Essay
AI
Culture
14 min read

Dethroning creativity: why does AI art make us feel so icky inside?

Creative Artificial Intelligence generates a disquiet within. Daniel Kim explores why it confronts our humanity.

Daniel is an advertising strategist turned vicar-in-training.

An AI-created painting of a scene comprising a lap top user holding their face, with candles in the foreground
AI confronts the creative.
Daniel Kim.

Some of you are going to hate this article.  

I want to start off by saying that a human wrote this article.  

That’s an important caveat nowadays because every month there’s yet another AI churning out music, images, videos, and essays that could go toe-to-toe with most humans in quality and originality. Making the news in the last few months has been the remarkable Chat GPT3 from OpenAI. A chatbot on steroids, Chat GPT3 is trained to produce conversational and competent language. You can ask it to write a children’s story, a trigonometry lesson plan, a 2-year strategy for a startup or even an inspiring Christmas sermon written in the style of a World War II speech. Here’s the thing… it won’t just do a ‘passable’ job, but it will do a pretty damn good job. 

Now, I am painfully aware that ‘AI vs human creativity’ is a topic more worn out than a marathon runner’s shorts - I certainly don’t want to unnecessarily add to the 117 million search results for ‘AI and creativity’. It’s the  sensation of our decade with equally sensational headlines, like Elon Musk saying that the use of AI is like “summoning a demon”. There are quite literally tens of thousands of articles about whether AI will surpass and replace us or whether they are simply another tool in our techno-creative arsenal. And rightly so! There are important discussions to be had about the economic implications in the creative industry as it increasingly looks as though junior copywriter and art director jobs could be fully automated. There are also pertinent legal questions being asked by the artists whose blood, sweat and carpel-tunnel syndrome have been scraped from massive public image databases to train these AI, rendering their hard-won technical skill into an effortless toy for the masses with no recognition or recompense. People far more qualified and more intelligent than me have written on these topics

'There’s a moment of confrontation that challenges our notion of human superiority over the machines.'

However, there’s one particular feeling that I don’t think has been addressed as much. It’s the feeling of ‘uncomfortable ickiness or angst many of us experience when confronted by these AI. Almost every person I’ve shown Chat GPT3 to have gawped at it - almost as if they couldn’t believe how good it really was. There’s a moment of confrontation that challenges our notion of human superiority over the machines. I certainly felt this even as the techno-optimist that I am. Playing with Chat GPT3 did something to me as a writer. My first reaction was, “Flip… I need to up my game”. My second reaction was the disquiet realisation that everything I thought was unique to human creative writing - rhetoric, rhyme and rhythm - were in fact sophisticated patterns that could be reproduced and even re-imagined by a soulless computer.  

What’s interesting about this reaction is that we’re generally fine with computers being better than us. Computer vs Human is not a new debate. After the world chess champion Kasparov “lost his fighting spirit” in 1997 against IBM’s’s Deep Blue Chess computer, it’s become an uncontested fact that humans will never beat a computer at chess. A quarter of a century later, it’s not uncommon to hear professional players or commentators saying ‘run it through the engine’, when they want to analyse the latest world-championship game. Despite this status quo, very few of us feel profoundly threatened by this. Nothing about the fact that a computer can do mass-calculations and pattern recognition better than humans feels threatening. That’s just what a computer is - a brute-force machine.

'Rarely have new technologies caused existential anxiety about our human value.' 

But when it comes to poetry, music, creative writing, design, imagery, composition, originality; nothing can replace that unique human spark! We desperately fight to maintain human superiority. Artist Steven Zapata critiques AI tools like Chat GPT3 saying that their creative offerings are ‘bland and mediocre’ devoid of originality and zest. That may be true, but if we’re really honest with ourselves, and spend enough time scrolling Instagram, most of our human offerings turn out to be bland and mediocre devoid of originality and zest. New technologies have always created anxiety about job security and unforeseen negative social consequences. Rarely have new technologies caused existential anxiety about our human value. 

For many of us, we intuitively feel that creativity and artistic expression are some of the most unique and sacred of human faculties. We probably couldn’t give a rational reason for it, but we feel it to be true. Here’s the thing though, there’s a reason why we feel this way. Our convictions about what makes humanity unique and valuable are not universal intuitions. They are shaped by our social and historic location. 

Throughout history, we’ve always tried to identify what makes us so special as humans, and in that pursuit, we’ve held different traits as sacrosanct. For a long time, it was the capacity to Reason - our rational mind. That’s Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas for you - the bedrock thinkers of the classical and medieval Western world. In his Summa Theological, Aquinas wrote that ‘the human species is distinguished from all others by the fact that man alone has reason’. This reign of Reason continued as the status quo reaching its pinnacle in the 18th century with the so-called Enlightenment. This was when Descartes identified our ‘thinking’ as the core our humanity existence - “I think therefore I am”. The elevation of Reason even got slightly out of hand. Following the French Revolution in 1789, the revolutionary government even set up the ‘cult of Reason’ and converted churches into temples where the teenage daughters of rich patricians were worshipped as goddesses of Reason. The 1790s were a weird time in France.  

'2023’s sensibilities are not with the Enlightenment Rationalists, instead, I’d argue that we are more in line with the Romantics.'

We look back at this period of hyper-Reason and scoff. Silly us forever thinking that our Reason gave us ultimate value. What an archaic idea! We certainly don’t think or feel that problem-solving, logic, and reasoning is integral to our humanity. In fact, we can farm those out to computers now and really get to work in expressing our humanity in more meaningful ways. We no longer live in the Age of Reason, and we haven’t done for quite some time. In fact, 2023’s sensibilities are not with the Enlightenment Rationalists, instead, I’d argue that we are more in line with the Romantics.  

In the 19th century, whilst the Age of Reason was still trundling on, there was a community of thinkers reacting against the spirit of the age - these were the Romantics. The Romantics looked at the Modern world and were disgusted by the banal capitalist industrialism of it all. They lamented the loss of beauty in the world and a sense of spiritual unity. The Romantics described the people of their time as being ‘triply divided’ by ‘three alienations’. The first was within the individual between our thinking and our feeling being at odds with each other. Second was between the individual and other people due to the decline of traditional communities and the rise of the capitalist marketplace. Third was between the individual and Nature due to the rise of modern technology turning the natural world into something to be mastered rather than something we are a part of. We had lost who we were and needed to go on a journey to discover who we truly are. Sound familiar?  

The Romantics understood that the one thing that had previously remedied these alienations was the Christian religion and its God. A benevolent creator who provided morality, meaning, and value to the individual and her society. But ultimately, the Romantics were still people of their time and assumed that religion was on its way out and was an ancient superstitious system that needed to be done away with.  And so the Romantics had to find something else to hang everything on, a new centre of ultimate meaning. Religion is out, Reason was too narrow. What we need is a way for the individual to integrate and express the whole of their identity. Set the stage for the enthronement of Creativity.  

The sociologist Charles Taylor calls this the birth of the ‘Age of Authenticity’, where the most important task for the individual is to discover and express her most authentic self. In this way, artistic creation became an integral way in which a person could come to define themselves. So Schlegel, a 18th century Romantic, was fond of saying that the individual should make ‘his life into a novel, a beautiful whole’ aiming for 'the ideal of self-realisation and beauty’. This vision was so compelling that it spread outside Romantic circles. So 100 years later, the not-so-Romantic Nietzsche said that the most important task of the individual was to ‘give style to one’s character’. To make sense of all the incoherent combination of loves, desires, hatreds, and motives in our heart and make something beautiful out of it.  

Since then, we’ve continued to elevate the role of Creative expression as an essential part of our human identity. Taylor made this observation: 'The artist [has become] the paradigm case of the human being, as an agent of original self-definition. Since about 1800, there has been a tendency to heroise the artist, to see his or her life as the essence of the human condition, and to venerate him or her as a seer, the creator of cultural values.'  

'There is a magic to creative self-expression - it’s joyful, it’s play, it’s thrilling.'

He’s absolutely right. The heroes of our time are not kings or queens, nor war generals or religious messiahs. The heroes of our time are the Bob Dylans, the Virginia Woolfs, the Picassos, Beyoncés, the Jacob Colliers - the Artists. Our heroes reveal our aspirations. Today, the artist has become for us the “very paragon of humanity” and has taken on a pseudo-messianic role in Western culture. People who show us what we could be. They are the luminaries who have expressed the whole of their authentic self in a way that is beautiful and understood by other people. Those people who stood against cookie-cutter convention and carved a unique way of being themselves in a disenchanted world. Don’t we also want this? Isn’t this the longing of our hearts as 21st century individuals? Don’t we want to be understood and to create something with our lives? Don’t we want to self-actualise? It’s certainly a sticky idea and there’s good reason for it. There is a magic to creative self-expression - it’s joyful, it’s play, it’s thrilling when you make something out of nothing, and that thrill is even more electrifying when you take the terrifying step of sharing it with someone and they understand it. You feel known in a way that’s different to someone reading your CV or even having a conversation. 'I create therefore I am’ is the new dogma of the day.  

This is why I think we find Chat GPT3, or other art generating AI like Dall-E or Midjourney, so icky and disconcerting.  It’s hard to shake a deep conviction that has been encoded into us through 200 years of cultural indoctrination. We’re okay with AI and computers encroaching on technical tasks and labour efficiencies. We can even just about live with the fact that technology might make huge swathes of people jobless. But God forbid that the machines devalue or take away the ability of creative self-expression! That’s ours, we need it, it’s our source of ultimate meaning and human joy. I just don’t want to face the fact that a soulless, unloving, unsuffering machine can spit out something more compelling, emotive, and eloquent than most of us ever could. This is felt keenly by the creative community. Amidst the very serious economic and legal questions about being made redundant, or their work being sucked into the algorithm, there is an angst that taps into a deep belief about what makes our humanity beautiful and valuable.  

