Artist and writer Molly Crabapple, whose work I have long admired, has written an open letter “imploring publishers to restrict their use of A.I.-generated illustrations.”
Since the earliest days of print journalism, illustration has been used to elucidate and add perspective to stories. Even with the advent of photography in the 19th century, hand-drawn illustrations continued to have their place, both as a synthesis of the artist’s vision and the writer’s meaning. The illustrator’s art still speaks to something not just intimately connected to the news, but intrinsically human about story itself.
With the advent of generative-image AI technology, that unique interpretive and narrative confluence of art and text, of human writer and human illustrator, is at risk of extinction.
Based on text prompts, these generative tools can churn out polished, detailed simulacra of what previously would have been illustrations drawn by the human hand. They do so for a few pennies or for free, and they are faster than any human can ever be. Because no human illustrator can work quickly enough or cheaply enough to compete with these robot replacements, we know that if this technology is left unchecked, it will radically reshape the field of journalism. The result will be that only a tiny elite of artists can remain in business, their work selling as a kind of luxury status symbol.
AI-art generators are trained on enormous datasets, containing millions upon millions of copyrighted images, harvested without their creator’s knowledge, let alone compensation or consent. This is effectively the greatest art heist in history. Perpetrated by respectable-seeming corporate entities backed by Silicon Valley venture capital. It’s daylight robbery.
If you think this sounds alarmist, consider that AI-generated work has already been used for book covers and as editorial illustration, displacing illustrators from their livelihood. As a result artists and illustrators have already started suing certain creators of AI art generators for copyright infringement.
Why, beyond the immediate effect on individual artists, does this matter? AI purports to have the capability to create art, but it will never be able to do so satisfactorily because its algorithms can only create variations of art that already exists. It creates only ersatz versions of illustrations having no actual insight, wit, or originality. Generative AI art is vampirical, feasting on past generations of artwork even as it sucks the lifeblood from living artists. Over time, this will impoverish our visual culture. Consumers will be trained to accept this art-looking art, but the ingenuity, the personal vision, the individual sensibility, the humanity will be missing.
This is also an economic choice for society. While illustrators’ careers are set to be decimated by generative-AI art, the companies developing the technology are making fortunes. Silicon Valley is betting against the wages of living, breathing artists through its investment in AI.
Generative-art AI is just beginning. If illustrators want to stay illustrators, the time to fight is now. Molly Crabapple and the Center for Artistic Inquiry and Reporting call on artists, publishers, journalists, editors, and journalism union leaders to take a pledge for human values against the use of generative-AI images to replace human-made art.
Media publishing takes intellectual property rights very seriously. Its business would not exist without upholding the laws and values that protect such rights. If newsrooms aim to resist corporate theft, they must commit to supporting editorial art made by people, not server farms.