I saw a series of gifs the other day from an interview with Kevin Conroy, who died on November 30. Conroy was the voice of Batman, in Batman: The Animated Series, and he was recounting his experience of meeting a fan at a convention.
The fan wept and embraced him, and he did his best to reassure her. But she was aware of how strange it must seem. She said: ‘You don’t understand what you did for me,’ and she explained.
She’d grown up in an impoverished area, and every kid she’d known had died or ended up in jail or on drugs. Her parents had worked hard and couldn’t watch her after school, but when her school mates had been outside, getting into trouble, she had been at home watching Batman. It gave her a safe space in which to learn and grow
That time with a guardian-like figure who seemed to genuinely care saved her life. And she was meeting her saviour.
It is such a wonderful thing to have done for someone else. And yet, as Conroy reflected, we so rarely get a chance to know of the deep impact our art can have on others.
I am so very glad he got to know.
It made me reflect on the value of art, and how easy it is for us to not know how important even small and rough works of art can be to others.
I thought about a piece of GCSE art that was displayed in my school’s assembly room. All GCSE art was displayed there for a week after it had been submitted, and I always LOVED that part of the year. Those works of art made my heart soar in a way I’ve rarely felt in adult life.
I remember one tiny work very clearly. Most GCSE students (myself included) take the opportunity to produce art on giant canvases – or at my school, pieces of wood. We see what ‘the greats’ do in galleries and think that bigger is better; although many of us lack the skill to fill that space. Not this artist, though.
It was small – smaller than A4. A painting with a frame cut from lino. The image continued out, carved into the frame. We’d all had a go at making prints out of lino in Art, so I shouldn’t have been surprising that someone used it, but this was pure genius. To make a print with lino – fine. But actually seeing beauty in the form – making the lino itself a work of art – that was another level. And then they had used that to extend the work of art beyond the painting and into a 3D form – sheer brilliance!
The painting itself also caught my attention. It was a little fantasy landscape. Villages stood, implausibly, on top of great spikes of rock that rose up from a green valley. I knew enough at 13 or 14 to suspect that physics would not support this and it would be a very impractical place for a village, but I didn’t care. I was transfixed. Even now I feel my own inadequacy when it comes to describing this with words.
I wish I could recall the artist’s name or that of the painting, but it’s gone. I wish I could have spoken to that artist, to tell them how looking at their tiny work, in a room full of gigantic pieces, had made me feel. Perhaps they already understood the power of art. Perhaps the lino frame was a metaphor for how art can empower the fantastic to escape its frame and impact the real world.
At the time, all I could do was vainly wish I could talk to them and ask them what it meant. What else they might have imagined in the world they showed me through the lino frame.
They may not even think of that piece at all anymore. Maybe they threw it out. My art teacher threw out one of my paintings before I could rescue it. I was horrified. I still am, to be honest, but I now realise that was common. Part of the reason they let us create those gigantic pieces was because often they were not collected, and those works would be painted over with white emulsion, ready for next year’s students.
It’s something I struggle to get my head around. I never throw out old art or old writing. And yet I never wondered if any of my GCSE artwork had moved anyone the way that small piece moved me. Which is strange, given how I poured myself into it with complete and unabashed confidence. I was a different person at 16.
We often hope to create a Great Work that moves others the way we have been moved ourselves. I think that’s fair to say. I suspect most of us do not think our current project to be that work.
If you did anything creative at school, would you ever imagine that a stranger might still think about your project twenty-five years later? That they still regard it as one of the most powerful pieces of art they’ve ever seen, even though they are beginning to forget the details? That whenever they’re reminded of it, their heart still soars?
I doubt that unknown artist imagines such a thing about their piece. They may have affection for it, but I’m sure they can see childish flaws in it the same way I see the flaws in my own old schoolwork.
The point is that art does not have to be recognised as a Great Work to have value. To make someone’s heart soar. To save someone’s life.
There are books I’ve read and TV I’ve watched that saved my life too. I escaped into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series as a teenager, and Menolly’s story of success and escaping through her music helped me hang on through my own experience of bullying. Those books are not without flaws, but they made my heart soar and made me believe there was a way out. That life could get better.
When I first got sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but had no diagnosis, I ran into trouble at work. My anxiety about the situation was so bad my heart never stopped racing. At that time, my escape was Fringe. I watched it for hours and hours, and when Peter Bishop was taking care of his father, it felt like, finally, someone was taking care of me.
Fringe is a great show, but it’s not without it’s flaws. The first season is uneven, and I found the last season unwatchable. It doesn’t matter. Those middle three seasons still saved me.
