robot using a camera

The Great AI Art Debate: Is AI a tool or the artist?

Unless you’ve been living deep in the Earth’s core without access to the internet or any media, by now you must have witnessed the sometimes volatile debates between anti-AI artists and pro-AI creators.

In these debates, I often see anti-AI people argue: “AI is not a tool, it’s the actual artist!”

But is that really the case? Let’s explore.

Is Midjourney Like a Camera?

With a response like this, it doesn’t seem like they consider how this argument can also apply to other tools used by creatives, most notably, the digital camera.

Let me explain:

With both forms of technology, the operator inputs parameters, presses a button, and gets back a result. The camera, like the AI tool, is doing most of the “work” to generate the image the operator wants based on their initial inputs.

Instead of toggling buttons, and setting a scene physically, in AI text-to-image, “words” are the toggles and directions to set the scene.

– Shane Kai Glenn

This is even more true now as camera technology implements a lot of AI in order to capture the best results in a variety of conditions with minimal human effort.

But framing still matters. Composition still matters. Knowing which settings to use to capture the best results still matters.

Give the same camera to a photographer and some random joe and ask them to go take a photo of the sunset, and you will quickly see the difference in their “artistry” given the same exact tool, subject and constraints.

Sure, there is an additional element in AI generations because the output can be more affected by the AI than a camera would influence a photograph, but the machine is doing the actual work to achieve the desired effects.

AI Art TOols: A Camera for the mind?

I really view AI much like a camera. While a camera captures snapshots of visuals you encounter in real life, an AI is like a camera for your mind, capturing and rendering visuals in your imagination.

Ultimately, I think this is indeed the direction technology will eventually go: the ability to “think” and render something for others to see. The creative work would literally all take place within your mind.

Why I have embraced AI Tools

Perhaps I’ve been more willing to embrace this technology because I’ve always viewed art more about recombination than replication. AI is an incredibly powerful recombination tool, allowing me to combine disparate elements and styles nearly instantly to bring a vision to life.

When I use these tools, I don’t view myself as an artist, more like an explorer/director/curator/designer.

I’ve embraced AI I think in part because my background is more in graphic design and photography. I view it as more of an extension of tools I’ve used before like Photoshop and Illustrator.

I can see why there is more of a blowback from illustrators though, since their creative process is often much different.

Photoshop Vs Midjourney as a Creative Process

I used to do photoshop battles 20 years ago, and the process then was more laborious. If I wanted to render an image of George W. Bush moshing in a mosh pit, this would be my process:

  1. Scour the internet for photos of the individual elements I’d need for the composition
  2. Painstakingly remove the background from each element I want to use in the composition
  3. Arrange the elements in the composition to tell the story I want to tell visually
  4. Work on matching colors, lighting and shadows between elements so that they look as cohesive as possible

Today, the process even within just Photoshop itself is much easier to accomplish, thanks to AI. You can instantly remove a background. Instantly add filters so that every element looks like a cohesive whole.


In the process I described above, I was still reliant on photos other people took, and much more constrained in what was available to use, often reliant on stock photos and such.

But do people trash people who use Photoshop today because it’s so much easier than it was 20 years ago? I don’t see it.

So I wish the anti-AI crowd would take a moment to step back and see how this is indeed simply a tool. Like any other tool, it can be used for good or for bad. It can be used lazily or to stretch the boundaries of artistic expression. It’s ultimately up to the person utilizing the tool.

Modified from my original post on Reddit.

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