A few months ago I presented an initial foray into AI Gospel art. Since then the technology has developed even more; still, I don’t think we’re quite to the point where manual-only artists will be completely out of work, but we are certainly getting there.
As far as I can tell, Midjourney appears to be the best publicly available text-to-image program. However, unlike some of the others it’s a little complex to get started, and they only allow a certain number of generations before they start charging money. Still, I thought I’d give it a try with Church-related themes.
Writing the correct Midjourney prompt is an art in itself, and it’s clear that people with formal artistic training are at an advantage here. The way Midjourney is setup during the freeware stage makes you see other people’s prompts and creations while yours are generating, and some of the prompts are quite detailed and sophisticated, so it is likely that a more experiences Midjourney artist could get better results than I did here, but I think some of the failings I’ll point out hold true regardless of your skill level.
To get less serious for a moment, one of the prominent themes in Midjourney creations are fantasy creatures. In Mormon folklore we don’t have a lot of monsters, but I thought I’d give it a shot with the Bear Lake Monster and early accounts of Cain visiting early Church members.
An early newspaper account of the Bear Lake Monster stated that it was “a large undulating body, with about 30 feet of exposed surface, of a light cream color, moving swiftly through the water, at a distance of three miles from the point of observation.” From my myriad attempts it’s clear that Midjourney doesn’t take details about perspective and context into account very well. This shot was probably the best I got of the “Bear Lake Monster” in clear water with rolling hills in the background while being watched by people in 19th-century garb.
I tried multiple times to get an image of David Patten’s visit by Cain (made famous by its reprinting in The Miracle of Forgiveness), but getting a man on horseback with another man standing next to him, and describing the two men in detail, was too complex for Midjourney to handle and I couldn’t get anything usable. Instead I created an image of a Cain visit based on E. Wesley Smith’s purported account while he was a mission president in Hawaii (which is anonymous and based on who-knows what, but is still fun).
Of course, here the PG-13 filter gets in the way since the account has him naked. Also, given the time period there was probably some racist assumptions vis-a-vis Cain, but I’m going to take advantage of the fact that this account doesn’t specifically mention Cain’s race.
On a more serious note, attempts at visualizing absolutes that are supposed to be indescribable such as hell and heaven have always been fascinating to me, so I tried some basic prompts, and they turned out okay.
Two renditions of “Outer darkness” and “Hell,” according to Midjourney.
Heavenly beings on a sea of fire and glass. (Still a little too dark, I tried to brighten it several times but couldn’t quite get it).
“Descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore.”
Finally, the point has been made elsewhere that, as the Church diversifies, Church art could become a little more diverse, and AI helps people create variations on similar religious themes. I asked Midjourney to create a “Japanese Eve eating the fruit in the style of traditional Japanese art.”
As of now AI generated art doesn’t do text well, so somebody more informed than I will have to determine whether the Japanese characters are gibberish. Also, perhaps because of the PG-13 filter, the other options included scantily clad versions of Eve that were in a way more erotic and inappropriate than had she been portrayed in the more traditional bare-breasted or foliage-covered way. (Not that I’m against the filter; without it we are really at the point technologically where some creep could upload a photo of the boy or girl next door and impose them on some sexual fantasy. On a related note, in between the first and second draft of this post a Midjourney-type service for movies was announced.)
Presumably you could do other similar variations: “Eve as an East African woman eating the fruit,” “Eve as a contemporary Peruvian woman eating the fruit,” etc. If the point is to stretch our artistic and conceptual paradigms beyond Greg Olsen, the variations on different religious themes have suddenly become endless. Additionally, more advanced prompt artists can upload other images and generate variations on a theme, and this is where I think manual artists may be able to use AI as a complement, instead of a substitute, for their own work.
In summary, AI is getting close to human-level for basic stills and tableaus. However, for complex context or images outside of the standard range (I tried many times to get a city of LDS temples and it never got even close) there’s still some work to be done. However, at the rate things are going I don’t think it will be too long before those gaps are closed. Whereas in the past we were limited to the relatively slow production of galleries and art shows, in the near future I think skilled religious prompt artists are in a position to literally create millions of pieces moving, inspiring religious art across the whole range of styles and preferences.
I guess I’m stuck on your final words — “moving, inspiring religious art.”
What moves me in visual art, literature, history is not at all on the surface, and is not mere information. It’s something I struggle to understand much less express, and can only say is a recognition that someone else responds to, say, the enormity of the universe, or my place in the human family, or the religious impulse, in the same way I do.
