By Oisín McGann, Irish writer and graphic artist.
You are an artist suffering from a strange kind of amnesia. You stand in front of your latest painting, staring hard at it, trying to analyse it. You have no memory of painting it. It’s definitely yours; you remember coming up with the concept after all. It wouldn’t exist without you. You’ve been paid for the work, received recognition for it. People compliment you on it, though their attention is fleeting – there are so many other images like it to look at these days, it’s hard to hold anyone’s gaze.
You lean closer to the canvas, peering intently. How did you achieve the illusion of that texture? How did you capture that light, or layer the colours so that they would create such depth? How did you get those raised edges . . . and the brush strokes that give that sense of movement? You have that bemused smile on your face again, the one you always get as you stare at your work.
This memory loss is not a new thing. You experience it around every piece of work you produce. In fact, there’s little you can remember about your development as an artist over your entire lifetime. How long did it take you to learn these skills? What did that feel like? What does it even feel like to use them? How did you come to be capable of creating such wonders?
Imagine creating a piece of art, a story or poem, a drawing or painting, a song or other piece of music, a short piece of animation or live action film. Now try to imagine it without the teeth-grindingly difficult, lifelong acquiring of skills that made you capable of creating it. Can you even separate the two in your head?
We have become so accustomed to focussing on the end result in the various art forms that it can be easy for an observer to forget that it is the culmination of a process, not merely an artefact in itself. For the intended audience, it might be the only element they see, but for an artist and their peers, it is an encapsulated description of that process. And an artist, no matter what their discipline, may be creating something, but that something is also having an effect on them.
We are changed by our experience of making art, and over the span of our lives, that has a profound influence on us. There may be those who use or copy other people’s work, some of whom are straight-up con artists, some who walk the line between ‘I can’t believe they fell for it’ and ‘redefining art’, but there is a general recognition that a piece of art represents time, effort and skill, expression and imagination. And almost more important than any of these, plain old life experience.
But the world has also changed around us. Now, we have machines capable of skinning the work of artists and sewing various pieces together into a human face. Now we have large language models (LLMs) or generative AI.
I try to imagine that young Oisín in today’s world. He might already be on TikTok now, exposing his mind to the slot-machine distraction-power of billion-dollar supercomputers, designed to grab and hold attention.
I have plenty of objections to the ways this technology is being used – some artists are already referring to them as ‘plagiarism machines’ or as the EWC calls them, ‘writoids’ – but this article is about process. Because I am ill at ease with the removal of the artist’s experience from this process, and what it could mean for future creators of every kind.
It takes time to make an artist, not just to learn the skills, but to develop the mind capable of using them. When I was ten or twelve years old, I was starting to get serious about being a writer and illustrator. I was breaking down the work of the authors and artists I loved, trying figure out how it affected me, and how they achieved that effect. I was years away from where I wanted to be, and had only the vaguest notion of what it would take to get there. This was in the olden days, pre-internet, so I didn’t have the resources of the web, but I also didn’t have the distractions, or the access to creators offering insights into these kinds of careers, and how challenging they could be. I’d say those disturbing peeks can be as discouraging now as they are educational.
I had such a raw passion at that age, an urge to create that my meagre artistic skills could barely satisfy. And while passion is a powerful motivator, it is also fickle and easily diffused, especially when you’re young. Anyone who has children, or works with them, will know how quickly they can be turned off something you were starting to believe would be a lifelong obsession.
I try to imagine that young Oisín in today’s world. He might already be on TikTok now, exposing his mind to the slot-machine distraction-power of billion-dollar supercomputers, designed to grab and hold attention. Even with the array of resources available online, he’s finding that learning to write and learning to draw feel torturously slow in a world that is moving at a dizzying pace. He sees witty, sharply written posts and people showing stunning new artwork every day.
As he gets older, he struggles with basic manual skills, to get the shapes of lines right, to master form and learn about shadows and shades of colour, he tries and fails to find words for amorphous concepts, to write the stories he can’t quite articulate. Everything about the arts seems so uncertain, so hard to define and takes so distressingly long to achieve. He can only see an endless, steep slope of effort and strain ahead of him – a very daunting climb. Meanwhile, his friends achieve incredible results just by placing an order on a computer.
With their ‘prompts’, it’s as if they’re using one of those claw crane machines in an arcade; they simply nudge the claw back and forth, side to side until it can grasp clumsily at something that looks right. Then it pulls on what it has, rising smoothly, drawing its prize out in a chain reaction of word associations. They can still claim it’s their work – they moved the claw, after all. It offers instant gratification and even if this young Oisín spends his whole life learning these skills, he’ll never be able to produce work the way this software can, and certainly never as fast. And like the arcade game, it’s fun to use, another distraction, so he’s not putting nearly as much time as he’d like into learning those basic skills.
