Artificial Intelligence

An AI-generated artwork’s state fair victory fuels arguments over ‘what art is’

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A game designer has sparked controversy after submitting an image created by an AI text-to-image generator to a state art competition and taking home first prize.

Jason Allen entered the artwork titled “Theatre d’Opera Spatial” in the “Digital Arts / Digitally-Manipulated Photography” category of the Colorado State Fair fine arts competition but created the piece using a popular text-to-image AI generator named Midjourney.

A Twitter post describing Allen’s win went viral earlier this week (and was first covered by Vice). The post elicited a strong response, with many users claiming that Allen had been deceptive in submitting the piece, particularly as most of the public is unaware of how text-to-image AI generators work. Allen, though, has defended his actions.

“I wanted to make a statement using artificial intelligence artwork,” he told The Pueblo Chieftain. “I feel like I accomplished that, and I’m not going to apologize for it.” (The Verge contacted Allen via private message but received no response at time of publication.)

Text-to-image AI systems are trained on billions of pairs of images and text descriptions, which they mine for visual patterns. Users then feed them text descriptions known as prompts, and the software generates an image that matches this description based on its training data.

Although these systems have previously been the exclusive domain of well-funded tech companies like OpenAI and Google, they’ve become increasingly accessible in recent months. The system used by Allen, named Midjourney, is one of the most popular and known for its finely tuned aesthetics, which often mimic contemporary digital art styles.

Midjourney itself is accessible through a Discord server, where users (including Allen, who goes by the handle Sincarnate) show off their artwork and swap tips on how to improve their outputs. Allen posted on Discord that he had won the competition last Friday, saying: “I’ve set out to make a statement using Midjourney in a competitive manner and wow! I could not be more excited about having won with my favorite piece.”

Responses to Allen’s win, though, have been mixed, with many accusing him of deceiving the judges. From Allen’s description of his win, it seems that the fair’s judges were not fully aware of how the piece was created. Writing in the Midjourney Discord, Allen says the artwork’s “description clearly stated I created them via Midjourney,” but when another user asks if he explained what the software does, Allen replies, “Should I have explained what Midjourney was? If so, why?” eliciting face-palm emoji reactions from others in the chat.

Allen said he’s been telling people at the show that the piece is “digital art created using a.i. tools” and that he doesn’t need to explain what Midjourney is any more than a digital artist might explain how Adobe Illustrator works. He also emphasizes the work he put into creating the image — “I made the prompt, I fine tuned it for many weeks, curated all the images” — and adds that his Photoshop editing constituted “at least 10%” of the work.

The rules of the competition Allen entered describe his category only as “Artistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.”

The denizens of Midjourney’s Discord have been debating the fairness of his actions. Users have praised the beauty of the artwork and Allen’s skill in its execution, but many suggested he should have been more upfront about the creation process. “I think most normies wouldn’t have chosen an AI picture to win if they knew,” said one user. “Just because it’s not mainstream and accepted yet.”

Another said Allen’s arguments were disingenuous and that if the fair’s judges had been fully aware of his methods, he would not have been allowed to enter the competition. “If there was an AI art category i would be sending congratulations. But this whole thing sits in a gray area,” wrote another user. “I would bet a substantial sum that the judges would not have selected him as the winner knowing that he used a text to image generator.”

Some, though, were more supportive, saying that the judges should have Googled Midjourney to find out how it worked or pointing out that Midjourney is just another digital art tool like Photoshop or Illustrator and that the piece was rightfully entered in the “Digital Arts / Digitally-Manipulated Photography” category.

A screenshot of the Midjourney Discord, showing a text prompt a user has fed the system, and the image generated in response.
Image: The Verge

Olga Robak, director of communications at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, confirmed to The Pueblo Chieftain that Allen had indeed mentioned the use of Midjourney in his submission statement but did not say whether he’d explained how it works. Robak noted that the fair’s rules allowed anybody to file a grievance against submissions and that, as of Wednesday afternoon, no such grievance had been filed. Robak told the publication: “This is a broader conversation about how do we decide what art is and how do we judge it appropriately?”

On Twitter, some responses to Allen’s win were more extreme. One user said, “We’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes,” while another bemoaned that artwork was now “slop produced as cheaply and quickly as possible to be consumed in bursts of a few microseconds as it glides by on the infinite feed.”

The rise of text-to-AI image generators has only just begun, but already, the programs are sparking heated debates about the nature of art, whether this software poses a threat to artists’ livelihoods, and whether or not the companies that create these systems own anything to the artists whose work their programs are trained on.

Allen discussed some of these topics in the Midjourney Discord, asking whether “perceived level of effort” was essential to understanding art’s value. “What if we looked at it from the other extreme,” he writes, “what if an artist made a wildly difficult and complicated series of restraints in order to create a piece, say, they made their art while hanging upside-down and being whipped while painting (this is extreme.) Should this artist’s work be evaluated differently than another artist that created the same piece ‘normally’?”

Speaking to The Pueblo Chieftain, Allen suggests that some reactions to his win — and to AI-generated artwork more generally — may be motivated in part by fear. “Artists are scared,” he says. “They’re worried that they’re going to be replaced by the robot.”

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