imitating living artists, not the tech itself.”

One artist quoted in the work put it perfectly:

I don’t have a problem using AI in art. The problem is, everyone who’s trying to make money on AI at the moment is a horrible tech bro who has no respect for anyone.

This sort of hostility, depending on where you look, can be strongly apparent—and at odds with the talented artists who often inspired the AI-generated work. Blumenstein pointed to the aggressive approach that large technology companies are taking to push artificial intelligence.

“The corporates are working so, so hard to normalize generative AI right now because they’ve invested heavily in it, and their stock prices depend on hype,” Blumenstein says. “It’s vital that they convince those ordinary people, regulators and the market that AI is thrilling, a new frontier, and most importantly, inevitable and inescapable: ‘This is the future, get on board or die.’ They couldn’t do that for blockchain or NFTs, so AI is next up. And they have a lot of money to spend on marketing these ideas.”

Blumenstein argues that technology companies need to bring more artists into their quarters, to help raise potential issues about disruption before they get out of hand. (AI ethicists, however, have faced challenges on this same front.)

“I was a bit surprised by the hostility toward artists in some quarters,” he adds. “There seems to be a certain kind of tech/engineer brain that enjoys being horrible to artists and telling them their work’s not worth anything.”

Of course, in many ways, the current issue feels not too dissimilar to prior discussions about technology that old-timers might be familiar with. Similar debates picked up around the time of computerized art, for example. Blumenstein says that the issue is broader than just art, however, something reflected in the concept of “enshittification,” a term popularized by old-school blogger Cory Doctorow.

“These companies have a playbook: come into a place, flood the market with low-priced convenience, salt the earth and become the only game in town,” he says. “Then they jack up their prices, abuse their gig workers, and make their service worse once you’re locked into it.”

Blumenstein hopes that issues like these lead the art community to work more closely together, but he also hopes that non-artists, who are often pulled in by generative AI tools out of concerns about their potential talent, take steps to create their own work “and not worry about whether it looks ‘professional.’”

By focusing less on the technologists and more on its impact, “Octane Render” ultimately found its audience.

“The feedback I got from people across the spectrum was that the piece is pretty fair and even-handed, and maybe a bit comforting for some who were seriously freaking out about their livelihoods,” he says.

Anyway, be sure to check out the campaign for “Octane Render”—it ends in just a couple of days.

Generative Links

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Love the tale of Jacob Steinmetz, the first Orthodox Jewish player drafted into Major League Baseball, and how his team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, is accommodating for him in the minor leagues. Kosher meals? Check. No travel on Saturday? Check. Walk to the stadium? Check.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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