Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Who's In This Podcast
Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Jason Schneider is a camera collector, fine art photographer, writer, and photojournalist.

Ep23. Jason Schneider: Art, A.I. & Immortality

Up Next
Ep24. Ksenia Se: A.I., Don’t Mimic Us

Ep23. Art, A.I. & Immortality: Explore the Human Urge to Create, Transcend Reality, and Express Consciousness with Creativity Squared Writer Jason Schneider

Jason Schneider is a modern day Renaissance man: photographer, writer, philosopher, collector, and poet, to name a few of his passions. He developed a youthful love of photography into a fruitful career in media over 18 years as monthly columnist and Editorial Director of Modern Photography, followed by 16 years as Editor-in-Chief of Popular Photography. He’s seen every inch of the photography business, through roles as a photojournalist, commercial photographer, and camera test manager. He carries a profound knowledge of cameras and their functionalities, in fact his writings over the years are compiled and published in a 3-volume series on camera collecting. 

Jason was also an integral contributor to the Leica Camera Blog. And yes, if you’ve been following the Creativity Squared blog, you will recognize Jason as the author of previous posts exploring the meaning of art, the existential implications of A.I. on photography, and consciousness and art.  

Despite the labor and love that Jason’s poured into photography, he isn’t hostile toward A.I. image generators like Midjourney and DALL-E 3. He’s doubtful that A.I. will make the photographer obsolete, and he’s confident that no matter how advanced technology becomes, art will always require a human touch. 

Photo by Jason Schneider

What is Art? 

Jason says that art is humanity’s “defining passion.” It’s something that humans, and only humans, have engaged in since the Stone Age. Now that artificial intelligence is eroding humans’ monopoly on intelligence, it’s worth examining the fundamental dynamics of our relationship with art.  

Jason believes that our human drive to create art comes from our awareness of our mortality and our desire to leave something of ourselves behind, in un essai d’immortalité, an attempt at immortality.

This innate desire is enabled by humans’ unique ability to represent their world through symbolism. 

One of the signal and identifying features of human consciousness is the ability to abstract – to take significant details and present them in a symbolic form.

Jason Schneider

So art is uniquely human, and the creation of art is reliant on humans’ ability to process their surroundings and distill it into an image or a word or mathematical symbol. But what distinguishes art from the other modes of symbolic representation like math and language? 

Jason points to specificity and selectivity. Art is representation, and a representation is inherently less than the thing being represented, so the art of representation comes down to deciding which elements to depict and, just as importantly, which elements not to depict. 

Jason invokes the ever-concise Emily Dickinson to illustrate his point about art being a process of selective representation. In one of her short poems, Dickinson articulates the idea that even our best attempts at representation often fail to convey the entirety of meaning: 

Could mortal lip divine

The undeveloped Freight

Of a delivered syllable

‘Twould crumble with the weight

Emily Dickinson

Ironically, this understanding of art resembles the way that A.I. diffusion models generate an image from a prompt – starting from a canvas of pure digital noise, like the world around us, and systematically reducing that noise until the artist’s vision emerges. 

You’re taking a specific thing out of the great tumbling reality around you and requesting that the viewer pay attention to this particular thing. And it’s a representation of the larger sense of how you view the world or specific aspects of your experience.”

Jason Schneider

Much of the discussion around A.I. art right now focuses on where the threshold should be for attributing creative ownership. How much credit should Midjourney get for creating an image based on a prompt, which is a user’s description of an image in their mind? 

Image Credit: Lisa Ewart and Jason Schneider using Midjourney

Jason says he’s created art with Midjourney that he would happily enlarge and hang in his home. He’s prompted Midjourney to create images that look like they’re straight out of a museum, depicting a gritty, gloomy coal town and an old-fashioned headshot of a “woman” resembling an early 20th-century actress or model. 

The texture – the way that they appear to be a photograph developed from a film negative, the lighting, the overall sense that you are looking at a genuine photograph – is the most impressive aspect of those images. While the A.I. model already possesses all of the knowledge to create such an image, Jason’s role cannot be overlooked. If not for his intimate knowledge of various camera technologies, photo compositions, and technical camera skills, would the A.I. be able to create such a compelling image? 

Jason says that as long as there is some level of human element involved, something created by A.I. can indeed be a work of art attributable to an individual. 

Generally, one must input a set of instructions or suggestions for A.I. to do its thing, and therein lies the human element. And even though the process may entail some randomness, it is a human being that decides which images are worthy of being published or shown.”

