ChatGPT: Art Without a Place or an Artist

Today, over lunch at work, I chatted briefly with a few friends who knew a good bit about the Microsoft investment in ChatGPT. We didn’t have a lot of time, but my friends made a case for ChatGPT as a tool that can serve and enrich human creativity. I was arguing that ChatGPT would dilute and overwhelm human artistic culture as a kind of parasite upon human artistry. I didn’t make my case effectively, or I was just plain wrong. In either case, my conversation partner was unimpressed and just reiterated that ChatGPT would simply allow human artists to more powerfully synthesize across even wider reaches of human creativity than they could have done before. Human creativity would not be diluted or overwhelmed by this tool but taken to greater and greater levels.

Maybe I’m just feeling defensive or bruised as I had no success articulating my concerns over lunch, but the questions have continued to turn over in my mind since then. It strikes me that—while I can imagine AI tools enhancing the work of human creatives in some meaningful ways—what I anticipate is actually that two forms of dilution will be the norm. First, automated AI productions will replace human creations in more and more total hours of human attention. Second, humans will use such tools to increase the volume and sensational intensity of creative output. What is lost in both of these cases is the situatedness of art within the living fabric of human societies where both artist and audience have embodied relationships to both the making of the art and the enjoyment of it. Putting Art (Back) in Its Place by John E. Skillen makes the case that we’ve lost something simply by placing art more and more into the context of museums instead of its original range of purposes within all of the various zones of activity in normal human society. Art is meant to be enmeshed within human society and life—where both the making and the enjoyment of it are part of daily activities and habits.

One comment from my conversation partner at lunch that caught my attention was him saying that creative AI tools like ChatGPT will soon allow anyone to simply say: “Please play me the music I will enjoy most right now.” We’ll have access to unique creations whenever we want that are fully customized to our own tastes and situations. I can’t shake the sense that this is an even more sinister dystopia than Brave New World by Aldous Huxley where one of the characters goes out of her mind with terrified disorientation when her lover intentionally flies so high with her in a helicopter that they escape out of the reach of the constant synthetic music that plays over the radio airwaves during every moment of their normal lives. No one makes music together in Huxley’s Brave New World, but everyone is required to consume soul-numbing levels of it as constant entertainment. For most in this dystopia, cutting off the synthetic entertainment is an unbearable agony.

Last night, my wife and I finished reading our third Kazuo Ishiguro novel out loud together: Klara and the Sun. It’s a story of an AF (Artificial Friend) who has a profound and moving devotion to both her human child and to the Sun as a mighty god who can offer us help in our most desperate needs. We’re also reading two other books out loud currently with different combinations of our three children. With our youngest, we’ve just met Beorn the skin-changer as Bilbo and the dwarves finally made it out of the Misty Mountains thanks to the Eagles. With our teenage son, we’re lost in the intrigues of Arrakis and the novel Dune. We read in a room with two hand-painted icons of Jesse and Elizabeth—for whom my wife and I are named—overlooking us from the top level of our bookshelf.

Whatever vestiges of situated art that my family and I enjoy together within the context of our daily and weekly habits, they don’t compare to the experiences of our ancestors as community storytellers wove their worlds around the fire during the prolonged darkness of winter nights while some who were listening were no doubt carving religious masks or decorative household utensils as they sat. I’m not idealizing premodern human societies. Suffering and sin were as ubiquitous then as now, and calamity was no doubt even more tyrannical. However, they had habits of living together that included the making and the enjoyment of human artifacts such that presence, attentiveness, and contemplation were developed in relation to each other and to the entire natural world as a result of the apprenticeship, imitation, creative work, and situated enjoyment that was a normal part of all craft and artistry.

Our capacity to create more and more content by more and more synthetic means, however, does not increase either our presence within our places or our connection to the artist through the artifact. Entertainment value, technical sophistication, and increased personalization can all increase exponentially with inventions such as moveable type and AI synthesizers. However, as the thrill, intricacy, and personal therapeutic capacity of our media consumption increases, we grow more insulated from our places in the world and our presence with each other. We consume more and more artificial images and stories and music to stay pleasantly impressed, productively excited, or sufficiently numb instead of finding ourselves practicing more and more habits that enfold us increasingly into our community, the artisans themselves, and our own active and multifaceted relationship to a particular place in the world (with its own kinds of clays, pigments, woods, fibers, speech patterns, landscapes, seasonal lighting changes, and so on).

I’m not opposed to good tools in either the tasks of practical building and making or the more creative tasks of synthesizing beautiful and inspiring work by others around us. It is true that AI synthesizers of visual, musical, and written work have tremendous potential to be meaningful tools on both of these fronts. However, without a society that finds its way back to a life lived on a human scale with habitual rhythms of contact among a limited number of people who all know and love the same stretches of river and wooded valley, I can’t imagine our more and more powerful tools ever being put to any kind of wise and productive uses that will actually bless our fields and our hillsides or the inmost desires of our own hearts. Instead, I suspect that our increased capacities will only lead to more and more impressive art that has no place, no artists, no guild or school of craft, and therefore no purpose.

Albert Anker. Grandfather Telling a Story. 1884. Oil on canvas.

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