I Am My Project

I have been in a creative funk; unable to write compellingly; unable to focus on moving photographic work forward. My “Feminine Mystique” project, which at the beginning of the year I imagined myself deeply engaged with by now, is creeping along at the proverbial snail’s pace. I have felt that I am pressing against cosmic headwinds to do anything at all.


I have been working very hard at reinventing my look. Last year I began exploring a feminine space. I did a lot of writing about it. As fall began coloring the landscape in yellows, oranges and reds, I began coloring my lips in natural and coppery pink, wearing my hair down with 60’s style headbands, wearing my nails longer and pulling tunic like garments out of my closet that I hadn’t worn in ages because they connected my outward appearance with the intense feminine I was feeling inside.

I have always had a strong feminine side, though I did not manifest it much outwardly. For a long time I have preferred the company of women more than most men I meet. And when I say I prefer the company of women to men, it is not only about sexual attraction. I identify with them more deeply than I do men. I like cooking, keeping the house, talking about the things women talk about. I don’t watch sports, I am not interested in fast cars, I have no desire to be a corporate titan, or a corporate anything at all. I don’t play golf, tennis or racquet ball. I do yoga. I have always operated at the fringes of what is normal for my sex and generation, making forays into alternative ways of conceiving myself and then scurrying back to the outer boundaries of normalcy.

In place of the creative projects I envisioned at the start of the year, I am spending a ton of time on women’s clothing sites looking for women’s clothing I can wear. I purchased my first sweater dress from Poetry in early December and it looks great on me. People have been complimentary. I wear it mostly over black slimline jeans. In that configuration it presents more as a tunic than a dress. I have also worn it with tights. In that configuration it presents very much as a dress. I have purchased some colorful knit tops and a couple of statement necklaces. I get compliments on these too when I wear them.

For the past few weeks I have been focusing on my spring wardrobe. The goal is to present in a feminine way without looking ridiculous or pathetic. To walk a fashion line that swings back and forth between feminine and masculine. I ordered a pencil skirt to see how such a skirt would fit on me and discovered that I might not be able to do pencil skirts which might also nix some of the denim sheath skirts I was lusting after. So now I am focusing on tunics and leggings, shirt and sweater dresses, and A line skirts. I have started looking for tops to go with the skirts. I am very enthusiastically putting time and resources into my look, which I have never done before.

Black and gray Marimekko A line skirt on a model.

Denim A line skirt with button front closure.

Model wearing blue tunic shirt.

It finally occurred to me that my creative project is what I am putting my time and resources into, and right now, that is myself. I am a caterpillar that has spun its transformation cocoon and is busy reinventing itself. What kind of butterfly or moth will I become? I am spending most of my time and a lot of my money, as well as psychological and emotional energy into revisioning my outward appearance. My artwork is me. Until I figure out my inward/outward self, I won’t be able to make art or write much. But when I have this transformation firmly in hand and have rolled it out to public spaces, I have no doubt that I will start making art around it.

This is a complex undertaking in which I continually feel I am risking things. I am risking people’s respect (am I doing this in a dignified way or in a way that makes me seem ridiculous?). I am risking the stability of my friendships (who among my friends will understand and who will distance themselves from me?). I am risking the stability of my marriage (How much change and how fast can our relationship handle?).

I am excited and scared. I also feel gratitude that at the age of 68 going on 69 I am able to reinvent myself like this. It is a beautiful gift to my aliveness.

Can AI Make Art?

It is the responsibility of artists to pay attention to the world, pleasant or otherwise, and to help us live respectfully in it.

Artists do this by keeping their curiosity and moral sense alive, and by sharing with us their gift for metaphor. Often this means finding similarities between observable fact and inner experience—between birds in a vacant lot, say, and an intuition worthy of Genesis.

More than anything else, beauty is what distinguishes art. Beauty is never less than a mystery, but it has within it a promise.

In this way, art encourages us to gratitude and engagement, and is of both personal and civic consequence.

—Robert Adams

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It was clear to me early in the week that I wanted to write more directly about art and that I wanted to consider the question of whether AI could make art.

