How Do We Value Art? What AI art means for tarot and oracle deck publishing

If you haven’t played around with the wombo.art app yet, then check out this link and have fun. You type in some keywords– any instruction you’d like to give the AI, be that themes, subjects, nouns, adjectives, colors– then choose an art style, like ukiyo-e, pastel, high fantasy, dark fantasy, medieval, etc., and the AI will generate a work of art based on your commission.

And the results are rather stunning. Human artists, in particular those who work primarily with digital art techniques, are now wondering what this means for the future of their vocation. No, not necessarily because of this app specifically, but just in general, this inevitable supplanting of human artists with AI.

More notably, I think, this is going to have an irreversible impact on tarot and oracle deck artists.

Take, for instance, these I Ching oracle card illustrations generated by the AI in a ukiyo-e art style. I typed in keywords for each corresponding hexagram, plus keywords for the two trigrams, selected Ukiyoe for art style, and hit the Create button. Then I did the design layout, added the hexagram image, number, and key phrase. Voila.

Personally, composition-wise I might add something to that blank red swath in Hexagram 49: Revolution, but I can’t help but to acknowledge that these works of art for conveying the hexagram meanings are rather on point.

Are these I Ching hexagram inspired illustrations less provocative, less meaningful than if a human artist had created them? I’m not so sure.

Can a human artist have interpreted these hexagrams into works of abstract scenic art any better? What does “better” even mean, right? We talk about the mathematical perfection of musical composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. The paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Carlo Crivelli can be explained with mathematics, so why wouldn’t an AI’s art, where the calculations are perfected, be more of a masterpiece than what a human, whose calculations are prone to error, creates?

Does it make you uncomfortable that these I Ching oracle cards created from AI generated art took about 15 minutes to produce, but if this same deck had been done as traditional art, with paint, by a human being with brush strokes on canvas, could very well have taken up to 15 years? Because if this I Ching oracle deck popped up on sale as some bona fide deck creator’s work, I’d buy it in a heartbeat!

Hmm, now that I’m reexamining these images, I was too hasty with layout design for the numbers. Doesn’t really match. Should’ve gone with a different font type. Anyway these were for thought experiment purposes only.

Would an AI have immediately chosen a better font than I had? Could some algorithm programmed into that AI have accounted for certain factors and principles of design more competently than I could have?

This really got me wondering. What principles even determine “great” art? I also wondered through what metrics would we assess AI art vs. human art? Occidental (Western) and Oriental (Eastern) schools of philosophy and values of aesthetics tend to differ, so I figured I’d account for both.

Here’s the table of bullet points I brainstormed for myself:

What Principles Determine Great Art?

Socratic & Platonic Philosophy Taoist & Confucian Philosophy
The work exhibits grace (euschêmosunê)

The work imitates that which is intrinsically beautiful in nature

Technê – the work is both the result of mechanical or vocational skill and divine possession

“The Form of beauty is Form enough”

The viewer’s experience of the work and what that work evokes in the reader

Transmission of high-value knowledge to the viewer

Who the artist is matters as much as the object work itself – assessing the qi life force that the artist has transferred into the work

What does the mark-making communicate about the artist’s character and spirituality

Effectively communicates the wisdoms needed for a human to become humane

The work is utilitarian –inspires cultivation of the mind-soul (心性)

 

Art Composition: Design Theory

Disegno (Italian Renaissance) Confucianist Aesthetics
Linework: Outlines and contours, edges of tone and color; the linework that defines fixed relationships between adjacent and remote elements; active vs. passive lines

Form: Geometric shapes, use of both positive and negative space; what gives the illusion of depth; expression of texture

Color Palette: Color symbolism; depicting effects of light and shadow; color pigments; saturation, contrast, and values; color theory; mood conveyed

Volume & Space: Creating the perception of depth and spatial relationships; proportion and ratios; perspective

Time & Movement: How the viewer experiences the art’s speed and direction

Viewer’s Experience: Intellectual content of the art, i.e., symbolism, social message, meaning conveyed

Story: Narrative, theme, and interpersonal relations; story told through focal point and the secondary points (the sub-plots)

Linework: Techniques, artistry, and finesse of the brush strokes

Spirit of the Form: Does the depiction of the form effectively express the spirit essence of the subject matter

Color Story: Application of color in layers, its values, and tone conveyed

Composition: Division and planning of space, depth; placements and arrangements are according to a decided, discernible hierarchical order – systematic organization of ideas or narrative arc

Fidelity to the Wisdom of the Masters: The artist’s conscious choice between deference to or rebellion against antecedents (i.e., established rules or standards that came before)

The Artist’s Ritual of Creating the Work: Ritual action, how the artist prepares and begins the work, and how the artist completes the work – methods employed; ritual of creating the art is as important as the finished work itself

 

What stands out to me about Taoist/Confucian philosophy of aesthetics in contrast to Euro-Western standards is the explicit emphasis on the artist behind the art. This is not to say that factor doesn’t matter by Euro-Western standards, but rather it’s a matter of the proportionality of the emphasis.

