Is the disruption caused by AI art actually new, or does it just feel new?

From paint in tubes to typewriters to photography to digital art, the history of creativity is a history of disruptive technologies.
The morphing animations were created using AUTOMATIC1111 and Stable Diffusion Deforum. Credit: Fausto Cantu, Ben Gibson
Art has always been the product of new techniques: from spoken language to the written word, from drawings on cave walls to paint brushes, from quills to word processors.

In 1859, French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire decried a new form of artistic expression: photography. This new medium, he said, was “the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies” and to embrace it was a sign of “blindness” and “imbecility.”

Baudelaire considered the output of these fanatical “sun-worshippers” as more artifice than art—canned creativity, a synthetic, artificial substitute for the real thing. It was a notion that would have felt as compelling then, as similar critiques of AI art feel today. And it was just as much of a fallacy too.

Art has always been artificial. Those words even share the same Latin root: ars or artis, meaning skill, craftsmanship, or technique. In other words: artificial acts of creation. Art has only ever been the product of new techniques: from spoken language to the written word, from drawings on cave walls to paint brushes, from quills to word processors. These are all tools that allow thoughts, feelings, and ideas to transcend our minds and become tangible, transferable, reproducible, and remixable.

When a new tool for expressing human thought and imagination emerges, devotees of previous techniques often object—their creative progressivism quickly calcifies into creative conservatism. The inefficiencies of old techniques—the toil and time that was once unavoidable—become regarded as a virtue borne of suffering and sacrifice. Those that embrace the new tools are viewed skeptically as faux artists: their art is treated as mere artifice.

While artists often define themselves by their preferred medium—whether they be writers, painters, or programmers—it is important to remember these tools are just wrappers around human intelligence and its most valuable output: creativity. When these tools evolve, they often make it easier to express ourselves. It is a mistake to confuse that ease with laziness or as evidence that new creative mediums are less worthy than older ones. As one newspaper reader wrote in an  1897 letter to the editor in defense of typewritten love letters, old technologies often have a  “sentimental glamor” afforded by age.

While creative conservatism is inevitable, it is never unanimous. With every new creative tool that emerges, there is always a band of creative progressives that embrace them. These brave early adopters are tasked with defending these new techniques until they’re taken seriously.

Shortly after Louis Daguerre helped bring photography to the world, French artist Paul Delaroche was quoted as having said upon first seeing a photograph in 1840: “From today, painting is dead”. However, this quip has never been verified and, whether it was uttered or not, Delaroche seems to have quickly changed his mind. In one letter, he would refer to Daguerre’s breakthrough as a “wonderful discovery” that was “an immense service rendered to art.” Samuel Morse, an artist and the inventor of telegraphy, made similar points in a speech given to the National Academy of Design addressing the question: “Will not the Daguerreotype affect unfavorably the Arts of Design?” He would posit that photography was “undoubtedly destined to produce a revolution in Art.”

Delaroche and Morse both saw what photography would ultimately become: a powerful new creative tool. A miracle for the artist, not a replacement. It seems they understood that—as creative progressives do—all creative mediums are unnatural and incomplete, simply a way to channel that most natural and unique human trait: creativity.

This was a far cry from the views Baudelaire would later espouse about photography, technology, and creativity: that “purely material developments of progress” lead to the “impoverishment of the French artistic genius.”

Yet it would be material developments of progress—paint in tubes—that would give rise to Impressionism and empower, rather than impoverish, French artistic genius. Renoir would say of the invention: “Without colors in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism.” This artistic innovation—that removed the need for paint mixing, allowed the rise of more vibrant synthetic paint colors, and enabled painting outside the artist’s studio—was invented by John Geoff Rand, the protégé of fellow creative progressive Samuel Morse.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, history would—as it often does—rhyme with the 19th. New creative mediums emerged that were embraced by creative progressives. New spasms of creative conservatism would follow, while new masters would go from rejected to revered. 

Where paint in tubes democratized painting and spawned Impressionism in the 19th century, paint in cans saw the rise of street art in the 1970s, leading to new generations of artists from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Keith Haring to Banksy. 

In 1985, Andy Warhol predicted that digital art would be the next evolution of creative tools and “take over from the Graffiti kids.” He was right. Painting without paint—digital art—was arguably the biggest leap in art since the paintbrush, and Warhol, like Morse and Delaroche, saw it as a creative superpower rather than sacrilege.

Harold Cohen had already created AARON, a computer generated art program, in 1973 and Warhol himself was enthusiastically embracing the Amiga as an art tool by the end of the 1980s. A year after Warhol’s prediction, Steve Jobs would buy a division of Lucasfilm’s pioneering special effects company, renaming it Pixar. Steven Spielberg would break ground too, using CGI in Jurassic Park, a decision that saw his lead VFX supervisor declare his own extinction only to find his creative skill easily transferred to digital animation.

Artist David Hockney was another creative progressive who embraced new mediums with enthusiasm, first with fax machines, photocopiers, and polaroids, and then in the early 2000s he embraced the iPhone and iPad as a digital canvas. In 2011, one of those works would even grace the cover of The New Yorker, a work widely mocked. He would be teased by local villagers, who’d say they heard he was “drawing on his telephone,” to which he replied, “Well, no, actually, it’s just that occasionally I speak on my sketch pad.”

It is tempting to think that the era before generative AI, digital art, photography, and paint in tubes and cans was some kind of creative Eden—the good old days before “purely material developments” corrupted the arts. This sentiment has become increasingly prevalent as AI and art collide at the intersection of science and the liberal arts. 

Yet history tells us a different story, one of technological revolution followed by creative evolution, of machines and tools augmenting imagination rather than competing with and replacing it. Of photography empowering artists, kaleidoscopes emboldening designers, paint tubes democratizing painting, and — according to a thesis by Hockney and physicist Charles Falco — primitive camera obscura’s elevating realist painting as far back as the 1400s. If they’re right, then cameras didn’t only diminish realist art, it helped lead to its rise. What was thought to be the product of natural ability may actually have been the result of unnatural augmentation: as all art is and always will be. In many ways, the history of art is the history of technology and of humans augmenting their abilities through an evolving set of tools to communicate new ideas.

Louis Anslow is the editor of NEWART, a publication created to explore the past and future of technology x creativity.

Meet Thresh, the world’s first professional gamer
Was Elon Musk any good at Quake? “He’s a legit gamer,” but…
You’re thinking of the metaverse all wrong, says Matthew Ball
Rumors of the metaverse’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Perplexity, Google, and the battle for AI search supremacy
AIs that generate answers to user queries could transform search, but only if someone can get the tech and the business model right.
How AI is rewriting Silicon Valley’s relationship with the Pentagon
Silicon Valley is warming to the Department of Defense as it works to get new AI systems developed and deployed en masse.
Ray Kurzweil explains how AI makes radical life extension possible
Life expectancy gains in developed countries have slowed in recent decades, but AI may be poised to transform medicine as we know it.
Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories