The Intrinsic Meaning of Art – Wingless Pegasus

One thing I love about WordPress and the blog environment is when good conversations and idea can bounce off of each other in just the right ways to drive curiosity.

Two threads came together for me recently. Each started in a very different corner of my perception and came together with a significant crash.

The first thread came from a long-running interest I have been developing about the life and photography of Minor White. He was an American who taught and practiced photography for much of his career on the west coast. He was working during the middle of the twentieth century and was highly influenced by the work of Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. The list of influential photographers whom he taught and mentored is significant. Aside form teaching he was also a founding editor for Aperture magazine, in which he contributed many fascinating articles about the theory and philosophy of photography. He was very influenced by the mystical, and became something of a photography guru during the later portion of his life, gathering a group of passionate individuals around him to talk about the power of photography to communicate deep truths.

Minor White, Sandstone formation Point Lobos “Returning Wave”, 1950

The second thread has been several in depth, thoroughly presented and thoughtfully critical pieces written about the rise of AI art generators which are being written by Eric Wayne. The latest (as of the end of January 2023) is titled “AI Won. Human Artists and Humankind are Defeated“. Mr. Wayne is a contemporary art critic and artist who is very concerned about the place of the artist in today’s world.

These two threads came together for me while discussing some of the implications raised in the article linked above.

To summarize the points of this conversation that I felt to be at core issue (they are worth reading in depth if you are interested in hearing two slightly different takes on how art may or may not exist in a post-AI world): On one side of the discussion is the cold hard reality that AI is not (and will continue to become) much better than humans at content creation in nearly all forms. Art and image creation are already incredibly advanced, and have improved dramatically within only a matter of months. The writing on the wall is that AI will very soon be able to generate better art than humans ever could. Indeed, AI will generate better art than we may ever be able to conceive of. On the other side of the conversation I argue that the output, the image generated, is somehow different than “art” in some sense. I argue that the intentionality of the artist must have some influence on the experience of something as art. Both of us agree that there is a challenging aspect related to viewer response. Namely, that some AI art will certainly be impactful, inspiring and moving for human viewers, even if it was created “without” intention in the sense that I was alluding to.

Certainly many of the discussions happening now have significant emphasis placed on the origin of the work. Many people feel comfortable saying that they will never purchase AI art, and will never appreciate it as much as they appreciate art create by a human. The problem with this is that there is currently no way to know. The quality of production is so good that the majority of AI generated images cannot be discerned from those created by a human. Certainly, if someone tells us where the image came from it will color our perceptions, but should it? If a picture moves us, then isn’t it art?

James Horton, “A Beautiful Woman with Rose”, created using Midjourney and edited using Stable Diffusion application.

One particular quote from Mr. Wayne is what helped set off this blog post:

Art has intrinsic value. Disqualifying AI art, poetry, musical compositions, etc., because they are by AI is a disservice to art and art appreciation. We have this happening already where are is being judged by the biology of the artist.

Eric Wayne from “AI Won.”

Hold that thought, I’ll come back.

Thread three was the slow burning experience I have had trying to live the life of an artist creating original work not for a client, but for myself. Granted, as an unsuccessful working artist who perhaps never put in the 110% effort required to make it work, you can take my words with a grain of salt. I did spend a few years surveying the landscape, however, and trying to figure out what it would take, before realizing that what it would take wasn’t something I felt confident about executing.

The internet, as with any tool, provides benefits and drawbacks. It has never been easier, as an artist, for work to be shown to millions (or billions) of potential fans. Never before has any artist (and I mean literally anyone who is making art) had the audience that is now available. The cost and barrier to entry is laughingly minimal. One doesn’t even need a domain or web page, just a social media presence and the cell phone camera which is often attached. Suddenly anyone, anywhere, can see what has been created.

On the flip side, the competition for views has also never been so unbelievable. Every artist is trying to be the one who gets noticed, and every viewer is daily learning how better to skim quickly through visual content. Being seen is no longer enough. Viewers see thousands of images a day, sometimes in a sitting, and even the most awe inspiring and jaw-dropping pictures can be double tapped and passed on without much thought.

Making a connection with the viewer seems like it would be easier, and yet, how is it to be made?

Back to Minor White. As an editor at Aperture, and an art theorist, he too was involved in many discussions about what art was, who it was for, and how to look at things. In fact, his discussions about art are significantly skewed towards how to look at images. I have covered a few of his critical exercises in previous posts with the titles “Conceptual Awareness”.

Minor White, and his emphasis on how to look at images, was heavily influenced by one book about art criticism which I just finished reading. It is titled “Wingless Pegasus, a Handbook for Critics” by George Boas and was published in 1972.

Boas, George. Wingless Pegagus: A Handbook for Critics.

The book is an attempt to describe and illuminate the many ways which art has been seen to provide value throughout different times and places. It is at its core a psychological and philosophical text about how humans interact with their world.

