Look At This Photograph
Some Thoughts On the Inherent Nihilism of Generative Art
Every photograph tells you something about the photographer. How they think, what they like, how they work - it's as much a glimpse into their inner life as it is a glimpse into the frozen moment of time they've captured.
Yep, you guessed it: this post is a rant about generative art.
I'll start by saying that I don't hate generative art, nor do I hate LLMs and their peccadillos. Frankly, all of these technologies - ChatGPT, Midjourney, DALL-E, and so on - are extremely impressive to me.
So this rant isn't about how all development should be stopped, or how it should all DIAF, or anything like that. It's fine. It's a tool. It's going to shatter some things, which is going to become extremely problematic, but the genie's already out of that particular bottle.
No, this post, like all good rants, is really about how I feel.
Generative art makes me feel put out. It kills the fire inside me that makes me want to make art. I think I've narrowed down why this happens, thanks in part to Flickr's social activity feed.
I follow 250+ photographers on Flickr. When I look at the activity feed, I see their latest photos from around the world in dozens of styles. It's inspirational, and helps me think of ways to improve my skills.
Lately, a handful of these photographers have been putting down their cameras and taking up generative art prompts. The resulting "photos", which could be termed as part of the Virtual Photography category, are usually hyperrealistic interpretations of various serious and/or surreal elements. And to a degree, they are unnervingly good. That's part of the problem. Another problem - perhaps the biggest problem - is that when scrolling through the thumbnails I can't tell if they are generative or not.
So I'll think "that looks amazing, how did they get that shot?", and I'll click into it and find out that no one got that shot.
It's a trick.
Yes, these photographers are mostly taking care to categorize them as generative art by various tags & albums & groups. They're not actively trying to trick me. They're having fun, making neat imagery, and categorizing it appropriately. I don't begrudge them that. It's not Flickr's fault, either - I'm just using a specific example, it could be almost any platform.
What bothers me is the whiplash - that moment where I think one thing, and then crash upon the shore of nihilism.
Not all virtual photography makes me feel this way. For example, I've seen video game photos from Second Life and Red Dead Redemption that are really great. I've seen composite photographs that are mind-blowingly surreal, yet still clearly made from real photographic sources. Those can be inspirational or even instructive. Sometimes they can even serve as a cautionary tale on what not to do. But they all have some degree of intrinsic artistic or emotional value.
Among the many skilled photographers I follow, there are a few who have a supreme ability to create amazing shots that demonstrate near-mastery of their preferred photographic style. To an eye that has been exposed to generative art, these works might appear to share a similar level of unreality.
But when you open up these photos and examine the details, you're surprised to find that everything is authentic. Yes, there's probably some amount of photoshop tuning involved - maybe even some machine learning algorithms tying things together - but you can tell that the photo was very much not a careless output of unthinking automata.
So now I have to vigilantly examine my activity feed to sort the generative tricks out from the masterful triumphs. And every time I encounter a trick, I grow a little bit more resentful and disheartened at things.
It has begun to demotivate me from picking up the camera.
To be fair, it's not the only force in my life that is doing so, but it's certainly a strong one.
I referred to it as "nihilism". I want to make it clear, I have no education in art history. Or philosophy. If I throw terms like that around, it's entirely based on a primitive understanding of the concepts assembled from various layperson sources. And that includes The Big Lebowski as a prime resource. My opinions in this area are no better than ChatGPT itself would be. In fact, they might be completely off the mark by comparison.
What makes me describe it as nihilism is that there is nothing behind the "virtual camera". Utterly nothing. The prompt provides the kernel of the concept, but all the parts that sum up to the total - they are all chosen unthinkingly from the statistical model.
From my admittedly limited viewpoint, I can think of nothing more nihilistic than that.
In fact, I'd go so far as to describe it as post-nihilist. Or maybe hyper-nihilist. Perhaps it's what comes after you pass beyond the event horizon of total nihilism; you believe in nothing so hard that the very concept of nothing ceases to believe in you.
Maybe every generation has to deal with an art form that challenges the past structure. Maybe this embrace of nothingness is a natural evolution of postmodernism; now, instead of beatniks carelessly splashing paint on canvas or avant-garde waifs declaring that their performative consumption of mouldy rutabagas represents the patriarchy's unknowing self-sabotage, we type abstract words into an oracle of the unknowing abyss and celebrate the icons of meaninglessness it bequeaths us.
I've unfollowed three photographers who have started posting these items. I've noted down their account info so I can re-follow them in the future, as they are very skilled photographers and I don't want to lose track of them. However, for the time being, I'm exercising self-care to try and ward off the demotivating effect that these posts were starting to have.
I'm not saying that you should do the same. Maybe you see these virtual photos and they inspire you to hone your craft.
But for me, when I see them alongside photos that are truly inspirational, they just leave me feeling empty and annoyed at the world. Like listening to Nickelback on repeat.
Published: April 18, 2023