He gets better at achieving the results he wants with AI, better than he ever could on his own, so he doesn’t stick with doing it the hard way, because . . . what’s the point? Everyone’s using it anyway. And we mostly experience text and images through screens now, so really, who can tell the difference any more between something that’s made by humans and something produced by a computer? Do people really care, as long as their desires are being satisfied?
In those short stretches when he does manage to knuckle down and do the work himself, he captures glimpses of something . . . There are moments when he feels like has an intimate relationship with the wider world, and at the same time, he wants it to leave him alone while he tries to get his thoughts down on the page. However, these moments when he is lost in that exasperating, glorious struggle are few and far between. And though he’d love to do more, the progress is such a slog and there are so many things demanding his attention – and they are designed to trigger an immediate response in a way that the making of art simply cannot match.
But AI art is a cheap thrill. Imagine being a footballer who was told you’d won your football match without ever having to play. You’d got your little buzz of pleasure from the win, but you’d been robbed of the joy of playing. You didn’t even get to see the game.
And young Oisín knows that computers can churn this stuff out so fast and in such quantity, the value of creative work has fallen off a cliff. These apps can produce in seconds what humans need hours, days, weeks or months to complete. The web is bloated with AI content, and while some of it is dross, it’s good enough to serve a lot of purposes and there’s just no way to compete with the sheer mass of it. And professional artists? They’re left to fight over what little money is left for work that’s valued for capturing the human experience.
What will it be like for young artists, growing up now? How does it feel to be a student in art college, or someone still working on their first novel or short story or poetry collection, the first song or first short film? Will the only way they can differentiate themselves from the products of machines be to separate themselves from the online world altogether? There’s no getting around the fact that kids will already be using this technology, and that use will increase, so how do we teach them to resist its influence over them, and to use it responsibly?
There’s an argument that this technology is just the latest tool in the creation of art, and that to resist its rise is a failure to recognize this. It’s an argument I can understand. I mean, maybe I’m just old. I’ve worked as an illustrator in publishing for more than thirty years, and as a writer for more than twenty, and in all that time, the speed of technological development in my industry has been steadily increasing.
When I started off, I was illustrating with ink and paint on paper, producing camera-ready artwork. We used Letraset transfers and ruling pens (you may need to Google those). Nowadays, I still use a notebook for writing down ideas and I use paper, pens and brushes to draw and ink, but I write my stories on a Mac and paint on a Huion graphics tablet. Finished manuscripts and artwork are sent to publishers in seconds. It’s a sobering fact that I’m conscious of with my own kids; it’s been a long time since they’ve seen me do any physical painting, and there are techniques that they’ll probably never see me use again.
In years to come, I want children to still have as wide a range of experience as possible, to experiment and fail and learn from those slow, clumsy, early efforts, to learn the profound value of them even as they start the long climb away from them.
So yes, the technology has advanced to a mind-boggling degree in the last thirty years, and I’ve been here using each new bit as it came along. Could this just be the next step, one we should simply accept and assimilate into our work process, even as our work is assimilated into the data sets of these plagiarism machines, these writoids?
If one of my kids is going into town and I tell them to bring a jacket in case it rains, I’ll often receive a dismissive ‘Sure I’ll only be gone a while’. And I throw up my hands, because it’s hard to communicate a lifetime of things going wrong in the few seconds it takes them to walk out the door. It’s hard to communicate experience. And I can’t speak for other artists, but my main goal in becoming a writer and illustrator was not to produce some ultimate end result, it was to enjoy my day for as many days as I can.
While artists have always adopted new technologies, it was with a view to spending more time on the aspects of the art that we love most, and in doing so, to improve the experience, not remove us from it. We did not ask for technology to take over the joy of creating, and we certainly did not give permission for our work to be used in the development of that technology.
In years to come, I want children to still have as wide a range of experience as possible, to experiment and fail and learn from those slow, clumsy, early efforts, to learn the profound value of them even as they start the long climb away from them. I want to see their lives elevated by that love of creation. And the more time they spend moving a claw around inside a glass box, plucking at things made by other people, the more that crucial learning experience will be stunted. Though the growth of capabilities of this software is truly astonishing, we must ensure that it’s used in the right way, and for the right purposes.
Technology should enable and enrich our lives, it should not do our living for us