Diatribe Against the Technocratic Enslavement of Art and a Defense of Human Artistry

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Since the appearance of so-called Artificial Intelligence in the public eye, Christians have largely shied away from engaging in dialectic with the concept of AI-generated art. Whenever there is any discussion, unfortunately, the attitude is generally one of resignation and passive acceptance. There is a sense that the wheel of history is once again turning, and we must ride it or be crushed beneath. Of course—they say—the conquest of the Machine is inevitable, just like that of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution. The only thing left for Christians to do is to rush to the winning side, technologically speaking. Seize the means of creative production or die.

This is the gist of the argument from those well-intentioned and no doubt sincere Christians who are now advancing the case of using AI to generate “pious art,” as if the end somehow justifies the most unchristian nature of the means. Make no mistake: the use of AI has never been morally neutral ground. As the ethics of war categorically reject genocide, the ethics of technology must also recognise that there are practices malum in se. Generative AIs, as they are currently made to function, flagrantly violate the basic lines of justice and morality. These grounds alone should be enough for any Christian to conscientiously refuse to participate in the regime of AI-generated imagery, no matter the possible repercussions. However, we need not all be Stoics in face of the AI apocalypse. As with war, so with technology. Evil, as history most plainly shows, is ultimately self-destructive. Rejection of the Machine shall do nothing but contribute to our good.

If anyone asks, “On what authority do you preach to us about art?” I reply that I am a digital artist of some competence, I have been following the development of AI, and I am literate in computer science. But even without these credentials, I say that I am simply a concerned citizen and a lover of beauty, and any other concerned citizen will, I believe, see that what I argue is nothing but the cause of reason and civilization against blindness and barbarity.

The Machine Is an Assault on the Dignity of the Human Artist

I shall not deal with the absurd idea, advanced by certain transhumanists, that there is no difference between the learning and creative work of a human being and the synthesizing of an AI, which might even be something like a god, ontologically superior to the lowly “penslaves”—that is, the human artists. The philosophically well-grounded reader should at once see the error of conflating thinking and computing, one of which involves a rational soul, the special distinction of humanity. My pro-AI Christian friends happily do not fall into such elementary mistakes (or so I assume). Instead, they say that there is nothing strange or to be feared in the AI, and although it might have destructive effects in the hands of the wrong people, it might also bring about some good if used rightly by the church. Therefore, in the same way that Photoshop could be used rightly or wrongly, Midjourney could also be used rightly or wrongly. They are just tools.

This comparison at first seems convincing to laymen, but to anyone with some experience in digital art, it is manifestly false. Photoshop is not like Midjourney, and the digital artist is not at all like the conjurer who chants his magic words to the AI gods. For a long time, digital artists have regarded the idea that we do nothing more than clicking a button on the computer as a hilarious and uninformed caricature, but ironically this very same caricature is becoming a reality in the plethora of self-proclaimed “artists” who daily plague social media with their hordes of AI-generated inanities, which are manufactured as quickly as if they were rolled out from an assembly line and for the most part look like peas in a pod. We live in a satire.

Art, like war, is not a theoretical science. It requires the artist to possess a keen understanding of natural things and an aesthetic prudence in order to produce the desired effects. Each step in the process of art involves making choices, sometimes consciously, often subconsciously from years of practice. Small things, overlooked by someone unskilled, may be of grand strategic importance. For example, in one of his videos, the webcomic artist David Revoy discusses how selectively omitting certain details and repetitive patterns tends to both save time and makes the whole piece of art look better. The same artistic spirit is at work as when in the nineteenth century J.M.W. Turner, in a stroke of last-minute insight, painted a catching red buoy in the foreground of his Helvoetsluys and thus triumphed over his rival Constable. We too have our trade secrets.

