In the 2013 film Tim’s Vermeer, libertarian actor Penn Gillette documents his friend Tim Jenison’s efforts to reproduce the techniques of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. To this end, Jenison, a software company executive and visual engineer, develops a series of elaborate methods that make use of mirrors and light to replicate Vermeer trademarks like field depth and chromatic aberration.
The film itself is reasonably entertaining, and Jenison’s recreation of Vermeer’s 1660s work The Music Lesson is certainly not unimpressive as an effort in engineering. Both Jenison and Gillette, however, ultimately mistake the creation for something it is not. In the narrow conception of art offered by Tim’s Vermeer, it is simply a technology like anything else — a method, or a series of methods, that aspire to represent reality with as much fidelity as possible. There is no social or cultural process involved, no inspiration beyond an act of mechanical production, and no higher purpose to Vermeer’s own project beyond photorealism.
In his commentary, Gillette gushes about the “photographic” and “cinematic” qualities of Vermeer’s work without ever grappling with its much more interesting and abstract dimensions. “My friend Tim painted a Vermeer! He painted a Vermeer!” Gillette exclaims of something that is no more or less than an extremely elaborate experiment in painting-by-numbers — a derivative simulacrum of something beautiful whose existence misconstrues the very idea of beauty.
Both in thesis and execution, Tim’s Vermeer was the perfect forerunner to the effervescent news cycle that continues to surround generative AI. From paintings to AI-generated podcast conversations to script writing and beyond, a concerted effort is currently underway to supplant human-driven creativity with computerized automation — while dispensing with the entire notion of art as we know it.
Like any technology-driven industrial process, the introduction of AI may well end up having profound social and material implications. Beneath the transhumanist utopianism of Silicon Valley is invariably found the same imperative that has driven capitalism since the nineteenth century — namely, a relentless drive toward ever-more efficient production at ever-lower cost — and there is little reason to believe AI will be any different.
In the cultural realm, the results will be exceptionally crude: ersatz paintings crafted by computer (sold, perhaps, in a marketplace of artificially generated scarcity like cryptocurrency or NFTs); formulaic music recorded by CGI pop stars who do not actually exist; writer’s rooms replaced by generative algorithms that reduce the nuances of dialogue and plot construction to a Fordist production process with few or even no actual writers involved.
there is something almost charmingly stupid about this particular application of this technology imo. a six year old’s concept of what creation entails. walking into a museum and seeing starry night and going “i bet i could make that bigger” https://t.co/XeTkhdEIjK
— sorrel (@sorrelquest) May 30, 2023
Such developments are a threat to artists and cultural workers. As artist Molly Crabapple recently observed, existing apps like Stable Diffusion and Midjourney can already generate detailed images based on nothing more than text prompts for next to no money. “They are faster and cheaper,” she writes,
than any human can be and while their images still have problems — a certain soullessness, perhaps, an excess of fingers, tumors that sprout from ears — they are already good enough to have been used for the book covers and editorial illustration gigs that are many illustrators’ bread and butter.
What these fabrications are not, however, is anything that can ever be called art.
Like Jenison and Gillette, the most effusive boosters of AI culture fundamentally mistake reproduction for creation and incorrectly see realism and artistic expression as synonymous. In this conception, creativity is ultimately a mechanistic endeavor, art of every kind — paintings, films, music, poetry — being nothing more than the aggregation of granular data points; quite literally, the sum of its component parts.
In their techno-utopian enthusiasm, they also elide the extent to which the brave new world they seek to create is already here. Accelerated by corporate monopolism, mass entertainment has increasingly become a wasteland of derivative and algorithmically generated “content,” very little of it meaningfully new. Aided by technology, corporate conglomerates have already honed a zombified mode of cultural production in which existing intellectual property (IP) is endlessly recycled and churned out in the form of sequels, prequels, reboots, and schlock pastiche. Insofar as AI represents a revolution, it will therefore mainly be one that refines this process further, which is not really much of a revolution at all.
It’s tortuous and complicated to make qualitative judgements about what constitutes good or bad art. But it can safely be said that making a creative process more “efficient” is not the same thing as making it better.
Art, music, and virtually the whole of human life and thought beyond the basic business of sleeping and eating, exudes an essence or Geist that is not reducible to mechanistic processes. Whatever we decide to call this — intelligence, humanism, creativity, the soul — it by definition yields something that cannot be quantified or taxonomized at the point of origin. Once it’s been created, a painting or a piece of music can be subsequently broken down into its component elements — which can, in turn, be rearranged or reconfigured to produce something else. Barring the introduction of some new creative element, however, the result will only ever be an ersatz reproduction.
In a world where machines are allowed to replace artists, the entirety of culture will simply be an ever-narrower and more derivative version of what already exists.