Artists warn of the harm AI-generated illustrations can do to their careers
Jun 15, 2023

Artists warn of the harm AI-generated illustrations can do to their careers

Molly Crabapple, an artist and writer, says generative AI tools should be regulated to protect artists.

Publishers of books, magazines and their digital incarnations have long hired artists to contribute unique visuals to their storytelling. It’s the kind of work Molly Crabapple cut her teeth on.

Her illustrated journalism has been published by outlets like Vice, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. But she fears the format faces an existential threat from artificial intelligence image generators like DALL-E and Stable Diffusion.

Crabapple recently wrote an open letter about her concerns in collaboration with the Center for Artistic Inquiry and Reporting. The following is an edited transcript of her conversation with Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino.

Molly Crabapple (Courtesy Marina Galperina)

Molly Crabapple: Right now, you can go into Midjourney or Stability AI and you can type in “street in New York City drawn by Molly Crabapple,” and you can get something that looks like a crazy robot knockoff of the style that I spent my life developing. And this isn’t just something that people are doing as a hobby, for fun. Right now, tons of big places are using AI generated images, because they’re just impossibly cheap and fast. For instance, Al Jazeera started using AI to make these very mediocre comics about various parts of Middle Eastern history. And they look terrible, they’re soulless, but they’re still just good enough to fill the space that a real artist would have formerly gotten paid to fill.

Meghan McCarty Carino: You are a well-known artist — well known enough to have been encoded in these tools. Have you sort of seen your art impacted by this technology yet?

Crabapple: I’m really lucky. I am in a pretty good position in the illustration world. However, the community that I come from — all of these artists that I grew up with, my best friends — they’re facing shrinking work, shrinking market, shrinking budgets also. And not just that, but the pressure to do more for less money in less time.

McCarty Carino: In the letter, you sort of predict that this could mean only a tiny elite of artists will be able to make a living as an artist, selling human-made art like a luxury good.

Crabapple: Absolutely. I think that there’s always going to be some places, like the really fancy places, the big muckety-mucks, I think that they will probably always use primarily human art, because it just looks better. However, I think for the blue-collar work that the vast majority of illustrators rely — our bread and butter stuff — I think that’s just going to be gone.

McCarty Carino: You pointed out in the letter that this isn’t the first technology that has kind of disrupted this slice of the art world. Obviously, photography kind of changed the game. How is this different?

Crabapple: Photographers didn’t break into oil painters’ studios and steal all their stuff to make the camera. These generators are the product of billion-dollar corporations scraping all of our images and using them for their own profit. They are built on mass copyright violation and mass theft. And I think that’s really the immorality at the heart of them. And I think that it’s very telling that these corporations decided to go so aggressively after artists as opposed to other industries that have more money, and that have meaner lawyers, and more of a history of suing. I think that what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to use the old Silicon Valley tack of “move fast and break things.” And the things that they’re breaking are us, and they just want to get it out there so fast that it becomes ubiquitous, and people feel like they’re too big to challenge. That’s their strategy.

McCarty Carino: So what kind of response are you calling for and from whom?

Crabapple: We called for publications just not to use this crap, to absolutely boycott the use of AI-generated work. And we’re also calling for the community to call it out. So right now, there is a class-action lawsuit by artists that’s being helmed by the illustrator Karla Ortiz. They’re suing three of the major generators for mass copyright violation, and I support them with all my heart. I think we need to call on our elected officials to legislate these creatures. Why are we waiting to see what Silicon Valley companies are going to destroy next? We need to legislate them now.

McCarty Carino: Since this open letter was published, have you gotten any responses to it?

Crabapple: Oh, my God, have I gotten any responses to it? Yeah, well, first of all, we got, like, 7,000 people [who] signed it from all over the world. But I’ve also been very heartened at how many computational scientists and people who are serious, serious tech people have agreed with what I said and have reached out. I think that there are so many alliances to be made between artists and technologists on this. I don’t think that these bots are so good that they can completely replace humans. They need so much human help to work. However, the jobs that they replace are going to have massively more autonomy and massively more money than the jobs that they create. Essentially, they get rid of middle-class work and they replace it with repetitive, low-paid work in which people are just interchangeable and replaceable.

McCarty Carino: In your opinion, is there a way for these generative AI art tools to ethically coexist with human artists? Could artists find ways to leverage them to their own benefit?

Crabapple: No, you can’t leverage them to your own benefit. Every time you upload your work to it, you’re just training it, and you’re training it to compete with you. And so if you make a culture where no one can make a living as an illustrator, no young, creative person can ever get their foot in the door, can never give their life to this crazy field like I did, there isn’t going to be new work to feed the generators. And it’s just going to be this human centipede of repetitive corporate crap, because the only reason that they look as quasi good as they do is because of the quantity of data that they sucked up.

Crabapple mentioned a group of three artists who has sued several AI image generators. A separate lawsuit has also been brought by Getty Images against Stability AI for what it calls the illegal use of thousands of images without compensation. Those lawsuits have not yet been resolved.

Recently, a new image generator launched that is trying to do things differently: Ascendant Art promises to pay artists royalties for submitting their work to train the AI, and it says it won’t allow other bots to scrape its library.

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