Here’s Zapata again.

“This is art making, for God’s sake, not some agitating manual process people hate. This is one of the things people enjoy doing… We should reserve art making for those who stand to gain something from it, for whom it can bring joy and reward, rather than dumbly bestow it on an unfeeling non-being”  

A YouTube comment under a video about the hopelessness many creatives feel in the face of these AI express it thus.

“I feel like we forget that expression, emotion is what makes us uniquely human, and when we deprive ourselves [of them] we’re just hollow… . I’m more or less saying that if there are no outlets that enable expression, then things WILL likely get darker within ourselves”  

Finally, here's Hayao Miyazaki, one of the most inspired and celebrated filmmakers in the last century with his work at Studio Ghibli. In a 2016 documentary he unequivocally called AI art an “insult to life itself” saying:

“I feel like we nearing the end of the times. We humans are losing faith in ourselves”.   

If you resonate with these statements, you’re probably a 21st Century Romantic. I certainly feel like one. We have elevated Creativity and artistic self-expression to a high pinnacle on which our hopes and fulfillments hang on. We have enthroned Creativity as the thing what constitutes the most essential and important part of our humanity. We thought it was the one thing that couldn’t be taken from us. Perhaps these AIs are forcing us to face the music that our dependence on Creativity as a source of ultimate value may be just as fragile as our dependence on Reason.

'Maybe it’s no bad thing for humans to lose faith in ourselves once in a while.'

Here’s a controversial and very unpopular statement - maybe it’s no bad thing for humans to lose faith in ourselves once in a while. It can be helpful for us to be confronted by our weakness and experience a sense of lack. It shows us that perhaps the foundations we’ve been standing on are not as solid as we presumed them to be and motivates us to go on a journey to discover something more solid. When push comes to shove, I would certainly rather have someone to point out to me that I’m standing on shaky ground than live in blissful ignorance. 

Reason was thoroughly dethroned as the centre of human experience. That has been a very good thing because it meant that we now take the heart more seriously. It’s also revealed the ways in which we have devalued and marginalised those with lower cognitive ability. By dethroning Reason, we’ve become more reflective about what makes us special and valuable. We put Reason in its proper place, as an important, beautiful, yet ultimately non-essential part of living a fulfilled life on planet Earth. We came to a better, fuller, and more inclusive understanding of human value.  

For the same reasons, maybe it’s high time Creativity needs a good dethroning. Your fulfilment and value does not lie in what you have written, sung, painted, or drawn. Your authentic and unique self is not intrinsically tied to how well you can express yourself. Your creative hobby does not need to be the thing that makes your life feel worthwhile. Artists, like scientists, are beautiful gifts to our society. They reveal insights about our universe and our psyche, providing beauty and meaning to what can feel like a very banal existence. But let’s not fall into the trap of elevating them as pseudo-messianic figures - dangerous things can happen when we hang our hopes and dreams on a certain class of humans.  

I don’t think this will have a thawing effect on our creative industry. Dethroning Reason certainly didn’t slow scientific research, I certainly don’t think putting Creativity in its proper place will slow down our innate desire to create and express ourselves. 

The idea of ‘dethroning Creativity’ will sound utterly impossible or even immoral to some. I get that. Ultimately, we are products of our times, and it might be the case that we can no sooner dethrone Creativity than imagine a world without electricity. We can’t imagine a sense of self without putting this premium on Creative self-expression. We can’t un-essentialise it. However, I certainly think that being aware of the historic forces that led us to become the people we are is a useful step towards a better understanding of ourselves.  

In Christian Theology, the ultimate source of human value is the concept of Imago Dei - The idea that every human is created in the ‘Image of God’. There have been times in history when Theologians have also made the mistake of trying to tie certain traits like Reason and Creativity to the ‘Imago Dei’ - making our value contingent on things that we do. That was a mistake because the most beautiful thing about the concept of Imago Dei is that there is nothing we can do or be or become that will diminish our value before God. Our level of Reason or Creativity cannot add or take away anything from our worth to God or make us any less ourselves. That’s something that I’d be more willing to hang everything on.  

I promised a human wrote this article. Well, let me end with a sonnet written by Chat GPT3. 

 

Prompt: Write me a sonnet about dethroning creativity and the need for the 21st century to find a better foundation for human value. 

In this age of technology and speed,
Creativity’s throne is overthrown, it seems.
For value, we no longer plant a seed
But rather chase the fleeting and extreme.

We worship at the altar of the new
And scorn the wisdom of the ages past, 
Forgetting that it is roots that make us true
and not the leaves that fade and never last.

But as the world keeps changing and evolving,
Perhaps its time to find a firmer ground
To build upon and find a way of solving, 
the problems that today’s world has found. 

For though creativity has its place, 
It cannot be the only source of grace.

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen