What is so tiresome about the fear of AI art is that all of this has been said before—about photography. It took decades for photography to be recognized as an art form. Charles Baudelaire famously called photography the “mortal enemy” of art. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was among the first American institutions to collect photographs, didn’t start doing so until 1924. The anxiety around the camera was nearly identical to our current fear of creative AI: Photography wasn’t art, but it was also going to replace art. It was “mere mechanism,” as one critic put it in 1865. I mean, it’s not art if you’re just pushing some buttons, right?
This is one of the laziest tropes of pseudo-thinking, but also one of the most common. If you want to try it for yourself, follow these steps:
- Note that people are afraid of something;
- Find something in history that people were unnecessarily afraid of;
- Conclude that if people were wrongly afraid of something in the past, then, logically, people who are afraid in the present must also be wrong.
Indubitable! (Just make sure you don’t notice any situations in the past in which the people who were afraid were right. Nobody says, “Those who worry about appeasing Putin should remember that in the late 1930s a bunch of nervous Nellies worried about appeasing Hitler too.”)
But often there’s another element of dumbness to this kind of take: not just the inability to reason sequentially, but the ignoring of inconvenient facts. For while photography didn’t “replace art,” it largely did replace certain kinds of art, and radically changed the cultural place of drawing and painting.
For my part, I think some of these changes were good and some were not so good. When it became clear that to most people photographs looked more “real,” more precisely representational, than paintings, painters began exploring various alternatives to straightforward representation: first Impressionism, pointillism, and later on completely non-representational painting. (Nowadays “photorealistic painting” is merely a joke or meta-artistic game, as in the works of Chuck Close.) I think these were exciting and vital developments, and I wouldn’t want to see them undone. But, that said, when I think about how Picasso could draw at the age of eleven —
— I do find myself wondering how he might have developed as an artist if he had been working in the days before photography. If much was gained when Picasso was liberated from straightforwardly representational art, we can’t know what was lost. But we lost something.
The rise of photography had a broader cultural consequence too. Before photography became commonplace, an ability to draw was almost a requirement for travelers. People needed to be able to make competent sketches of the exotic places they visited, because otherwise how would they be able to remember everything, or properly describe it to others? A world in which Ruskin had simply taken photographs in Venice rather than draw its monuments would be a diminished world.
So, did photography kill art? By no means. Did it change it radically? It certainly did. And were all those changes positive ones? Nope.