I don’t think it is difficult to see how complicated assigning values can be in terms of humanity, and art especially. Values are a product of the individual upbringing of each person, coming from their cultural background and then blended in with their individual experiences. It is a hallmark of the modern world and taken for granted that each individual is a unique universe unto themselves with an inner life and way of thinking that is theirs alone. We already accept that any two people who look at the same scene may come away with two different interpretations. Indeed, this is celebrated (in the west) as something that itself is to be valued.

Knowing how fickle taste can be, and living in a globalized culture in which so many different worldviews and perspectives may come to bear on each piece of art, how can we expect to find any underlying value which is inherent within the piece itself?

Two common areas in which many people have tried to pin value into the work itself are: the skill demonstrated in its creation, and the time spent on its creation.

Skill is quite interesting because it too changes with taste. Which artist was more skillful, Leonardo, or Van Gogh, or Picasso? Each style has its own rules and difficulties and requires different skills. Does it even make sense to compare? In the time of its painting, according to an article included at the end of Boa’s book, the Mona Lisa was praised on its completion for how incredibly life-life, “living”, the woman in the painting looked. Despite this, hardly any mention is made of the painting for hundreds of years after, and it is not included on lists of masterpieces from those centuries. It is not until someone writes again in the 1700’s that it comes back into circulation. In fact, it isn’t until critics of the nineteenth century analyzed it with a strong emphasis on the hidden psychological meanings did it start to develop the cache which it continues to have. In this case, what it is famous for now can hardly be the exquisite brushstrokes and technicalities. That skill didn’t change and yet did not speak to centuries of people about the inherent value. Similarly, though we may praise it now, very few people who actually go to see if (even those who try to see it) will never be able to identify that level of skill because they won’t be able to get close enough to apprehend the details. If skill carries value, then why do we value something which we cannot appreciate (except through anecdote) as being skillfully created? Why wasn’t it immediately and forever more a masterpiece?

Similarly, and in reverse, even art created with exquisite skill and technical aptitude may not inspire or engage with the audience. Other forms of image making, such as non-representational art, or forms of process art, or found art, do not rely upon technical skill in the same way. It may be the case that the skill being executed is a skill of perception, or curation or conception. All of these, while they may be trained and put to challenging use, are very difficult for the viewer to gauge or grasp.

That values by which art is judged come from the unique individual and their background, as well as their placement within a society. Values may be shared more broadly amongst people within a group so long as they share significant social values which make the translation possible. For instance, the majority of Medieval paintings were intended to support the words of the church by illustrating and aiding communication of the sermons and the message. In that context, the work of art can speak similarly to many people. That same work, seen now especially if it has been removed from a church, is being seen by a plurality of cultures, ages and backgrounds at once, and certainly means different things to different people.

George Boas ends his book with this summary of his journey through where human values about art seem to come from, concluding that it is simply not possible to find any universal and shared value that isn’t tied to changing modes of thinking. He suggests:

The critic therefore, if he is wise, will confine himself to explanation, interpretation, analysis and give up praising and blaming, legislation, evaluation. He will cease the attempt to communicate the ineffable and resign himself to a world in which there is an insoluble residuum of irrationality.

Boas, George. “Wingless Pegasus, A Handbook for Critics.” Baltimore, MD. The John Hopkins Press, 1950.

This is what jumped to mind upon reading Mr Wayne’s remark that “Art has intrinsic value.” Perhaps it was no meant to identify a specific shared value, or even a value which can be quantified. Perhaps it is a value which applies to a specific time and place.

Returning to my struggles with presenting my art in a contemporary market might be helpful.

It is already the case, I feel, that being an artist online is to be in competition with impossible odds. There will always be someone who spends more time than you, who has better skills that you, who came up with a similar idea first. Despite the changes in appearance, there is still actually very little new under the sun. It used to be that one could be the best in one’s niche, but now each niche has been filled. To find a new one means shaving off imperceptible spaces between others that have already been carved out. I feel that we didn’t need AI to disrupt the modern artist. Artmaking in today’s world is already a situation in which the artist has lost before even setting foot on the stage.

In order to have one’s art seen and appreciated in a global social media marketplace, one may be supported by many fellow artist mentors, marketing gurus and social media experts. Though their credentials differ, there are some interesting overlaps in what they say.

Artists who seek to make their own work and represent themselves to the world are really trying to sell themselves. Having a brand presence, being a strong brand, is key. Advice varies in detail, but generally they seem to agree on a few key points:

  • Show something of yourself, of the human behind the art.
  • Know what audience you are trying to reach, and have an idea of what kind of person you think your art might speak to.
  • Don’t try to cater to everyone, and keep your message consistent.
Splash page for Stop The Starving Artist by Lennon Bone, a website geared at helping artists find their tribes and those who will appreciate their work.

I understand from the side of the viewer how this works. There are several artists whom I follow that have caught my eye over a period of time and many works presented. I may be drawn in by one image, but it is only after I have seen several do I start to get an idea of what the artist is “about”. By seeing them working at visual problems in their own unique ways I get a sense for what they find important, what they struggle with and where they find meaning in the work that they do.

It seems that being an artist today has a significant amount to do with selling yourself, rather than your art. Or perhaps, selling your story with the help of our art. When people buy your art, they are actually buying into your story.

At least, that is how I have often heard the narrative. It has a nice quality to it as well, in that it encourages the artist to lean into their own unique voice, and medium and technique. It also doesn’t require that everyone appreciate the work that you do. With so many people out there, the goal is to find your tribe, rather than convince everyone.

This aspect of “artist as brand” has become quite popular within the last few generations, even in the analogue world. Minor White spent a good deal of time arranging and rearranging photographs into “sequences” which were meant to stand together, or at least be read together, rather than focusing on individual images. This has continued, and is easily seen in the amount of photography art books which are on the market. Artists are also seeing great success selling sketchbooks. These point further towards the affect an artist has being tied to who they are as a person, as well as the work they are creating.

Perhaps this is a key to the new sense of value in art. Value transferred to the artist which encompasses not only the specific intention and method for creating any given piece, but their approach to artmaking as a whole.

Is this what we mean by inherent value within the art itself? Can art have inherent value for one tribe and be overlooked by others?

What about images that move us even when we don’t know the artist or how it came to exist? What about images that spark our sense of beauty or wonder even when they happen to be from the hand of an artist we do not respect as a person? Artists are already in a situation in which, despite having more potential viewers than ever before, they struggle to explain why they are creating the images which they do. Have we ever really been in a world where artist intent made that much of a difference? Have we always lived in a world in which we only like the images that appeal to us on a more instinctual level?

To quickly round up where I find myself in this discussion and begin to bring it to some sort of conclusion:

  1. AI text to image generators have the potential to upend how art is being created in many industries, including independent artists who are trying to discover and represent their own voice and style.
  2. Even before this, with the rise of social media and the wave of modernist art movements the place of artists has become more ambiguous. Artists have more potential viewers than ever, but also much more competition, and often eyeballs on their work for fractions of a second at a time while scrolling through a feed.
  3. The values we place on art come from the complex and unique set of circumstances which we all find ourselves in: our place in the world, our time in history and the unique experiences we have had growing up. Values can be shared by a group for a time, but change and flex and often do not mean that same thing to different groups. The value of an individual work of art does not seem to be fixed within the work itself, but must be somehow constructed in relationship to the viewer.

These three elements point to two conclusions I have come to about art in the contemporary situation, and in relation to AI text to image generators.

First, AI entering the scene isn’t fundamentally changing our relationship to art as much as I thought. This is mostly because it has already been very difficult for artists to control their own works and how they are distributed to the world. It is already very difficult for artists to find a tribe who appreciates their style and is willing to pay for it. It has also been very difficult to tell their own stories about why they are making what they are making.

An artist using AI to explore a certain theme is actually not at much advantage in this sphere. They may make one or two stellar images, but it will only be through the repeated body of their work which others will come to value their art at a deeper level. If they continue to turn out work that speaks together within that same narrative and stylistic structure, then they are clearly tapping into something true to themselves and artistic in its own right.

Second, AI image generators might actually be helpful when it comes to meaning making in a strange way. The sheer speed at which they can create images is going to test the limits of what we are already experiencing on a daily basis. Or, perhaps not, as I cannot image how to fit any more visual information into my day as it is. We are already creating works at a blinding pace without this technology.

When we think about what value art brings to our lives there should be some optimism here. If art does not carry any inherent value which can be “discovered” and shared amongst all people, then there is no gatekeeper and no litmus test for who can and should appreciate art. Though it may sound depressing to think that artistic value only exists for each person or small communities, that can actually be a great thing.

Art gains meaning and value when come into relationship with it. It might be shallow at first, but can deepen as we come to understand more about the work. A backstory and artist intention do not anoint a work with significance, but can provide us a new way to look at the piece and cause us to ask more interesting question about it. Historical or cultural context can do the same and give us broader perspective. Looking at the work in relation to other works by the same artist and other artists will also lend new meaning.

Rather than coming in and either seeing the value or missing it, we are able to build that value with the art. If we desire it.

How we choose to interact with art is up to us. What we choose to give our time and attention to is up to us. AI art isn’t a monolith sent to crush us. It is simply more images in our feed that we can choose to deal with as we want. If we find something interesting it is up to us to learn more about how it was made and why. If it was generated through a text to image bot then it is up to us to determine what the means. Perhaps there is still value there, or perhaps that is a roadblock to further understanding.

Our consumption is based on our taste, which we are at liberty to develop and exercise. If we want more meaningful art in our lives we need only go and get it. For individuals and society as a whole, what we surround ourselves can be a reflection of our taste rather than what other people want to feed us. If we decide to curate that mix that we consume then we can choose to partake in what brings us value and adds meaning to our lives. Art can and will have the value that we determine it does if we make time to build a relationship with it. The tools and the tech don’t determine it for us.