NFTs, AI and The Million Dollar Ape
The art world is in a state of flux. With the rise of new mediums and formats of digital art, the question of what actually constitutes art is becoming increasingly relevant. Think of the infamous Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs or Dall·E generated imagery; works of this nature are cropping up at an increasing frequency and in extremely prestigious contexts, from commercial gallery shows to reputable auction houses. This begs the question; are these mediums prompting the “death of the artist,” or do they simply represent a new chapter in the mercurial art world?
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are a prime example of this new avenue, and something I had to research vigorously in order to gain a very basic understanding of. For others who haven’t yet grasped their enigmatic nature, they act as a kind of trading card that proves the ownership of a digital asset. When buying an NFT, you’ll receive a certificate of authenticity alongside the digital file which, once in your possession, is able to be traded at will. Their value is established in a manner very similar to traditional art; through the scarcity and quality of each piece and the artist’s general notoriety. Essentially, in the same way a verified Monet might be sold through Christie’s, an NFT can be traded through marketplaces that exist on the blockchain.
It’s undeniable that this format presents unique opportunities to artists that aren’t generally available within the wider art world. Anyone is now able to create and list NFTs for sale on designated websites such as Opensea, allowing artists that haven’t been able to crack the gallery scene an opportunity to have their work seen and purchased by collectors. The key difference? Buyers aren’t paying for a product that exists in the physical space but rather a collection of pixels.
This isn’t to say that the work of digital artists fails to measure up to those working in traditional mediums. As someone who dropped out of a design degree after only one semester, I can attest that it takes a lot of talent to produce great work in this format. My gripe with NFTs relates more so to the type of creators gaining notoriety within this community. Think of Bored Ape Yacht Club, a collective whose work is likely the first to spring to mind when thinking about NFTs. Created by four friends who go by Gargamel, Gordon Goner, Emperor Tomato Ketchup and No Sass, BAYC initially released 10,000 randomly programmatically generated ape NFTs that act as a kind of avatar for buyers. Each of which was initially sold for 0.08 ETH, or around 270 NZD, but can now go for anywhere between tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars on reselling platforms. Maybe it was due to Justin Bieber’s 1.3M dollar ape-investment (his BAYC NFT is only worth around $69k now) or maybe it was just a general desire to align oneself with a new trend, but these works sold out quickly. And while these NFTs have since drastically sunk in value, they’re still regarded as iconic (and expensive). Their persisting popularity begs the question of whether creators such as BAYC are set to be regarded as the Matisses and Picassos of this medium, and if so, what will the future of NFTs look like with collectives like Bored Ape spearheading it?
Another recent development proving equally polarising is AI-generated art. Just last year Jason M. Allen earned a blue ribbon in the Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition for his entry entitled ‘Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,’ or ‘Space Opera Theatre. The kicker? The piece had been created on Midjourney, an AI software that uses user-generated prompts to generate digital artwork. Allen’s contribution to the creative process was a mere three words, yet his work beat those attributed to a variety of talented artists who had sunk considerable time and effort into the production of their submissions. Olga Robak, a spokesperson for the competition stated that Allen disclosed his use of Midjourney prior to the judgement process, however, two judges admitted to not having known it was an AI art-generating software. While they maintain that Allen would have been awarded the prize regardless, his victory prompted a heated discussion on the ambiguous ethics of AI-generated art in a fine art context.
Artificial intelligence can produce some beautiful pieces and ‘Théâtre D’opéra Spatial’ is a clear testament to that. However, artists need to be asking themselves if they can really take credit for something that they had such a small part in creating. The art industry is tricky to break into; it requires drive, passion and a considerable investment of time, and there are plenty of passionate artists willing to really put in the work for their craft. With this in mind, do we really think it’s fair to award prompt writing abilities over and above genuine mastery?
Another instance that springs to mind is the 2018 sale of ‘Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,’ an AI-generated artwork that sold for $432,500 USD, nearly 45 times its high estimate. The work emulates the style of 19th Century European portraiture with an abstracted twist. The figure’s facial features are rendered unrecognisable and a kaleidoscopic employment of colour makes the piece appear to be glitching. In my opinion, it’s a beautiful piece, yet the creative process (or lack thereof) removes any sense of artistic integrity.
The creators, a Paris-based collective known by the name ‘Obvious,’ have stated that their primary interest is the “replication of creativity,” a concept that summarises what I believe is the shortcoming of AI art as a whole. The system used by Obvious is one based purely on imitation; it’s fed with images of thousands of pre-existing artworks until the program is able to create something new. A member of the collective stated that ‘the aim is to fool the Discriminator [system] into thinking that the new images are real-life portraits. Then we have a result.’ I understand the fascination, however, I’m of the opinion that this mindset has the potential to damage the culture of art as a whole. Creativity across visual art mediums is what keeps us moving forwards, and yes, artists have been drawing inspiration from their predecessors for years but this method feels counterintuitive. Not only are we losing the sense of humanity that makes art so powerful, but we’re drawing purely from the past without considering how we might move forwards. It can be argued that the employment of an AI system is an innovative touch, and I can understand that. Though what I can’t wrap my head around is the lack of individuality and the loss of an art form that takes years of practice and unparalleled levels of creativity to truly master.
We’re currently being faced with technological advances that have the potential to completely change the landscape of the art world. It’s bringing us closer to a time in which technology and culture are interwoven and with this comes a lot of change. I don’t like writing overly critical articles, particularly not about art, and I recognise that my stance may come across as pretentious. To clarify, I recognise the merit behind NFTs (though I’m still sceptical about the merit of AI-generated art in fine art contexts) and I adore other digital mediums. My issues pertain more to the money-grabbing nature of NFTs, which seemingly serve as an extension of cryptocurrency rather than a genuine display of beauty and culture. As for my take on AI-generated art, I simply want to see real, dedicated artists being offered platforms rather than people who are able to think up a few clever prompts. With the rise of new technology comes considerable opportunities for progression, however, we need to ensure that the art industry doesn’t lose its sense of humanity. My suggestion? Leave AI out of the art world and focus on the human artists that really should be platformed.