To be sure, artists are also creative people with original ideas, but the idea is secondary to the craft. In the language of philosophy, an artist is first of all an efficient cause. The error of the AI-users, the same as the postmodernists who declare that a banana peel taped on a wall is also art, is that they assume that the idea is everything, and to have an idea is to be an artist. If these people are truly artists, let us take away their precious AI and see what they can make. I certainly would not regard myself as any less of an artist if I were to never touch my Wacom tablet again and must only draw with pencil and ink.

Rather than regarding the AI-user as an artist in his own right, we should rather regard him as the commissioner. As Pope Julius II tells Michelangelo, “do this,” the AI-user tells Midjourney, “do this,” and Midjourney does it. But we already recognised that the Machine cannot be said to learn and create art, unless we are speaking equivocally. Whence comes the artistry, then? From imitation, of course. AI trains on images which their Dr. Frankensteins have pulled from the works of artists unasked, which they digest mindlessly to spit out something “to that effect.” Any semblance of craftsmanship, any remnant of beauty that you may find of your AI-generated art comes not from the user (who has the idea only), nor from the Machine itself (which neither learns nor creates), nor from Dr. Frankenstein (who doesn’t care), but from the original artists whose work was used without permission and crudely aped—or, to be completely straightforward, raped. If anyone doubts this and still insists that he who merely uses AI is also worthy of the name artist, let me ask: have you studied a complex object by drawing it in sixteen perspectives? Have you turned the lamp around a plaster-cast bust and observed the turning of the shadows? Did you tell the AI which areas in the object ought to be occluded? Then how is it that there is a degree of realism in the image? How is it that there is any stylistic treatment? Was that from your understanding?

Despite the sophistries of the pro-AI crowd, generative AI cannot escape from the accusation of plagiarism, even apart from other grave ethical issues (the abominable creators of Midjourney, for example, are known to have intentionally generated pornographic images of young children in the name of science). The empire of generative AI is built off of nothing but the inhuman and—yes, systematic—abuse of the work of numberless artists who are not, and likely never shall be, compensated. It is well known that, especially in the earlier days of generative art, an artist’s distorted signature sometimes still appears on the generated image. Larger datasets might have covered up the issue on the surface, but the principle is still the same—Frankenstein’s Monster is not any less of a monster if his constituent parts had been stolen from more people. Perhaps he is even more so. And plagiarism of human art inevitably ends in the profanation of the value of human work and human dignity—“You are not important, you penslaves! You are but fodder for my AI!” Sure, AI is just a tool. And I suppose we are just tools too, we artists who are immolated on the altar of the Machine?

The Final Disease of a Consumerist Society

And what is all this for? If we are going to commit a moral evil in using AI, we must be doing it for a very great benefit. As my friends point out, the AI trained on these high-quality datasets appear to be more capable of producing impressive content (I will not say, “good art”) than any chance artist you can pick off of the street, or your Instagram dashboard for that matter. It is all for the restoration of the glory of Christendom.

Theirs is a legitimate concern, and I wholeheartedly share it. There is nobody more in pain than I am at the shameful non-presence of Christianity in the contemporary art world. For anyone not satisfied by the juvenile and often badly-proportioned sketches littered around various homeschool programs and Christian coloring books, AI art can indeed seem like the solution, a powerful tool to be placed in the hands of the forces of good to bring Christianity into the vanguard of the artistic renaissance again. In short, AI is useful.

But is it? If AI is really effective at improving the quality of art, why then do we find the best artists of the world almost universally holding a contempt for it, and in at least one instance, challenging AI-users to a contest of skill, from which the human artist emerged victorious?[1] The great artists of today will of course never deign to use AI, and will never be replaced, because it is they whom the AI attempts to imitate but will never surpass. We do see that something like this is true: the worse the artist, the more eager he is to use AI. But even such people face obstacles before they can make AI worth their time. Word-to-image methods, the most accessible and efficient way to use AI, must seem inadequate even to the most junior artist, who always has something specific in mind that is more easily executed by rolling up his own sleeves than by vainly trying to communicate the details with the Machine. Imprecise and inaccurate, AI is simply an abysmally bad tool—an unreliable instrument. Imagine trying to describe to the AI in what exact way that hand ought to be positioned. At that point, anybody capable of depicting a hand will open Photoshop or Krita or Clip Studio Paint and do it himself.