Much of the criticism of AI generated art revolves around the idea that AI isn’t human, doesn’t have the experiences of a human, doesn’t feel the way humans do, doesn’t suffer the way humans do. Therefore, it can’t make art. At least not in the sense suggested above by Robert Adams.

I started this post with the idea that I would make the case that art needs humans and functions best when, as suggested above, it is a process of comprehending, connecting and inspiring. That it’s a human to human gesture and can only be meaningful in that context. The problem with this thesis is that humans are, for now at least, required to start the AI process of making an art object.

Did you know that ’prompt engineering’ is one of the hottest jobs in generative AI? A Prompt Engineer specializes in asking the right questions in order to get the best results from AI. This means that there is a moment of opportunity for human creativity (or lack thereof).

I imagine museum worthy art will arise out of the interface of generative AI and gifted artists and that AI will become a tool of working artists just as cameras became a tool of working artists. Some artists will specialize in prompting AI into the generation of art. It will be their medium. And exceptionally talented individuals will tease out of it “a moment of intuition worthy of Genesis.”

When the photographic process was invented many artists, especially the painters, were hostile towards it. They worried that it would devalue their work much the way artists worry AI will devalue their work now. Before long though cameras were embraced as both an art medium and a tool in the artist tool box. Human beings were required to generate anything from it. As long as humans are required, there is the possibility of art. We give tools purpose. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t disruption, as some illustration work, fore example, was replaced by photographic representation, depriving some artists of a means to support themselves while those embracing the new tool had new horizons for monetization.

A lot of people will use AI to make “art” in the same way that they use cameras to make “art.” They will share it on social media and many will get generous appreciation from their friends and acquaintances. With a little compositional skill, it is easy to make an image that makes people feel something and they will like it. But is that art?

I recently revisited the Hipstamatic app on my iPhone. It’s an app that mimics the effects of plastic cameras. It applies a set of filters to the photograph to give it a ‘look.’ Here is an example:

The picture on the left has the Hipstamatic effect. The one on the right is straight out of the iPhone camera. Which do you prefer?

I have always been hesitant to make Hipstamatic effects a part of my art practice. It felt like cheating to me. It felt like a superficial way to engage people through, in this case, their fondness for nostalgia. And it does work. Consider this photograph I made and shared last week:

It prompted much more engagement from the community I shared it with than most of the other photographs I have shared with them. Most of the time I get no response at all.

Here’s an image that is more typical of the pictures I like to make and share:

Which attracted you more? The Hipstamatic version of the Sunoco gas station or this ‘abstract’ made by composing the drainage basin, concrete pad, asphalt and crack in the asphalt within a rectangular frame. If you said the Sunoco picture, emotionally, I agree with you. Intellectually, I prefer the drainage basin abstract.

Don’t get me wrong, I love nostalgia, just as most people do. It’s like mashed potatoes, comfort food, but I don’t want to make work that panders to that nostalgia love but does little else. Art needs to contain more than an emotional hook for me. As I sit here writing about it, I have to acknowledge that one could make a legitimate art portfolio with the Hipstamatic app and that perhaps I should attempt to do so. Such a portfolio would have to be exploring something conceptual, like making a demonstration of how anything can be made appealing if you put the right color glasses on to look at it and what does that mean about us and society. Something like that might head in the direction of a worthy intuition.

A lot of what people will make with generative AI will be compelling, but it won’t be art in the sense that Robert Adams tries to get at in the quote I started this post with. What will happen, unfortunately, is that it will further devalue the artist in the eyes of the general public, because “my five year old could make that.”

A little over a week ago I attended the opening of an art show at the Public Library in Saugerties, NY. It was a good show. Each of the artists was asked to make something out of a discarded book. The results were amazing. It was fun to attend the opening and talk with the artists or eavesdrop as they talked with friends. This is not, I thought, the kind of assignment one could give to AI. An artist working with AI might prompt it to generate some of the materials to be incorporated into the work, but making three dimensional art out of found materials seems beyond the present capacity of AI. There’s also nothing quite like the experience of being with art and artists in the flesh. Human to human.

