There has been a great deal of angst expressed over artificial intelligence during the recent WGA and current SAG-AFTRA strikes. Although I can certainly understand the concern due to the newness of the technology, the perceived looming battle is nothing new. It’s just a continuation of a conflict that has been ongoing for centuries.
Specifically, it’s the battle which is so old that it’s a cliché: the struggle between art and consumerism. The proverbial war between artists and those that attempt to profit from their work.
One could argue that AI, or at least the fruit of its work, has also been around for centuries. Since AI is incapable of creating both anything original and anything that resembles art in any substantive form, it’s a useless tool for an artist. But a very powerful tool if one is only concerned with making money.
The purpose of art is to shed new light on the human condition. To point out humanity’s flaws so that we may understand and cope with them in the hopes that we can all better ourselves and improve our own existence. Like a scientist, an artist analyzes and attempts to explain phenomena. Artists are humanity’s physicians, diagnosing its ills and sometimes proposing treatment plans. And because the best art influences its viewers on a visceral level first and then
on an intellectual level, it has more lasting impact than any other form of communication and has the potential to influence society for the better. It’s an essential part of a healthy society.
But an artistic medium like film is only powerful if its essential meaning is conveyed through a personal experience that, when placed in a particular context, results in an intellectual exercise — first in the mind of the artist, then conveyed by the artist as commentator and processed by an audience. It must be felt first, then intellectualized. It must take a specific emotional experience that, when thoroughly contemplated, can be generalized. Picasso’s “Guernica,” for instance,
depicts a specific battle. But it’s also a comment on war in general. In this fashion, art can only be conveyed by one human to other humans. If it’s not initiated by a human, it fails to be art by art’s very definition.
On the other side, and particularly in the motion picture industry, are the companies who view our work as a commodity. Actors, writers and directors are assembly line workers. Net profits are the end goal, not positive societal influence. In fact, they prefer to take the controversy out of the process altogether. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Sell subscriptions. Sell downloads. Sell tickets. Give people what they want to see, not what they need to see.
Unfortunately, both substantive films that attempt to be art and purely commercial films whose sole purpose is to make money are conflated such that the public is presented both types on equal footing. This diminishes the gravity and impact of the films that dare to present bold, fresh ideas. It is the phenomenon that promotes the same lack of discernment equating a
Beethoven symphony with, say, a Strauss waltz.
Which brings us back to the conundrum of AI. There’s no denying that it’s here to stay. And although the technology isn’t quite advanced enough to create a wholly compelling script, it’s coming. The current legal opinion that an AI film is not worthy of a copyright because it will always be derivative of other copyrighted material may slow its inevitable ubiquity, but in the end money will, as it usually does, win the day. Highly paid, wily lawyers will formulate a workaround, and writers and actors, and eventually directors, so the companies hope, can be
eliminated. No longer will they have to deal with the needless expense of paying exorbitant salaries to “difficult” people. Those pesky artists that are driven by a sense of societal obligation rather than profit. And the companies, to the delight of their shareholders, will be further enriched.
But just like its predecessors, AI-generated movies won’t be art. A machine can never purvey valid societal commentary, no matter how complex or sophisticated its software. It will always be a consumer product which, with less, and eventually no human contribution, will become its own echo chamber of assembly-line drivel. A commodity and nothing greater. The result of an algorithm that will determine what will garner the most viewership with the least amount of
controversy. A product that has already long been prevalent in our industry. Something that Martin Scorsese rightly labeled “theme parks” rather than legitimate cinema.
And the world’s most influential artistic medium, motion pictures, will take one more step further into the abyss. And the struggle of the artist to be heard, which is to say the struggle between art and corruption, will continue as it has for centuries.
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