14 min read

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

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

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

4 min read

De-coding the hidden messages in Christmas carols

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

Beyond the festive imagery, some carols hint at rebellion and even revolution. Ian Bradley tells their stories.
Dressed in Victorian clothes, a group of carol singers stand and sing amid Christmas foliage.
Mario Mendez on Unsplash.

Carols are one of the best loved features of Christmas celebrations and one of the most effective means of spreading the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the world. In addition to their clear proclamation of the doctrine of incarnation, that God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us, some of our most popular carols may also have been written to convey further hidden messages. 

Take ‘O come, all ye faithful’, for instance. On the surface it seems a straightforward hymn of adoration to the newborn Christ but in fact historians suggest that it may well have been written in its original Latin form, ‘Adeste, fideles,’ as a coded message to rally Jacobites to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of his rebellion against the British crown in 1745. The man generally reckoned to have been its author, John Francis Wade, was a fervent supporter of the Jacobite cause who seems to have written it while he was plain-chant scribe at the English Catholic college in Douai, France where a weekly Mass was celebrated for the return of the Stuarts to the British throne. 

Half hidden Jacobite images, including Scotch thistles and the Stuart cypher, appear in the earliest manuscripts of the carol. Its call to ‘the faithful’ may have had a double meaning and been intended to alert the supporters of the ‘King over the water’ to Charles James Stuart’s imminent arrival in Britain from the  continent. Similarly, its reference to ‘Rex angelorum’, translated as the King of the Angels, could also be taken to mean the true king of the English in contrast to the Hanoverian incumbent, George II. In its original Latin form, the carol seems initially to have been sung only in Roman Catholic places of worship, notably in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London and its tune was long known as the Portuguese Hymn. 

Another well-known Christmas song may contain similarly coded messages. It has been suggested on the basis of letters from Jesuit priests attached to the English college in Douai, France, that that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was written to teach the elements of the Roman Catholic faith to children during the period following the Reformation in which it was officially proscribed and suppressed in the United Kingdom. In this reading, the twelve drummers drumming are the articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the eleven pipers piping the faithful apostles; the ten lords a-leaping the ten commandments; the nine ladies dancing the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the beatitudes; the seven swans a-swimming the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; and the ‘five gold rings’ the five wounds of the crucified Christ.  

A hidden message of a rather different kind may be lurking in another popular carol, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, which first appeared in a radical Sheffield newspaper entitled The Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Its author, James Montgomery, the paper’s editor, was twice imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution and reform riots in Britain. The original last verse, which described Justice repealing the sentences of those sentenced to imprisonment and Mercy breaking their chains, was regarded by the authorities as too polemical and subversive did not find its way into any hymn book when the carol was taken up and sung in churches.  

A carol with a more overtly contemporary message is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. Its author, Edmund Sears, who claimed descent from one of the original Pilgrim Fathers, was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a deep commitment to social reform and the promotion of peace. He wrote it in 1849, following the violent revolutions in Europe and the bloody and costly war between the United States of America and Mexico in the previous year. These conflicts were undoubtedly in his mind when he wrote ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and here the angels sing’ and expressed his heartfelt longing for a future age of gold ‘when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling’, sentiments which we can certainly echo this Christmas. 

The German carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which regularly tops the list of the world’s favourite Christmas song, underwent several adaptations through the twentieth century expressing the changing political mood in Germany. A Socialist version entitled ‘The Workers’ Silent Night’ which circulated widely around 1900 highlighted the prevailing poverty, misery and distress and ended with an appeal to wake up to social action rather than sleep in heavenly peace. It was considered subversive and banned by the German Government before the First World War. During that war, German soldiers on the front adapted Stille Nacht to express a sense of homesickness and in the period of rampant inflation that followed in the 1920s Weimar Republic a social democratic version asked plaintively: ‘in poverty, one starves silently,/When does the saviour come?’. A 1940 Nazi adaptation turned the song into a celebration of the fatherland and traditional German family values. More recent parodies of the English version have tended to focus on the commercial aspects of the festive season, like the American author Chris Fabry’s send-up of last minute Christmas shopping:  ‘Silent Night, Solstice Night, All is calm, all half price’. 

The tradition of adapting traditional Christmas carols to contemporary events has a long pedigree in Britain. ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ has proved particularly appealing to parodists. During the abdication crisis of 1937 a version circulated which began ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king’ and a group of journalists (of which I was one) heralded the birth of the SDP in 1981 with ‘Hark The Times and Guardian roar, Glory to the Gang of Four’. It is rarer to hear parodies of carols nowadays. Perhaps in our troubled times we just want and need to focus on their message of the coming of the Christchild and of God’s kingdom with its promise of a more peaceful and joyful world.  

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