The End of Functional Art

Anybody who predicts AI will replace artists, that it will direct all our movies and compose all our music should also predict that robots will take over football, basketball, hockey…

Sounds ridiculous, right? It’s because for physical activities we have two words: work and sport. In physical work, only the outcome matters. We are indifferent to the way in which this outcome is achieved. A delivery by drone brings exactly the same value as a delivery by a human driver. It’s not the same when we watch a hockey game. We very much care about the humans pushing the puck around.

For art we don’t have different words. We call relaxation music music and we say that Radiohead plays music. Everyday language doesn’t distinguish between those two things, but they are different. We typically don’t care about the creation process behind relaxation music — as long as it helps us relax. But almost everyone at a Radiohead concert very much cares that the music stems from the intentions, the emotions, and the suffering of real human beings.

This amalgamation of two different things behind the single word art has real consequences. A lot of people who aspire to be artists — to create something intentionally, by distilling their emotions, by tapping into their creativity — have jobs where they make functional art. It scratches the itch a little. An illustrator can put some of their emotions and creativity in their illustration. They can do it even if most people clicking on the Add to Cart button will do so without sparing a thought for the human who made the webpage illustration.

To use the sports analogy, imagine a world where package delivery was done by soccer players getting paid to kick spherical packages around. When robots get invented, all these functional soccer players will lose their jobs. The world would soon have much fewer peopler spending their day playing soccer. Many would be forced to accept jobs they enjoy a lot less.

Where am I going with this argument?

I think what the current world is showing us is that a lot more people aspire to be artists than what the market is willing to pay for art. This mismatch is being partly hidden by the fact that the market asks for a lot of functional art and, today, people dreaming of being artists can scratch their itch by being employed doing functional art.

Unfortunately, more and more aspects of functional art will be automated. It will create pain for countless people who will no longer be able to get paid to do what they love doing. Contrary to previous waves of automation, where manual jobs got automated and people, through education, eventually accessed jobs that were more fulfilling to them, I can’t imagine arguing that people getting paid to do functional art will eventually access jobs that are more meaningful to them.

So what do we do? Should we accept this relentless march of progress even if it causes more and more people to have less fulfilling jobs?

Or do we remember that it’s our world, our society, and that we can decide how we shape it?