Why AI Artwork Is Totally Legit

DALL·E is just a tool, like a paintbrush or a camera

  • DALL·E makes it easy to generate incredible images simply by describing them. 
  • Like photography before it, AI-created art may be criticized as not "real art."
  • AI makes art accessible to anyone.
Robot hand hold paint brush isolated on white background

PhonlamaiPhoto / Getty Images

The incredible images coming out of the DALL·E neural network call into question the nature of art—but we've been here before.

DALL·E, as you have no doubt seen on Twitter or Facebook, is a tool that generates images from text descriptions. The results are plain incredible, as in, it's hard to believe that typing a description into a web browser can spit out such amazing images a few moments later. DALL·E, and its improved descendent DALL·E 2, also makes it easy to create images that might take a human hours or days to execute manually. And that's the problem. Can something so easily produced, seemingly without any skill, be art? Of course, it can.

"Art is the idea and never the method of execution. Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and many of the top artists (Damien Hirst, Murakami, and Kehinde Wiley) have studios with other artists/assistants painting their ideas, but even though someone else's hands are on the canvas, that is still their work," digital illustrator Teddy Phillips told Lifewire via email. 

Knowing Where to Tap

There’s an old story about a ship repairperson, called in to fix an engine that won’t start. The captain, or whoever takes care of these practicalities on a ship, accompanies the repairperson to the engine room, and the repairperson spends a while looking things over. Then, she takes out a hammer, walks over to a pipe, and gives it a sharp tap. The engine rumbles back to life. 

Later, the ship’s accountant sees the invoice for this repair. Let’s say it’s $100 (it’s an old story). The accountant queries this invoice, and the repairperson sends a new, itemized invoice. It breaks down like this: For tapping the valve with a hammer, $1. For knowing where to tap, $99. 

The point is, art is about the intention, not the execution. A sculptor doesn’t have to cast their own bronze any more than a photographer has to develop and print their own photos. A director is viewed as the creator of a movie, and usually, they don’t even write the script. They’re interpreting somebody else’s idea!

A high resolution portrait of a porcelain calico cat head

Tim Fisher / DALL·E AI

Photography is a great example. Now, few people question that photographs can be art. But as recently as my time in art college, it was still debated whether photography is art. Why? Perhaps because it's too fast and easy. You just point the camera and click. There's no creativity involved, no effort expended. 

This conflation of art with effort might date back to when it always was an effort to create a painting or a sculpture, or you had to learn to play an instrument to make music. But the camera, and DALL·E, are tools in the same way a paintbrush, chisel, music sequencer, or typewriter are tools. They remove the drudgery of craft while also opening up new possibilities. 

"AIs are a new tool. A new collaborator. It democratizes art much like the digital camera and photoshop. I'm a photographer, too. I was there. The quality of photography has gone through the roof since going digital. AI art will do the same," Trish Reda, artist and founder of AI and NFT art collective Boop.Art, told Lifewire via email. 

Accessible Art

And what about artists who can't wield a paintbrush or see where they're pointing a camera? If they have a concept they want to convey through art, then they can do it with AI tools like DALL·E. 

"I'm excited about AI Artwork because it gives access to new communities," says Phillips, whose day job is in software design. "AI tools in the art world allow people with disabilities to create beautiful [works] that previously they were not able to with the tools that we have today."

A portrait of an alien business professional, dark background, taken with an iPhone

Tim Fisher / DALL·E AI

And like all accessibility features, this is good for everyone. This divorcing of busywork from art opens up yet more opportunities for artists. 

"It is a huge deal for all artists. The AI art is one thing, but it's a tool that helps artists ideate their analog work as well. It can quickly and accurately draw a map of Italy or create the stock photo with colors and imagery you need on demand," says Reda.

For example, I have a friend who is a prominent cut-up artist. He collects old magazines and photos and chops them up to make his work. If he was to use DALL·E to create new vintage magazine illustrations, then print them and cut them out, is that art? Of course, it is. 

AI might prove to be as big a deal for artists as the advent of photography or digital tools and will surely be at least as controversial. But the artist thrives on exactly this kind of gray area, and the twisting of concepts and ideas. 

It's going to be fun.

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