Jason Schneider

Image Credit: Lisa Ewart using Midjourney

He takes this idea to its logical extreme in a thought experiment. Imagine a surveillance camera at a bank, pointed at an ATM to automatically record images without the need for human intervention. Now imagine the ATM is robbed, so a human security guard must review hours of footage of mostly inconsequential images of people using the ATM in order to find the moment when the robbery occurred. But imagine that the security guard stumbles upon an image of a woman smashing a hundred-dollar bill into her husband’s forehead out of frustration. The human security guard did not manually record the image, and they may not have even been the one to set up the camera or point it in the direction of the ATM. But they publish the image and claim it as their own work. Jason sees no problem with labeling the image as art and attributing it to the person reviewing the camera footage. The reason being that the reviewer recognized the impact of the image out of thousands or more images that they encountered. If not for the human element – the recognition of the image as compelling – the image would likely never be seen by anyone again. 

Returning to the question of A.I. art and attribution, Jason says that if he were to distribute the A.I. images he created, he would credit the image as “Jason Schneider, with Midjourney.” 

Destruction or Democratization? New Technology’s Impact on the Arts, from Camera to A.I. 

What will become of photography in the age of artificial intelligence? Will it become simply a medium of record, detached from the purposes of making art and relegated to serving the utilitarian need for memory preservation? Will new generations bother to learn the art of photography when A.I. image generators are easily accessible? 

Jason compares our wrangling with A.I. to the early days of camera technology. At the time, some in the art community feared that cameras would destroy painting as an art form and degrade the value of art in general. 

Clearly, photography did not mark the death of painting. However, Jason says that the widespread adoption of the camera created a new dynamic that changed painting into a different kind of medium. 

To a certain extent, it transformed representational painting into a much more emotional, personal, abstract kind of art. In other words, it made painting into something else, not just representation.” 

Jason Schneider

Photo by Jason Schneider

So perhaps our understanding and perception of photography will change in the future. What about our understanding of what makes an artist? Jason says that the advent of the camera elicited cynicism from legacy artists, especially painters of the time, who derided the idea that “any fool” could step out with a camera and automatically achieve perfect perspective, three-dimensionality, and all the hallmarks of a great image, without needing to understand the underlying artistic concepts. 

Similar criticism might be leveled against those who never created art – for lack of skill or motivation or whatever it may be – until A.I. image generators became available. Creation of compelling art no longer requires an art degree or even a passing interest in learning artistic methods. 

Jason says that people naturally fear their own irrelevance when the paradigm they’re accustomed to suddenly shifts, but he believes that the labor of producing a work should not be its defining trait. 

“The number of individual decision points entailed in creating a photograph, or any other work of art is irrelevant so long as the artist’s intention can be articulated and shaped in a way that expresses the artist’s consciousness.”

Jason Schneider

To Jason, A.I. is another step in the democratization of art. Just like the iPhone enabled all of us to become photographers, A.I. is enabling anyone to be a graphic designer. To update the old adage, “the best camera is the one you have with you,” the best tool to create an image is the one you can use. 

Photo by Jason Schneider

Art for Art’s Sake

Jason says that it’s important to keep in mind that art, like much of humans’ pursuits, is the perpetual attempt to represent our complex world in a more digestible form. 

It’s through abstraction that we can do many great things. But it’s also very important to realize that in creating, we have selected from the complex and multifaceted reality that we experience through consciousness that all these things that we do, however great that they are, entail presenting and communicating something less than the totality.”

Jason Schneider

The medium through which we share these representations will inevitably change over time. However, no single technology can void the human instinct to create abstractions and share them with others. 

Ultimately, Jason says that art and artists will continue to thrive by nurturing that instinct, much like his late daughter, Heidi, who told him once that the reason she writes poetry is that she “can’t not write poetry.” Shortly before she died, Heidi encapsulated that idea of living for the sake of living, and joy for the sake of joy, in a poem aptly titled Poem on an Envelope: 

I am here but I am not 
my heart tried letting go of its grievances
one by one, like letting go of balloons
flying higher until they disappear

may the space which once I occupied,
by a sweet one be filled—with the things
dearest to me
Forsythia, gingerbread cookies,
and absolute wonder 

each thing felt in my small body
as infinite, as anything could be
cloudless skies—dusk,
the exult smell of the forest—
lay me down to that

-Heidi Schneider, I Am Here But I am Not

Links Mentioned in this Podcast

Continue the Conversation

Thank you, Jason, for being our guest on Creativity Squared. 

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

Creativity Squared is brought to you by Sociality Squared, a social media agency who understands the magic of bringing people together around what they value and love: http://socialitysquared.com.

Because it’s important to support artists, 10% of all revenue Creativity Squared generates will go to ArtsWave, a nationally recognized non-profit that supports over 150 arts organizations, projects, and independent artists.

Join Creativity Squared’s free weekly newsletter and become a premium supporter here.