Here is some of the work I saw:

Collage portrait of a woman made with pieces of the pages of a book.

”Maggie” Brian Lynch

Sculpture of a landscape and two ponds made by carving out and adding to a book.

”Discover, Explore, Immerse Yourself” Grey Morris

Madona and Child and Primitive Art Face collaged into the pages of an old book.

”Once Upon a Time” Ann Morris

Framed images of a discarded book and roses made paper made from the pages of a discarded book on a fireplace mantle.

”I Promessi Sposi” Steven Parisi-Gentile

I am comforted by the idea that there are modes and vehicles of human expression that are hard for AI to tackle. That even with AI, gifted human interface will still be needed to make the best art, and that getting together and sharing art is the more fulfilling experience.

I wonder if I could become a good prompt artist? I think I am going to have to play with it some. I will report back when I do.

Another Post About AI

The chance of gain is by every man more or less over-valued, and the chance of loss is by most men undervalued, and by scarce any man, who is in tolerable health and spirits, valued more than it is worth. —Adam Smith

I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will. The Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine philosophically. In that respect I am not a Jew… I believe with Schopenhauer: We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must. Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.

I am enough of an artist to draw freely from the imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. —Albert Einstein

While I certainly wasn’t done with my thinking about AI, I did not expect to be returning to the topic so soon, but there was a cascade of stories in my news feed about AI that I felt compelled to save for future reference and it turned into the dominant trend for the week. So, here I am again.

Let me start by sharing that cascade with you:

Sci-Fi Mag Pauses Submissions Amid Flood of AI-Generated Short Stories

The rise of AI-powered chatbots is wreaking havoc on the literary world. Sci-fi publication Clarkesworld Magazine is temporarily suspending short story submissions, citing a surge in people using AI chatbots to “plagiarize” their writing.

Viral “Photographer” Reveals His Images Were AI-Generated

Jos Avery was surprised when his portraiture account amassed nearly 30,000 followers in just five months. The self-described photographer primarily posted heavily retouched black-and-white portraits accompanied by fictional stories about the subjects to @averyseasonart. But Avery recently came clean and told the world that his “photos” were actually generated by Midjourney, a text prompt-based artificial intelligence image-generation program.

Mueseum Under Fire for Showing AI Version of Vermeer Masterpiece

… critics of AI technology found the museum’s decision to show Midjourney-generated art concerning. Artist Iris Compiet commented on the My Girl with a Pearl Instagram post that she found the amount of AI images entered an “incredible insult,” and others agreed. Some artists have heavily condemned the platform and other similar tools like Stable Diffusion for scraping potentially copyrighted works to create datasets, allegedly without seeking artists’ permission. Midjourney and DeviantArt are part of a class-action lawsuit recently filed by the United States District Court for the Northern District of California accusing the platforms of copyright infringement.

And then there was John Oliver’s contribution to the subject:

John Oliver on new AI programs: ‘The potential and the peril here are huge’

It’s hilarious. Time well spent even if it glides over the longterm threat a little too smoothly by telling us not to worry, the AI we are dealing with is narrowly focused and therefore not capable of taking over the world, yet. He does, however, get to something that is important, which is that these AI iterations are something of a black box. We don’t know how they do what they do. Right now that’s because the driving algorithms are proprietary and secret. Oliver argues for transparency which is well and good, but, it is probable that this intelligence will self develop itself to a place where we really can’t understand how it does what it does.

Here are a couple of my own offerings on the subject in the past two months:

What is ChatGPT For?

In which I conclude…

My most optimistic self says this isn’t the invasion of the body snatchers or the Borg. We will continue to do what we do, be what we are, love and hate one another, gather in communities small and large. While doing so, we will be parts of something that is more.


Nick Cave Vs. ChatGPT

In which I observe:

Much as I admire Nick Cave and my musician friend for being the valiant and vibrant creators that they are, I think the argument that ChatGPT doesn’t feel and hasn’t experienced is beside the point. It doesn’t need to feel, it only needs to make human beings feel in this particular game. It only needs to predict what will bring tears to our eyes and laughter to our faces, what will draw us deeply in and help us transcend ourselves. I suspect that ChatGPT and other AI like it can and will get very good at that.

