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Relish Tray Aesthetics
Exploring the creative mind and fear of an AI future.
“Every reiteration of the idea that there is no drama in modern life, there is only dramatization, that there is no tragedy, there is only unexplained misfortune, debases us. It denies what we know to be true. In denying what we know, we are as a nation which cannot remember its dreams — like an unhappy person who cannot remember his dreams and so denies that he does dream, and denies that there are such things as dreams.”
― David Mamet, Writing in Restaurants: Essays and Prose
What would it be if people could take their technicolor dreams and cotton candy wishes and put them all together in a montage of art before the entire world to see and admire? Wouldn’t it be something to have no less than the expanse of the universe and all the stars contained within to light the far reaches of one’s own consciousness like an ethereal illumination of the Heavens themselves? Oh, but such are the promises of the new wave of AI art. Whether it is the written word or visual art, we are supposed to be on the cusp of a revolution in how we see, hear, and think about the world around us, leaving the interpretation of it trepidatiously hanging from the thinnest strand of our own understanding in a world increasingly leaning off the ledge of stability, staring eyeball-first down the morass of chaos.
“Oh, but these are just as new, more efficient means of searching the vastness of global information and distilling it into a useful, manageable form — or simply a hobby of the technology cohort who had grand plans of NFTs, then Cryptocurrency, and now making visual prints set in time with a few descriptive sentences and…voila!” No harm, no foul, right?
Well, yes, maybe. But many factors are involved, not least of which is using censorship, reference distortions, and fabricated “facts” to combat misinformation, as the kids say. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley discovered this in a personal and deeply troubling manner when a fellow law professor doing research on ChatGPT shared some curious findings. In Turley’s April 3 opinion piece in USA TODAY, he recalls,
The program promptly reported that I had been accused of sexual harassment in a 2018 Washington Post article after groping law students on a trip to Alaska. It was not just a surprise to UCLA professor Eugene Volokh, who conducted the research. It was a surprise to me since I have never gone to Alaska with students, The Post never published such an article, and I have never been accused of sexual harassment or assault by anyone.
So the question is why would an AI system make up a quote, cite a nonexistent article and reference a false claim? The answer could be because AI and AI algorithms are no less biased and flawed than the people who program them. Recent research has shown ChatGPT's political bias, and while this incident might not be a reflection of such biases, it does show how AI systems can generate their own forms of disinformation with less direct accountability.
Political weaponization by the censors to assuage the fragile sensibilities of the shrill, bitter intolerant (but inclusive!) class is nothing new, and we should expect this as a new arrow in their quiver. And politicians on the opposing side will, and we should expect, be at least one step behind, especially regarding emerging technology. One only needs to look at the threat posed by a very serious, real enemy in communist China and their harnessing of apps like TikTok and Washington’s feeble reaction to understand what we’re dealing with.
The danger in AI is the ever-present tendency of our betters to see emergent technologies, not as a means of unlocking another barrier to creativity, connectedness, and exploration but rather to throw it back in our faces in the form of censorship to protect us from ourselves, an escalation of “safetyism” that has been in vogue since the government decided to save us from Big Tobacco.
What seems new, in addition to becoming inextricable with politics, is the serious effect it will have on the culture — how we see and interpret the world around us, how we understand ourselves and each other and our place in the world, and what meaning we do or do not, get from the intimate interaction of life and art. But there’s a deeper concern around AI manifesting as fear separate from the usual science fiction dictum of Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 or Terminator’s Skynet. This isn’t new. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, explored the duality of scientific progress, warning of the dangers of the pursuit of knowledge absent prudence and moral guardrails. Shelley writes in chapter 23, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
Here is the amazing thing that we need to embrace: we are in control if we just face our fears — as it has always been. The real fear doesn’t come from technology suddenly becoming self-aware and making us into meat puppets feeding off our life energy. Maybe what scares us about AI is realizing our inferiority to nature and the miracle of Life itself. Or that the growing sophistication of AI, especially in creating art, reflects our own stagnation — a period of idleness that reveals an apathy to expanding our horizons, a loss of hunger for conquering the unknown because we’ve convinced ourselves that we’ve solved every mystery, or that the heavens have lost their mystique, or it’s a task for white-coat bores to plumb depths of our minds, not the artist, let alone the daydreaming layman to explore.
AI is a useful tool to help us understand and express what we see and feel. But it will never conquer our perceptions or our emotions. If we convince ourselves of that, we have truly ceded our humanity. Great art reflects our aspirations and our inspiration. Great artists have a gift of translating the world into comprehensible images or words, and we are the final judge of what sense this makes to us as individual souls. But they never dictate a right or wrong way to feel, think, or act. It is about expression, and only we have the keys to our capability and limitations.
