The fields of art and writing have recently seen a rise in the use of AI, carrying with it questions about the value of individual creativity and productivity. AI writing assistants are now available that can create content written well enough to be considered a threat in higher education. In visual art, AI apps are now able to generate imaginative and aesthetic-looking images, yet they have also received criticism for plagiarizing existing artists’ work. Considering these questions about AI from a moral perspective, we are also led to questions surrounding its qualitative value. 


The current interest in AI, when combined with the desire for creative ability, highlights an impasse. On one hand, there is the amount of experience naturally assumed to be involved with creative ability. In every form of art, one typically expects creative work to reveal an appreciable amount of insight or skill in making. Most often, one expects to see, hear, or experience things that are well-crafted, well-composed, conducted, or imagined (based on whatever definitions one might choose). Talent and uniqueness can also be important, but when it comes to considerations of consistency or proficiency in one’s work, we’re back to addressing the level of experience one needs to produce it. Also from an audience perspective, one typically expects to see, hear, or experience things that are exceptional in their making. If not, we might assume the thing one is witnessing to be either remedial or insignificant (again, using whatever definitions one chooses; one’s way of dealing with the mundane could, in fact, be quite exceptional). For those able to make exceptional work, we’d expect them to say that to gain proficiency to do so, practice and experience are essential, and these involve qualities, abilities, and skills that typically take years to develop and gain. 

On the other side of the creativity coin, are the external pressures one faces in generating content. Demands placed on visibility in social media today, for example, nudge one to share content with relative consistency and regularity. Other pressures exist too, such as deadlines. Such pressure to produce content may exist at odds with one’s capacity to produce creative work. Consistently generating content asks of one to perform within certain time constraints. Creativity, however, often waits for inspiration, motivation, ability, or even purpose. Yet, as we’d expect a student in college to turn papers on the due date, we’d naturally expect a good artist to deliver their work on time. In light of such pressures, it’s easy to see how AI could be a tool many would seek out. When inspiration doesn’t strike, one could turn to AI to get ideas. When the muse or purpose for creating work doesn’t arrive, one can turn to AI and use rough ideas as prompts to turn them into more tangible forms. When even ability itself is lacking, one can use AI and take their ideas to turn them into a presentable product.


Some may see nothing wrong with this picture, and perhaps there isn’t really anything wrong with it at all. By default, when one’s work is introduced to the world’s stage, it becomes measured against some of the most widely-accepted ideas about acceptable forms of art. If one’s goal were to make the most widely appealing form of art, one could survey such models and distill them into a work representing their findings. If they did, they wouldn’t be doing anything much different from how AI functions—imitating and replicating ideas based on widely-established conventions using other people’s work as a model. If the work were to become exhibited widely or fruitful in the market, some might say the individual was successful. It’s questionable whether the same approval would be granted to AI. But should it be ok for humans to create work in such a way if it’s not ok for AI? If the question is about originality, then probably not. However, if we are to agree that good art should involve a fair amount of human cognizance, its comparison to AI can be boiled down to two criteria: one involving the hand-made aspect of creativity, and the other dealing with the originality or authenticity of the product itself. The two may seem entwined, however, their relationship is not necessarily exclusive. 

In the case of the hand-made, one can talk about issues of human vs. artificial craft. For the human hand, we are likely to assume skill and coordination are involved, not only in crafting the material itself but with the cooperation between hand and mind. Good work should not only be made well but conceived well also. The experienced craftsperson, furthermore, we’d likely think of as one having special developed abilities and knowledge that enable them to perform their craft well. AI is different. Rather than involving hand-mind coordination, its processes are digital and based on processing data. Since its processes are coded, and its product the result of approximating existing models, it’s safe to say its creative processes are imitative rather than stemming from an original source of inspiration. And since its processes are imitative, we might also say they are not authentic. 

However, if this were truly the case, and we accept that digital reproduction only produces inauthentic work, what might be said of every visual reproduction of a famous painting whose image still moves us, even though we are looking at a copy of it? What about any form of art experienced through digital technology? What of each piece of recorded music we listen to, or photography and film? Is the presence of such works diminished because their image has been reproduced through technology?