I could go on a long time about the invaluable impact on my life of imperfect art, but I fear I’d just be entertaining myself. Instead I want to spend a few minutes thinking about a comic that’s often passed around among creatives.
The comic, in its original iteration, has only two panels. Both show a person looking at two cakes. One cake has tiers and lots of detailed icing work. The other has only two layers and sloppy frosting. The first panel is captioned ‘The Artist’ and the figure in it looks glum because their cake isn’t as good as the other cake. The second panel is captioned ‘The Audience’ and shows an excited person saying Holy shit! Two cakes!’
This comic is well-liked for good reason. It shows that even if your work isn’t perfect, it can still delight someone. But I think (in this version anyway) it misses some of what’s disappointing for an artist when they compare their work to someone more skilled.
Because I think we’re all secretly hoping to produce that Great Work that really moves someone. And one of the two cakes is visibly better than the other, at least by some standards. An audience that just wants something sugary will be pleased, but will they really be moved? Which cake will they remember 25 years later? Which cake could save a life and inspire someone to become a baker themselves? Which cake will make them feel like there is love and beauty in a hopeless world?
I may be stretching this metaphor, but that’s sort of the point.
The ‘Holy shit! two cakes!’ response suggests that the audience has no deep appreciation of, or response to, either cake. So a creator can easily look at the comic and secretly think to themselves, ‘Yes, this is an important message for others. But MY problem is that I want my audience to get more from my work than that. Maybe it is foolish of me, but I do want to move someone and to satisfy more than a momentary craving for sugar.’
What the comic – and discourse generally – fails to celebrate, is that our imperfect works can also save lives. Offer comfort and escapism. Encapsulate beautiful, moving, and original ideas. Make someone’s heart soar.
Kevin Conroy was surprised by his fan’s reaction to what was, for him, just a job. You can never know the impact your work has on others. Or when you created the right thing for someone else to find at just the right time.
It does not have to be your best work. Not because the audience doesn’t care about the content, but because imperfect works can still be of incredible, priceless value.
At the moment, it feels like the work of creators has never been so undervalued.
Even for Great Works that have an estimated value in the millions, that value seems utterly divorced from their ability to move their audience. They are trading cards for the super rich. A Van Gogh painting does have value, but does it have really so very much more value than the work of millions of artists around the world who cannot earn a living?
Let us all remember, Van Gogh’s work was not valued that way in his lifetime. How is it a recognition of greatness to overvalue a work of someone who will never profit from it, and undervalue the work of a living artist who needs to heat their home this winter?
In the last month, creative industries have been under attack like never before. It’s been part of a steady, longterm devaluation of art by those with a vested interest in framing art as ‘unproductive’. (Often the same people who can afford to own Van Goghs.)
But if that were the case, why would so much money have been poured into creating AIs like DALL-E 2, which automate art creation?
I’m not actually against artistic AIs as such. I think some of the works that have been produced that way are haunting and beautiful. I also think there could be skill in selecting which works to train an AI with and the teaching methods employed. In this sense, developers can be artists. Moreover, as a philosopher of mind, I have long been fascinated by AI – what it tells us about our how we think and what it could do for us in the future.
What’s alarming is the reports that both art and writing AIs have been trained using databases for which the owners of the AI did not have any rights. Art not in the public domain, not licenced for commercial use. Art to which the companies that created the AI did not have any right.
Most notably, DeviantArt – one of the oldest and larget art archives on the web – launched an AI art tool called DreamUp. As part of the announcement, they noted that DreamUp was based on Stable Diffusion, which scraped the web for art to create its database, and many have reported that it’s likely to have used artworks on DeviantArt itself. DeviantArt paired their launch with an announcement of a way for users to opt their work out of being used in the future, but the opt out system was impractical for artists and relied on developers voluntarily respecting the marker that the opt out added to the code for works.
Even artists who had been pro AI art before reacted to this with horror.
Then, this week, evidence was found that Open AI, which is a writing AI, may have been trained on Archive of Our Own – the largest and most well-known fanfiction archive. That’s not currently been confirmed, to my knowledge, but the evidence is striking. For example, this prompt:
Steve had to admit that he had some reservations about how the New Century handled the social balance between alphas and omegas.
creates a story in which Steve is roommates with someone called Tony, with pretty detailed reference to omegaverse dynamics. Steve (Captain America) and Tony (Iron Man) form one of the most popular ships in the Marvel fandom. Being roommates (Oh my GOD they were roommates!) is an extremely well-loved fanfic scenario for setting up romance. And if you don’t know what omegaverse is, don’t click that link if unless you’re prepared for it to awaken something in you. Suffice it to say it’s a set of very specific, usually erotic, highly kinky tropes that arose from fandom and is unlikely to be referenced outside of recent erotic romance stories.
