By Joseph Pronechen/National Catholic Register
Adjusting the drape of fabric just so on her artistic model, sacred artist Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs continues painting, with a stroke of oil paint here, a highlight or shadow there, working to depict the latest saint for her artistic portfolio.
Elsewhere, using algorithms and data points, a computer scans the internet to “create” new art.
Welcome to a brave new world pitting processors against painters.
Can you spot the style of Blessed Fra Angelico’s celestial artwork?
What about the hallmarks of Michelangelo or Raphael?
Think you can recognize AI-generated art? The man-vs.-machine contest is rampant today, even in the art world, as machines contend against flesh-and-blood human artists whose artistic ancestry harks back to Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Raphael, Jan van Eyck, Paolo Veronese, Johann Friedrich Overbeck and many others.
Social media is awash with machine-generated, artificial-intelligence interlopers. Some of these images can have a certain attractiveness in their own way, with precise depictions of the Blessed Mother and Jesus and the saints, but a little examination soon shows they were not done by the hand and heart of a living artist. What is missing is art for art’s sake.
Other “art” can imitate a saint in what might suggest or mimic Renaissance style — until too many appendages, disturbing backgrounds and other errors ruin the aesthetic, not to mention the theology, because humans do not make the picture.
AI generators on the internet “create” when prompted to make a certain image or scene. In simple terms, AI samples from billions of images of photographs, art and drawings by real artists that have been scraped from the internet into a huge database. Then, based on probability, the software, algorithms and deep learning come up with something labeled art. Machines are not independently creative.
Pope Francis, who was the subject of AI-generated “deepfake” images last year that showed him donning a puffy, designer jacket, on numerous occasions has shared his concerns about the potential for dehumanizing applications of machine-learning technology, most recently in his Jan. 24 message for the 58th World Day of Social Communications. While AI offers many positive benefits, he said, it can’t replace the “wisdom of the heart” that humans can seek and receive from God alone. “Such wisdom,” he said, “cannot be sought from machines.”
What do artists think of this relationship between fine sacred art and AI religious imagery? How do they see this pitting of machine versus artist? Why is one far superior to the other?
To begin, Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs told the Register, “Sacred art is not a composite of popular images on the subject. Sacred art is the work of a trained artist cooperating with the grace of inspiration to create a visual description of a supernatural reality. Machines are purely material and therefore cannot respond to the challenge of communicating a supernatural reality with visual metaphor.”
An award-winning contemporary sacred artist whose work decorates churches, schools and private homes internationally, Thompson-Briggs was commissioned in 2017 to create a painting of St. Augustine for Benedict XVI. She paints in the perennial Western tradition dedicated to reviving Renaissance and Baroque art to reveal the glory of God in the center of today’s crises.
Kathleen Carr, president of the Catholic Art institute, told the Register that AI creates images “but is not really art since it lacks a human’s imagination and hand in creating it. Sacred art is a human endeavor, and artists mirror God by being co-creators, bringing beauty and order into the world in architecture, beauty and art.” Carr, a classically trained realist painter and illustrator whose award-winning art has gained international recognition, pointed out that the earliest Christian artists were iconographers who prepared themselves with fasting and prayer before creating an icon, which they saw as a “window into heaven.” Importantly, this art requires an understanding of theology. “Christian artists intend to make something sacred or reveal something sacred for the purpose of drawing the faithful into prayer, contemplation, reverence and awe,” she said.
Furthermore, AI images she has seen “often lack proper theological symbolism … a major glaring issue with AI ‘sacred art,’” plus, “the works are confabulations of various styles, some of which should be avoided, particularly photorealism or saccharine depiction.”
“Catholic sacred art,” she affirmed, “needs to be created by a human particularly because sacred art requires an understanding of theology and Christian symbolism. A machine and computer algorithm can create an object but it will never be art, as that requires the use of human hands, the imagination, sacrifice and love.”
