My partner and I came to a sort of collaborative epiphany last night. A not-insignificant part of the appeal of generating art from large data sets seems to be, weirdly, producing visual content without the trouble of subjectivity or desire creeping in. It's kind of like this classic John Baldessari painting:

...though I guess you would have to add "large breasts trending on artstation" to the end of it. And of course play it straight, removing the ambivalent critical function of the work.

Artists have used generative techniques as a part of their practice for a long time, and this has been as interesting as the Surrealist's excavation of randomness, dream imagery and chance, and as banal as Damien Hirst's proto-NFT spot paintings. But this doesn't seem to be what people find both exciting and threatening about art generators.

In this case, it's much more of a consumer-tech impressedness with the shallow, beautiful surfaces of the output. None of the outputs stand up to much scrutiny on their own, full of blurry bits and errors, but they're convincing at a glance, which is, functionally, what most art has been enlisted to do under capitalism.

Compared to, I dunno, fantasy game concept art, sameface moba girls, and the general content of a Greek Statue Avatar Guy thread, etc, people seem to find it unconvincing when I say the Baldessari painting above is more beautiful to me by far. Within an across-the-political-spectrum anti-intellectual treatment of culture that we've been in the midst of since perhaps 9/11, the appreciation of art that is exciting and produces novel aesthetic experiences and consideration of the world beyond the serene and overwhelming triteness of beauty-which-speaks-for-itself has been only legible in bad faith, as "ironic" or "pretentious."

Conceptual Art of the 60s and 70s is such a touchstone for me not in some insecure bid to look smart (what equally-insecure one trick figurative ponies tend to frame it as), but because it is concerned with moving the viewer internally, rather than imposing an external aesthetic experience. Like the best novels, the text and scenario provoke by their own unexpectedness and perversity, light up your inner life. What the above Baldessari painting does to me is: it makes me think of how I've looked at every painting, every image, I've seen before and inserts something, a new feeling and new tool for thinking into that well-worn circuit. It's stylish, it's affronting, it makes me laugh. "Beauty" is perhaps a far too cheap word for it.

So I don't feel like what I value in art, which seems to evade generators because it requires the newness and intent of a particular angle, experience or desire driving it, is terribly threatened by these things being able to create gradually more coherent images. A lot of professional artists would disagree with me! Professionalism elevates the beauty of surfaces because that's what it needs; the professional has already turned themselves into a sort of machine-for-hire as virtue, displaying how well they can fulfill briefs and push products over the finish line. The areas that seem most "at risk," glossy mag editorial illustration, nepo-baby sci-fi novel covers, prestige-streaming series and AAA games, are areas of culture I can't imagine panicking over the demise of.

The anxiety over an artificial replacement for this inherently alienated situation makes me think of Zizek's fuck-machines, the mechanical simulation of penetrative sexual intercourse you put on in the background to be free to enjoy a date with someone. Of course the small, and already shrinking parcel of money that's spent on these genres of art and design being yet another piece of the pie that goes to techbros fucking sucks, but I think it would be nice, and allow for much broader definitions of aesthetic success, and perhaps even free artists from being compliant little professionals, if the idea that they could be one of the few people precariously slotted into one of these remaining opportunities would just die.

A commercialized obsession with the beauty of surfaces shapes what is aesthetically acceptable in ways beyond putting professionals at an extreme disadvantage. It makes all of our lives dimmer and more boring. It says conceptually daring kitchen sink novels are too hard, what we really need are pared down little bourgeois marriage plots where the characters occasionally handwring about online porn or single-use plastics; it says that the best thing to happen in years is a proliferation of Disney+ IP to the point where one happens to match your personal politics. I mean seriously, I cannot emphasize enough, fuck that, man! Who cares?

I can feel bad about this stuff to the extent that it takes away some existing paychecks that allow some people to do other things with the rest of their life that isn't devoted by necessity to propping up this insult to the whole-cloth concept of human culture. But I also have to refuse to speculatively act like this "culture" as it is has to be preserved, that we have to ensure humans are going into this immiserating meat grinder via tools that only reinforce the hegemony of stagnation and corporate IP, like copyright. We can see the 1000 identical "girl from disney brave oil painting style forest huge cans bare feet" etc outputs, and decide that this is a perfectly fine thing to walk away from, or better yet, to see as a challenge to become even more illegible.