As an illustrator, I spend a lot of my time looking at artwork online. I’ve been able to better my artwork by learning from others — with social media, it has become so easy to expose myself to all kinds of brilliant artists and discover new methods of art I didn’t even realize existed. I can see how multitudes of artists depict the same character, each piece crafted with love and personality. In this regard, being an artist online often feels rewarding, allowing me to study art while enjoying content. This drawing of the “Bob’s Burgers” cast, for example, captures the essence of each character while also completely changing the show’s original style. I’m constantly inspired by my peers, excited to log online each day to find new artworks to fawn over.
Recently I was scouring social media as usual, and I scrolled past this art piece. I liked it without a second thought; it seemed to be a beautiful, hand-painted piece of a character I like. However, it reappeared on my timeline later in a new light. Several users were calling out the post for being AI-generated, warning other artists. I was shocked to my core. The piece looked so handmade — I could practically see each brush stroke.
I dug deeper into the account and noticed that each AI piece had a cohesive style: They looked like they were all drawn by the same artist. Each piece looks as though hours were spent on it, as if the artist went to painstaking lengths to render each strand of hair. Yet this was all a facade. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It took me minutes of scrolling through artworks to find any sort of rendering error — the broken-looking pinky in the fourth photo indicates a glitch in the system in this case.
Through my discovery of this account, I’ve noticed discourses popping up about the subject of AI art. I’ve seen milder takes — one user states that they are okay with AI works but would not want them to appear in fan art tags online since they aren’t handmade. I suppose I feel similarly. I certainly feel threatened by accounts like this and their popularity, but if they explicitly mentioned that they were AI-generated I might feel more at peace with this reality. I don’t want a world where the line between handmade and AI art is blurred. There is a discomfort — an uncanniness that fills my body — when I realize I could one day be replaced by a machine. I find myself comparing my own works to AI pieces, critiquing my art as if I could ever perform as a robot.
This is a sentiment that many artists share, particularly surrounding the rise of NFTs and AI art over the past year. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are essentially digital art pieces sold as cryptocurrency, and they have exploded in popularity. To an uninformed audience, it may seem as though these serve to benefit artists. However, a large community of independent artists has grown to loathe NFTs due to their lack of strict copyright laws. Anyone can have their work tokenized — essentially stolen without their knowledge. On top of this, there is a general feeling of elitism that many artists, myself included, dislike about NFTs. The atmosphere surrounding NFTs feels hell-bent on making millions, rather than supporting an artist they love. NFT fans often have an Elon Musk-esque attitude, bragging about the soulless ape that made them thousands. They also harm the environment, using a grossly unnecessary amount of energy to run their ecosystem.
Lately, it feels as though artists are being pushed into this trap — a trap where their content will be suppressed unless they break into a market that will ultimately fail to respect them as individuals. For example, Twitter is actively pushing NFT integration on their platform, as well as Facebook and Instagram. Prior to the existence of NFTs, there was never this same promotion of independent artists. There has been a stark increase in support and fascination for AI art online; even social media platform DeviantArt, which is notorious for hearing the concerns of artists, recently added AI art integration on their site.
DeviantArt’s new AI art rules were particularly scary for artists, given their choice to include all current works on the site in AI datasets and prompts. This meant that your existing work would be fair game to use in AI generator learning and that AIs could learn directly from your work. In order to opt out of this feature, you had to go out of your way to find the form, as well as wait a lengthy 10-day review period. The announcement for this sparked outrage; one quote particularly stood out, stating that DeviantArt “has chosen to support the death of artists.” Many artists were even deactivating their accounts as a result of this announcement. Many uninformed artists could have failed to take notice of these announcements altogether, unknowingly consenting to their work being a learning tool for an AI that could theoretically replace them. It was disheartening to hear, particularly from a platform that is geared toward independent artists. I was left wondering, is this an inevitable future?
Luckily, before all hope was drained, DeviantArt took notice of the outrage: Within eight hours, their initial statement had been revised. A new tweet was posted, stating that all posts would now be automatically opted out of use in AI datasets. This was a big win for small artists online; it felt good to have a platform that actually listened to our complaints. The future brightened a bit, and we relaxed our tense shoulders. We can still distinguish ourselves from artificial intelligence — we still have each other, artists supporting artists.
Though I praised social media at the beginning of this piece, I feel the need to acknowledge its role in progressing movements like NFTs and AI art. With the growing avenues of money-making online, there is certainly a push toward using art or any similar content as a “side hustle.” Time’s 2022 “Top 20 Side Hustles” are primarily social media-based, for example. It’s certainly a struggle I’ve had in my career, that feeling of “if I can be making money, why aren’t I?” I am not the only one to echo these feelings. Marian Bull’s “The complicated reality of doing what you love” eloquently states, “Once demand appeared, selling felt like an inevitability.” The world of social media is certainly pushing artists to these standards, threatening irrelevancy if they do not conform to modern art trends. It becomes an uncomfortable debate of morality and integrity; I recall unfollowing several artists who decided to enter the NFT market, angered at their spinelessness. How can we artists turn to forms of art that diminish our integrity, that harm the environment in such unnecessary ways?
The answer seems to point to money, unsurprisingly. Freelancing just looks different nowadays, no longer as simple and commission-based. Many can argue that these NFT and AI artists are just ambitious entrepreneurs chasing a hungry market; while that can be true, the fact that the market has ended up in this state is disheartening. The direction of art seems to be pushing humans out as quickly as possible, prioritizing fast work that can turn a quick profit. There is no sense of love, personalization or style in these popular “art” spaces anymore. Hopefully, independent artists can continue to speak their minds and prove the priceless value of human-made artwork. We will certainly always be able to produce meaningful art — we always have. Yet we deserve to have our works seen as valuable by the general public. We are not yet ready to be replaced by machines, and we artists need to make that known.
Daily Arts Writer Katelyn Sliwinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.