In “Das Kapital” Marx asserts that “the cost of labor is the cost of subsistence for the laborer.” Frozen wages in the US, are clearly responsible for the capitalist boom of the last several decades. Having predictably low wages and a cheap workforce removes one element from constantly shifting market dynamics. Capitalism isn’t just an extraction of resources, primarily it is an exploitation of the labor necessary to extract resources through “surplus value”.
AI art is theft. There really is no two ways about it. It would be one thing if someone created an AI that was able to draw on existing color palettes and art. If the process were cognitive and not iterative there might be some argument to be made about originality. But these AI were taught to take things from existing art. It’s the difference between teaching someone how to illustrate and how to heist paintings from a gallery.
The argument could be made that is what is happening today. The average artist draws on inspiration and existing techniques and methodologies to create their work. One could also argue that they were inspired by specific works or styles. But that isn’t what AI art is doing. AI art is taking bits of actual images. It isn’t a cognitive reinterpretation or even duplication of what someone else did. The AI is taking actual pieces of another persons art in order to create something else based upon specified parameters
In modern times we have technology that has been used as a labor force “multiplier”, allowing what took a week to achieve to be done in a day. When the laborer negotiates the sale of their labor they are selling it for x number of dollars per hour for x number of hours per week. The proliferation from labor force multipliers has exponentially increased the amount of productivity that arises of said labor. However, most employers do not increase the amount paid for unit of labor, instead insisting on an increase of hours. Technology as a labor force multiplier was never designed as a means of making labor easier. It was always intended as a means of extracting greater surplus value from labor while simultaneously increasing costs of living.
I would argue that the cost of labor isn’t just subsistence, it is also the cost of acquiring the skills necessary to convert labor into a commodity. Visual artists often spend years refining their craft and make very little as they do, if anything. This cost should, ideally, be built into the cost of the labor. In our current way of doing things, the expense of education or training is lost in abstract and illusory ideas about success. E.g. “it will all have been worth it once I’m rich.” The cost of training and education has proven to be more of a hindrance to success than a contributor so recouping those costs plus materials in negotiations for employment should be factored in.
As one joke points out in a conversation between a car owner and mechanic: “You didn’t pay me $300 dollars for turning a screw. You paid me $300 dollars for knowing which screw to turn.” This particular discussion does lead to issues about the tiered nature of labor and what is viewed as skilled versus unskilled. So I will address this once for the sake of the larger argument.
There is no such thing as “unskilled”. People who work in jobs that are often referred to this way have to learn a lot before they can apply those skills. Whether it’s fast food or moving furniture, there is always some skill that must be acquired to do those jobs. Movers need to understand how to pack furniture and appliances in a way that optimizes space and time. Fast food workers need to know how to multitask while cooking food with very specific cook times and portions. Does it take longer to learn how to be an illustrator, sure. But it is important to understand that skilled vs unskilled is an unhelpful binary. We’ve seen more than once how essential garbage men are to the functioning of a city yet we often apply this binary to them.
Art, though essential to human existence, is arguably less essential to human survival. And throughout history the production and sale of art has largely benefited the wealthy. The post modern era has made art, in it’s creation as well as its acquisition, far more accessible. But now we have AI art. Unlike digital art apps like Photoshop and Z-Brush, AI is not intended as a labor force multiplier. It’s intended to devalue the labor by which the commodity is created.
Additionally, the technology using an iterative process called “Stable Diffusion” teaches itself to draw certain things by processing other pieces of art. In some cases it just takes certain parts of the art outright for inclusion in the final “repackaged” commodity. In this sense, AI isn’t just a devaluation of labor, it’s theft. Two artists within the same discipline, with the same instructors, at the same school, being taught the same methods, will still produce two completely different interpretations of a subject. That is a style that will remain unique to them. That person spent years arriving at a level of competence that manifests true stylistic singularity, and by extension, commodifiable labor. For an AI to come along and duplicate it in an instant represents a fundamental devaluing of the style, the art, and the artist.
