Jason Allen, a video game designer in Pueblo, Colorado, spent roughly 80 hours working on his entry to the Colorado State Fair’s digital arts competition. Judges awarded him first place, which came with a $300 prize.
But when Allen posted about his win on social media late last month, his artwork went viral—for all the wrong reasons.
Allen’s victory took a turn when he revealed online that he’d created his prize-winning art using Midjourney, an artificial intelligence program that can turn text descriptions into images. He says he also made that clear to state fair officials when he dropped off his submission, called Théâtre D’opéra Spatial. But over the last week or so, his blue ribbon has sparked an impassioned debate about what constitutes art.
We’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes — if creative jobs aren’t safe from machines, then even high-skilled jobs are in danger of becoming obsolete— OmniMorpho (@OmniMorpho) August 31, 2022
What will we have then?
Allen, for his part, says he intended to make a statement with his artwork—and, considering the lively online discourse around it, he feels like he accomplished that goal, he tells the Pueblo Chieftain’s Anna Lynn Winfrey. He doesn’t appear to have broken any official state fair rules, either.
Colorado’s 150-year-old state fair is held each summer in Pueblo, a town roughly 115 miles south of Denver. Per the Chieftain, the fair’s submission guidelines do not directly mention A.I.-generated art, but they define digital arts as “artistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.”
The competition’s two judges tell the Chieftain they were unaware that Allen had used A.I. to create his piece. But even if they had known, they still would’ve given him first place. They said they awarded the top prize based on the story Théâtre D’opéra Spatial tells, as well as the spirit it invokes.
“Even as the controversy is coming out, it’s still invoking that, it’s still causing an uproar,” Cal Duran, one of the judges, tells the Chieftain. “That in itself is kind of remarkable.”
Allen created Théâtre D’opéra Spatial by entering various words and phrases into Midjourney, which then produced more than 900 renderings for him to choose from. He selected his three favorites, then continued adjusting them in Photoshop until he was satisfied. He boosted their resolution using a tool called Gigapixel and printed the works on canvas.
Allen entered all three pieces into the competition, paying an $11 submission fee for each one. He listed them for sale for $750 a piece, a price he came up with by considering quotes from other artists, he tells the Chieftain.
The winner, Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, “depicts a strange scene that looks like it could be from a space opera, and it looks like a masterfully done painting,” Matthew Gault writes for Vice. “Classical figures in a Baroque hall stare through a circular viewport into a sun-drenched and radiant landscape.”
Allen said he believes the criticism of his work stems from fear. Artists are concerned that technology will one day become so sophisticated that they’ll be out of jobs.
“To developers and technically minded people, [A.I. is] this cool thing, but to illustrators, it’s very upsetting because it feels like you’ve eliminated the need to hire the illustrator,” cartoonist Matt Bors, founder of the Nib, tells the Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel. “The bottom came out of illustration a while ago,” Bors adds, “but A.I. art does seem like a thing that will devalue art in the long run.”
As Cade Metz wrote for the New York Times earlier this year, A.I. art tools may also have other unintended consequences, especially when bad actors get their hands on them. These technologies have the potential to spread disinformation and create deep fakes, an umbrella term for deceptive photos and videos that are digitally altered.
The controversy around Allen’s artwork may prompt the Colorado State Fair to change its rules or possibly even create a standalone A.I. category. But in the meantime, as state fair spokesperson Olga Robak tells the Chieftain, it’s sparking a “broader conversation about how do we decide what art is, and how do we judge it appropriately?”