In case you missed it, computers are now creating art nudes.
But this is not a “robots are coming for our jobs” essay. When I first heard about AI-generated art nudes, I thought I was going to enjoy this latest advance in my field. I really wanted to—I’m a futuristic sci fi geek after all. But I didn’t.
To understand why requires a little bit of background on AI-generated art. I think it’s a pretty impressive achievement, but it’s important to realize that AI doesn’t magically create art from a void. The programmer has to seed it with a data set—a pile of existing art that has the traits they want the AI to learn from. Whether that’s music, visual art, or even all the chapters of Harry Potter, there’s always a starting point—and that point is introduced, however indirectly, by a person. If and when AI starts coming up with its own data sets not created by humans, I’ll start worrying about our robot overlords. Until then, not so much.
That said, this has never stopped me from enjoying this type of art before. I giggled my way through the AI-generated Harry Potter chapter. I’ve written with AI-composed music on in the background. But these art nudes bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I read one of the creator’s tweets about his art:
“The AI *always* paints heads and faces the same way; with this weird yellow/purple texture. Have no idea why, but I like it.”
He’s right, and it is kind of cool. But I found it interesting that he didn’t remark on the other color scheme that all these nudes have in common. Namely that they all have the same skin tone: very distinctly white.
On top of that, all these nudes are obviously women—they’re even referred to as such in the text, without a second thought that “nude portrait” wouldn’t immediately equate to “female nude portrait.” And then on top of that, even though these figures are surreal at best, they’re still slender. Which means that even from a computer-generated blob, you can tell that these “women” are, well, white and conforming to societal norms of feminine beauty. It bothers me that we recognize this as nude art because it’s playing off the cliché that nudes are all of skinny white girls, even when they’re deformed like melted wax.
It’s an easy mistake to make. From the results, it looks like the researcher stuck pretty closely to conventional Western art canon for the images he started with for his data set. And even without a degree in art history, you can probably guess that said canon is dominated by dead white guys, and all their biases.
That’s one of the problems with AI right now. It’s a reflection of what we put into it. And unless we are aware of our own biases, we just perpetuate them.
I love nude art. I feel that the strength of posing nude is the ability to show humanity in all its variety—gender, race, shape, age, etc. This set of AI generated art feels like a step backward culturally for a step forward technologically. And let me be clear, the problem isn’t in the tech itself. The tech is awesome. The problem is in how we thought to use it.
Our culture changes depending on how we depict it, and how we talk about it. It’s a conversation. And art is part of that conversation. As an artist, I firmly believe that I am responsible for the art I put out into the world and what it says. It’s my responsibility to educate myself as to the consequences of my choices, and make the best art that I can. This is one of the big reasons that I pose nude: I think it’s incredibly important to show the nude form as non-sexual. And it’s why I do my best to encourage diverse models to pose as well, because we need to normalize that too.
So yes, it’s impressive that we can now generate art with a computer. But if you want to do so, you need to realize that you aren’t just creating a piece of cool tech. You’re also an artist—welcome to the conversation. We’re finally starting to move past some really repressive norms. Let’s not reassert them for the sake of a new tool.
And before I make it sound like this is all about people creating new technology, it’s not. If you’re a photographer, or painter, and all of your subjects are young, white, skinny, conventionally pretty naked girls, it might be time to take a hard look at your art too.
But here’s the beauty about art being a conversation: we’re all learning together. We’re all bringing ideas to the table so that we can share and grow. None of this is a condemnation of us as human beings if we make a mistake. I have posed for images in the past that I now consider problematic. I learned—and I try not to fuck up in the same way a second time. I don’t hate myself for it. I just try to put better art out into the world next time.
So let’s definitely keep exploring AI-generated art. But let’s also keep the conversation going too. They’re not mutually exclusive; they can and should support each other. And we have so much more to learn.