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Artificial Intelligence Artwork Generators

Is AI a legitimate form of artistic expression? For now the answer is in the eye of the beholder.

Images: AI Generated Théâtre D’opéra Spatial  

-By Jason Allen

Issue 1, 2023-2024

The debate around AI art went viral once again when a man won first place at the Colorado State Fair’s art competition in the digital category with an artwork he made using text-to-image AI generator Midjourney.


Jason Allen, a video game designer in Pueblo, Colorado, spent roughly 80 hours working on his entry to the 2022 Colorado State Fair’s digital arts competition. Judges awarded him first place, which came with a $300 prize. But when Allen posted about his win on social media, his artwork went viral -for all the wrong reasons. His victory took a turn when he revealed online that he’d created his prize-winning art using Midjourney, an artificial intelligence program that can turn text descriptions into images. He says he also made that clear to state fair officials when he dropped off his submission, called Théâtre D’opéra Spatial. But over the last year, his blue ribbon has sparked an impassioned debate about what constitutes art.

Allen, for his part, says he intended to make a statement with his artwork and, considering the lively online discourse around it, he feels like he accomplished that goal. He doesn’t appear to have broken any official state fair rules, either.

Colorado’s 150-year-old state fair is held each summer in Pueblo. The fair’s submission guidelines do not directly mention AI-generated art, but they define digital arts as “artistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.” The competition’s two judges say they were unaware that Allen had used AI to create his piece. But even if they had known, they still would’ve given him first place. They said they awarded the top prize based on the story Théâtre D’opéra Spatial tells, as well as the spirit it invokes.


The art piece depicts a strange scene that looks like it could be from a space opera, and it looks like a masterfully done painting. Classical figures in a Baroque hall stare through a circular viewport into a sun-drenched and radiant landscape.


Allen created Théâtre D’opéra Spatial by entering various words and phrases into Midjourney, which then produced more than 900 renderings for him to choose from. He selected his three favorites, then continued adjusting them in Photoshop until he was satisfied. He boosted their resolution using a tool called Gigapixel and printed the works on canvas.


Allen entered all three pieces into the competition, paying an $11 submission fee for each one. He listed them for sale for $750 a piece, a price he came up with by considering quotes from other artists.


Allen said he believes the criticism of his work stems from fear. Artists are concerned that technology will one day become so sophisticated that they’ll be out of jobs. To developers and technically minded people, AI is this cool thing, but to illustrators, it’s very upsetting because it feels like it’s eliminating the need to hire the illustrator. The fear is, AI has a real possibility to devalue art in the long run.


Moreover, AI art tools may also have other unintended consequences, especially when bad actors get their hands on them. These technologies have the potential to spread disinformation and create deep fakes, an umbrella term for deceptive photos and videos that are digitally altered.


The controversy around Allen’s artwork may prompt the Colorado State Fair to change its rules or possibly even create a standalone AI category. But in the meantime, it’s sparking a broader conversation about how we decide what art is. Now the Pueblo-based game designer, who created his award-winning piece is exploiting his fame as an AI-art poster child to launch a campaign to legally protect AI works.

“The US Copyright Office rejected my copyright registration for the image, so after a some time spent going back and forth, I’ve hired a lawyer and I’m appealing their decision,” said Allen, who is now unveiling a coordinated online protest against the ruling. “We’re prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court.”


Allen’s Colorado-based protest is called COVER, or Copyright Obstruction Violates Expressive Rights. He’s filed a Request for Reconsideration with the US Copyright Office in an attempt to establish sole ownership of an artwork generated using AI software, the first appeal of its type. It parallels international debates and legal cases about revenue and commercial rights with AI creations but takes specific issue with the US Copyright Office’s reasoning.


“We have decided that we cannot register this copyright claim because the deposit does not contain any human authorship,” Copyright Office officials wrote in their decision. “Instead, the deposit contains only material that your client solicited from an artificial intelligence art-generator.”


In response, Allen and Denver-based trademark attorney Tamara Pester argue that “the use of AI in the creation of art is a legitimate form of artistic expression,” and that such works should be afforded the same protection as “traditional” forms of art. 

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