Monday, June 5, 2023

Art in a Time of Digital Wonder

I make no claim to be an expert on this subject, but I did start dating an art major when we were both in college, in 1958, and we eventually got married. A few years later we were both employed at a university, and she was Curator of Education (or an equivalent title, depending on the decade) at the Sheldon Museum of Art. As a result, I ended up in the company of artists and art historians, listening to them talk not only about their work but also about art in general. Throughout our careers, my wife’s in the arts and mine as a biological scientist, most of our social contacts were in the art community rather than the relatively boring and semi-toxic biologist community. So, my comments about the current issue of content aware fill and other digital photography wonders are derived mainly from those decades of listening to artists and art historians address the same questions that pre-Photoshop photographers were probably asking about darkroom jockeys and post-Photoshop photographers are now (or still) asking, the main one being “is it art?”

Humans make art, period. There was a time when the cultural world was asking whether photography was an art form, and that question got answered in the affirmative, mainly by market forces that eventually forced us to consider content and intellectual/emotional impact of photgraphs in addition to their value as investments. However, in my view, all humans are artists, writers, and musicians, period, and every time they press a shutter on a camera, draw a picture, write a letter, or play an instrument, they are indeed playing this role of artist, writer, or musician. Artists use all the materials and techniques available to them at the time they are working, so whenever new materials or techniques appear, and artists use them, that is typical human behavior. The real question, then, is whether these artists, writers, or musicians are amateurs or professionals, and if amateurs, whether they are functioning at the professional level. In my opinion, in the United States, the Treasury Department, i.e., the Internal Revenue Service, has provided a handy answer to this last question, and this answer is known as Schedule C.

Here are my Schedule C criteria: If you take photographs, even if you manipulate them mercilessly, draw pictures, write all kinds of stuff, and/or play an instrument, but do not earn any money from these practices, even if you’re doing them at a very high level, and don’t even try to earn any money from them, and consequently don’t fill out a Schedule C, then you are an amateur artist, writer, and/or musician no matter how good you are at whatever you’re doing artistically. If, however, you earn some income from your art, writing, and/or music, but not enough to buy food, shelter, and transportation, and choose to fill out a Schedule C, claiming expenses, etc., then you are still an amateur but one working at the professional level, i.e., earning some money with your art. But if you fill out a Schedule C, and the reported income is enough to provide you with housing, food, and transportation, and that has been the situation for several years in a row, then you are clearly a professional.

Now, however, in addition to the Schedule C criteria, there is the Self Employment Tax requirement for some professionals. If, because of your earnings from your art, you are required to pay self-employment tax, you are operating at the professional level and probably are a true professional. Finally, of course, if you are employed as a photographer, writer, or musician, and paid a salary for taking pictures, writing stories, and playing an instrument, you are clearly a professional regardless of how well you are doing these activities, what the general public thinks of them, and whether you fill out a Schedule C or pay Self Employment Tax.

Note that the Schedule C criterion does not include critical acclaim; obviously one can gain critical appreciation, or even critical acclaim, and not be a professional. Nowadays, however, there may be some semi-ethical issues involved in AI manipulations of all kinds of products, including photography, writing, and probably musical composition. It takes very little messing around with ChatGPT to figure out that the homework essay as a graded product in school is a thing of the past. Social media posts from the education community reveal not only a variety of concerns about this last problem, but also techniques for ensuring that creative work is original and reflective of a student’s knowledge, learning, etc. One of these English teacher techniques involves right up-front admission of AI participation in an assignment, and that seems like a pretty good approach to all kinds of creative work, including photography.

So, for example, instead of saying “here’s a photo of a squirrel in my back yard,” we end up saying “here’s a photo that just looks like a squirrel in my back yard, but the back yard is totally fake, made up of a thousand back yard images in the Adobe picture bank. Oh, and it’s not a real squirrel, either; it’s actually a squirrel made from a rat sitting on the spilled garbage in the alley behind my apartment building.” Someone might look at that picture and say: “That’s really a nice image of a fake back yard and a squirrel made from a rat, but we were just in Milwaukee where we stopped by a gallery and saw a nicer fake back yard and a squirrel made from a beaver. Seems to me when you make squirrels from beavers, they turn out better squirrels than when you make them from rats.” What we have here is a discussion of how well, in one person’s opinion, another person has used available techniques and starting materials to construct an image.

We also have, in this conversation, the typical talk about “better” but in this case involving fake squirrels and fake back yards. These fake talkers are using their subjective judgments to assess the visual and emotional impact of a picture and the ability of the picture-maker to produce such an impact. It’s also entirely possible that the person who made this fake picture spent quite a bit of time and effort taking real pictures of rats in the alley behind her apartment, and that some of these images produce a serious visual and emotional impact after only common manipulations such as sharpening, noise reduction, exposure, etc. If she exhibited those real pictures of real rats in real alleys, some folks might call her a purist, a word whose definition changes with the times, technological tools available, and use of such tools by serious artists, writers, and musicians. We can envision some Cro-Magnon cave artist with ground pigments, producing images of bison deep in a European cave, coming out into the sunlight, seeing another individual drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick, and calling that person a purist in whatever language the Cro-Magnons used 20,000 years ago to describe one another. So, our general definition of “purist” is one who uses a minimal repertoire of techniques available, regardless of the media, and still produces something interesting.

So, the question remains: What do we do and say about work that is heavily laden with AI content, as opposed to work that is heavily modified but still recognizable as a derivative of some relatively pure creative endeavor? That question is relatively easy to answer for photography: The artist admits their sources, intents, and tools, and we viewers view the work as a mixed-media product, judging it, in our minds, in terms of how well the intent was accomplished, or maybe even in terms of how skillful the artist was in use of the tools. We do that same kind of judgment with purist work, too, of course, but mentally put the purist work into a different mental category from the mixed-media work.

Here are a couple of examples, based on my encounter with photographers, to illustrate the paragraph above. In one case, the photographer takes a picture of some fairly common scene—buildings, vegetation, etc.—then converts that scene into a relatively striking image representative of a drawing, or an oil painting, to use a couple of options. We can still see the original scene or subject, and we can recognize the transformation done by the photographer. In this case the photographer is doing exactly what a painter might do with the same scene but using different tools. It’s the scene recognition, and the message of the image, that survives manipulation. In the second example, a photographer takes an image of a model in a studio then asks AI to put her in a Flamenco dance setting. Once he takes her out of the studio, she becomes a different cultural item, and it’s the choice of where to put her that is a creative act, the intent to produce a different response from a viewer than would have been produced by the studio image.

A byproduct of AI in the arts, of course, will end up producing the exact same reaction from consumers as so-called fake news has produced in the political realm, namely, a suspicion that whatever is put before us is a complete fabrication unless there is some compelling information that tells us it is not, and even then, we are likely to be suspicious that the so-called compelling information is itself fake, or manipulated beyond recognition.