For millennia, societies have attempted to solve the problem of how to pay their artists, and for much of that history, this has been the province of the wealthy. At times, that power has belonged to institutions — the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, for instance, or arts foundations with large trusts — or of newly moneyed merchant classes, as in the Italian Renaissance. Governments use taxpayer dollars to fund public art, such as the Public Works of Art Project as part of FDR’s New Deal, or, say, Sesame Street. Over the past decade, however, that power has increasingly transferred to a radically different kind of curator: the algorithm.
Artists who make money on social media — and there is a growing number of them — rely on corporately owned platforms for exposure, for sponsorship deals, and for commissions. It’s no secret, though, that the vast majority don’t make enough to live on from their craft alone, be it fine art, music, filmmaking, writing, photography, dance, theater, or, if we’re willing to categorize the nebulous designation of “content creation” as an art form, influencing. Therein lies a problem: Artists and creators who are the most likely to succeed in this system are the ones with the most mass appeal, which, to an algorithm, likely means that they appeal to viewers’ basest, lowest common denominator impulses of what human beings want to look at. In short, the kind of art that algorithms pick for us usually isn’t very good.
So what’s a society to do? Kate Compton, a futurist and computer science professor at Northwestern University, posited a solution earlier this summer: “Someone with a FAANG [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google] salary could literally commission their own opera once per year, so we should do that,” she began in a now-viral Twitter thread. “The Renaissance was a notable cultural era not because of good marble or new paint but because a bunch of newly-rich Florentine wool merchants discovered Spite Patronage” (more on that in a minute).
The idea that the wealthy can and should fund the arts is not new. What is new is the sheer number of wealthy people we have. The US has one of the highest rates of wealth and income inequality of all developed nations; it has more billionaires than any other (735 of them), a class that added $5 trillion to its wealth — more than the previous 14 years combined — during the first 18 months of the pandemic. The donor class, or ultra one percenters who spend a sizable portion of their income in donations to philanthropic and arts foundations (and often receive massive tax benefits in the process), is growing, and with a political system that seems unlikely to successfully levy meaningful new taxes on billionaires, the least that rich people can do is spend some of it on things that are not superyachts.
Many people, ultrarich or otherwise, already do this. In fact, in exposing so many people to each other in such a short period of time, social media and merchant platforms like Etsy have allowed many designers, painters, and other craftspeople to make a living by selling their wares to their followers. But while older wealthy people have long histories of donating to big arts endowments that do the legwork of finding artists to grant money for them, it’s easy to imagine newly rich millennial and Gen Z tech and finance workers opting for flashier ways to support the arts: Their name listed as an executive producer on a film or play, or the ability to shape the art itself.
Perhaps Compton’s most compelling point is that there is a long history of what she calls “spite patronage,” or rich people paying for works of art that flatter them in comparison to their professional nemeses. The art doesn’t even have to be all that innovative or meaningful in itself, it just has to be seen and displayed. “One issue is that y’all degenerates *are* paying for full body furry commissions (good for you!) but keeping it private. That’s no way to create cultural impact,” she writes. “Rent a gallery and host an art show; buy a chapel and have them paint a ceiling; sculpt it in marble on your mausoleum. Rich people realizing that Great Artists can be rented for pennies + proudly displaying both revenge and cringe commissions = world-changing art movement.”
There are some obvious downsides here. For one, it’s never a good sign when a society relies on the ultrarich to shoulder a responsibility better suited for an institution that answers to its citizens (like, say, the government). Unfortunately, one of the aftereffects of 40 years of tax breaks for corporations and government budget cuts is that right now, we do. As my colleague Whizy Kim argues, tech billionaires have helped to elect Joe Biden in the name of democracy, and have the potential ability to do the same for abortion rights. Second, for artists without an agent or manager to handle business dealings for them, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where they’re paid unfairly or otherwise exploited by the inherent power dynamic at play.
But I’d also argue that wealthy arts patrons could commission art that is at least slightly more interesting than what an algorithm might surface, while also giving artists more freedom to create works that don’t necessarily cater to social media platforms’ demands. “The winner-take-all dynamics of this algorithmically optimized stream will generate a few winners — superstar influencers whose every post will be served to millions of users,” writes Cal Newport in his piece on whether the internet can support creative work with the “1,000 True Fans” theory.
He’s talking about content creators, or the 7.1 million Americans who earned money on social media platforms in 2021. This increasingly crowded field — it is at least three times more than the number of artists or lawyers or doctors or farmers or military members, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics — can’t survive if it continues to rely on, say, $5 monthly donations from Patreon subscriptions or small-time brand deals. And if creators keep having to bend their content to what the algorithm demands of them, no one’s going to want to pay for it anyway. As the mother of Don Draper’s second wife tells her in season five of Mad Men: “Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world couldn’t support that many ballerinas.”
By creating a culture of commissions en masse among wealthy young people, perhaps it could — or at least it could widen the pool of artists making livable wages. Inequality is terrible, inflation is bad, and whether or not we’re due for a recession, it certainly feels like we are. But there are winners in this economy, and for now, one way the creatively inclined have-nots can use it to our advantage is by bullying our rich friends into funding some weird art. Plus, imagine being some rich guy and having the option to commission an off-Broadway show about literally anything you want, whenever you want! Imagine not doing that!
This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.
Is AI Art a 'Toy' or a 'Weapon'? – The Atlantic
Earlier this year, the technology company OpenAI released a program called DALL-E 2, which uses artificial intelligence to transform text into visual art. People enter prompts (“plasticine nerd working on a 1980s computer”) and the software returns images that showcase humanlike vision and execution, veer into the bizarre, and might even tease creativity. The results were good enough for Cosmopolitan, which published the first-ever AI-generated magazine cover in June—an image of an astronaut swaggering over the surface of Mars—and they were good enough for the Colorado State Fair, which awarded an AI artwork first place in a fine-art competition.
OpenAI gave more and more people access to its program, and those who remained locked out turned to alternatives like Craiyon and Midjourney. Soon, AI artwork seemed to be everywhere, and people started to worry about its impacts. Trained on hundreds of millions of image-text pairs, these programs’ technical details are opaque to the general public—more black boxes in a tech ecosystem that’s full of them. Some worry they might threaten the livelihoods of artists, provide new and relatively easy ways to generate propaganda and deepfakes, and perpetuate biases.
Yet Jason Scott, an archivist at the Internet Archive, prolific explorer of AI art programs, and traditional artist himself, says he is “no more scared of this than I am of the fill tool”—a reference to the feature in computer paint programs that allows a user to flood a space with color or patterns. In a conversation at The Atlantic Festival with Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic’s executive editor, Scott discussed his quest to understand how these programs “see.” He called them “toys” and “parlor game[s],” and did a live demonstration of DALL-E 2, testing prompts such as “the moment the dinosaurs went extinct illustrated in Art Nouveau style” or “Chewbacca on the cover of The Atlantic magazine in the style of a Renaissance painting” (the latter of which resulted in images that looked more canine than Wookiee). Scott isn’t naive about the greater issues at play—“Everything has a potential to be used as a weapon”—but at least for a moment, he showed us that the tech need not be apocalyptic.
Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Watch: Atlantic executive editor Adrienne LaFrance in conversation with Jason Scott
Adrienne LaFrance: When we talk about AI art, what do we even mean? How does it work?
Jason Scott: So what we’re calling “AI art”—by the way, they’re now calling it “synthetic media”—it’s the idea of using analysis of deep ranges of images, not just looking at them as patterns or samples, but actually connecting their captions and their contexts up against pictures of all sorts, and then synthesizing new versions from all that.
LaFrance: So basically a giant database of images that can be drawn from to call to mind the thing that you prompt it to make.
LaFrance: And why is it exploding now? It seems like various forms of machine learning and AI have really accelerated in recent years.
Scott: They let it out of the lab and let regular people play with the toys. Across the companies that are doing this, some are taking the model of We’ll let everyone play with it now—it’s part of the world.
LaFrance: When you think about the implications for this sort of technology, give us an overview of how this is going to change the way we interact with art, or whatever other industries come to mind. For instance, at The Atlantic we have human artists making art. I’m sure they might have strong feelings about the idea of machines making art. What other industries would be potentially affected?
Scott: Machines are becoming more and more capable of doing analysis against images, text, music, movies. There are experimental search engines out there that you can play with and say things like “I need to see three people around a laptop.” And previously it would have to be three people in the laptop, but it actually is starting to make matches where there’s three people in the room. And the weirder and more creative you get with this toy, the more fun it gets. I see a future where you’ll be able to say, “Could I read a book from the 1930s where it’s got a happy ending and it takes place in Boston?” Or, “Can I have something where they fell in love but they’re not in love at the end?”
LaFrance: I have more questions, but I think now it’d be a good time to start showing people what we mean. Do you have some examples?
Scott: I have some examples of things that I did. So this is “detailed blueprints on how to build a beagle.”
“Detailed blueprints on how to construct a beagle” pic.twitter.com/blZSVJyMXd
— Jason Scott (@textfiles) July 15, 2022
LaFrance: So these are prompts that you gave the model, and this is what came out of it?
Scott: Yes. For the people who don’t know how this whole game works, it’s pretty weird. You usually type in some sort of a line to say, “I’m looking for something like this,” and then it creates that, and then people get more and more detailed, because they’re trying to push it. Think of it less as programming than saying to somebody, “Could you go out there and dance like you’re happy and your kid was just born?” And you’ll watch what happens. So it’s kind of amorphous. This is a lion using a laptop in the style of an old tapestry. This is Santa Claus riding a motorcycle in the style of 1970s Kodachrome. This is Godzilla at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This is a crayon drawing of a labor action. These are bears doing podcasts. This is GoPro footage of the D-Day landing.