Maybe I’m a fraud. Maybe I only *think* that’s what I’m responding to. But knowing that these images are created by machines imitating some aspects of human inspiration that might be deduced but never felt by that machine, leaves me repulsed, not inspired. I try the impossibility of looking at these images while pretending not to know their origin, and I still feel repulsed. I know I’m being manipulated as surely as those images are.
It isn’t religious. It isn’t art. And no matter how far the technology is pushed, even if it arrives at a point where the process could construct the images you ask for, and even if it arrives at a point where I can be even more easily fooled, I will still feel betrayed when I learn I have responded to a cheat and a fraud, something mimicking but never feeling the authentic emotional, or intellectual, or spiritual sensibilities of a soul.
Religion is a negotiation between God and human beings. Art is an expression of humanity. Why would anyone even *want* to have a cold, heartless, mechanical/digital impersonation stand between man and God, or between man and man?
I suppose one could might consider the process of programing AI to produce art an art of sorts. But, generally, I agree with Ardis. If the human soul is not an intrinsic element in artistic expression then it isn’t art–IMO. It’s kinda like the idea of computers producing Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They might come up with the exact same text–but how would we know they mean what they say? We might surmise that perhaps it was something they came up with because of their access to the world library. And if so, it might be useful as an expression of humanity’s collective recorded knowledge. But it would lack the spark that only an individual consciousness can produce.
At first, I agreed with Ardis, but then I remembered that the same was said about photography when it was the newest technology. A camera captures exactly what is there, in exactly the way its human operator tells it to. And at first the “art experts” claimed that an exact copy of reality was not at all artistic, and they insisted that a photograph could never be considered creative like a painting or drawing was.
Now, photography is considered an equal if slightly different art form. The art is found in the ability to capture beauty, or unique human emotion, or the human condition, or anything else meaningful with that technology. The art is knowing how to make your camera produce something that is meaningful.
So, I suppose that eventually, computers will be taught to produce what humans tell it and humans will learn to express new and creative ideas through computer generated drawings. A computer does exactly what it human operator tells it to in the same way cameras do now. The art will be in how creatively the human can instruct the computer. And we will discover we have created a new art form. A new way to express human creativity, and it will not be considered fake or fraudulent any more than artistic photographs are now.
Sure, it will be a different category than painting, drawing, and photography are now, just as they are each different categories. But humans will find how to be creative through their new medium.
I think I come from the “the artist/writer is dead” school of thought (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_the_Author), but that’s a big question for graduate-level philosophy of art classes that we could spend a long time on.
Along the lines of Anna’s thought, though, one could argue that in prompt art God is involved through the artist during the act of creating the prompt. When you look at the higher quality prompt work, it’s clear that the prompt artists have a very specific visual in their mind, and are very aware of the different artistic terms to use to get to that visual in their mind’s-eye, so they’re still exercising their creative muscles and the AI is just a tool.
For more generic art (for example, my Japanese Eve), the human element is involved in 1) my decision to combine the theme of Japanese art and Eve, 2) all of the human created images that acted as the training set, and 3) my own decision to choose among the different outputs. I’m probably more okay with Jack and Ardis with separating out the humanity into a billion different pieces in the training set, and less insistent that it come from a single individual.
I reject the photography analogies to chatbots, because an actual human being still has to actually frame the shot, and actual humans and/or actual landscapes still need to be their subject. Nothing gets a photo savaged faster than being revealed as photoshopped or filtered; viewers intuitively and rightly feel that an important social contract has been broken.
College students are wearing Nirvana shirts again; when I ask my students why they, of all ‘90s bands, are back in style, they uniformly tell me it’s because Kurt Cobain actually hurt, that he wasn’t faking or posturing; his pain was real, and sealed it with his blood. Consequently, they feel they can still relate to him, resonate with him, on a personal level. If they were to learn Cobain never actually hurt, or never died, or never existed, it would break the spell. It would feel like a betrayal.
Likewise, people join our church when they feel that there is genuine divinity, and genuine humanity, behind the Book of Mormon’s words. They also leave—and feel similarly betrayed—if they conclude it’s an elaborate fiction. Count me with Ardis in being repulsed by Art that has no genuine religious or aesthetic feeling behind it. Does that make me a Luddite? Frankly, I’ve been getting more suspicious of photography lately, too.
And the fact that a chatbot can write your talk for you only reveals how formulaic and forgettable our talks have been all along. What we should be doing (like Joseph Smith tried to do) is constantly dig up new things for our listeners to hear. The invention of photography is also what helped spark French Impressionism, incidentally.