The good news is that I’m a journalist, so I went ahead and asked a few artists, researchers, and art critics what they thought of the aesthetics of AI art. First, I called Amelia Winger-Bearskin, an artist and professor at the University of Florida. Winger-Bearskin has been cataloging different visual trends that she has noticed in recent AI art. She calls one trend Nightmare Corp., often exemplified by imagery evoked by Google’s Deep Dream, an older generator released in 2015. She specializes in swirling, psychedelic imagery, like memories of an especially harrowing acid trip. “Progressive rock influences, for sure,” she says. Another category Winger-Bearskin explores, which she calls Dada 3D, is a lot like the silly scenes I cause when playing with these generators. She describes it as “sort of like a surreal parlor game.”
In addition to taxonomizing trends, Winger-Bearskin has noted broader stylistic tics in these generators. She sees Western animation and Disney-style anime as obvious influences, as well as a tendency to treat whiteness as the default race, a result, she suspects, of training these generators on data sets that are weight-heavy. Disney-style western animation, anime. , and images of white people.
Lev Manovich is also paying close attention. The cultural theorist and professor at the City University of New York has been lurking on Midjourney’s Discord server for the past year, analyzing how people use the generator. After Midjourney released an update last fall, he saw some changes to what people were asking the generator to do. After he got better at depicting humans realistically, for example, requests for portraits of men and women increased.
Digital artist Sam King began following the AI art scene closely in 2021. Excited by what they saw, they began exchange his favorite images on social media, building a following as a curator just as technology was taking off. They describe the previous wave of generators as favoring “abstract, mind-blowing stuff.” (These generators are known as generative antagonistic networks, or GANs. I have seen some people call this rather uncreative aspect GANism.)
King views the newer wave of generators, called diffusion models, as stylistically distinct. Just as oil paint and watercolors produce different recognizable effects, GAN generators and diffusion generators produce different recognizable images. If you want a more realistic depiction of, say, Tony Soprano having a cappuccino with Shrek, diffusion models are more likely to produce convincing results. “In theory, you can do all kinds of different aesthetics with these machines,” he says. However, more realistic does not necessarily mean more stylistically varied. Like Winger-Bearskin, King sees Disney and anime influences crop up frequently, as well as comic book art.
“The rhetoric of these companies is that you can do anything you can imagine. It’s about this open frontier. But, of course, popular culture follows particular stereotypes and tropes,” Manovich says. He sees variations on various themes over and over again: “Fantasy, fairy tale, comic book, video game.”