AI Art and the ghost of Charles Baudelaire

Here is an argument someone made about how AI Art is an enemy of art itself. is nonetheless obvious that this industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mortal enemy...

Wait wait wait! I seem to have made a mistake. The quote above is not about AI Art. It is part of something Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1859. And he was writing about... photography.

He writes:

If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.

To translate, Baudelaire means that if photography is allowed to be considered art, then everyone who takes pictures would have to be called an artist. And surely, that can only ever be a bad thing, no? He clarifies this in so many words later in his piece.

But if it (photography) be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us!

Ah! Man's soul. A thing to be fought for and protected for sure! The trouble of course is that before one sets out to protect something, one has to know what that thing is. I don't know about you but I don't know what man's soul is. I don't know anyone who does.

In every technological age, we have had people foreseeing the end of humanity and the destruction of the human spirit. It hasn't happened. The reasons behind this may be many. Perhaps we overestimate the impact of seismic changes. Perhaps we underestimate the human soul's ability to persist despite change. Perhaps we interpret challenges to the status quo as challenges to existence itself. Baudelaire certainly does.

Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down before external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees. Nevertheless it is a happiness to dream, and it used to be a glory to express what one dreamt. But I ask you! does the painter still know this happiness?

The truth that escapes this particular gatekeeper is that everyone dreams. Everyone escapes reality and yearns to express what they saw during their escape. The way to protect this impulse to escape is not to limit it to those who escape in certain specific ways. The way is to allow more people to experience and express that impulse.

Art is a human concern. Humans make it. Even now, using AI tools, it is humans who are making it. The day humans stop making art is the day humans stop being human. But for all practical purposes, that day seems to be a mythological one. A day never to come unless a passing asteroid wipes out all of us. As long as we feel happy or sad or angry, we will make art. And it doesn't much matter how we choose to do so.

Look at a photograph if you have doubts.

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