The advent of AI models will only accelerate this trend. We will always place more value on works that seem made for themselves rather than for us. This is bad news for AI robots, which are explicitly designed to please us. Engaging in a task for its own sake is something that, by design, is beyond the capabilities of any AI. Trained on what has seduced us in the past, they offer it to us in new colors.
We will watch these pastiches with growing suspicion, scrutinizing the provenance of the words and images. Books and movies will boast of their blood-soaked good faith. We’ll consider them “better”, just as we’ll convince ourselves that small-batch mustard tastes more “real” than its supermarket equivalent. We will develop increasingly sophisticated ways to differentiate between the two, and technology will be itself to be enlisted in the effort.
The ground is already laid, which is often the case. It turns out that the Gothic Revival had been in the air for over a decade by the time William Morris gifted the British elite with hand-painted tiles from his studio. Likewise, the AI revolution will drive a new elevation in consumer “authenticity,” which painters, illustrators, and writers will pounce on. Far from signaling a decline in original man-made art, the advent of AI will make it more valuable. The gap between artists and robots will widen, just as their technical abilities continue to converge.
What real form might our new preferences take? William Morris provides some additional clues. His greatest influence was the art critic John Ruskin, who was 15 years his senior and can be credited with initiating the Gothic revival that Morris capitalized on. Ruskin was a polemical thinker who united a set of aesthetic preferences with a zealous social philosophy. He not only had strong beliefs about church masonry, but also strong beliefs about social institutions. Inveighing against what he saw as the dehumanizing division of labor in Victorian factories, he argued that makers needed to be involved at every stage of manufacturing. “The painter,” he asserted, “should grind his own colors. Morris himself embodied this idea, and it turned out to be a good deal. If he ends up finding himself at the head of a flourishing company, he never stopped grinding his own colors; he remained obsessively involved in every stage of production.
Expect the trend to continue. We will require works that can be traced to an identifiable individual vision. The age of AI will lead to a doubling of the biography, which happens to be another thing that robots particularly lack. Already there are complaints about the way major contemporary artists, from Damien Hirst to Jeff Koons, rely on vast studios of assistants to do the actual painting and sculpting to meet the demand for scale and maximum production. Expect the complaints to become deafening and the rote response, that even Renaissance artists delegated tasks to dozens of apprentices, to lose its potency. It may have been fine for Titian’s time, but now we have to deal with newcomers to painting robots, and our tastes have become fickle.
That’s not to say artists won’t embrace AI as a new tool. Even the Impressionist painters, who responded to the advent of the daguerreotype in the 19th century by going where photography could not follow, relied on photographs as a drawing tool for their own work. But AI creations will only be saved by attaching themselves to an individual human vision.
It turns out that we’ve been preparing for the AI revolution for decades, developing quirky tastes for the very kind of symbolic values – individual passion, purpose, lived experience – that robots won’t exhibit anytime soon. This is why AI is unlikely to produce “better” art than humans. Instead, it will transform our sense of sweet-salty. Our collective defense mechanism will engage. These are the robots that should twist their little claws.