I’m always playing with it, and the reason you’re hearing all those strange prompts from me is because I want to understand: What are these systems seeing? What are they doing? It’s so easy as a parlor game to say, “Draw a cellphone as if it was done as a Greco-Roman statue.” But what about doing a bittersweet sky, or trying to draw a concerned highway? What does it see?
LaFrance: What does this suggest to you about the nature of art? This gets to be sort of an existential question, but is it still human-made art in the way that we think of it, and should we be bothered by that? I mean, we use all sorts of tools to make art.
Scott: Everyone is super entitled to their own opinion. All I can say is, I did drawings in a zine in my teens; I was a street caricaturist; my mother was a painter; my father does painting; my brother’s a landscape artist. And coming from that point of view, I am no more scared of this than I am of the fill tool or the clone brush [in Photoshop]. Everything has a potential to be used as a weapon—imagery, words, music, text. But we also see an opportunity here for people who never knew that they had access to art. I can almost hear the gears crack and start moving again when I go to somebody and I’m like, “Could you give me something to draw?” And they do it and they see how it goes. I can’t get angry at that particular toy. But I won’t pretend that this toy will stay in its own way neutral, or even is neutral now.
LaFrance: I was talking to a colleague about these sorts of tools the other week, and we were really compelled by the idea of being able to visualize dreams. What other sorts of things—fiction comes to mind—can we imagine but don’t normally get to visualize?
Scott: I love telling these AIs to draw “exquisite lattice work”—using phrases like exquisite or rare—or give me “leather with gold inlay on a toaster,” and watching it move into that world and design things in seconds that aren’t perfect, but are fun.
LaFrance: We’re going to experiment, which is always dangerous. You’re never supposed to do stuff in real time. But I have some prompts for you.
Scott: This is DALL-E. There are many others. Think of it just like early web servers or early web browsers. There’s a bunch of companies with various people funding them or doing things their own way.
[Scott now leads LaFrance through a demonstration of DALL-E 2: It’s included in the video embedded above.]
Scott: We see the ability to do everything from intricate pen-and-ink drawings to cartoons. People are using it now to make all sorts of textures for video games; they are making art along a theme that they need to cover an entire wall of a coffee shop; they’re using it to illustrate their works. People are trying all sorts of things with this technology and are excited by it.
Tribune's Ruth Lloyd winner of 2022 Downtown Williams Lake Art Walk grand prize draw – Williams Lake Tribune – Williams Lake Tribune
The 2022 Downtown Williams Lake Art Walk grand prize draw winner was the Tribune’s own Ruth Lloyd.
Those who walked around to local businesses to view the art on display were able to get a stamp for their “passport” at each business, and after 15 stops were able to enter into the draw for prizes, and after 30 participants were elligible for two entries.
Lloyd managed to make it through the entire 30 artists on display in 30 businesses in the downtown core over the weeks of art walk, taking in a few at a time on her lunch breaks.
When called and told she was the winner of the grand prize draw for a $500 gift certificate for art with her favourite artist she asked, “How can I pick just one?”
Instead, she asked to split the $500 between two artists, and settled on Lesley Lloyd, a ceramics artist, and Maureen LeBourdais, textile artist.
She then posed for photos with each artist and someone from the business which hosted the artist during art walk, Tammy French of Lo’s Florist and Hope Tallen of Kit and Kaboodle.
Look Inside the $1 Billion Sale of Paul Allen’s Art Collection – BNN Bloomberg
(Bloomberg) — The details of what could be the most expensive single-owner auction in history are starting to take shape.
On Wednesday evening, Christie’s announced highlights from the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s estate, whose roughly 150 artworks are anticipated to bring in more than $1 billion. Allen died in 2018.
Topping the list is a Cézanne landscape which carries an estimate “in excess of” $120 million. A Van Gogh landscape and a Seurat interior are both estimated at $100 million. Together, estimates for the top 10 paintings announced by the auction house total $765 million.
The sale, whose proceeds will go to charity, will possibly be the most extreme test of the art market ever, but it comes at a time of deep uncertainty in the the global financial markets. The quality and rarity of Allen’s artworks are unquestionable; the prices, however, are steep enough to give even billionaires pause.
The auction will take place in New York in two parts—an evening sale on November 9, and a morning sale on November 10. Check out some of the highlights and estimates (all of which are listed “in excess of”) below.
$120 Million for La montagne Sainte-Victoire (1888-1890) by Paul Cézanne
$100 Million for Verger avec Cyprès (1888) by Vincent Van Gogh
$100 Million for Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) (1888) by Georges Seurat
$90 Million for Birch Forest (1903) by Gustav Klimt
$90 Million for Maternité II (1899) by Paul Gauguin
$75 Million for Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) (1981-1983) by Lucian Freud
$60 Million for Waterloo Bridge, Soleil Voilé (1899-1903) by Claude Monet
$50 Million for Le Grand Canal à Venise (1874) by Edouard Manet
$50 Million for Small False Start (1960) by Jasper Johns
$28 Million for Concarneau, calme du matin (Opus no. 219, larghetto) (1891) by Paul Signac
$25 Million for Three Studies for Self-Portrait (1979) by Francis Bacon
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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