A common theme in the concerns about generative AI is that it will replace human-generated art and end creativity as we know it. Reflecting on this concern inspired me to research how painters reacted to the invention of photography (specifically the daguerreotype) in the 19th century.
Looking back at the history of painting, and especially at the great art of the 20th century, it is easy to laugh at Delaroche’s prediction of doom. But what can we learn from how photography affected the evolution of painting, and how can that inform our perspective on generative AI?
Many painters indeed viewed photography as a threat. But others adapted.
Freed from the pressure to create realistic representations, some 19th-century artists developed styles like Impressionism, which embraced, as Paul Levinson notes, “the very subjectivity that photography eliminated.” Impressionists like Monet and Renoir were inspired by the way photography captured the transient effects of light and color.
The 20th century brought us movements like Fauvism and Cubism, that moved further away from realistic representation towards symbols and abstraction. Pioneers of these movements include Matisse and Picasso.
Clearly painting survived and even thrived despite — and perhaps because of — the introduction of photography and later advances in technology.
Is generative AI so different? Painters who produced portraits or still lifes may have felt that photography was infringing on their exclusive territory. That does not sound so different from the fears of creators today. And yet it didn’t take long for painters to find other ways to express their creativity.
Niels Bohr tells us that “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future!” It is possible that generative AI will disrupt human creativity more than the photography disrupted painting.
Still, if the history of technological innovation in the arts is any guide, it seems more likely that creativity will not end because of generative AI. Instead, creators will find new ways to create, and they may even find themselves freed from old assumptions, as the Impressionists were freed from the constraints of what we would now call photorealism.
So, let our modern-day Delaroches proclaim that creativity is dead. I look forward to tomorrow’s Monets, Renoirs, Matisses, and Picassos.