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AI-generated art has won a fine art competition – and artists are taking action

AI art generators have had a huge impact on digital art in recent months. The latest tool builder, including DALL-E 2, MidJourney and Stable Diffusion, is capable of creating an incredible range of images based on text prompts – you basically tell them what you want them to create, what it’s either Sponge Bob Square Pants crossed with Godzilla, a surreal futuristic landscape, or a realistic still life in the style of a Renaissance master.

All of this has led to many existential debates about where this will leave artists, photographers and designers, with some people fearing that they will replace human creatives. Now, to further fuel the debate, someone just won an art contest with an AI-generated image, and the artists are furious.

An artwork created by an AI art generator that won the Colorado State Fair art contest

Jason Allen’s AI-generated art won an award at the Colorado State Fair (Image credit: Jason Allen via Midjourney)

The winner of the digital art category of the Colorado State Fair fine art competition is Jason Allen’s Space Opera Theater. It’s an epic sci-fi fantasy scene that appears to show women in elaborate clothing peering through a huge circular portal. However, it only emerged after the prize was awarded that Allen had created his artwork using the Discord-based AI art generator Midjourney before scaling it using AI Gigapixel to put it on canvas.

Allen, founder and lead developer of board game company Incarnate Games (opens in a new tab), had stated that his pieces were created with a computer, so they were categorized as “Digital Art”. He also claims to have submitted his work using the phrase “via Midjourney”, but this appears to have been omitted when his work was hung for judging. It’s unclear if the judges knew the piece was created by an AI art generator. They certainly know by now, but they’re sticking to their decision and hailing the “great conversation” generated by this year’s event.

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Artists (and non-artists) have reacted with fury, with many viewing using an AI art generator in an art contest as cheating. One person responded to the Colorado State Fair’s tweet, writing, “This is ridiculous. It makes your whole art contest less glamorous to the point of being laughable.” “wow.. someone can buy some software, change a prompt and call it art. I’ll be sure to do this next year so I can pretend to be an artist,” another person said.

Allen defended his entry in a post on Discord (screenshot and shared on Twitter above). He also clarifies that creating award-winning artwork using an AI art generator isn’t as quick and easy as many reviewers seem to think, noting that he spent weeks generating hundreds of images and narrowing them down to three that he just submitted to the competition.

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But much of the Twittersphere is still unconvinced. “It sucks for exactly the same reason we don’t let robots compete in the Olympics.” one person said. While another person asked, “Damn…Are artists going to have to start ‘showing their work’ like it’s a fucking math class?”

How long does it take to create an award-winning AI artwork?

AI art showing a space opera created in Midjourney

Artist John Lewis says he created this image in “about 10 seconds” (Image credit: John Lewis)

Artist John Lewis says he put Midjourney to the test to see how long it would take him to create something similar to the award-winning AI artwork. His opinion ? “About 10 seconds”. He uploaded a bunch of images on imgur (opens in a new tab) which he says he did by entering a prompt “then” pressing “refresh” multiple times”.

“Midjourney is a text-based generator, but the user doesn’t really have much control over the output,” he told Creative Bloq. “It’s more of a random image generator, although it has some really cool art styles built in. You can guide it, but you can’t control it or fine-tune it.”

He added: “Midjourney is a lot of fun, and as a quick idea generator it’s great, certainly as useful as a Google image search, but to claim that the user is an artist, or that ‘there’s real skill involved in using it’ is a little misleading.”

As it all comes down to the prompt used, AI prompt writers (which are fast becoming an official job title and side hustle) are starting to keep a close eye on the prompts they’ve used to generate AI artworks, and there are even AI art prompts online marketplaces, where you can buy prompts for DALL-E 2, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion that can create particular styles.

Lewis did, however, give the prompt he used for his 10-second test: “conceptual painting of an epic space opera scene, epic golden portal, red nebula in the background, Victorian spacesuits, planets and stars visible beyond a huge gilded portal, reflections and ornate baroque platforms in the style of Joaquín Sorolla and Richard Schmid –ar 16:9.”

But is it cheating?

The first win of the AI-generated art contest has certainly fueled the debate around AI art. Some people draw an analogy to when Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in chess, but there is a difference. AI art generators don’t decide what to create but follow the directions of the prompt author. Many people who create art using AI art generators are artists, but many are not. Whether an AI writer is an artist will surely be part of the debate.

There is an argument that an AI art generator is a tool just like a brush is a tool. So is using an AI art generator in an art contest cheating? It probably should be if not declared as such. Allen’s suggested that Colorado State Fair organizers introduce a category for AI art next year, and that seems like a sensible move.

Apparently they’re thinking about it. So if you want a chance to win, start learning about the art of AI, check out our article on how to use DALL-E 2 and how people use DALL-E 2 overpainting to “unframe” the images.

You might also want to see the best AI art generators compared to decide which tool you like the most. And for inspiration and examples of surreal things you can create with AI art generators, check out our pick of the weirdest AI art yet.

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