Take in a sunset, a snowstorm or a baby’s cry, and see why AI is no threat to art | Ai Weiwei


Contemplating the correlation between scientific and technological advancements and human happiness reveals a stark reality, reminiscent of the revelation brought about by a photograph unveiling the moon’s surface, extinguishing millennia of humanity’s enchanting fantasies. In a parallel vein, today’s harsh reality witnesses technology reducing age-old modes of poetic expression and the warmth of art to a somewhat barbaric artifice.

Throughout the development of society, new technological discoveries have shaped the course of humankind. From the primal discovery of fire to the emergence of language for communication, music and dance, each step represented an expression of humanity’s desire to communicate and transmit messages. Ancient cave paintings depicting hunting scenes and people in motion, and the mineral-red handprints on mountain cliffs provide glimpses into the thoughts of our ancestors. In their struggles and fights, they found inspiration in the flowing of blood and the beating of their hearts, fostering a renewed understanding of themselves and a heightened passion for life. Despite life’s challenges and the formidable forces of nature, humans persists in walking out of their metaphorical caves. The extent of their fantasies surpasses the potent fears in their hearts. Courage and confidence for living stem from the exploration of the inner worlds.

As society progressed, discoveries such as electricity marked the advent of the industrial age, followed by the post-industrial age and the information age. These profound transformations unfolded within a mere couple of centuries. Life in turn has become more comfortable and multifaceted, with reduced vulnerability to natural forces. Yet this comfort is achieved through our reliance on Earth’s finite resources, compromising the survival of other species. Despite remarkable technological progress, it appears that humankind has not fundamentally transcended primitive society. Presently, persistent challenges manifest in the form of ongoing and escalating conflicts in Europe and the Middle East. Moreover, the looming spectre of a third world war, once relegated to the realm of imagination, has now become a palpable threat capable of extinguishing humanity. It becomes increasingly apparent that technological advancements alone cannot propel humanity forward. Steam engines and electricity undoubtedly made life more efficient, yet the unchecked greed of capital and foolish acts persist. Enslaving measures on the public increase, evident in the failures of contemporary education and the prioritisation of entertainment over social justice in mass media. This shift has contributed to a society increasingly moving away from spiritual pursuits, embracing a form of refined selfishness and greed that shrouds today’s so-called civilisation like a dark cloud.

The rapid development of technology, including the rise of AI, fails to bring genuine wellbeing to humanity; instead, it fosters anxiety and panic. AI, despite all the information it obtains from human experience, lacks the imagination and, most importantly, the human will, with its potential for beauty, creativity, and the possibility of making mistakes.

With the advent of AI, the prevailing belief was that its formidable processing capabilities rendered it capable of accomplishing virtually anything. Indeed, AI has proven adept at replacing numerous tasks involving information collection and processing, a trend accentuated by its increasing strength and expanding scope in response to growing industrial demands. The acquisition of knowledge, skills and modes of thinking that once demanded a human effort of 10 to 20 years can now be expeditiously processed by AI in a seemingly mythical span of seconds. This transformative shift may instigate subversive changes in production, societal structure and productivity. Yet while AI generates outputs characterised by rationality, it inherently lacks the depth of human experience, original ideas and creativity.

Art grapples with issues transcending rationality. Consequently, the advent of AI does not present a challenge to art itself; instead, it challenges the traditional understanding of how humans acquire artistic skills, which posits that art must be cultivated through training to master techniques. Such techniques typically demand an artist’s lifelong exploration and dedication, while the driving force behind this exploration is rooted in artists’ perennial sense of discontent and an unending aspiration for perfection in their craft. Artists such as Van Gogh or Picasso do not merely repeat themselves but continuously refine their expressions through the lens of their growth, life experiences, beliefs and emotions. Whether capturing a pot of sunflowers, a pair of shoes, or a woman, the simplicity of their subject matter does not diminish the complexity of their artistic endeavours.

Consider Rembrandt, ceaselessly painting his own portrait. What was he seeking? His pursuit was the elusive understanding of a self that remains perpetually unknown. AI lacks the capacity for such introspection. While it can replace certain technological skills, it falters in expressing the nuances of a sunset, a snowstorm, a baby’s cry or an old man’s tear. Since its inception, this deficiency has marked its existence, with the most significant issue being its lack of human nature and the inherent confidence that human nature carries. True confidence is forged when human weaknesses are comprehended, recognising that everyone is prone to making mistakes. In this paradigm, mistakes serve as the foundation for the perpetual search for truth.

Art, once manipulated as a tool by the powerful to corrupt and subjugate souls in the pursuit of capital, now grapples with relinquishing its millennia-old allure to the relentless march of technology. The traditional technology of painting, along with all human-made realities that affect the retina, now yields to a barrage of technologically generated images, photographs, sculptures, videos, films and visual effects, subverting the longstanding notion that “seeing is believing”. This transition births a parallel reality. As figurative thinking merely proliferates an infinite array of falsehoods and fuels an unending epidemic of entertainment, this is a phenomenon warranting both acknowledgment and critique.

The move from ignorance to enlightenment initially laid God to rest, leaving humanity bewildered in the absence of religion. The radiance of the newfound freedom emanating from this void can be perceived as a potent poison, while the associated utopian vision of a democratised society appears as self-ravishing gibberish. Does an increase in knowledge lead to heightened foolishness, a drift further away from enlightenment, and an unchecked descent into degradation?

Do those entrenched in insensitive self-degeneration, resisting salvation, find themselves richer and more comfortable than ever before? Has humanity, expelled from the Garden of Eden, discovered its dwelling place?

Less effort does not lead to greater fulfilment, and the liberation of artistic acts from attainable effort cannot alter the reality of spiritual enslavement.

In this complex landscape, art once again assumes the role of a guardian – safeguarding the inexpressible dignity of life, resisting mental enslavement, dissolving tyranny and countering ideological purges. If freedom exists, it must emanate from resistance.

  • Ai Weiwei is a Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian and activist. His new exhibition, Ai vs AI is part of CIRCA 20:24 (11 January until 31 March) on Piccadilly Lights, London


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