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'Is it Art?' exhibit fosters debate around AI-generated artwork

A Starry Soul - AI Art
A Starry Soul by Danielle Hart is pictured on Sat. April 6, 2024 on Rosemary Street at an AI art gallery.

Officially starting this Thursday, one winner each day through the end of the year will be awarded $100 for submitting a piece of AI-generated art work through the Optimus Awards, a UNC-partnered online art showcase.

William Ammerman, an adjunct instructor of emerging technologies in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, sponsors the award and organized the first-ever AI art exhibit in the Triangle on Saturday

The gallery featured the award-winning artwork that was printed on aluminum plates using the ChromaLuxe technique, a style of printing ink that produces vibrant images on metal. The metal sheets were then displayed in an exhibit at Innovate Carolina. 

“I absolutely believe that AI art is a distinct field of fine art,” Ammerman said. “I actually crafted the Optimus Awards specifically to recognize it as such, to encourage us to embrace AI art and generative AI, but to also recognize it as its own unique type of art.”

Hannah Cardwell, a student in Ammerman’s Media and Journalism 588: Emerging Technologies class and award winner, said she considers herself to be an AI artist. Similar to handmade art, she said there are skills that separate beginner AI artists from professionals.

“I think anybody can be an AI artist, but I think it's how much time you put into it and how strategic you are with it,” Cardwell said.

Kelly Dennehy and Danielle Hart, students in the class who have generated art using AI, both said they would not consider themselves AI artists. 

“I don't think that I would ever take the title of an AI artist, personally, just because I’m taking a prompt, and it's creating it,” Dennehy said. “AI is creating pretty artwork, but it's not me.” 

Dennehy said she believes AI art can have meaning, but that human-made art, such as hand-made paintings, will be much more beautiful and symbolic than artificially produced work.

Hart won an Optimus Award for her AI piece "A Starry Soul," which depicts a human eye in the style of "The Starry Night" by Van Gogh. Her piece, along with the AI artwork of other winners, was displayed on the wall within the exhibit.

She said she is hesitant to take complete ownership for her art, given that the image she created was pieced together from pre-existing artwork.

“I see how it can be hurtful to artists, and that goes back to why I don't feel like I should be called an artist — because it's a combination of an algorithm and other people's artwork,” Hart said. “It's not mine. I didn't generate that by hand.” 

Hart said she thinks artists who do not want their original work to be used by AI should be protected from machine learning algorithms, but expressed concern for how that would be possible, given the current state of machine learning technology.

“I feel like artists should have the ability to take their art out of the algorithm or the computer database that all of these generators draw from,” Hart said.

Nate Diers, a student artist at UNC, said it was an issue that artists such as himself do not have the ability to exclude their work from AI algorithms already.

Ammerman said that AI artwork made in the style of other artists should be treated the same as human artwork inspired by other work, and that restrictions on the type of art used by these algorithms limits the freedom of AI artists.

While he acknowledged that many people have worries about AI, Ammerman said he feels strongly that they do not see the positives, which is why he created the Optimus Awards — to explore the benefits of using AI. He said that this technology is here to stay, and the sooner students learn to embrace it, the more productive they will be. 

Ammerman said that he wanted to encourage conversation about AI-generated art through the exhibit, and that the name of the exhibit — “Is it Art?” — was intentional. 

“I wanted to engender a debate about the nature of generative AI and get people talking about their views on whether it's art,” he said. “I think when you see it, it's undeniably art.”

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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