Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

A cutesy robot with large, globulous eyes stands proudly amongst its paint brushes.

AI Art is Art


A cutesy robot with large, globulous eyes stands proudly amongst its paint brushes.
Midjourney Painting by G. M. Trujillo, Jr.

What follows is a guest post by G. M. Trujillo, Jr.

Jason Allen recently ignited a firestorm of controversy by winning first place in the Colorado State Fair’s digital art competition. His work, Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, is undeniably beautiful. Its color palette and composition evoke drama. Expressive brush strokes prove care for each element. And the subject—women staring out onto the countryside from a vaguely European but suggestively futuristic ballroom—invites interpretation. Maybe it is a comment on being “kept women”, the anonymous ladies secluded from nature and politics in their artificial home. Or maybe the painting is a comment on class, the wealthy women in the ballroom looking out at rustic people.  But Théâtre D’opéra Spatial is a digital painting generated by AI.

Critics have taken little issue with the subject or any interpretation. But they hate that it was generated by an AI art program. To create the painting, Allen fed keywords into Midjourney’s textbox. The AI program then related the queried words to its database of art to synthesize a painting from images related to the keywords. Allen painted nothing, and he didn’t program the engine. He simply typed words into Midjourney. He probably generated many images before choosing the one that fulfilled his vision, but Midjourney assembled the pixels in the image.

Backlash to the victory of the AI-generated art was immediate. Online commenters said things like, “That’s pretty fucking shitty” and “What is this world coming to?” Even reputable sources, like The New York Times, The Atlantic, My Modern Met, and Smithsonian Magazine published articles mixed in their assessments. Some condemned outright; others heralded the birth of a new artistic medium.

Despite the hubbub, scholarly attention to the topic of AI-generated art is scarce. Arthur Miller, Galit Wellner, and Mark Coeckelbergh have written about AI art from the perspective of human and machine creativity. But most of these articles seem to miss the point, especially about pieces like Allen’s. It’s less important to focus on the “mind” of the AI program and more important to compare AI-generated art to works we already laud. We should accept AI-generated art as art for the very same reasons that we accept some of the most famous pieces in art history as art.

Assembling Pre-made Elements in Collages and Readymades

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain might be the most important artwork of the 20th century. But all Duchamp did was take an already manufactured urinal, put it on a podium, and hastily paint a signature on the side. Readymade or found art asked audiences to consider everyday items in new ways, pointing out the artistic qualities in mundane things. 

Artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi pioneered pop art by creating collages of advertisements, magazines, and other pop culture elements. Some music movements have assembled random elements too. Composers like John Cage wrote pieces like “Imaginary Landscape No. 4,” which instructed musicians to manipulate the dials of a dozen radios, allowing the randomness of the radio broadcasts in that location to determine the specific sounds of the piece. The artists of these pieces took elements that were already made (hence “readymade”), placed them into a narrative or artistic context, and constructed something more than the sum of its parts. They created readymade artworks.

In assembling elements from other pieces of art, AI art is not in principle any different from Dada, Pop Art, or other avant-garde movements. Those artists took previously made objects—urinals, periodicals, live radio broadcasts—and used them to create novel artworks. Critics who worry that AI art merely assembles parts of previous artworks would have us excise from history some of the 20th century’s most important artistic works and movements. 

Minimalist Art and Concept Work

Both the MoMA and Tate Modern house minimalist artworks that are nothing but simple lines. Onement, I by Barnett Newman and Alpha-Phi by Morris Louis are striking works composed of simple lines on canvas. In typical works of abstract or minimalist art, the concept behind the piece reveals a deeper meaning. Artists rely on their knowledge of art history and on their execution to evoke emotion and meaning from a few lines, shapes, or colors. They create works that do much with little.

The AI art we are currently familiar with comes from programs like Midjourney, Dall-E, and Stable Diffusion. People using these programs feed specific words into an engine. As with traditional media, one can play around with concept, for example by changing the words in the prompt. But the process isn’t always so simple. People using AI art generators must know what descriptions to type in to get the images they envision. And they go through many iterations to find the right effects. People using Midjourney can specify not only details about the subjects (e.g., “group of women standing in front of a window”). They may also specify style or medium (e.g., “film still” or “bokeh” or “art nouveau”). 

In fact, generating prompts is so complex that sites such as PromptBase have cropped up, where artists can sell expert queries that generate the desired results. Artists who work with AI even experiment with which generator to use, as they produce slightly different results, even when given the exact same query.

The upshot of this is that the concept is integral to the artwork, even in AI-generated pieces. Without understanding what to query, artists cannot create powerful works of art. Artists using AI generators must be intentional about the works they create. So, if we accept that the concept can carry the weight in minimalist art, we should accept the conceptual work behind AI-generated art.

Photography and Technology

What about the algorithms that power the AI? Isn’t that what creates the artwork, and not the artists? Hearing comments like this, I cannot help but point out that photography faced the very same criticisms. 

Critics were concerned that the camera would destroy art or make it too easy. However, one need only examine images such as Alexander Rodchenko’s The Stairs, Aaron Siskind’s Jerome, Arizona 21, or anything by Diane Arbus or David Lachapelle to see how untrue that is. Subject matter, composition, and use of the tool is every bit as important as the tool itself.

Philosophers, critics, and art historians will surely have tedious conversations about AI art in the future. They will echo the tired discussions that surround modern art: why your kid could not have made what these artists did. This is because art often alludes to cultural values, engages with historical works, or pushes art into new directions. Yes, the AI art generator builds many elements of the artwork. But what creates the artwork is the artist’s query and the artist’s ultimate decision to select one image over others, just as a photographer composes many images and displays only what meets her approval. Many alarmist criticisms of AI art sound suspiciously similar to bygone alarmist criticisms of now-accepted media like photography and film.

Now what?

AI art is art as much as readymades, minimalist art, or photography. A majority of AI art may be bad or in bad taste, but that is not any different from most things scribbled or sculpted in schools or studios. It is unwise to dismiss AI-generated art based on the abundance of bad works out there. Sturgeon’s Law applies here: 90% of everything is crud, including AI art. But the good pieces are every bit as good as traditional art pieces. And even though AI art generators are easy to use, they are hard to master.

What’s more, AI art fits many definitions of art. Philosophers Jerrold Levinson and Noël Carroll, for example, argue that art is made when people intend to create pieces that can be understood as art and as part of art history. AI art generators create images by analyzing and synthesizing pieces from art history and image datasets more comprehensive than any human artist has used. And the users must intentionally select prompts and images they think fit their goals. By sharing these images with others, entering them into contests, and starting critical conversations, they are doing what traditional artists do, and their art is being discussed and examined in ways broadly continuous with discussions of traditional art.

Or take philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, who famously argued that something is art when it is a part of the artworld. Artworks are made by artists, acknowledged by critics, studied by curators, and sold in auction houses. AI-generated images do these things. They are displayed in exclusive Chelsea galleries and they are auctioned by Christie’s. Moreover, the controversy over Allen’s work sparked debates about this medium in art magazines and periodicals. While there are many more ways of defining art, the point is this: most contemporary definitions of art will be unable to exclude the works produced by artists using AI art generators.

A more interesting future awaits us once we accept AI-generated art as art. Then we can get to the provocative questions. Is the use of AI-generated art a more extreme version of Barthes’ death of the author? How does it complicate questions Foucault raised about the function of an author? Will AI-generated art democratize art and create new problems and political uses, as in the case of the reproduction of artworks? How we answer these questions has implications for important legal matters too. A recent ruling argued that AI-generated art cannot be protected with copyright because it lacks human authorship. But in September, Artist Kris Kashtanova received a copyright for their graphic novel, which uses AI generated images.

There are also ethical questions. Should we be worried that AI art generators will build in bias or reinforce harmful stereotypes? If terms such as “scholar” are correlated only with pale-skinned, masculine-presenting people, the artworks generated from that training data will inevitably be biased in their representation. Relatedly, what happens when AI meets cultural appropriation, as when FN Meka, a white artist, created a Black CGI avatar and hired a Black voice actor to rap questionable content? 

AI art is art, and it is no less revolutionary than readymades, conceptual art, and photography. The sooner we get past these kneejerk reactions against it, the sooner we can get to the fascinating, novel issues it raises.

G. M. (“Boomer”) Trujillo, Jr. is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso. When not teaching, he naps with his dog or daydreams about the conversations Aristotle, Diogenes, Hegel, and Camus would have while watching Star Trek or moshing at a hardcore show.


  1. A great, balanced article. Thank you.

    If I may, a small nit-pick:

    > The AI program then related the queried words to its database of art to synthesize a painting from images related to the keywords.

    There is no database or images, just understanding. So a better way to phrase what happens might be:

    > The AI program then related the queried words to its understanding of art to hallucinate a painting from its memory related to the keywords.

  2. A small nit-pick or quibble: it makes no sense to say an AI program has “understanding,” that is, unless one subscribes to a computational theory of mind(!) which is radically reductionist and, I believe, implausible. Human intellectual powers, as P.M.S. Hacker, among others have pointed out, are distinctively human even if a few perceptual and other capacities overlap with those of nonhuman animals. And the intelligence that is “artificial” replicates, and then only often analogically or metaphorically, forms of reasoning amenable to formal logic and mathematical formulas. Scientists, engineers, and philosophers are often uncritical enthusiasts of AI to the point of indulging in fantasy and science fiction, employing concepts and vocabulary associated with human nature and personhood, and moral psychological agency in a way that elides or effaces distinctions and differences. Human understanding involves intuition, judgment, individual experience(s), emotional comportment, dispositions, virtues and vices, concrete situations or contexts with a past, present, and possible future (modal considerations), and so forth that do not apply to AI. There is neither hallucination nor memory in the human sense involved in the or this AI program (for a nice treatment of the latter, please see the index entries for memory in M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience[Blackwell, 2003]). See too the discussion of memory in Hacker’s book, The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature (WILEY Blackwell, 2013).

  3. Incidentally, we may have cogent, plausible, defensible reasons for designating readymades, conceptual art, and photography “art,” but I would argue that the first two are often exemplars of bad or insipid art and photography is frequently a secondary art (and black and white photographs are intrinsically more aesthetically pleasing than color ones), valuable for some reasons and purposes, but not in the same league as other, more traditional or conventional forms of art. Revolutions in art speak to an historical, often political, and intentional transgression of boundaries or constraints, a desire to distance oneself from one’s forebears or tradition and thus are essentially critiques involved in drawing dramatic attention to themselves in ways that are often not aesthetically enjoyable, philosophically or ethically valuable and so forth, as the critique or message trumps or crowds out the work of art (once you’ve gotten the message, you have little motivation or reason to view such art again, afresh, let alone linger or contemplate, although any academic worth her salt can find all sorts of things to write about it. I hope to have occasion to speak more to this topic on another occasion.

    • By way of an extension of my second comment, I will provide a synoptic introduction to Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), many (thus not all) of the arguments of which I am in hearty agreement:

      This book provides a brilliant and devastating diagnosis of what ails post-aesthetic or postmodern art: its failure to facilitate an aesthetic contemplative alternative to the “ugliness and injustice” of our social world (failing to realize that beauty is the ‘ultimate protest’ against ugliness); its constitutional inability to provide a “psychic space” that permits or encourages autonomy (wherein the ethical is inherent in aesthetics and beauty); its penchant for the tragicomic or farcical wherein the work of art, constructed by the would-be celebrity-artist, is merely a “psycho-social construction defined by its institutional identity, entertainment value, and commercial panache.”

      Kuspit defines the “post-aesthetic” character of art as having abandoned the “heroic idea of the human potential of aesthetic experience,” which includes the “further[ing] [of] personal autonomy and critical freedom.” Postmodern “art” has become “consummately commercial,” causing the artist, the public, the patron and even the connoisseur to confuse or conflate commercial values with the spiritual values of art: “When commodity identity overtakes and subsumes aesthetic identity, so that an expensive work is uncritically accorded aesthetic significance, not to say spiritual value—they become everyday artifacts.” Postmodern art’s commercial value is linked to its role as entertainment: for the wealthy, who can afford its products, and the hoi polloi, whose consumption is passive, collective witness to the commercial spectacle and permitted vicarious association with the rich and famous aesthetes by way of “the museum,” an institution that serves as “an intellectual sarcophagus, as much as a physical museum.” Postmodern artists hanker after “an audience that will make them popular, giving them the celebrity and charisma they believe they are entitled to as artists.” Kuspit dares his readers to show him “the contemporary artist who would prefer to live from hand to mouth rather than fall into the hands of an art dealer.”

      Kuspit laments “protest art” and art that is ostensibly “moral,” enlisting art in the service of “meliorative criticism and social advocacy” because it tends to “regard[] form as a kind of scaffolding for subject matter from which it can be proclaimed,” and “the artist tries to bully the spectator into believing what the artist believes,” all the while leaving matter more or less “aesthetically untransformed” and evidencing a “certain failure of creativity.” Protest artists (producers of what others call ‘agitprop’), “fail to realize that beauty is the ultimate protest against ugliness, which why the absence of beauty in their works shows that they are not critical. They are in fact creative failures. Indeed, the inability to imagine beauty is a sign of the creative inadequacy of post-aesthetic art.” By contrast, “traditional art reveals the qualities—dignity and empathy especially—that make us human. It is morally concerned, and often shows the moral siege in an immoral world.”

      Kuspit’s stinging lament does not end in despair:

      “The anti-aesthete, anti-imaginative, anti-unconscious seem to have destroyed the possibility of making an aesthetic masterpiece, but there are still artists who believe in the imaginative refinement, under the auspices of the unconscious, of raw social and physical material into aesthetically transcendent art.”

      I am not a philosopher of art or aesthetics but merely an ardent amateur when it comes to these fields but several books have deeply influenced my views in addition to the Marxist material of the sort found in my bibliography on Marxist art and aesthetics), which are no doubt (painfully?) idiosyncratic and not too popular, to put it feebly (this is aside from my abiding interest in religious art, especially that of Middle Eastern and Asian provenance):
      Enrique Martinez Celaya, On Art and Mindfulness: Notes from the Anderson Ranch (Whale and Star Press/Anderson Ranch Arts Center, 2015); Berys Gaut, Art, Emotion and Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2007); Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (Dover Publications, 1956 [Luzac & Co., 1947, with the title Why Exhibit Works of Art?]). The astute reader will no doubt how I reconcile material in these works with my affinity for Marxist approaches but I can only say I think some day I may be able to make a coherent if not plausible defense of this motley!

  4. please forgive the typos and errors in the last comment above, as I have had a little too much to drink this evening

  5. Patrick, my use of the word “understanding” is to reflect or describe the internal workings of a Neural Network (a computer science construct that is at the heart of Midjourney). Perhaps “perception” is a better word? Either way, it’s difficult to distill the entire concept of such a complex system into a single word. But I tried.

  6. Matt, I do not think “perception” is any better (see the Bennett and Hacker book above for their extended discussion of same), but I do believe that, perhaps inadvertently, you have identified a problem, one that cuts across the neurosciences and computer science and that is the fact that much of the conceptual vocabulary is borrowed from elsewhere, often owing to the belief (explicit or not) that these sciences are dealing with material that is similar to or identical with (or identifies the material or fundamental causes of) capacities and powers (moral, psychological, intellectual, volitional…) attributed to human animals: human desires and reasoning, human aspirations, human decision-making, and so forth. Here is a selected list of readings that have animated and given cogency to my concerns:
    • Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
    • Bennett, Maxwell, Daniel Dennett, Peter Hacker, John Searle, and Daniel Robinson. Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. (I find the arguments of Bennett, Hacker, and Robinson more sound and persuasive than those of Dennett and Searle.)
    • Bilgrami, Akeel. Self-knowledge and Resentment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.
    • Descombes, Vincent (Stephen Adam Schwartz, trans.) The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
    • Dreyfus, Hubert L. What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, revised ed., 1992 (1979).
    • Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Stuart E. Dreyfus. Mind over Machine. New York: Free Press, 1986.
    • Finkelstein, David H. Expression and the Inner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
    • Ganeri, Jonardon. The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012.
    • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2008.
    • Gillett, Grant. The Mind and Its Discontents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2009.
    • Hacker, P.M.S. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.
    • Hacker, P.M.S. The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
    • Hacker, P.M.S. The Passions: A Study of Human Nature. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018.
    • Hagberg, Garry L. Describing Ourselves: Wittgenstein and Autobiographical Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
    • Hodgson, David. The Mind Matters: Consciousness and Choice in a Quantum World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
    • Horst, Steven. Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.
    • Hutto, Daniel D. The Presence of Mind. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999.
    • Hutto, Daniel D. Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.
    • Hutto, Daniel D. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
    • Larson, Erik J. The Myth of Artificial Intelligence: Why Computers Can’t Think the Way We Do. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2021.
    • Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson. Minds, Brains, and Law: The Conceptual Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
    • Patterson, Dennis and Michael S. Pardo, eds. Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
    • Radoilska, Lubomira, ed. Autonomy and Mental Disorder. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
    • Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg. Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1988.
    • Smith, Christian. What Is a Person? Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
    • Sprigge, T.L.S. (Leemon B. McHenry, ed.) The Importance of Subjectivity: Selected Essays on Metaphysics and Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
    • Tallis, Raymond. The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999 ed.
    • Tallis, Raymond. I Am: An Inquiry into First-Person Being. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
    • Tallis, Raymond. The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
    • Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham, England: Acumen, 2011.
    • Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005 ed.
    • Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
    • Wollheim, Richard. The Mind and Its Depths. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

    There is more relevant literature in the following bibliographies available on my Academia (dot)edu page:
    • The Emotions
    • Ethical Perspectives on the Sciences and Technology
    • Human Nature and Personal Identity
    • Psychoanalytic Psychology and Therapy
    • Sullied (Natural & Social) Sciences

  7. Re terminology: I suppose “(computational) model” would be acceptable to all parties?

  8. Call it art, if you wish. All sorts of theories and views are materializing around AI. These have adherents and detractors. I don’t pay a lot of attention until authorities do an about-face on a notion and present facts/evidence supporting their change-of-mind. Recent arguments over AI consciousness/sentience have undergone ebb and flow. I try to follow these changes and keep an open mind. Machinery can play games such as chess and go quite well. Computers have a blindingly fast command of mathematics and related numerics. But I have reasonable doubt over their sense of achievement or satisfaction when they win. How about you?

    • I nod and shake my head along with you Paul. (Coming bloglate to this one. )

      Despite the training sets and parsing and digitised quanta involved, the output is still a mechanised product on a number of levels, now humans learn similarly in terms of imitation, mimicry, practise, mash-up, pastiche, parody, mastery, tradition etc etc, novelty is a recent branding exercise in the human story. So, while acknowledging Sturgeon’s law that 90% of everything is rubbish, a lot of human made art (expressive or commercial) is also produced fairly mechanically once a technique or style is learned well enough, and some of that is not rubbish. Heaven forbid if only 80% of Ai art is rubbish (at the moment it is all amazing entertainment, but it might pale).

      Calling anything art is a practice situated in an economic context, so whatevs. See Patrick above quoting Kuspit… “Postmodern art’s commercial value is linked to its role as entertainment”………

      Big brand name artists (Koons, Hirst, Barney) don’t even make the art with their name on it. Might not even touch it, see it. Is that authentic?

      Authenticity is part of that marketing, arriving as we grow sensitive to market commodification affect our sensibilities. A collector’s concern, but the commodity as collective does not care, much like a algorithm falling in the forest does not care about the forest, nor the trees.

      90% of the forest floor is litter, the rest is humus, proper rot.

      Like my comment here in the jungle.

  9. But it isn’t AI art.

    Isn’t the AI just a tool in this case, where the AI mechanically spits out a painting because someone gave it ideas, rather than Jason Allen figuring it all out for himself? Not that he couldn’t figure it out. So it’s art but not really.

    And isn’t that kind of post-modern? I thought that was dead.

    AI is the monster under the bed. It’s just no fun. I can’t see it at a sidewalk cafe in Paris. Maybe we should just kill it.

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