The Aura of AI-Generated Art

Created using Midjourney. Courtesy of the author.

In his 2004 essay “Why are Artists Poor?”, Hans Abbing writes,

Walter Benjamin predicted that the technical reproduction of art would lead to a breaking of art’s spell (‘Entzauberung’). Art became less obscure, more accessible and thus less magical because of technical reproduction. … Benjamin’s prediction is not difficult to grasp. Technical (re)production enables a massive production of artworks at low prices. It would be very strange indeed if this didn’t reduce the exclusive and glamorous allure of art products. … But thus far, this hasn’t happened; [the composer] Bach and his oeuvre maintain their aura. In general, if one observes the high, if not augmented status and worship of art since Benjamin’s essay first appeared, his prediction was either wrong or it is going to take longer before his predictions are borne out.

The “aura” that Abbing (via Benjamin) refers to is the quality integral to an artwork that cannot be communicated through mechanical reproduction techniques — such as photography. Walter Benjamin wrote his thesis in the mid 1930s when photography and film were becoming popular. At the time, people debated the value of the captured artifact vs. the artifact itself. Benjamin argued that even the most perfect reproduction of an artwork is lacking in its presence in time and space.

The top image was created from image and text prompts in Midjourney. I wanted to experiment with the idea of ‘twins’: Can a machine create twins that look alike but are also different from each other? The result is not a reproduction of the source image, nor do these AI-generated ‘twins’ look anything like the human subjects that were photographed. However, I would argue, that this AI image has an aura.

My twins image was re-purposed on Instagram by someone who apparently follows my page. I was tagged in the post and I was intrigued about the poster’s “challenge” because many of the comments showed how difficult it is for people to tell the difference between traditional art, photographs, and AI-generated images. The post implies that one twin is “real” and the other twin is a “drawing” when in reality they are neither (or both?). Of course, the original twins image is digital but it is not a direct copy of any photo. My image and text prompts (AI) brought it into being.

Currently, my twins image has over 45,000 likes and, as we can see above, it has been reproduced for others’ purposes.

Thus reproduction — mechanical or digital — is the source and vehicle for a work’s “aura.” A spectator’s encounter with a “famous” work as an object is distinctly different than their encounter with an unknown work because it is the wide dissemination of that work through reproduction that creates the particular experience: cultural tourism is based on this idea of encounters with originals whose aura is a function of their being widely reproduced. The more fully a work is disseminated, the greater its “aura.” Michael Betancourt

It is this last line that resonates with me: the more fully disseminated the greater its aura. Someone who follows my IG page found the re-purposed version and tagged me in the comments section. I joined in the conversation, which is how many of the people who were not following me learned it belonged to me: I did not add a watermark or signature. Now, I’m glad I didn’t sign it because I was able to reflect on the nature of AI-generated art and its aura.

Over the past several weeks I’ve posted other twins and also triplets. A few went viral, too. As digital art forms, they exhibit what Michael Betancourt calls the “aura of information,” which is the separation of the meaning present in a work from the physical representation of that work. These images imply a transformation of objects (subjects) to information… the “necessity for control over intellectual property in the virtuality of digital reproduction.” Betancourt writes,

Because capital is a finite resource itself subject to scarcity, yet also caught in the capitalist paradox of escalating value — in the dual forms of interest and profit on capital expenditures — there is the constant demand to create more commodity value in order to extract more wealth from society in order to maintain the equilibrium of the system.

We can see this battle for control play out on social media. Recently, users of the ArtStation platform staged a protest of AI-art. The users don’t want a platform they use for sharing and networking purposes to support A.I. images that have been generated through the theft of artistic labor and creativity. However, many of the same protesters have re-purposed other artists styles and images to create their digital art works. It can be argued that the AI (machine, algorithm) is incapable of directly copying or reproducing existing images. I’ve argued that in previous posts but that is a different discussion branching out from this one about aura or digital aura.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.