Digital Renaissance: Art In The Information Age

It takes a lot more effort to get a painting into a museum than it does to upload it to Tumblr, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the information age has solved the issues inherent to the world of art. As with any new age in a medium, the rise of social media has brought as many problems as it has solved. 

In January of 2022, the artificial intelligence company OpenAI announced DALL-E, an AI-based image generation program. The user feeds DALL-E a prompt, and the program will create an image based on its interpretation of those words. It’s not the first program of its kind, but it was an important development in the capability of AI. 

“The little news I’ve read about AI is typically focused on their uses in scary ways like deep-fakes, and rarely considers how artists can benefit from AI,” said Kenny Vaden, a South Carolina based artist in the ever developing field of generative art. “For example, I love the organic colors and textures that these systems conjure.”


Any image generated with Dall-E is considered the Intellectual Property of the person who wrote the prompt. (2022, Isabelle Cornelius)

Concerns raised about the program include algorithmic bias. DALL-E is more likely to generate pictures of men than women when the prompt is not specific. Artists and graphic designers are also concerned about image generation programs automating their jobs.

“I hope to see AI work as inspiration or as a tool in art. I don’t believe it will replace manmade art, at least not on a large scale,” said Cecily Downey, an art student at the University of Alabama. 

“At the end of the day, the program can’t do anything unless a human being is using it,” said Joel Fuller, a professor of art and art history at the University of Alabama. 

Just as algorithms designed for image generation can reflect our own human biases, so can algorithms designed to promote posts on social media.

“Having to make sure all the hashtags are right and trying to get the maximum visibility on a piece of art can be very tiring for artists,” Fuller said. Just as painters used to appease the nobles who commissioned their work, modern artists must work within the systems that social media platforms have provided to them. 

“If you don’t have socials or a website, most people won’t feel like they can reach out and ask to buy your work. It helps just to have my art visible,” Downey said.

These systems have also been utilized by art thieves to more efficiently steal and monetize other people’s art. Vaden himself was victim to this sort of art theft when almost 1,000 of his pieces were stolen and sold on a platform called OpenSea. 

“I immediately submitted copyright violation-takedown requests to OpenSea. Unfortunately, their policy requires artists to prove each individual copyright violation, so I stubbornly submitted 20 to 30 takedown requests as quickly as each batch was reviewed. Because of the foot-dragging by OpenSea, about $300,000 in crypto sales occurred over three to four weeks of activity,” said Vaden. 

OpenSea sells art in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), essentially a token of ownership over a file that is backed by supposedly decentralized systems of cryptocurrency. OpenSea users will sell stolen art at high prices due to the perceived scarcity of the token, often bloated by users trading tokens between multiple accounts they operate, falsely raising the speculative price.

(2022, Isabelle Cornelius)

“I have colleagues who have had their art stolen and used to sell NFTs, and like any time your work gets stolen, it can be very demoralizing,” said Fuller. 

“Platforms should and likely will bear legal responsibility for failing to protect collectors and artists,” said Vaden. “Google implemented reverse image-search many years ago, so how hard could it be for OpenSea to develop a search for their own inventory for images? Or to permanently ban wallet addresses for bad actors?” 

According to Vaden, platforms like OpenSea have no interest in preventing this sort of art theft. Due to the fact that OpenSea makes money off of fraudulent and non-fraudulent transactions alike, there is no incentive to protect artists. Meanwhile, bills to regulate cryptocurrency (and by proxy OpenSea) are languishing in the American legislative system. 

“Twenty years will pass before the federal government is educated enough on these issues to pass laws that make OpenSea liable for damages,” said Vaden. “Perhaps existing law can be used, but it seems like everything has to be reinvented to work correctly in crypto and NFTs.”

Bored Ape Yacht Club was one of the first NFT collections to get mainstream interest (2022, Isabelle Cornelius)

“All we can do, as with any development, is wait and see. People have been arguing if digital art is considered real art for about as long as it’s existed, and now we don’t even question it as a medium,” said Fuller. AI image generation, NFTs, and modern algorithms are all incredibly recent developments in their own respective industries, meaning their larger impacts have yet to be seen.

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