Applying Socratic and Platonic philosophy, I would argue that these AI generated works are examples of great art.

Whereas under Taoist and Confucian philosophy, it’s not as clear, since who the artist is matters as much as the object work itself.

That said, I think both Eastern and Western values agree that accounting for the process of creating the work is an important point of consideration.

But then, considering the algorithm that goes into programming the AI to be able to generate these works, I wouldn’t judge that as less than a human artist’s intuitive-creative process.

And just because the AI’s process is much faster than a human artist’s process, does that make it less impressive? Or shouldn’t it make it more impressive? Does the AI’s speed make the final work product any less valuable than one who produces the same skill-level of work, but takes five times as long?

When we appreciate a work of great art, we often describe it as having depth. It’s profound. Many layers of thought and symbolism and metaphor went into it.

But let’s say the AI generates a work of art based on a very complex algorithm, accounting for, let’s say, a thousand different factors. Isn’t that depth? Why isn’t that profound? Does that not have layers of thought and symbolism?

And if the argument is that a human is behind the programming of the algorithm that allows the AI to generate these works we’re calling art, so it’s still human, not AI– to me that doesn’t sound too different from the argument that our intuition, creativity, and inspiration come from some concept of god or higher divine power programming an algorithm into our mind-body-soul.

If I’m losing you, it’s not you, it’s me; I’m losing myself here, too. I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore.

The values between intuition and analytic reasoning are being blurred. Someone artistically gifted possesses an innate intuition for color combinations. But if you’re not artistically gifted, all you have to do is follow the color wheel and you can produce similar results. Now amp that up by multitudes and the analytic reasoning process an AI runs to produce a work of art that human viewers are impressed by is less and less distinguishable from, shall we say, “divinely-inspired talent.”

By the way, tinkered with placement of the hexagram numbers in the above layout design.

It’s funny how we haven’t even settled the digital art vs. analog art debate, and now there’s wholly AI generated art to contend with. I’m particularly interested in speculations and forecasts on what this all means for the future of tarot and oracle deck art.

Already, as digital art software has advanced, we see less and less analog art using traditional mediums in tarot and oracle decks. The overwhelming majority of decks available now are done via digital art.

But so far there’s still been a human artist behind the illustrations. These samplings of a hypothetical I Ching oracle deck show just how not necessary a human artist is.

And that’s unsettling. It’s fascinating, and it will open many doors of opportunity and access for more people– yes, humans– to be creative and to produce illustrations for their deck concepts, but it’s still nothing short of unsettling.

Ultimately, what all of us, human and AI alike, create is just work, and a work only becomes art by its audience. It’s through an audience’s appreciation that transforms a work into art.

And if that’s the definition we’re going with, then me as an audience would say that these AI generated works are definitely art.

The works exhibit what I, the viewer, perceive as both mechanical skill and divine possession. The meaning, symbolism, and intention behind these specific sets of AI generated works are the I Ching oracles, and I feel that the works effectively transmit the messages of the I Ching.

From a design perspective, the line work, forms, color palette, use of volume and space, expression of movement, and even my experience when looking at these images all, to me, add up to fine art.

How do I feel about an AI doing my job better than me? shrug. Guess it’s just something we humans will need to get used to.

17 thoughts on “How Do We Value Art? What AI art means for tarot and oracle deck publishing

  1. Jo

    Hi Bell ( and Mr J), hope you are both well. :)..Your post is beyond exciting!! Ive avoided ‘programmes’ for design and art- feeling that I wanted to be connected with medium. Youve given me food for thought..and Im going to play with this app. Ive a sneaking feeling that it could be brilliant for working on reflections of unintegrated self. A therapeutic, Jungian approach. As a transpersonal art therapist a big barrier to unfolding is clients self belief they cant draw. This has huge potential. Thanks ever so much Bell.
    By the way, two things. Lulu rock. Got your book and tarot workbook within 3 weeks of ordering. Unbelievably quick as Im in NZ.
    Also, I cannot believe how QUICK you and James have been with my SKT order. Im sure I was the last to order, but already you have sent them!!! You are both STARS!!! Thankyou, so much.
    Big love, Jo.

