Blacksmiths, A.I., and Artists

My people were blacksmiths.

My grandfather’s forge was a working concern through the 1980s. His neighbors would bring him holed pots, and when he was finished they’d be better than new.

Granted, this wasn’t his job in the 1980s; he’d retired long since. He was a machinist, trained to repair bombers in the Second World War. He worked in the family garage, and later on construction equipment. And he kept and used hammer and anvil from time to time.

Blacksmiths weren’t common in the 1980s. Factory production had replaced the individual craftsman during the Industrial Revolution. Our tools came from Armstrong in Pittsburgh, or Snow & Nealley in Bangor. But there were still a few skilled smiths, just as there are today.

In the 1600s, every town worthy of the name had a blacksmith, some more than one. The best scythe blades took days to hammer out, and every man in the fields needed his own. There were farriers who mainly shoed horses, tinkers for repair, finesmiths who mostly did inlay and decoration — specialists with every metal, process, and trade.

Then mass production came along and they became obsolete.

Farriers survived well into the 20th Century, but once the Model T and the John Deere made it to every corner of the land, even farmers stopped keeping horses, and that trade too died. Skilled artisans by the thousands needed to find new careers — and many couldn’t; they failed to adapt, and died in poverty.

Today, we’re experiencing mass production for the intellect. Artificial Intelligence is out there taking jobs from our artists, who quite naturally are upset by this.

But it’s important to remember that A.I., for all its vaunted prowess, is just a tool, just like PhotoShop was, and the camera, acrylics before that, and watercolors before then. It’s not the end-all and never will be; there will always need to be someone holding the tool, and there will always be an art to employing it. The artist brain still rules; it’s merely the techniques that will change.

Commercial art will go through a revolution. Our ads will be made by A.I.; likely cover art for books will too. There’s a Japanese company all set to mass-produce manga with A.I. tools. All this of course means that people working in commercial art will lose their jobs, and others who embrace the new technology will profit.

We’re talking about commercial art, remember. Tourists will still be able to buy paintings at street stalls and art fairs will still draw crowds, and professional landscape, still life, and portrait painters will still be able to starve in their garrets, because that’s not commerce. That’s niche crafting.

Sure, a lot of people who are presently surviving off donations at DeviantArt will lose income. Some few of them are highly skilled and produce amazing things, and a tiny fraction would have gone on to create masterpieces that could have stood the test of time. In their place, different artists will arise who use different tools, some of which involve A.I. The advantage will go to those with a sense for a scene, for proportion and the use of space, just like today, but the brushstrokes will be all new.

Someone reading this might reasonably object: “It’s easy for you to say. You’re not an artist.” And, if you mean that I don’t work with paints on canvas, you’re quite correct.

I’m a writer. I work with words. And so do chatbots. So when I tell you that this is the new normal, same as the old normal, and we’re going to have to learn to live with it, don’t think for a moment that I find it easy.

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