This is especially concerning as fanfic writers produce their work entirely for free. As fanfic usually uses copyrighted characters, its legal defence lies in the fact that the writers do not seek to profit from their work in any way. Archive of Our Own has no adverts and is a charity. But a for-profit AI does not and should not have the same protections. Stealing from work offered for free is immoral, but if the AI produces works that involve copyrighted characters, that seems open to legal challenge by intellectual property (IP) owners. Especially as it’s clear that the works produced are likely to involve situations that the IP owners would not approve for their characters.
There’s a risk that large, litigeous companies (such as Disney), that have been turning a blind eye to fanfiction (because no one profits from it) target fanfic writers again if AI writers use fanfic to endanger their IP. While the last 15 years have seen a swing towards fanfiction being generally accepted, many still remember attempts by the likes of Anne Rice and Lucasfilm to suppress fanfiction – especially erotic fanfiction.
And beyond these specific troubling developments, there’s the more general concern that the recognised value of art is disappearing as AI seeks to replace it. AI art is already being used in posters and on book covers by companies and individuals who do not want to pay artists. Many now worry: could the future see AI making all our art and telling all our stories?
My thoughts on this: in the near future? No. Not all of it. The stories in particular are not good enough. But some of the art is very good. And AI could easily replace a lot of formulaic writing, such as clickbait articles.
In the abstract, this shouldn’t have to be a bad thing. Automation should make all our lives better. If AI could take over the kind of work that’s often uninteresting and uninspiring and generate profit more easily, in a just world, that extra profit would go back into society to enable more funding for arts and humanities. Artists and writers who have made a living churning out low-value work to uninspiring briefs could be freed up to make the art and novels that would really fill our lives with purpose and meaning.
But this is not a just world. We have seen that automation has not been used to make the lives of the people whose labour it has replaced better. Instead, the people at the top of the pile, who are furthest away from production (let alone creativity) earn ever more, and the people are the bottom of the pile can no longer earn a living wage – let alone pursue a career in something they enjoy.
Don’t despair yet, though. Just as artists have apparently used big company’s like Disney to take down T-shirt bots that steal their designs by tricking them into stealing Disney’s IP, it may be that Open AI scraping from AO3 will be its undoing. The Organization for Transformative Works (of which AO3 is just one project) also has its own legal team, which has been defending fanworks from the outset. They have been alerted to the matter.
Similarly, there’s already a lawsuit against Github’s Copilot for stealing code that was shared for free and using it for profit. Which is to say: AIs that are using databases they have no right to are probably going to land themselves in hot water, and there is reason to hope that some kind of sensible regulation will result.
Moreover… I don’t know. I’m not especially interested in reading stories written by a robot. Unless that robot has reached true artificial intelligence, and has ideas of its own, in which case, it’s not a robot anymore. But that is a very long way off. Part of what I get out of reading is a sense of connection and recognition from other human beings.
Stephen King has called writing a kind of telepathy. It’s one thought transmitted from one person to another. I cry at some books not simply because I imagine something painful, but because reading those books makes me feel seen. I see a pain I recognise on the page and I know that somewhere out there is another person who understood.
Reading lets me know I’m not alone. It can’t do that if it wasn’t created by a person. If it was made instead by something that knows nothing at all in itself.
And I think the same is true of art. For artistic work that isn’t meant to make you feel anything particularly profound or interesting… yes. AI might take over that. The artistic equivalent of clickbait. It’s not great. Because society is injust, it will hurt the livelihoods of artists. But it won’t end art.
You might get a few gallery displays out of AI art, but it will be a novelty. A curiosity. I very much doubt any of us will still be thinking of a work created by AI twenty-five years later.
A mindless robot isn’t going to save many lives. It’s not going to make people feel less alone. It’s never going to make anyone wonder what it was thinking when it made the piece (not if it is mindless, and the audience knows enough about AI to know that this kind of AI is extremely simplistic and could not possibly think).
Your works matter. Even your student works and your fanfics and the little things you did and only shared on social media and got a handful of likes. Because art can stay with the viewer for decades after, even if they never spoke to the artist.
Art – creativity – has a value that is dismissed because it is hard to squeeze capital from. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s so valuable it can make someone weep in a stranger’s arms. It can make you stay up all night reading. Fill hours of anxiety with love. Provide hope that humanity can be better than it often is. It helps us hang on when we feel like there’s nothing else to live for, and it helps us dream of everything wonderful that life could be.
Art can do all that, without ever being perfect.
We should pay creatives more, because their work is already so very valuable, to all of us.
Speaking of which, if you got something out of these thoughts, you can always buy me a ko-fi…
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