Daniel Mitsui told the Register that “the term ‘AI art’ concedes too much.” He does not believe “what we are dealing with can properly be called intelligence, or art, at all.”
The Vatican commissioned him to illustrate a recent edition of the Roman Pontifical (the liturgical book that contains the rites and ceremonies). He sees intelligence acting as a bridge between individual and divine understanding, between the world we perceive with bodily senses and the world as God sees it. AI “does not have a God-made will or intellect but works instead by weighing probabilities,” he explained, attempting to “build a bridge between a virtual world, one defined by its dataset, and the world that human senses perceive.”
Carr explained that AI programs can only scan available art and images, anything from Gothic art to movie stills of Jesus. “It is indiscriminately collating Catholic images and symbols but does so without an understanding of Catholic iconography and theology, and this is a more profound problem.”
Father Joshua Caswell, a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Art Institute and superior general of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, one of the most beautiful churches in the country and the spiritual home of the Catholic Art Institute, also emphasized the differences. “Fine art is a profound offering to God, where artists dedicate their work as both a gift and a sacrificial act,” he said. “In contrast, AI art lacks this sacrificial dimension, even if it possesses aesthetic beauty. Similar to how the Word becomes flesh, real fine art materializes into something tangible, always preserving the human touch. Additionally, John Paul II compared artists to priests, highlighting their role in making a sacrificial effort to bringing a divine vision into earthly existence.” That is an impossibility for AI.
Plentiful Peculiarities Too
AI religious pictures have glaring and obvious peculiarities, and even subtle ones, that people should know of. Thompson-Briggs finds many problems. “To begin with, the image generated is digital,” she said. “The traditional fine artist uses beautiful materials to acknowledge God’s creation: oil paint, marble, gold leaf, glass. These materials radiate beauty even before they are applied to a work of art.”
“The next problem is that the ‘popular’ images AI draws from are in such bad taste that the result is often saturated with a pastiche of Bouguereau Madonnas, Jim Caviezel/Robert Powell and schmaltzy super-hero lighting effects,” she said, adding that “the advocates of AI ‘sacred art’ do not have good taste when it comes to traditional art.”
She emphasizes yet another bad influence. “Allowing technology to have such a heavy hand in the creation of an image opens the door to influences beyond the sphere of the guiding hand and mind of the artist. It is reasonable to think that the demonic could use this as an opportunity.”
Carr concurs. First, she finds many examples of AI-generated so-called sacred art with theological and anatomical errors. “AI is notoriously bad at rendering hands and often results in distortions or outright errors in human anatomy and the human form.
It’s not uncommon to see images of Christ and Our Lady with six fingers or more,” she said. “But that’s not usually the most egregious problem,” which, she explained, is the “lack of theological understanding.”
Carr saw one image “in the form of the Sacred Heart of Jesus where he was opening his tunic to reveal an illuminated cross, something that would never be in Catholic depictions of Our Lord. That image was also rendered in style reminiscent of H.R. Giger, an artist distinguished for his disturbing air-brushed depictions of transhuman-looking creatures and dark/demonic-looking environments — hardly a style appropriate for depictions of Our Lord, much less to draw the faithful to prayer and devotion.”
Yet some people have turned to what is called AI art via online art galleries, and museums in New York City and Los Angeles have featured AI “art.”
Mitsui turned to St. Hildegard of Bingen’s insight that can apply to all arts. “She said that we carry within us a memory of Eden. The reason that a melody appeals to us is that it is like a distant echo of the voice of Adam before the Fall. I think all art, whether musical or visual, is like this — it is connected to our nostalgia for paradise. Art, and particularly sacred art, makes people better by drawing them closer to blessedness. Ultimately, art comes from something larger than us, something that our fallen selves cannot fully comprehend. This cannot be reduced to numbers … and a computer fundamentally can only consider numbers.”
Thus, a computer-generated image cannot match a human artist. Nor can AI religious pictures inspire like a painting by Raphael or Fra Angelico.