The AI is insidious because it’s parasitic nature is twofold. It steals the labor of the artist which precludes remuneration of any kind. But it also devalues and disincentivizes the pursuit of art as a discipline. Now that the labor has been devalued, the people who control the various industries that used to rely on artists can now commission an AI. Just, as with wage jobs, capitalist systems rely on a glut of labor to artificially keep wages low and profits high. An AI is doing precisely the same for artists. Another treacherous aspect to AI is that it is using the artists skill to teach itself to do the artists job, effectively using the artists work against them.
It’s possible that we are entering a new era of labor theft. The people who constructed the various art AIs didn’t necessarily know how to draw or paint themselves. They used the labor they had at hand (programmers and engineers) to capture an entirely different labor market. Up until now, technology has had its uses in labor multiplication. Though it has become more a means of exploitation and surveillance than anything to do with ease or efficiency for labor. AI is now not only being used to steal labor and devalue it, the capitalist class can now effectively control that labor. Assuming that some actual artists continue to be commissioned to do work, the average devaluation of that work, in terms of pay per hour, will mean that artist will make less.
Even if we continue with the assumption that people and corporations who have traditionally relied on artists insist on paying a “market wage” and commit to not using AI, what “market wage” means will diminish over time. And those people and entities will eventually come up against the rest of the market, i.e. those who have no reservations about using AI art. Those entities will have successfully reduced the cost of getting their own products to market by using AI which would render those that insist on using traditional artist non-competitive in the market place on a long.
At the very least the various art AI’s were created without any consideration of the impact it would have on artists. More likely it was done out of a mindless pursuit of performative progress. It is a time suck created as a diversion and a novelty that will keep us glued to screens. We, the consumer, will use this technology and very few of us will think beyond the immediate gratification of being able to create something even if it is machine dependent. Like all novelties, the capitalist class will figure out ways to use it to extract more time, and labor from us. As is always intended by profiteers, the artists profession will have been harmed and those responsible will hide behind the mantras of progress.
Art is not the first or only domain in which there have been incursion by AI. The world’s first AI supermodel, was revealed recently and she is Black. Her race is at least as relevant as her nature, because the capitalist class has always found Black folks easy targets for exploitation. And tech has always sought to exclude Black folks by creating buffer classes around it’s interests. The irony of this particular event lays in the fact that they’ve used a Black woman as a buffer between themselves and actual Black women. Now that it’s been established that AI models are viable, they can create any number of phenotypes for use in print.
Capitalism isn’t just a war for control of labor. It’s a war for the control of the minds of those that control labor. It’s chief objective on this front is to be able to exploit labor while simultaneously convincing people that the exchange is equitable. Late stage capitalism has demonstrated that this aspect is too expensive and many corporations and governments have defaulted to the message that labor simply has no other option. The lie and hypocrisy of long bread and fuel lines, scarcity, and totalitarianism are its primary message in buying the cooperation of the masses. The capitalist class must convince the average person it’s better off with them, no matter how untenable their economic circumstances are, not only because their profits and luxury rely on it, but there very lives.
In his book “Workshops of Empire” Eric Bennet discusses how the CIA underwrote the creation of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Bennett asserts that the objective of Iowa was to counter Communist cultural influence. But to also “flatten” modern American literature by bleaching ideas from it.This article in “The Monthly Review” has a detailed outline of the Council of Cultural Affairs’ extensive infiltration and funding of intellectuals and artists circles. Their promotion of Abstract Expressionism was specifically intended to mute or otherwise remove any visual art that contained “social content”. Janet Burroway whose book “Writing Fiction” is required reading at Iowa and many other MFA programs, asserts that “If you want to write about ideas, write essays.” I won’t get into the power disparities and privilege inherent to that statement here, but I will say that it’s clear that the agenda has always been to purge socially relevant themes from art.
If we acknowledge the intersection between capitalism, imperialism, and fascism, we can begin to understand how technology like AI can enable them. AI isn’t just about capturing and destroying human labor for profit. Once markets are dominated by automation like AI, those that control AI are free to use it as they please. In a time when social content beyond diversity is needed, AI has the potential to suppress and dilute narratives. More importantly it has the potential to target specific narratives to dilute and suppress. We now have AI that can create illustrations, write books, and even create screenplays. With this capability, the capitalist class can not only devalue and capture the labor that traditionally goes into these endeavors, but by creating a glut of it, devoid of social content, they can continue to purchase our complicity in our own demise.