Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The value, precautions and prospects of machine-made images

Inspired by Jerry Uelsmann‘s photomontages in 1975, I spent the better part of a day searching through my proofs to find images that might work together to make an intriguing composite. 

On another day, I did the actual printing in the darkroom with a variety of masks, using quite a bit of chemistry and photographic paper—trial and error—to get the above image. And that was only possible because I had a fully equipped darkroom, the appropriate materials on hand and had done the research on how to combine elements on a single sheet of photographic paper.

Today, anyone with a computer could accomplish a similar composite in a matter of minutes, by using an AI software program and typing in a request. For instance, “Florida beach symmetry with boulders in the foreground, one of which has the face of a stone statue in it.” Within seconds of pressing the Return button, the composite would appear on the screen. If printed on photographic quality inkjet paper it would be ready to hang in a gallery, certainly to be used in advertising or part of a portfolio. Now that it’s so easy to create top quality images that are captivating, composites or not, the question arises: “Is it art?” 

Words Matter

The French began using the word “Art” in the 10th century, borrowing it from the Latin artem, “practical skill; a business craft,” which derived from the Greek artizein, “to prepare,” the suffixed form of the root ar– “to fit together.” (Online Etymology Dictionary). In keeping with these traditions, the word “art” applies to a creative process, not its outcome. 

Ancient indigenous people all over the world, didn’t have a word for art. Objects were created for utilitarian, ornamental or religious purposes. Whatever the medium, the process of making something by shaping or fitting things together was part of everyday living. 

Today, we use the word “art” loosely. In a capitalist society it’s natural to attach a monetary value to everything we make, do or perform. Without established values on goods, trading one’s creative output in a complex society would be too problematic. But selling it is easy; values are much better agreed upon. When we refer to both a creative process and its outcome as art, the monetary value of the object tends to supersede the intrinsic value of the creative act. It’s why I try to make a distinction between “art,” the process of stitching things together, and “artifact,” the outcome.  

Who’s doing the stitching?

When a computer is given a command such as the one above, it’s the hardware and software that’s doing the actual combining. The process was designed by the individual(s) who conceived and manufactured the computer and instructions. And the outcome, the image that appears on the screen or is printed, is an artifact, evidence of the operator’s creative imagination. 

Applying these distinctions to AI, the art is in the conceptualization. So, to that extent the operator can rightly be considered an “artist.” What comes out of the printer is an artifact—until someone begins to call it “art.” It was the same with photography. For many years, there was a debate about whether or not it could be considered an art form. When George Eastman mass-produced a series of Kodak cameras (Kodak #1 in 1888, a box camera loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film), the critics claimed that “anyone could do it.” But that changed when master photographers demonstrated that not everyone could produce high quality, “expressive” photographs.  


As noted, the output of an AI image or print is an artifact of the operator’s imagination. But increasingly, as the results demonstrate a producer’s creativity, it will be considered an object of art. As we’re often reminded, art is in the mind of the beholder.

Imagine yourself to be a collector of fine art photography. You’re considering the purchase of a print of the above image. The gallery owner shows you two prints, one made by hand in a darkroom by a lifelong photographer, and the other an inkjet print generated by an AI program. Side-by-side the prints are top quality, they’re equally compelling aesthetically and the price is the same. Which would you choose? What makes the difference?    

Okay, now you’re the art director for a big-city advertising firm. You’re shown a series of color photographs taken by your in-house photographer, and you’re about to approve one you think the client will like when an employee comes in and shows you an AI image she made on spec. Her image would work even better for your client. Of course, you choose the AI print. Application matters.

The Marks We Make

One of the defining characteristics of human beings is the urge to make marks, to express ourselves, who we are, what we’re doing and thinking. Whether those marks are as simple as handprints on a cave wall or as complex as pixelated electrons on a computer screen, we’re fascinated by any medium that can extend our being and experience. Mediums extend. And when the results can be shared, traded or sold, so much the better.

Whatever the expression or message, the marks we make contain an unconscious subtext that says, “This is me.” “I am here.” And “This is what I am experiencing.” In a complex society, our marks (words, images) help us to explore and improve our perception of self, others, the world and our place in it. Additionally, as certain creative expressions attract attention and become increasingly admired, their exchange value increases; the greater the attention, the greater the value we place on a person’s marks. Baseball trading cards, paintings by recognized masters, photographic fine art, Broadway plays and movies are examples.

Now take the case where several squiggles and a line are generated on a computer in response to an operator’s command. A viewer, not knowing the operator or how the printed image was created will try to make sense of it. In one of Steve Martin’s movies, observing a piece of modern sculpture in a museum, he asks a companion, “What kinda deal is this?” When something doesn’t make sense, we move on. 

But if the viewer learns that a well-known artist made the squiggles and line on a computer, it doesn’t matter. We stop and pay closer attention. Isn’t this what we do walking through the halls of a museum? We look for the artist’s name because their marks have been validated and will likely stand the test of time. Whether we know it or not, their creative output represents a life of soul-searching, perceptual and technical evolution and fascinating personal experiences. There’s substance and history behind the work. And an observer can find it there, if they care to look. 

Relative to AI-produced images, it’s important to know the person behind the computer. Who’s doing the stitching together? What was he/she thinking? A dazzling image produced on a computer by a trained monkey may be visually appealing, but the consciousness and experience behind it lacks substance and meaning. It may excite us and produce a sense of wonder, but that’s it. On the other hand, an experienced and highly skilled artist using the same computer program is likely to produce an image that is loaded with these qualities and more.

Art, as process, resides in the consciousness and experience of a human being. The artifact is an expression of that thinking and process. As the AI movement gains momentum in image-making, it will become increasingly important to know the conceptualizer, the person in front of the screen. For me to take an AI image seriously, to see it as containing substance, particularly for use in my contemplative practice, I would want to know the producer’s motivation and objectives.

Creative Challenge

Whatever the medium, we live in a time when we can’t afford to make images that sacrifice the future for the present, that draw attention to the abuses of freedom, fan the flames of separation, self-centeredness and fear and distract us from the task of uplifting the human spirit and consciousness, and building the world in ethical and sustainable ways. 

So much of our creative energy is spent directing our attention to the dark side of human nature. What we attend to we make more of, so negative images, irrespective of the medium, promote self-fulfilling prophecies. The pressures of the moment are urging us to instead, invest our creativity in ways that demonstrate and encourage the higher human characteristics—love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, collaboration, the making of images that contribute to human and planetary flourishing. 

Dark moments exist to provide contrast to experience the lightheartedness of pure joy–doing work that regenerates and restores vitality in humanity and the planet. The invitation is to evolve toward embracing a unified view of life both at home and at work, living with multicultural perspectives, compassion, and oneness. 

Dawna Jones, Business consultant

Author, Decision Making for Dummies

One thought on “Artificial Intelligence (AI)

  1. Occasionally, you put a lot of “contemplations” into one post. IMO art has to have one underlying precept to be “appreciated” and thus, “valued”…relatability. Abstract expressions often look like things any second grader could have done and only occasionally do I see ones where the colors, the flow the brush strokes and the skill/craftsmanship all come together to make me see “art”.

    If a work of art has to be explained to me, I may appreciate it a little more, but it is art ill crafted. Even your most abstract photographic art has elements I recognize and the craftsmanship is always impeccable, thus I value it.

    Social images & actions: I agree, dark images abound and images of light and kindness are lost in the din of modern “living”. TIK TOK the clock is striking…….



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