Send that Stuff on Down to Me
Making bullshit art with DALL•E and ChatGPT
Like a lot of terminal wordcels, I’ve watched the rise of ChatGPT with a combination of fascination, amusement, revulsion, and anxiety. But lately, all those feelings have been superseded by fatalism mixed with ambivalence. Fatalism because ChatGPT was inevitable—and now that it’s here, there’s no un-inventing it. And ambivalence because I recognize the social utility of this technology when it comes to use cases like translating official documents, even as I can’t ignore the many, many less benevolent use cases.
But today I want to focus on—surprise!—the anxiety and revulsion. Recently, the legendary singer-songwriter Nick Cave, presented with a ChatGPT “song in the style of Nick Cave,” wrote: “this song is bullshit, a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human, and, well, I don’t much like it.” He elaborated:
Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.
Cave is speaking for a lot of us wordcels here, particularly when he describes ChatGPT’s output as bullshit.
Indeed, ChatGPT is a bullshit factory, and not just in the strictly ad hominem sense. As Ezra Klein has pointed out, every original ChatGPT product fits the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s more conceptually robust definition of bullshit as something that is generated without any reference to the truth. A bullshit claim is something different from (and inferior to) a lie: a liar knows the truth and consciously seeks to conceal it, whereas a bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth one way or another. A lie fabricates an alternate meaning, whereas bullshit is indifferent to the very concept of meaning.
As a creator, ChatGPT is incapable of anything except bullshit, because it is incapable of apprehending meaning. But maybe ChatGPT isn’t a creator. Maybe we set unreasonable expectations when we say AI “wrote” a song or “drew” a picture.
For example, let’s say I give DALL•E 2 the following prompt: “A portrait of Nick Cave in the style of Pablo Picasso.” But I’m unsatisfied with the result, so I enter a more specific prompt: “A portrait of Nick Cave in the style of Pablo Picasso’s blue period.” That doesn’t get me what I want either, so I try “A portrait of Nick Cave strumming a guitar in the style of Pablo Picasso’s blue period.” And so on until I get something I’m satisfied with.
Did DALL•E 2 make a picture? Or did I make a picture, using DALL•E 2 as my medium? When I go through multiple iterations of my prompt until I get something I’m satisfied with, I’m using some process of judgment. I’m imposing my own sense of meaning, throwing out the bullshit images and starting over until I get something that feels less like bullshit. The sunniest interpretation of this process is that I’m the artist, and AI is a tool that artists use to make art—no different from a paintbrush and canvas, except that it empowers non-proficient painters to realize something that would otherwise take years of training (and maybe some innate talent that they lack).
That interpretation isn’t quite bullshit, but it’s close. Here’s Cave again:
What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognises as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering. This is what we humble humans can offer, that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings. This is where human genius resides, deeply embedded within, yet reaching beyond, those limitations.
The particularity of the individual artist’s experience—the years of training, the countless hours of effort, the past victories and defeats, the secret shame and compensatory vanity, the conscious and unconscious influences—are what make a work of art. AI offers a shortcut past all of that.
Here’s another way to think about it. All art has a relationship with certain pre-established patterns of meaning. If I set out to write an English sonnet, then I know that the audience will expect it to contain precisely 14 lines and adhere to the following rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. I may choose to follow those rules. Or maybe something strikes me during the writing or editing process, and I decide that the poem’s structure should be ABAB CDCD EFEF AAAA. I’ve broken the rules, but I’ve done so consciously in order to achieve some kind of effect. If my reader is at all familiar with the traditional sonnet structure, they are surprised—and that surprise means something too.
Now let’s say I ask ChatGPT to write a poem. ChatGPT has rules too. But whereas a sonnet’s rules are transparent and easily comprehensible, ChatGPT’s rules are proprietary information. Even if made public, they would be comprehensible only to technical specialists. I can feed ChatGPT some of my own rules—I can tell it the structure and rhyming pattern—but I can’t know how it will interact with the system’s own hidden rules.
ChatGPT may not by the creator, but neither am I. At best, I’m a collaborator whose co-authors are hidden to me. They’re the long dead poets whose own sonnets became grist for the model; the team of engineers who built ChatGPT; and the small army of Kenyan content workers whose job it is to strip hate speech and abusive content out of the model’s training material.
All art is in some sense a collaboration, or at least a conversation: a conversation with your influences, your audience, the people you used to be or still are on some days. Creation is a mysterious process. I was reminded of that while reading Cave’s response to ChatGPT, which brought to mind one of my favorite works of art about the mystery of creativity: Cave’s “There She Goes, My Beautiful World.”
“There She Goes” is sung from the perspective of a poet begging for inspiration. Here’s part of the song’s climax (Genius.com annotations include):
So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet
Brother, and blow it
If you've got a field, that don't yield
Well get up and hoe it
I look at you and you look at me and
Deep in our hearts know it
That you weren't much of a muse
But then I weren't much of a poet
I will be your slave, I will peel you grapes
Up on your pedestal with your ivory and apes
With your book of ideas with your alchemy
O come on send that stuff on down to me
Send that stuff on down to me (x4)
We don’t know anything about the muse in the song. But I think the muse comes from somewhere dark and secret within the singer, and that it takes work—some combination of unsexy toil and eldritch ritual—to make her speak. At the risk of spoiling the song’s poetry, I think we can say the muse is a stand-in for one’s unconscious. This is the hidden collaborator that gives your work specificity; that helps you find a work’s internal logic and tells you when it’s time to break that logic—when a sonnet should end on AAAA instead of GG.
When I ask ChatGPT to write a song, I’m outsourcing most of the work of that inner voice to a private company. The work then becomes a purely technical process—mysterious only because I don’t have access to OpenAI’s code, and wouldn’t be able to read it if I did. An act that is so personal that it comes from a part of myself that even I usually don’t get to access has been replaced by something bureaucratic and profoundly impersonal.
That’s how you wind up with bullshit art. The truth in this case is Cave’s “authentic creative struggle,” and the bullshit is some very sophisticated machine learning that attempts to simulate it. No wonder Cave was so disgusted to have ChatGPT reflect his style back at him.
ChatGPT, DALL•E and other AI tools may certainly have some valuable uses. But they can’t create art; the way they function is in fact profoundly hostile to art. And as they proliferate as a low-cost alternative to hiring flesh-and-blood creative types, I worry that they’ll strip much of the artfulness from the human-made world. If that comes to pass, they’ll simply be continuing a process that is already well underway. Our built environment will become a colder, more inhuman, and much uglier place.
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Another way of writing this old essay of mine would be to say that George W. Bush is a liar and Donald Trump is a bullshitter.