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    1. Benebell Wen

      Agreed! Because most of the works generated by the app lean toward the abstract, they’d be great for free association exercises. And so glad the Lulu orders got to you safely!

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  2. I had never seen this before and just started playing with it now. OMG as someone who is in no way creative nor artistic, this is a delight to pretend to say “look at what I made” when putting in prompts and selecting the artistic style.
    I think that this is still considered art, regardless that it was made with a program. It is visually appealing and interesting. The viewer is the interpreter who determines whether it is beautiful, worthy, or has any value. So that will always be in the hands (or eyes) of the audience to judge the merit of any created work. All props and power to the programmer who made the app. And people who use these types of apps and try to pass it off as their own artistic creation, eehhh…
    I suppose it is just the way of the future. With the industrial revolution and the rise of technological advancements that would make much work more automated, that did put a lot of skilled workers out of jobs.
    Yikes, there are a lot of thoughts and ideas here but I’m not fleshing them out enough nor forming them in any coherent way that flows. Sorry. But… yeah… Stuff.

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    1. Benebell Wen

      Yes! This app is a lot of fun and I’m tickled by how everyone in my friends circle is as obsessed with it as I am at the moment! =)

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  3. Joshua Vines

    two me personally as a consumer or this type of art medium it com down two too things the A.i. in question, though in my opinion this is too simple to be a real a.i. in the future when we have an a.i. comparable to humans would you still care? is there a difference between learning art from a master compared to that same art being put directly in to your brain is the case of an A.i? great art should stir the soul. it takes more than numbers. I tried using the program in various different art styles and with different key words and while there were lots of flashy images there was nothing that really spoke to me. as it stands now it would still better to go to a site like deviant art and pay for a commission. until such a time as A..I. is able to grasp the concept of the soul and imbue their art with it, I don’t think human artist will be out of a job.

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    1. Benebell Wen

      I don’t think this puts human artists out of jobs, but I speculate that as this type of programming evolves and becomes even more sophisticated, it sure will bring about interesting changes to the arts iindustry!

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  4. Satara

    I think something you shouldn’t forget when it comes down to “is it human or AI work”, is that an AI is more or less just a neural network that is good at taking input and creating output out of the input it got.

    What this means, is that this AI if probably filled with a lot of input that’s human artwork. We could as an example take all the artwork in an art museum or by a specific artist, and make an AI that creates your “own” art by this artist, or of a certain period, as if you yourself could go back in time and pay the artist to create it for you.

    Is that human or a computer? Sure, it is a computer. But that computer works based on patterns it learned from human-created work and parameters the programmer gave it. Just like you studied a lot of art and put your own spin on it, creating your stunning tarot deck. As of yet, I don’t think we have the AI that is thinking deeply enough that it recreates things us human do from scratch.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Alpha

    AI is dumbing us down across the board…between this and and grarm…ly…writing your sentences for you…it’s all atrophy…a downward spiral. No, I’m dead serious, I can feel the neural pathways shrinking as I write…Our technology it literally turning us into dumb animals.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Shadowrose

    It’s quite some time ago now, that I kept playing around with deep dream: You choose a picture (A) you want to show and then another one (B) to determine the art style. The AI creates picture A in the style of picture B.
    Giving keywords instead of a picture is actually not that different. And though AI is doing the calculations – it is still me choosing the composition. I am the one who puts thought and intention into the “right” keywords, or I am the one who wonders, which pictures might give a nice combination.

    I do believe it is just a different style or technique of art. I mean, think about fractals… Those are also mathematical formulas and art at the same time. They are popular, but human art did not die out.
    It’s simply a matter of preference. I personally do some things digital – but for other projects I feel more comfortable with my pencil and chalks. I don’t like to work with ink or oil paint – but does that make me less of an artist? I think not.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi. I have complicated thoughts about this:

    I come to this from the perspective of both a professional artist and a tarot reader. I played with the app to see how it works. All I did was run the preset “fire and water” theme through all of the styles to see what it produces. Here are my thoughts.

