by Dustin Jacobus
Groups of sparrows fly over the grasslands, chasing the enormous amount of insects that swarm above the meadows. The flock moves like a giant organism. A stork lands gracefully and with nodding movements it examines the ground in search of a small snack, perhaps a careless frog. An army of beetles, butterflies, mosquitoes, and all kinds of insect, some with shiny stripes, some with colourful camouflage, wriggle out of the blades of grass. A deer comes out of the bushes, its legs turning yellow from the pollen of the underbrush. A hare darts off as if its life depends on it. Dozens of birds are startled by this sudden movement and take flight. Flapping wings, there are black-tailed godwits, redshanks, ruffs, oystercatchers, snipe and many others flying in all directions. Butterflies whirl up, while swarms of tiny mosquitoes smear grey hues across the sky. Yet the sun shines bright and yellow. The blackberries at the edge of the forest stand out. Each flower houses a tiny insect. Six-legged critters climb and descend each trunk in search of food. Ladybugs make love in a buttercup. Other small shiny blue beetles communicate with each other on the leaves of silverweed. Brown and blue dragonflies bask on the stalks of sorrel. It’s buzzing everywhere. It would make a perfect picture.
Many artists must have thought like that in the past. Nature has always been one of the most important sources of inspiration. An entire genre of art is dedicated to these wonderful natural vistas. Some of the most famous artists painted beautiful landscapes near where they lived or worked. From the religious backgrounds in the Renaissance paintings, to the imaginary panoramic landscapes from the Weltlandschaften, to the Danube School inspired by the valleys of the eponymous river, to the etchings of Rembrandt and the marvellous landscapes of Van Goyen during the Dutch Golden Age, to the Romantic Movement and to the School of Barbizon. Each of these artists left their studio to directly observe nature around them.
If we now look at the cover illustration of Sci Phi Journal’s current issue (December 2022), we see that the protagonist created a similar landscape painting. But this artist of the future works very differently. The painting is conjured up with the help of AI: by entering a combination of words, the computer generates a breath-taking image. The computer uses an almost endless database of images and photos to render an end-result that resembles any style of painting. It all happens in the blink of an eye. There’s no need to go out, lug all those materials, do preliminary sketches, find the ideal spot or wait for the light to hit right. A fast, customized painting process: the rendered image is loaded directly into a graphics software program. The artist superimposes AR popup screens. These help add some extra elements and details, and enhance the painting by adding colour or shading. Tweak the contrast and maybe apply a few strokes of the digital brush to give it that unique personal touch. Et voila, a beautiful and original painting is ready. Just a click away from uploading it to an online auction gallery.
This way of working could come very close to the real modus operandi of an artist of the future. Such a contrast to the way previous artists have worked in the past. The modern futuristic approach to making art could be corollary. It follows the logic of technological progress. Technology that makes things easier, faster, cheaper, more flexible and better. Well, ‘better’ depends on how we define it. As each new technology finds its way into society, it changes the way we work, do things, make things, use things, and so on. But it also changes us and everything around us.
Having our own car for each of us allows us to go almost anywhere and all in a reasonable time. It defines where we settle down and allows us to live farther from where we work. It changes our daily habits and makes us think differently about freedom and transport. But it also changes our environment, we need a lot of infrastructure to get around. This in turn alters our landscape and affects nature. It has degraded the quality of our air and given us new problems like traffic jams. Traffic in general generates stress and aggression, sometimes even death. A world with or without a car would certainly be different.
A risk of any technology is that it can alienate us from the natural world around us. The world of some people predominately exists of living in their own private homes. When they leave their house, they get into their car: a private space on wheels that moves within the public realm and eventually they reach work, where most of us spend another large chunk of our time. The office, in turn, is a form of private space. Social interaction between other people in different environments, with different opinions and lifestyles, is quite limited. A very ‘safe’ environment, strictly defined by the walls and fences of the house, metal doors of the car and the boundaries of company buildings. One can wonder if this changes people and how they think and perceive things around them. One may wonder what impact technology has on alienation. What have we lost? In the case of the car and the constant presence in a confined, private and safe space, there are few opportunities to bump into other people, no random encounters, not even much exchange between you and the other. There is no chance to feel comfort or discomfort in unexpected situations.
The same goes for the merging of art and AI. It definitely has many benefits but it certainly affects the way we work and potentially also the way we think and relate to our surroundings. Perhaps the future artist no longer has any idea what nature might have looked like or even what it looks like in the present. There may still be untouched nature out there, but many people will no longer have any contact with it, but rather become alienated from it. Many artists may grow to trust AI more than their own eyes.
In this regard, the background of the cover artwork shows a bleaker future. You can see the gray, tall buildings. In the cities, many people crowd together. You don’t have to leave your apartment because everything is present in the building and the rest is delivered by drones or other delivery services. A large part of life takes place online anyway. The artist of the future has this convenience, flexibility and “easiness” thanks to technological advances. An infinite pool of choices in the online databases of the Internet. The new technology gives us a so-called “better life” than the one we had before.
So let’s zoom in on the future artist, sitting in the safe, cosy studio somewhere in a building in a city. Computer in front of her, connected to the internet and AI ready to help create a next masterpiece. What will she create today? Which combination of words will be used?
[painting] [background: high mountains] [foreground: lush garden]?
[painting] [purple cat] [climbing a wire] [background: amazing mushroom town]?
[painting] [tiger chasing prey] [setting: dense jungle]?
[painting] [futuristic war between robots and humans] [Ultra HD] [Realism] [Ray tracing]?
Or how about something more classic, a painting of a still life, a bouquet of flowers?
[painting] [couple kissing] [on a bench at sunset] [in the style of Hundertwasser]?
[painting] [an old master painting a deer] [while sitting in a natural landscape full of bright green plants and trees] [in the style of Dustin Jacobus]?
Everything seems possible, but are we missing something?
Technology gives us many ready-made solutions to problems, it seems to make many things more convenient, but as the human artist behind the cover image we had thus analysed, I really hope that we don’t become even more alienated from our surroundings. Couldn’t it be that we are missing out on the experience of being in that exact place on that exact time? That specific moment in space and time when the light covers everything with so many subtle and amazing shades. That unique moment when a specific but so beautiful detail catches our eye. By being and experiencing our surroundings, we get to the point where everything falls into place, the moment an idea is born. Will technologies like AI ever be able to replace that? I hope that future artists would still go outside to discover how light shapes the landscape. I hope the outside world and nature can continue to inspire us directly to create the most beautiful works of art, as the Expressionists, Impressionists, Surrealists, Realists, Romantics, Cubists and many others before them did.
[Editor’s note: we certify that this op-ed was not generated by an AI.]