“Real art, crafted with love and sacrifice, holds a powerful impact on the viewer,” clarified Father Caswell. “When an artist creates from the glory of God, it is felt by those who have seen it. Much like a musician composing a piece out of love, they pour and express themselves into it. The passion transforming into artistic expression comes through all of their works.”
As an artist, Carr agrees. “AI can generate Catholic-looking art that on the surface may appear appealing but will always lack the depth that comes from something created by human hands, with prayerful intention, a profound theological understanding, and, most of all, created with love, care and sacrifice, which artists offer back to God for his greater glory and for the benefit of the faithful.”
For instance, Thompson-Briggs said she tries to draw and paint from life when she “could easily pull a photo off the internet. I sew costumes for my models, when I could just fake a bit of drapery and hope for the best. Every time I do things the hard way, though, I can see that it makes for a better finished product. Great art requires sacrifice. It makes sense that something as lazy as AI can never make great art.”
Mitsui illustrated with another example showing the artist’s inestimable superiority over AI. “Someone could program a bot to imitate me, specifically, by feeding it every picture that I have put on the internet,” he said. “But no matter how good this bot got at imitating my existing work, it would not be able to do something that I try to do often: do something unexpected. Like most artists, I am continually incorporating new ideas, new techniques and new influences that have no precedent in my past work or my established style.” For years, he drew exclusively in black and white, then started using color, and he used decorations based on microbiological forms before deciding to switch to decoration based on millefleur tapestries whose backgrounds are filled with intricate floral and plant motifs.
“None of these developments could have been predicted based on a dataset of my previous work,” he said. “This willingness to change is an essential part of the process of becoming a better artist.” AI cannot do or predict these moves made by real artists.
But it can cause concern. Thompson-Briggs thinks “this historical moment can be compared to the advent of mass production in the 19th century. Mass production has filled our homes with inexpensive, ugly trash. A few people understand that it is better to choose to have fewer objects that have better integrity, but most opt for the cheap trash.”
Carr said sacred art requires the intention of creating an image for liturgical or devotional use as well as for God’s greater glory, something a computer program will never be capable of — and she is wary of the future’s trending. “AI will rob artists of a living. But, worst of all, it will rob all of humanity of their contributions.”
Carr is also “troubled by robots and computers replacing what is such a profound human activity — this is especially disturbing for artists and craftsmen.”
“Artists have a very needed voice in the Church, one that is already often misunderstood, ignored or not supported as it should be,” she said. “AI is simply another means to impoverish artists, but all of humanity will suffer too.” She explained, “Artists have a vocation, and that is to make the invisible visible as well as create works that edify and often console humanity, but mostly aid in glorifying God. It’s often through the works of beauty that the faithful encounter God and are drawn into his presence.”
Benedict XVI was of this mind. Speaking with priests in Italy, he told them, “I did once say that, to me, art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.”
Since sacred art created by faithful artists is so profound, it follows that “a computer can only create images, but it can’t create art, certainly not Catholic art,” said Carr. She also cautioned, “AI images should never be put in a church since a computer-generated image is not participating in the co-creative effort of a human. The work cannot be blessed by fasting and prayer by the artists, and it will always lack the beauty of something handmade. For these reasons, it should be avoided by the faithful.”
As Father Caswell makes clear, “The authenticity of fine art lies in the genuine craft and talent invested in its creation. Every positive contribution on earth originates from a human vision striving to manifest itself in reality. AI, however, offers a cheap fix and option in the overall craftsmanship.”
He likens these AI images to “artificial sugar, lacking the substance of the real thing. Throughout history, the introduction of artificial elements into culture has proven detrimental in the long run, and my sentiments toward AI art are similar to this concern. The genuine love infused by artists is a vital component of authentic artistic expression.”
The victor continues to be obvious, as Carr summarized: “When it comes to sacred art, the fact that it’s a computer composing the images and not an artist acting prayerfully, intentionally and with theological knowledge means AI can never replace a human creating sacred images.”