    1) Is this AI?

    I don’t think so. I honestly think this is really just a quite advanced random content generator.

    If you’re not familiar with random generators, basically, you enter some search parameters, and the generator pulls relevant content at random from its built-in database, giving one or more results each time you run it. The complexity of the results is determined by the number of parameters you give it, the content items in the database, and the size of the database.

    This art app seems to work like that, only I would guess its database is not just a collection of displayable images but also lines of code that instruct it to do certain things. The drawing codes are probably the most new and exciting thing about this app.

    I don’t mean to belittle the app. It’s fun and well made. Plus, this kind of programming, and all the work towards AI, has endless potential uses – not only some future production of thinking machines, but also advancements in neuroscience, potential treatments for brain and spinal cord injury, space and terrestrial exploration, etc. AI is pretty exciting as a science.

    But this isn’t AI, in my opinion. It’s just one of the steps towards it.

    2) Is the artist being replaced by programs like this?

    Again, I don’t think so.

    When something is called AI, we tend to assume we’re dealing with something much more independent of human input than we really are. I think this app is a random generator, and there’s definitely a “man behind the curtain,” and in this instance, it’s you.

    You created these images because you entered the content and style parameters. The app did the rendering work, but it only rendered according to your instructions. So the resulting images reflect your intelligence, not the program’s. So the app is serving you, not replacing you. This isn’t an AI deck. It’s a Benebel Wen deck.

    3) Is artificially generated art actually art?

    Sure, why not? I mean, it can be, though it can also be simply a support tool for making art.

    Randomization is not new in the arts. The Surrealists and Dadaists in the early 20th century used it all the time. The most famous example is the Exquisite Corpse game, in which several artists contributed parts to a picture – or writers contributed phrases to a poem – blind, without knowing what the other contributors had done, to create a randomized final creative work. They also used automatism, random word selections, found materials, monoprint techniques, and other exercises to disconnect the conscious mind from the creative impulse.

    I’ll note that many of the Surrealists and Dadaists were also students of the occult, and their goal with randomization was to remove socially enforced thinking habits as obstacles to receiving unfiltered input from the cosmos or the unconscious mind.

    Myself, personally, I use randomization and content generators a lot, but I use them to prompt deeper work. I take the results from a generator like this one as a starting point for my art work, not as the work itself.

    4) Could this generator produce meaningful tarot decks?

    Well, it’s in the eye of the beholder, right? For me, it doesn’t resonate, but for others it might. The images may bring meaning to them, or flow in the opposite direction and elicit meaningful responses from their minds.

    I mean, some people can scry in a droplet of water, so… I’m not going to quibble about the forms and media of divinatory communication.

    I will say the app’s image and color database is obviously limited. The images using your parameters are beautiful, but I did notice that the compositions, color choices, etc., were very similar from image to image. Running my much simpler experiment, I found very little variation among the styles. If lots of people were to use this to produce publishable decks, it would be easy to identify that they all come from this app.

    So if I were to use this app, I would use it as a starting point for my own work. I would not publish the images I got straight off the app.

    But that’s me.

    I apologize for going on at length as a new commenter, but I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time, and this happens to be right up my alley as a topic, so I went for it.

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    1. Benebell Wen

      I agree that it probably won’t displace professional (human) artists, but just as digital art software has given non-artists this false impression that art is easy, and therefore the amount of skill, labor, and talent that goes into producing art is in many ways underappreciated more now than it was before, that’s only going to worsen as the lay click a button and boom! produce a quasi-masterpiece. =)

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful commentary! Gave me lots to chew on!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree. Lack of appreciation for the arts as a skill and a profession is a long-standing problem that shows no signs of letting up. On the other hand, I feel like there’s a slowly rising trend towards appreciation of hand-work and old-school skills. Perhaps there’s a novelty/tolerance limit for these “fast food” type entertainments, objects, and performances. We can but hope and keep following our own creativity.

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  8. Pingback: I Ching Oracle Cards with AI Generated Art (Free Download) – benebell wen

  9. these are fascinating questions that raise even more questions! I used the Wombo app to make some phone backgrounds for myself, and did also generate some Tarot card designs with it for fun. They came out as beautiful pieces of atmosphere, but ultimately found that they lacked my favorite part of Tarot: the small details that my intuition hooks on to, out of which stories begin to spin. Perhaps this is what you mean by “depth”, then again, depth is given to the image by the one observing it.

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