Within a Forest Dark: Art’s Journey into AI

September 22, 2023
A forest cast in orange colors with a path leading to a light and a single traveler in the distance
A 4A Arts quote icon, showing quotation marks

Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

A Space Opera

This time last year, tabletop game designer and CEO of Incarnate Games Jason M. Allen won the Colorado State Fair’s top prize for emerging artists in the “Digital Arts/Digitally-Manipulated Photography” category for his work Théâtre D’opéra Spatial Close observation of Théâtre D’opéra Spatial reveals a dreamlike image reminiscent of exactly what its title evokes, a space opera. Three feminine figures stand in the foreground on some form of stage or dais, and in the background, an immense ocular window opens out over an expansive, surreal city. 
Fantasy illustration generated by artificial intelligence. Image of three humans with shiny, fantastical space helmets, in flowing Renaissance-like robes in red and white placed in a sumptuous, cavernous gathering chamber, looking out a large, circular window on an indistinct mountain with dwellings.

Jason M. Allen's Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, created in Midjourney, 2022

But the most striking aspect of the work is its resemblance to real paintings. Working in Midjourney, Allen has managed to create a piece that mimics the brushstrokes and chiaroscuro effects of the Italian Renaissance, with particular resemblance to Caravaggio’s works, with architectural touches perhaps inspired by the gilded interior of the Byzantine Hagia Sophia Delving into a high definition version of Théâtre D’opéra Spatial leaves one with the same curiosity and breathlessness for the next detail as works of art that have hung in the Louvre for hundreds of years. 
An angel in a white robe hovers over a kneeling woman in blue

Caravaggio, The Annunciation, c. 1608. Public domain.

An illustration of the interior of the Hagia Sophia, with soaring arches and mosaics in gold

Gaspare Fossati, View of the central nave of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, from the north nave, 1852. Public domain.

And yet, artists and art aficionados across the country are perplexed by the question that lies behind Allen’s work – is it art? Judges and other artists at the Colorado State Fair are divided on the issue. The 2022 Fair rules define “digital art” as an “[a]rtistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process,” and Allen reminds critics that he didn’t break any rules. Neither did he intend to conceal or obfuscate the process behind his work: “I wanted to make a statement using artificial intelligence artwork…I feel like I accomplished that, and I’m not going to apologize for it,” said Allen to his local Pueblo, CO newspaper.

Hacking the System

Across the Atlantic Ocean, professional photographer and artist Boris Eldagsen set out on a similar mission when he entered his newest work, The Electrician, from his series, Pseudomnesia, into the 2023 Sony World Photography Award competition (SWPA). The catch? The Electrician, like Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, was generated with DALL-E, another text-to-image generative AI program like Midjourney.  Like Allen, Eldagsen did not set out to deceive the judges: “[T]hese competitions should have already changed their rules before October. But they didn’t. That’s why I submitted my picture to three different competitions, to hack the system and see how far I could get,” he told Talking Pictures’ Alasdair Foster.
A vintage looking photograph in black and white. A woman in front in a 1930s hairstyle looks up and away, while another older woman in a similar hairstyle holds her shoulders from behind and leans over towards her neck.

Boris Eldagsen, "The Electrician," 2022. Courtesy of Boris Eldagsen.

He also set out with a purpose: sparking a conversation about the uses and possibilities of AI, some of them rather dark. When we at 4A Arts spoke to Eldagsen, he expressed concerns about the uses of deepfakes to undermine democracy: “When you can’t distinguish authentic images from generated images, are we all going to live in alternative realities? And are we going to lose a basis of facts that we can talk about in democracy?…How can we maintain trust in the press, in photojournalism, in authentic images?…Because the authentic images will always be less in numbers than fake generated images.”

The Straightforward Pathway Is Lost

When you can’t distinguish authentic images from generated images, are we all going to live in alternative realities?…Because the authentic images will always be less in numbers than fake generated images.

Boris Eldagsen

And like Allen, Eldagsen took home the top prize. But that is where the two paths diverge: you won’t find Eldagsen’s name listed among the winners, because he chose to refuse the award at the SWPA award ceremony, after which the SWPA removed his name and work from their website.
And unlike the Colorado State Fair, the Sony Prize was less clear on its requirements for entries, leading to an uncomfortable and tense back-and-forth between photographer and organization, where the SWPA appeared unsure whether The Electrician’s AI origin was against the rules, or even known to the judges. When Eldagsen pushed for an exploration of the ramifications of his win, he was largely met with silence, and the SWPA has yet to make an official statement on his refusal. However, while they replied to an inquiry from online magazine artnet, their stance remains unclear: after an opening paragraph that implies they knew of the work’s reliance on AI, they later describe what they viewed as “deliberate attempts at misleading us,” which Eldagsen denies

Within a Forest Dark

This all points to a deep sense of discomfort about whether or not we humans can identify AI-generated art when we see it. 
“The Honeymoon Phase,” a short film by Julie Wieland created using Midjourney, Pika Labs, and Adobe Premiere.
Much of the conversation surrounding AI’s ability to create meaningful content has focused on the creator itself. “Music can transmit and represent emotion, and AI cannot do either of those things yet,” says saxophonist, percussionist, composer, and Harvard professor Yosvany Terry. The U.S. Copyright Office would appear to agree when it comes to AI-generated visual art, having ruled twice this year against Allen that “the image generated by Midjourney that formed the initial basis for th[e] Work is not an original work of authorship protected by copyright.” Actor and producer Justine Bateman, who has become one of the most outspoken voices against the proliferation of AI in Hollywood, is one of five founders of Credo23, “a collection of film and series professionals that hold filmmaking sacred” who assert that “Films and series are Art Forms…With the increasing proliferation of generative AI video, we differentiate ourselves by making very human, very raw, very real films/series, that respect the process of filmmaking.” It’s clear that there is a popular thread of argument that claims that AI-generated art is fundamentally different in some tangible and identifiable way from that created by humans. And yet, science would tell us otherwise.

A Tree Falls in the Forest

As early as 2021, Duke University PhD student Lucas Bellaiche and a handful of colleagues would explore reactions to AI-generated artworks. What they found is not surprising: when people believed that they were viewing AI-generated art, they downgraded their opinions of how much they liked the work, or how profound they perceived it to be. But there was a catch: all of the images used in the study were, in fact, AI-generated. While the study participants felt as if there was more value to the supposedly human work, this was mere perception, as there was no difference at all in the actual art used. One of the most common claims made about differentiating AI art is that AI models are incapable of drawing human hands accurately. However, nearly as soon as that problem was identified, it was solved. (Build a better mousetrap, anybody?) This Person Does Not Exist is a website that can create photorealistic AI-composed images of humans that, you guessed it, do not exist in real life, and only a small percentage of the web’s most AI-savvy spotters, from Reddit’s r/Artificial, were able to correctly identify AI art more than two-thirds of the time.
A hand with five fingers and a thumb, with a floral tattoo on the wrist

AI generated hand. CC 4.0 license, courtesy of Corvus and Wikimedia.

A woman with dark curly hair in a light blue shirt holds up a hand.

AI art created using Midjourney. Courtesy Elaine Velle and Hyperallergic.

(Readers wanting to test out their own capabilities can head over to Reddit’s r/RealOrAI, or check out the test by AI-supported customer service app Tidio.)  All of this begs the question – does the definition of art derive from the way it is created, or the way it’s perceived? The age-old question about the tree falling in the forest comes to mind – if an AI-generated piece of art engenders the same feelings and sentiments as that created by humans, and no one is there to state the difference…is there any difference at all?

Blurring the Lines

For Jason M. Allen, he is blurring the line between “real” art and AI-generated art even further, while Boris Eldagsen seeks, if not to draw that line more clearly, to at least allow audiences to know where to find the line when necessary.  Allen is partnering with Alta Art, a Vancouver based printing company pioneering the elegraph, a “2.5D print” that he describes as “Essentially…print[ing] in layers. So it prints UV ink layer after layer after layer building up a 2.5D print…I thought, what if I could represent Théâtre D’opéra Spatial as a literal oil painting? And I searched high and low [for that technology] because I’m not going to paint it myself…in the traditional sense, right? Of course, because I’m not a painter. So I finally discovered this technology…at the Colorado State Fair we revealed the first elegraph print called Grand Finale and it’s currently hanging in the gallery at the Colorado State Fair.” In essence, the process of creation has come full circle – the original paintings that Midjourney trained its intelligence on have been synthesized through both the programming and a human’s mind, eventually returning to the state of a painting.  Eldagsen has turned his attention to the effects of AI on democracy, using his enlarged international platform to advocate for greater transparency in the AI photography world, especially when it comes to journalism. He is partnering with Writing with Light, an American initiative that launches next month focused on developing a stamp of trust and verification for journalistic imagery.  “I think the everyday public should be able to trust the media that they have set up a system in which they clearly state if an image is generated or not, if it’s manipulated or authentic,” said Eldagsen when we interviewed him. Writing with Light “subscribe[s] to a code of ethics in photojournalism. So they want to create a positive label that you can trust a certain source of an image. And they are really afraid about the upcoming American elections.” Within a forest dark, indeed.
A forest cast in orange colors with a path leading to a light and a single traveler in the distance

AI-generated image of a forest by the author, using Canva


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Written by

Whitney Christiansen

Whitney S. Christiansen is a native Kentuckian with an interdisciplinary background in arts, education, and advocacy. She spent nearly a decade teaching secondary English and drama in public schools, receiving a master’s in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the University of Louisville in 2017, where she received that year’s Grady Nutt Award for the year’s most creative directed study project, “Summoned,” an interdisciplinary practicum that combined research on medieval morality plays and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus with contemporary concepts of costume and set design. From 2009-2015 she was a cast member and later director for the Kentucky Highland Renaissance Festival, where she inaugurated and directed the festival’s teen cast, who developed two stage shows in the commedia dell’arte tradition. Leaving the classroom in 2019, Whitney received her second master’s degree from Colorado State University in Arts Leadership and Cultural Management, where she began working with Be An #ArtsHero, a grassroots campaign dedicated to bringing COVID relief to Arts Workers (now Arts Workers United.) She was the researcher on staff for AWU’s lobbying team for the U.S. House Small Business Committee’s January 2022 hearing on the creative economy, and for Ovation TV’s The Green Room with Nadia Brown, an educational comedy show about the creative economy that launched in March of 2022. Formerly the general manager of the Center for Music Ecosystems, Whitney heads up 4A Arts’ new research initiative alongside her work managing central operations....

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