Writer and illustrator Sir Quentin Blake, perhaps most popularly known for illustrating 18 Roald Dahl books, including Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was a master at interpreting Dahl’s words and his world. In a 2013 Wall Street Journal interview, he recalls the process,
When drawing based on a book, first you have to collaborate with the words. So you read the text, you think which are the moments you can draw on and what the people look like. If the author is there, then you talk to them about it. I can remember talking to Roald [Dahl] and him saying, "I didn't imagine it like that but that's a good version of it."
What he describes isn’t much different than my experience (though very rudimentary) with Midjourney, an AI service that generates images from natural language descriptions called "prompts.” It’s also part of the artist’s process of inspiration and translation, as Blake relates later,
If I am inspired, whatever that is, I am always unwilling to call it inspiration. What starts you off and gets you going in the first place is the project, really. Inspiration is about finding out how to do it. You start off and it accumulates. Inspiration slips into it. It is the moment you say, I know how to do it.
Legendary graphic designer, artist, and co-founder of New York magazine Milton Glaser, who created the “I heart NY” logo and who had a hand in revolutionizing the fusion of advertising, art, and design in the 1960s, explained in an interview for The New York Times in 2016 what it means to create:
It’s the greatest source of pleasure in my life. I am so thrilled by making something that didn’t exist before. There’s nothing, nothing even close. I never go to the theater, I never go to concerts, I no longer go to movies. I don’t do anything except work. It’s like magic. I also think there’s an opportunity to do good. Not in a moralistic sense, but to feel that you’re a part of something larger than yourself.
AI isn’t capable of the depths of satisfaction and fulfillment involved in the singular act of creating — whether it’s through the written word or art on a canvas or on a screen. It is up to us; it has always been up to us to attach value to what seems to be an intangible good. We either care about the world around us or let it fall into a stagnant wasteland of inactivity, boredom, and apathy, contented with the banality of complacent conformity and blind acceptance that this is all there is and let AI run continuous variations of what we already know and understand.
AI depends on us to generate in an image or video what we hold in our mind’s eye; it doesn’t spontaneously emerge from the ether. It was man’s failing and bad policy that brought ruin to New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s. It was Glaser’s inspired work of art (and new leadership) that helped resuscitate a community without hope.
Photographer Philippe Halsman captured some of the most iconic images on the cover of LIFE magazine in addition to one of the most incredible staged photos with artist Salvador Dali in 1948, “Dali Atomicus.” He writes in Popular Photography, March 1967, “This is the essence of a work of art: that you never touch bottom. If a picture has for everybody exactly the same meaning, it is a platitude, and it is meaningless as a work of art. The same is true for a portrait: if it is not rich in character and meaning, it is a poor portrait.”
Can AI understand the haunting sadness behind the eyes of a grinning Marilyn Monroe? Or the changing shifts of society as culture and politics collide in an advertisement for Mad Men? Or the menace lurking around the edges of playfulness in a Roald Dahl story?
I was born in 1982, well after the golden age of post-WWII America, of Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms poolside parties, dinner shows at the Sands Resort in Las Vegas, of Audrey Hepburn’s slow pacing through the gray dawn of New York’s Fifth Avenue, of Howdy Doody, John Wayne, suburban tiki-themed barbeques, and the Space Race. But I spend a considerable amount of time researching the era and the people who created the aesthetic of the time and made it somehow the epitome of halcyon Americana. But I learned through trying to recreate what I saw — really what I felt — about that time was it never can live up to my imagination. It’s similar to seeing a film based on a beloved novel and not seeing exactly the world you’ve built in your mind over repeated readings and personal connections. But Midjourney, what I used to recreate a cocktail party complete with delightful relish trays and swing dresses, was merely a reflection of my limits and couldn’t compete with the expanse of my imagination. It also betrayed my utter unsophistication because I insisted on including “Relish Tray” in my description. Leave it out, and in comes all the glamor, haughtiness, and smart sophisticates of a Manhattan soiree.
A book that has recently been recalled is Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book La Poétique de l’Espace – The Poetics of Space. This may seem odd in the context of Artificial Intelligence, but thinking about how we live, our homes, our environment, and our attitude are formed and reflected through imagination. Humans have the capacity for flexibility, sentimental understanding, and reformulations of ideas upon confrontation that the rigidity of AI does not. “When the image is new, the world is new,” Bachelard writes, and “Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination.”
Our humanity compels us to make new connections with each other and the world around us. Our inhumanity takes over when we put that aside in favor of deceit and lies. Only we have the capability to choose the road we go down, it’s not an inevitability, and it’s not the endgame of progress or technology. It’s good versus evil, complacency and apathy versus creativity and the pursuit of knowledge.
The great danger to art and humanity doesn’t stem from fear of the unknown; it’s when we stop exploring it. AI won’t usher in the end of humanity — only we can.
I’m deeply appreciative of your support and readership of A Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s been a hectic few weeks, but I plan on resuming my regular posts going forward. Thank you for your time and patience — two things in ever short supply and always undervalued. Best, Jenna