And finally, a talk I gave at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in 2009:

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of

In this talk I reviewed the publicly available information about AI and robotics and concluded that we should call it “Alternative Intelligence,” not Artificial. It also contains a pretty interesting excerpt from the Unabomber Manifesto if you’re interested.

So, why another post about AI? Because I want to get a few things straight in my/our minds about AI.

  • AI is here to stay.
  • AI is the continued evolution of intelligence on the planet.
  • AI is already very good at, and will get even better at, getting us to engage with it.
  • There will certainly be good that comes of AI.
  • There will certainly be bad that comes of AI.
  • We are not in control of the evolution of AI and never will be.
  • We can be happy, creative and productive in spite of AI.

So, let’s take each of these statements in turn.

AI is here to stay.

No matter what we think about it, no matter how angry we get with it, no matter how afraid we are of it, we are not going to stop it from happening. It is the product of a global economic system that is utterly entrenched and stands to benefit from it enormously. Because there is so much for some to gain from it, vast sums of money are being and will continue to be invested in it. Because it is the exciting cutting edge of computer technology there will be an endless supply of young engineers that will want to work on it.

AI is the continued evolution of intelligence on the planet.

I believe that AI is part of an evolutionary step in the development of intelligence on the planet and there are evolutionary processes behind its emergence that are not comprehensible to us because we are enmeshed in them, subsumed by them.

AI is already very good at, and will get even better at, getting us to engage with it.

If you think Facebook and Twitter and Instagram were addictive, AI will make them seem like child’s play in its ability to serve up what makes us smile, laugh, cry, angers us, you name it. If we can feel it, AI will learn to serve up content that makes us feel. This will be very addictive.

There will certainly be good that comes of AI.

Think health and well being. Thinking affordable legal assistance. Think self driving cars and trucks (they will get here). There is lots we can be helped with.

So, we have to decide how we want to deal with it. How we want to be with it.

There will certainly be bad that comes of AI.

Whether or not “Skynet” ever evolves, there is plenty to be worried about. Think user addiction (see above). Think the ultimate scam artist. Think behavior we can’t explain or control (the black box problem, see above).

We are not in control of the evolution of AI and never will be.

I personally don’t think we have ever been in control of it and aren’t about to start being in control of it. Intelligence is evolving. It was always going to do that. Short of societal collapse (which is not an impossibility by any stretch of the imagination given the threats to the globe currently unfolding), AI will continue to progress. What it evolves into is a huge question that can’t be fully answered right now though Hollywood is not at all short on speculation (see the Terminator series, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, etc).

We can be happy, creative and productive in spite of AI.

Assuming there is no “Skynet” scenario, assuming we are not enslaved by it, then I think we might coexist with it, that we will be a part of it even as we go about our daily lives.

This past Friday I attended an art exhibition in the library of Saugerties, NY. Here is some of the artwork I saw:

Each of the artists invited to the show was given a discarded book and asked to create a site specific sculpture. It is a unique show in a local setting. At the beginning of the year I set an aspiration to support the artists I know and art in general by being present to it, attending openings, seeing shows, especially local ones. This is the level where face to face contact with human imagination and its products is to be experienced. I saw some very good art on Friday. I got to talk with a few of the artists about their work and eavesdrop on a couple others talking to friends and others about their work. It was a direct, visceral experience.

I am convinced that the best way to navigate the changes that are coming our way is to go local. Either as artist or art appreciator, go local. Share your work locally, seize every opportunity you can to see and appreciate local work and meet the artist. You may or may not be creating or witnessing “museum worthy” work, but you will be participating directly in the culture of the place you are in. This is a level of being and interconnection that I don’t think AI can disrupt except to the extent that it entices us out of this local experience. Locks us up in our homes, offices and studios, starring at the computer screen. We must allow ourselves to be compelled to be human.