Now critics will no doubt allege that I know nothing about AI art, and that other methods are available to obtain better results. No, I am aware of things such as image-to-image, controlnet, inpainting, etc. Yet each of these modifications, while bringing the generated image closer to what the user has in mind, are only re-introducing an element of digital art, rendering the “innovations” of AI more like laughable attempts to reinvent the wheel in a more unstable way. Anyone who has cared enough to look into digital art before the current AI hype will know that long before the crude joke known as controlnet, digital artists have explored the possibility of using 3D modeling to assist with 2D art, which is capable of creating accurate and sophisticated renderings of difficult perspectives, lighting, and poses. Neither is this a singular example: I can go on listing all the different tools and techniques available to the modern digital artist that represent true progress. I am not against technology; I am against retarded technology that debases the quality of art.

Indeed, when I consider why anybody at all would turn to generative AI, the only reason I could find is this: AI is efficient. Yes—that is its sole redeeming virtue, which is not really a virtue at all. For much reduced time, effort, and at almost no cost, anyone is capable of obtaining some pretty serviceable imagery, which they otherwise could only get by either learning to draw themselves (a time-consuming and arduous process), or by commissioning an artist (which requires money). The attitude of my Christian friends who have embraced AI seems to be, since we Christians have no time for art and no money to commission artists, we should make do with AI.

Utility and efficiency! Yes, that is the depths to which we have descended. If Christians, and humanity in general, are not making art, then what are we doing? Earning money? Entertaining ourselves? A while ago I heard of a preacher who let it out that he was using ChatGPT for his sermons, which unfortunately was probably not a singular occurrence. I thought that this was most despicable. A preacher, insofar as he is a preacher, exists to preach. If he is delegating his proper duty—his vocation—to a machine, then what kind of preacher is he? “But it saves time,” people say. To the devil with that! Saves time for what? Why would we want to spend less time on our vocation only so we could spend more time slaving away in menial jobs or numb our minds scrolling social media feeds? Is not being an artist one of the highest callings of life? Is not a preacher too an artist of the Word?

As it turns out, AI is nothing but the toy of an overstimulated society and the engine of the exploitative capitalists and technocrats who care nothing for art, but the profit they can get from selling a degraded semblance of it. The spirit which animates AI is the very same spirit that animates social media, mass entertainment, and microwavable food. All humanity desires beauty and escape from the toils of life, and consumerism puts desire on the marketplace and tags it with a price—so very cheap and within reach. Artists are told to not spend time on their work, but to produce them at faster and faster rates, feeding the bottomless appetite of the world like the tired warbler feeding the overgrown cuckoo. To such a world generative AI is finally born, promising satisfaction just a few clicks away, without the pesky inconveniences posed by human artists.

Yet it shall prove a false savior. Those who recourse to the Machine for the renaissance of Christian art are falling into the very same trap that they want to avoid. Even if we mass produce images of saints, be sure that the secular world will produce as many more images of Aegon Targaryen, which however they will not fawn over half as much about, because they possess almost all the original artists whom AI tries to copy. Sad times! Has Christendom really descended so low that we are gathering the refuse of the secular world, and calling it the Christian renaissance? I am not sure whether to laugh or cry at the phenomenon of certain Christians being overawed by the “beauty” of AI art. Christendom, like a sick man, falls begging before the quack doctor in the desperation of a grave illness. Well—! Go ahead then! Sell your soul to the Machine! Become pygmies! This much is certain: there is no wide and easy path to the restoration of true art. The Muse cannot be courted by dabbling in degenerate technology, but only by the patient practice of her craft.

Christendom Must Stand with the Cause of Human Art

We have stated the case against the use of generative AI in art. But what is to be done towards the renaissance of Christian art, and in addition towards the technology of generative AI in the world? I am afraid that my proposals concerning the first question must be reserved for another day. As to the second question, I answer that, although we must not be ignorant of AI and of technology in general, just as we must not be ignorant of Marxism, nevertheless we must refrain from affirming it or embracing it, and we must not teach our children to use it. Lest anyone twist my words, I am now only speaking of an avoidance of generative AI, the ones which “create” art, writing, music, etc. and not functional ones, such as the “AI” which enables you to fill a spreadsheet quickly. Such technology I am completely supportive of, since filling spreadsheets seem to be most appropriate to the nature of the Machine.

This is evidently not only the morally correct choice, but also the most prudent one. We distance our children from smartphones and social media, because we recognise the stultifying effect it can have on their intellectual faculties, and for the same reason we ought to distance children away from AI art. This is not my opinion only, but the opinion of almost the entire artistic world. A problem which many artists in key industries such as gaming or animation greatly fear is that, following the wide implementation of generative AI and the replacement of human artists, new talent will be unable to enter into the field and art will stagnate as a consequence. The current artists of the first rank, certainly, will keep their jobs by assuming roles as creative directors controlling AI. Yet these people obtain their positions and their rich aesthetic insight by long experience in the rank-and-file, practicing their art with their hands. But once AI replaces the need for ground-level artistic employment, there will be no arena where emerging artists can hone their craft. If this trend continues, art as a profession will cease to be, and serious artists will go extinct. Then, their cheap imitator, the AI, will be incapable of rising to the same level of greatness, for the fountainhead of creative ability has dried up.

Amid the existential crisis faced by artists, Christianity has a unique opportunity to show its natural sympathy and solidarity with this most important group of craftsmen. The fear that if we do not jump on the bandwagon of AI art we will somehow become irrelevant is entirely unfounded. If anything, the experience of the past few decades should have taught us that our pathetic attempts to stay in fashion have been a bad strategy. Let us face reality—Christianity is countercultural, and we should be proud of it. The more that the world embraces the automation of art, the more we ought to flout it. Artists, by nature rebels and despisers of conformity, will not be more attracted to Christianity if we too fall for the insipid scheme of the technocrats. There is much in Christian theology and practice that an artist will find life-giving in an increasingly shallow and artificial world. Therefore it seems that, rather than having non-artistic Christians trifle with AI and churn out what is really just plagiarized trash, it will be far better, and far more fruitful, to court existing artists and to bring them into the fold of the Church.

But even aside from conversion, there is a precious common ground to be had between secular artists and Christian humanists—all the more precious because just about everything today has been divided up between irreconcilable camps. Instead of marking Christians out as backwards bigots, taking a firm line against generative AI might surprisingly lend credence to Christianity’s classic criticisms of modern complacency. AI is not popular with the common people, because it strongly aligns with the interests of big tech and big corporations, which nobody likes, except big tech and big corporations. On every side there is pressure to restrain the unchecked development of generative AI by legislation, by counter-technology, and by protests. Unfortunately, this fight has so far been the sole fight of secular artists. There is no reason why we cannot join it. There is no reason why we must bow to the Machine, while our intellectual opponents have enough spirit to raise the provoking cry, “Welcome to the future. Sabotage it.”[2] It is foolish and defeatist to think that every technology that was born in the mind of some evil genius will inevitably conquer, and we need not appease the artificial gods of our neopagan world to know that the church will prevail—even against the gates of hell.

Shuyuan He is a student of the liberal arts in the United States.

  1. This was Ruan Jia. See “AI真的能取代设计师吗?CG“天花板”画师阮佳挑战AI绘图,看得我热血沸腾!” Sohu. April 28, 2023. (In Chinese) https://www.sohu.com/a/671063166_121123913 (Accessed 22/12/2023)

  2. Tom Humbertstone, “I’m a Luddite (and So Can You!)” The Nib, July 17, 2023. https://thenib.com/im-a-luddite/ (Accessed 22/12/2023)

*Image Credit: “Helvoetsluys Ships Going Out to Sea”, J.M.W Turner, 1832


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This