The late artist Jean Michel Basquiat once sagely noted, “Art is how we decorate space; music is how we decorate time”. Beneath its obvious derivation, the quote draws music and visual art parallel to one another as two halves of a whole, two fundamental elements of the universe. Taking Basquiat’s sentiment seriously, as we should, it becomes patently apparent these pillars of life must be protected at all costs. But must we protect them from the insidious dawn of artificial intelligence (AI)?

Indeed, in the modern day, music appears to be dying a death, at least in popular spheres. We have a mountain of ticket price lobbying and grassroots venue support to scale if we’re to restore hope of maintaining creative diversity and true artistic passion in the music industry, and that’s before considering the iceberg of AI afloat on the horizon. 

Today, you’ll be pleased to hear I’m putting my inner pessimist on ice to offer the consolation that art is safe. Fortunately, veritable art doesn’t depend on capitalism for its survival; less so does it depend on robots. In fact, AI technology will never understand the essence – the pleasure, pain and plight – of human life and hence will never generate wholly original nor inspired art, just a simulation. 

The threat we face is solely in terms of financial viability and, intrinsically, exposure. ChatGPT may one day pressure my vocation as a writer, but the terminators will have to put up a good fight if they’re to take away my pens, paper, imagination and self-respect. 

Correspondingly, an up-and-coming band in the modern day may find it harder to save up for a top-of-the-range Telecaster with all the bells and whistles or struggle to access major platforms. This long-suffered tragedy only looks to be worsening, but does this not present us with an opportunity? 

In my opinion, at every hardship and mistake arrives an opportunity for art. The carpenter who mistakenly slips to force his or her chisel away from the guideline can persevere to create an improvisational pattern; this extra work will not only add artistic merit, but the furnishing will be one-of-a-kind. It might not reap riches or popularity, but artistic satisfaction mustn’t be undervalued. 

I feel compelled to assert at this point that I don’t intend to belittle the efforts of those striving for a fairer and more nurturing industrial haven for the arts. On the contrary, my point here is to urge art as the tool for change. In art, affliction and real human experience are fertile assets. Imagination and innovation can be employed to circumvent hardship in the arts industry and manifest positive change. 

Addressing the titular sentiment, I argue that, to an extent, the battle we face in music today can be compared with the fine art overhaul of the early 20th century. In Heaven and Hell, the essay written as a supplement to The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley writes at length about the evolution of art. Intriguingly, he notes how contemporary developments in photography and cinematography caused changes in fine art, not through suppression but through new creating new opportunities. 

After lauding Francis Thompson’s experimental 1957 film, NY, NY, Huxley points out that the gift of cinematography presented an opportunity for artistic expression that could present art pre-extant in the world around us under a new light, thus eliciting an unprecedented “visionary experience”.

“The invention of this new cinematographic art seems to presage (thank heaven!) the supersession and early demise of non-representational painting,” Huxley opined. “It used to be said by the non-representationalists that colored photography had reduced the old-fashioned portrait and the old-fashioned landscape to the rank of otiose absurdities”. 

Huxley continues: “This, of course, is completely untrue. Colored photography merely records and preserves, in an easily reproducible form, the raw materials with which portraitists and landscape painters work. Used as Mr. Thompson has used it, colored cinematography does much more than merely record and preserve the raw materials of non-representational art; it actually turns out the finished product.”

With this abstraction in mind, it is easy to see how true art is a little like energy: it’s indestructible, simply flowing between media and genius minds, with popular art ever-surfing the wave of cutting-edge technology. Indeed, AI technology presents us with a host of issues, but artists can use this tool and its limitations to their advantage. 

Progressive artists like Francis Thompson may find new opportunities in AI sound production; meanwhile, other artists can benefit from its limitations. Sure, AI technology can write formulaic pop songs fit for BBC Radio 1 or simulate the experience of Paul McCartney covering Brian Wilson’s vocals in ‘God Only Knows’, but can it read your most personal thoughts or transpose unique visionary experiences into sound? 

The difference between AI “art” and true human art is in the carpenter’s mistakes. Just as a vaccine generates immunity, AI technology might just see a rise in flesh and blood music. The necessity for capital gain has all too often seen the warm, knotted and characterful wood of art supplanted by the steely, uncompromising uniformity of pop, but this doesn’t have to be the case. 

In an enlightening interview I conducted with Duncan Raban several weeks ago, the eminent photographer explained that the most satisfying part of his career wasn’t meeting and photographing Pelé, The Rolling Stones or Tina Turner, but in his more recent ‘Just Say Hello’ project. By saying hello to a stranger each day, Raban has found immense artistic satisfaction in the quotidian lives surrounding him.  

During our interview, Raban lamented that too few of us reach out to those around us because we’re so fixated on our smartphones. As the conversation progressed, we agreed that the unnatural world we’ve built around us had laid tracks of convention that make even the simplest gesture unfathomable. Raban attributes much of his success, beyond photographic talent, to unconventional thought – the basis of art. 

“If you want something, ask for it,” he said before explaining that most people will ignore clearly presented opportunities, let alone actively seek them. 

Artistic decay is as inevitable as the taxman’s knock and a good rest at the end of it all, but how we react to it is not. We are in control of our own destinies as the creators and consumers of art. Douglas Adams was wrong; the meaning of life is not 42; the sum total is much closer to a three-letter word beginning with ‘A’ and ending with ‘T’. Money and pop music erode a path of least resistance, but you don’t have to. 


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