The Gnosticlast, 2023. 2 hours. I painted this, not an algorithm.

Years ago I was pretty active on deviantArt. DeviantArt was one of the first online communities for art and artists, maybe the first successful one. I've put dozens of pictures on there, going back to my early vector art in the aughts, when I figured out that you didn't need to have a steady hand to make art with a computer. This morning I felt nostalgic and pulled up the front page. I was treated to a prominent ad for "DreamUp AI Art":

"Click Here To Steal From Our Artists" was probably too long for the navbar on mobile.

I felt a lot of things about this, but the strongest, truest feeling among them is: DeviantArt is engaging in the mechanized exploitation of every single human who has ever posted their art to the site. Is that strong enough?

The picture I am posting today is explicitly about AI, and I painted it last year when I was really coming to grips with the reality that AI is here to stay. It is a style experiment, and it is pretty rough. It blends dozens of things I've experienced together, sometimes in convoluted ways. There's something of the mural I saw painted on an old industrial building in Roanoke when I was a boy. There's a little of the weird abstract faux-graffiti style of wall art Taco Bell put in their restaurants twenty years ago, which I tried to tell myself I didn't like while I sat in that way-too-air-conditioned dining room and siphoned wedges and crunch-wrap into my face. There's a little of the repeating patterns of geometric shapes and shadows that I see when I close my eyes. There's even a little of the cathedral stained glass work I so admire, or maybe it's really SMBC's godhead. There are a hundred more which you could point out to me which I would find surprising but recognize immediately as part of the DNA of this picture. All of those pieces are filtered through my intent, my level of ability, how much sleep I got the night before.

When an artist creates, they have all these priors and more. Logistical questions like "how much time can I afford to spend on this" affect the results. So do hidden variables such as "how good am I at drawing rays of light." The ambition of a piece of art, which is essentially how skilled is the artist compared to the difficulty of the composition, is as important to the quality of the image as the artist's absolute level of skill.

But these are just fundamentally not problems which affect AI art. Prompt engineering - probably the most authentic and descriptive term I've ever seen for the technical problem of making good pictures come out of the algorithm - gives you the ability to do freaky stuff which would never be possible if you had to paint each picture yourself. You can crank a dozen full-effort, finished images out for an idea without having to do sketches or commit a hundred hours of your life to see what the finished effect is. You can tell it how finished the image should be, whether it should be a sketch, nonfinito, or fully rendered. Apparent skill and effort are whatever the user wishes them to be, and so fundamentally prompt engineering has none of the risks and demands none of the investment that actually creating art does.

Anyone who says these things combine influences the same way a human does is out of their fucking mind. This argument comes from such a contrahumanist position that anyone making it should not be allowed anywhere near the conversation. And I'd hoped that deviantArt would move the conversation in a way that benefits the artists.

DeviantArt has always been an awkward ally of the artist. When the site appeared, it was at a time when bandwidth and storage were really expensive, and putting together an image gallery took a decent amount of expense and knowhow. So when it did show up, and there was suddenly a place where anybody could post their stuff regardless of medium or quality and engage in a community of people and a circle of friends who were roughly your skill level, it was genuinely wonderful. Sure, the platform's attempts to appear offbeat and subversive were always cringey to the max - calling users "Deviants" and works of art "Deviations," really? - but nobody really minded because the community was great and there was always something awesome to look at. Over the years, dA experimented a lot on its way to profitability; they've tried a variety of paid plans, including some novel ideas like encouraging patrons to gift premium subscriptions to their favorite artists. I don't know what their profit margin is, but they've brought in some decent money. Last year, they pulled in twenty-three million dollars. Assuming not all of that went into salaries, it's pretty clear that not every one of the company's six hundred employees is being paid equitably: that's roughly 30k/seat last year, and you know a lot of people made more than that.

I believe that for the service deviantArt provides, they deserve to make money. It's a cool platform, and it's better in almost every way than the more modern social media methods of sharing artwork. I hate browsing somebody's Instagram or Facebook or Reddit board to read their work: galleries are ad-hoc, reposts are hard to filter out, blah blah. Give me a gallery every day. DeviantArt was a place that really felt like it was for artists, in the way that Flickr or (before Facebook bought them) Instagram felt like they were for photographers.

But DreamUp, as they call their on-demand human masticator, is a direct assault on deviantArt's community, and moreso against all artists, of every tribe. It is uniquely bad, not because of what it does (there are hundreds of AI prompt art services out there doing the same terrible thing) but because of how the knife is twisted. NightCafe might not know who Owlyjules is, but deviantArt and their malign intelligence sure does. What deviantArt has built here is a machine for stealing art from the artists nobody knows about yet. Is that worse? It is an exercise left for the reader.

DeviantArt has made an attempt to appear thoughtful about the violation they are committing against artists. There is an opt out form, a generic contact quiz form built on fucking wix, which lets you try to blacklist your name and aliases from their automated theft crucible. They claim that they don't themselves add the art they host to the models they use. But there are some caveats, and they're huge: for one thing, opting out doesn't remove your artwork from the training set. All it does is add your name and aliases to the prompt filter, which is crude and work-aroundable. Your artwork will still feed the machine, keyed off your tags and description for anybody who wants to generate something like something you made - behavior which deviantArt has chosen to explicitly approve, all the more galling since deviantArt is under no obligation to respect your request.

This service is remarkably wrongheaded. I do not know a single artist (which I will define as "a human who creates art through diligent effort") who is excited about Stable Diffusion. The people who are excited about Stable Diffusion are categorically the ones who have always wanted to be artists but not badly enough to do the fucking work, or people who need pictures made but aren't happy about paying the pittance illustrators are paid. And yet, the DreamUp sales page explicitly sells the aspiration of creating and collaborating, no assembly required.

Look! Free unicorns! Great job expressing yourself!

Of course, DreamUp-generated images can be posted to deviantArt. Sure, they're tagged as AIArt, but tags are small and easy to miss. Despite the promises in DreamUp and deviantArt's FAQs to indicate AI Art "prominently", there is no consistent gallery level indicator of which images are AI ripoffs and which aren't, and I haven't yet seen any pictures flagged explicitly as having come from DreamUp. And I'd argue, vehemently, that there is no acceptable way to display AI art as a peer to real art in the first place.

So who is DreamUp for? Is there a cohort of deviantArt who are bad artists, who welcome the opportunity to use a socially normalized service to rip off their betters? Yeah, absolutely there are people like that. But they aren't the people who should be catered to! Not in general! And certainly not on a fucking art platform!

I don't know what comes next. Do I move my old stuff from dA to here? Do I leave it where it is because the damage is already done and there's kind of something nice about leaving my old, weird art somewhere else? I don't have answers yet. I've written fifteen hundred words and I could write fifteen hundred more, because we're being robbed and we're already learning firsthand the lesson we taught horses a hundred years ago when the combustion engine took their jobs away.

And that's where I am right now. I am mourning the state of the world today. I'm freaking out because the only way to create art in a way which doesn't participate in the replacement of artists is to create without sharing it, because just by showing my work to the Internet, I am putting it in the trough which feeds the infernal machine.

, Art , Blog