Here’s how art schools are handling the rise of AI generators

AI generated image of a woman with pink and red hair wearing a black shirt

Image of Janus Rose, generated with stable diffusion

To prepare for the 2023 spring semester, New York University professor Winnie Song did something she’s never had to do before: She created AI art tutorials for her students.

Song, an assistant art professor in the Game Center at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, isn’t the only art instructor thinking about this. With the rapid rise of automated systems such as Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, and DALL-E 2 within the past year, instructors in post-secondary art institutions are trying to figure out how to bring up the subject with their students while still teaching them intricacies of AI art itself.

“My concern was that they would use the AI ​​generators to come up with mood boards and references to things that don’t exist in real life. So I just set a policy where within the confines of this class, using the generators is discouraged, Song told Motherboard. “I really never imagined it would get to this point where people would try to legitimize it as a craft.”

AI-generated art has flooded the internet since users started generating elaborate images with just a written sentence or highly stylized portraits by uploading a selfie. The tools have been met with fierce backlash from many artists, who note that the AI ​​systems produce derivative images after consuming millions of original artworks without permission from their creators.

But while the growing sophistication of AI generators raises profound questions about the nature of art and the creative process, it also creates very tangible dilemmas for art educators who want their students to develop skills that go beyond typing a sentence into a text prompt and hand it in as their own work.

“I think we strive to teach them to become independent of tools and also ensure that they remain kind of agnostic, not reverent and dependent on one thing to get presentable work,” Song said. “You can learn this and you can think about it, but it can’t be your one main thing to get to where you need to be.”

The way professors have introduced AI art into the classroom varies between classes and disciplines. Song said she teaches a drawing class where students are supposed to draw inspiration from nature and the physical world, hence her AI art policy. On the other hand, Kurt Ralske, professor of digital media and department chair of media art at Tufts University’s School of Art Museum, takes a different approach.

“Personally, I have encouraged students to explore this. I think they need to know what the tools are, what they’re capable of and maybe develop a personal vocabulary for how to use them,” Ralske told Motherboard. “But we’re really overdue to actually maybe have a larger discussion at the university about how to deal with these things.”

Doug Rosman, an instructor in the Art and Technology Studies department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, also has students explore generators in his machine learning class. But in his professional practice class, a more career-focused course, AI art and its impact on working artists is a different discussion.

“In that context, the output from DALL-E and Stable Diffusion feel more threatening,” Rosman told Motherboard.

Instructors aren’t the only ones thinking about the products of AI art generators. Art students also deal with the effects of artificial intelligence saturating the market for artists and what it could mean for their careers.

“The way artists embrace a crazy capitalist, hyper-technological culture is just really disheartening,” said Marla Chinbat, an art student at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “I wouldn’t be surprised if AI art actually starts to have merit because of a side of the art world that I don’t subscribe to.”

None of the instructors or students at the institutions that Motherboard interviewed said their department or school had issued artificial intelligence guidelines or a policy on using AI generators for projects. Charlotte Belland, professor and chair of the animation program at Columbus College of Art & Design, said setting parameters are left up to individual instructors depending on the topics and concepts taught in class.

“As long as they establish what their parameters are, then it’s an open forum to either use or not use AI technology,” Belland told Motherboard.

But learning how these programs work and how to help students use them takes time and effort on behalf of the instructor. If an instructor is not already familiar with machine learning or computer science, navigating the ways in which AI art generators are shaking up the art world and understanding the algorithms may require additional work.

“It’s hard to teach. It’s so much work and it’s not well compensated,” Rosman said. “It’s not fair that a small demographic of people in Silicon Valley can just throw this thing out into the world and we have to just run around and pick up the pieces.”

A young woman in a white and black striped shirt sits in front of painted canvases

Susan Behrends Valenzuela, an art student at NYU Steinhardt. Photo courtesy of the artist

Even if their instructors haven’t brought up AI art in class, students are still thinking about how AI art generators are impacting the art world. Susan Behrends Valenzuela, an art student at NYU Steinhardt, said the topic has only come up once in just one of her classes, but would be interested in further discussions in other classes.

“I wish we had talked about it a little more,” she told Motherboard. “But at the same time, I think for that to happen, my professors kind of have to know a little bit more about that type of technology, and I just think that’s not something they really focus on.”

Students also think about how they can use these tools as part of their processes. Rhode Island School of Design painting student Julia Hames said they played with the AI ​​generator Wombo for inspiration.

“For a while I had no ideas of what to paint, so I would just put random prompts into Wombo to see what it produced,” Hames told Motherboard. “I didn’t really like anything, but maybe it could be used for that because the imagery is so absurd and it just lets you get into this uncanny valley that people honestly can’t even get to sometimes.”

A person with bleached blonde and orange hair standing in front of painted canvases hung on a wall

Julia Hames, a painting student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Photo courtesy of the artist

Song, Ralske, Rosman and Belland all said they haven’t had students use AI art generators for projects without their knowledge. If a student used AI for a project, the way they used it was obvious to the instructor. Belland said that if a student tried to use AI without the consent of an instructor, being in a community with different perspectives and skills would help catch it.

“The beauty of an educational community is that you have so many eyes on a project,” she said. “Even when a student makes an unfortunate decision to copy something in just a very traditional method, plagiarism, it’s pretty easy to spot.”

As for Song, she’s also not too concerned about her students passing off AI-generated images as her own because she’s already familiar with their work. She’s more worried about the students she hasn’t even had in the class yet.

“In admissions, these new students come from high school, from another life that we don’t know,” she said. “I think it could be possible for them to have created a portfolio out of thin air overnight using these generators, depending on how good they get.”

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