Similar issues, of course, were raised in the last century by Walter Benjamin in his well-known Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935)In this work, he addresses the concerns of craft and the authentic presence of objects, primarily in relation to photography and film. For Benjamin, an authentic art is cultish in nature, meaning its essence lies in the direct apprehension of its presence rather than through intermediaries interfering with its apprehension. Such intermediaries may include the effects of the mechanical apparatus used to replicate the image, as well as social phenomena such as the politics, or trivial hype, we might say, that surrounds it. According to Benjamin, such phenomena and perspective shifts secularize the object’s presence and result in the object’s authenticity becoming fragmented

Yet it has been almost 100 years since Benjamin wrote his essay, and the experience of craft, as well as media, have changed. Digital and mechanical reproduction are now well established in our age, and definitions of craft are no longer limited to typically traditional practices like chiseling stone, carving wood, or applying paint with a brush. Today, definitions of craft can include the organizing, composing, and imagining of many things through many forms of media. Since mid modernity and the onset of the information age, craft has expanded into several newly emerging fields where—as director, curator, or designer—such notions of creativity have taken precedence and are seen working in tandem with the execution of the work itself. Yet many have long been familiar with such “behind the scenes” forms of craft. How a musician crafts their song, how an author crafts their book, or a choreographer their dance, one can easily understand how such invisible ways of crafting lay behind the making of their art. So why shouldn’t it apply to the art one calls visual?


Considering the available dimensions of craft in spite of mass technological intervention today, it would seem the aura of art is indeed capable of surviving mechanical reproduction, including digital. When the aura would truly appear to diminish is when the work doesn’t have an original source of inspiration, when it instead imitates the act and passes itself off as original. Benjamin most certainly touched on this problem with respect to its theoretical and psychological implications, but since film and photography were still relatively new to his time, his message often appears veiled by his reaction to the novelty of the medium. In one prescient example, Benjamin alludes to the moment when the camera becomes substituted for the public’s eye and the aura it portrays becomes destroyed as a result


The aura which, on the stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays.


But then later, he says it is the distance associated with the experience which preserves the aura.  


The definition of the aura as a “unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be” represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception. Distance is the opposite of closeness. The essentially distant object is the unapproachable one. Unapproachability is indeed a major quality of the cult image. True to its nature, it remains “distant, however close it may be.”


Thus, rather than the indirectness, or the intervention of the “artificial” lens being the cause of the loss of aura as one might assume (i.e. the problem of a mediated experience vs. a live, in-person one), the issue is actually a matter of distance and closeness. It is the lens being too “up close”, or familiar, that is the problem. The distance caused by a work’s unapproachable nature is what preserves its aura. And so, considering whether the aura of art can indeed survive technological mediation, even the effects of digital media, one begins to ask, what stands as definition of art’s “unapproachable nature”? In order to answer this question, it seems one will have to back away from ideas of physical closeness and distance, since the distance Benjamin is referring to is associated with acts of reverence, where distance is a matter of substantiating the sublime impression of presence through an object’s idea, form, or function. It is in the impression of venerability, in other words, where one can find art’s aura. 


As one begins to assess the venerability of art in the contemporary context, one might look to the original source of inspiration of a work, since it is here where one often seeks to locate a work’s value. To uncover the original source of inspiration, however, Benjamin’s ideas of closeness and distance for identifying venerability will need to be inverted. In addressing a work that is imitative, or work that attempts to mimic such impressions, it does not directly adhere to an original source of inspiration, but is generationally distant from it. Its inspiration is neither internally derived, nor does it participate in the occupation inherent to its art form’s tradition. Since it deals with an attempt at approximating guise or form, it can be thought of like the degrading quality of a photocopy that has been duplicated from a generation further from the original. As a work becomes generationally distant from its original source of inspiration, its venerable impression degrades in proportion. Conversely, the closer a work is to its original source of inspiration, the more capable it is in participating in the occupation inherent to its art form’s tradition. At the same time, then the potential of its venerable impression increases. It is not the media itself that controls venerability, in other words, it is a function of the original inspiration represented through it. Imitative venerability isn’t venerability, even if it appears as such (unless, of course, that is the occupation inherent to its tradition).  

One then might think back now on how this applies to the role of AI at present. If AI art is largely imitative in the sense that its purpose is to approximate the existence of venerable images, how successful can it actually be in terms of making one? What aura can such art possess if it lacks an original source of inspiration and can only attempt to mimic one? Then again, if AI is just another tool or medium, then like any other tool or medium, shouldn’t we expect it to be capable of transmitting a venerable image if any were to be found? If we are still dealing with strictly imitative capabilities, we might have to hold off thinking its actions are potentially venerable for a while, if not simply being used for the sake of convenience.a likrly Since