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Generative AI art program Midjourney sparks new artistic potential

“AI is going to threaten traditional modes of creation, but it’s also going to create new modes of creation,” said Benjamin Cariens of the UNH Art and Art History Department.
An arrangement of tools utilized by the UNH CAT Lab such as glass slides, and a virtual reality headset alongside a computer accessing Midjourney
Sophia Schlichtmann
An arrangement of tools utilized by the UNH CAT Lab such as glass slides, and a virtual reality headset alongside a computer accessing Midjourney

DURHAM — The chair of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Art and Art History Department, Benjamin Cariens, and Digital Resources Curator of the UNH Collaboration, Arts and Technology Lab (CAT Lab) Otto Luna, see the new Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology Midjourney as a potential tool.

AI programs have elicited much discourse pertaining to copyright and artistic integrity. Midjourney, a generative AI program that came out in July of 2022, utilizes images from an online algorithm in order to produce its work.

 Many artists fear that their jobs will be taken or their art stolen as these seemingly creative AI programs evolve. However, though the response to AI in the art world has been passionate, it has not been entirely negative. 

The generative artwork of Midjourney is available through purchasing a subscription on its website and connecting the software to Discord, a social media platform based upon digital communities known as “servers.” To create artwork on Midjourney, one simply types in a description or prompt for the technology to generate.

Midjourney’s artwork is based upon computer noise that can be thought of as a sort of television static. The software utilizes a method called diffusion, where it turns computer noise taken from the online images it has been trained upon into artwork that matches the given prompt. Once the art is generated it is public to those on the server and can be reused by anyone. 

“Midjourney is really about collaging images, it’s not really developing a point of view, or conceptual underpinning, that then has an expression or any kind of real material sense,” said Cariens. 

Cariens expressed that the controversy around the utilization of AI in the art world is to be expected given past patterns. However, he also believes that it’s “exciting from a creative standpoint.” 

“Whenever there’s a new technology, first, there’s a lot of entrenchment of old values,” he said. “There’s a much larger capacity for creativity and culture to grow with the new technologies. It’s not a zero-sum game.” 

Cariens sees the potential for AI tools to be a jumping-off point for creatives; a term he uses to describe artists in all forms. 

“In the future, and even now, I see AI as a tool that’s going to aid creatives, maybe as a sort of initial step in the creative process,” he said. “When you’re creating something from scratch, the blank canvas, page or screen is scary. But now you can use these AI tools to type out just an initial idea, get a visual, and maybe that’s the starting point.”

The UNH Paul Creative Arts Center (PCAC) houses the Art and Art History Department along with the CAT Lab. The focus of the CAT Lab is to bring together the arts with technology, according to its digital curator, Otto Luna. The CAT Lab has aided with projects surrounding 3D printing in studio art and history classes. The CAT Lab currently has plans to incorporate virtual reality (VR) into the classroom, so students may experience a tour of archaeological sites such as the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City from Durham, New Hampshire. 

While the CAT Lab deals with compelling new technologies, they still possess older relics such as glass slides intended for projectors. Luna’s job at the CAT Lab is to keep up with the new technologies, and collaborate with UNH faculty to figure out how to integrate them into the classroom in meaningful ways.

Cariens expressed that the Art and Art History Department combines traditional methodologies as well as new methodologies in their teachings of art history. According to him, questions around AI are apt, because the department is constantly questioning where new  technologies come from and how they can fit in at the university.

Though the use of AI art programs seems to be just entering the realm of possibility at UNH, a photography course has recently utilized the technology as a tool. 

Studio art major Leah Rose Doyle, class of 2025, was tasked in using AI to create sketches of photos she took in a digital photography course. Doyle expressed that although the technology was cool, it is still in its experimental phase, which can be tricky when dealing with the copyright and commissions of artists. Doyle believes that the same type of convenience the technology creates when it immediately provides the user with a product or outline is the same characteristic that poses a threat to the livelihood of online artists who profit from commissions.

In relation to the job market, Cariens believes that AI is “going to hit foundational positions” where a surplus of graphic designers put out similar, more basic products such as menus and bank forms that are simple for an AI to generate. 

 “It’s all the more important that universities teach higher level conceptual, creative thinking, as opposed to training for simply software skills,” said Cariens. “I think that is something we have always tried to do.” 

Midjourney has elicited debate over what constitutes art. Prompting a machine to generate art that traditionally would have been created by the physical hands of an artist questions the merit of generative work. However, the fine art of digital photography grasps an image mechanically, as AI does technologically. 

“When photography was first invented it wasn’t [considered] an art form, because it was just too mechanical. You just point at something, and then the machine makes the image. It took a long time for photography to be considered a fine art,” said Luna. “I think for AI, maybe the same thing is going to happen. Right now I’m a little bit of a skeptic. Does entering the right prompt to generate an interesting image constitute art? I don’t know.” 

No official plans or discussions have occurred about incorporating AI programs into the curriculum of the UNH Art and Art History department yet. However, the potential utilization of the technology as a tool in classroom settings is ever-evolving, just as the technology itself. 

“What determines whether something is artistic is a very strange confluence of cultural moments, cultural institutions, cultural acceptance,” said Cariens. “I do feel like in a lot of ways AI is going to threaten traditional modes of creation, but it’s also going to create new modes of creation, and I think there can be something more symbiotic.”

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    MaddieSep 8, 2023 at 4:04 pm

    Very interesting!! Great article as always