I dropped in on a Clubhouse discussion tonight about whether or not AI-generated music can be as good and wonderful as people-generated music.
I drifted off into thought about an idea I read somewhere.1 The idea is that apart from the beauty or artistry of a work of art moving us, we are also moved by the very act of its creation — its creation is an inspiration, a kind of gift. In fact it’s a kind of double gift because it’s the gift of the artwork and it’s also the gift of saying “this is possible, to create something beautiful is possible”, which is the gift of inspiration.
I got it immediately but it didn’t really hit me until I went to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I loved, yes for the colors and the story and I don’t have the words frankly to describe why I loved it, but after I saw it, or maybe sometime during, I thought “how could someone love life this much?” and I mean Jacques Demy, the director, that you would have to have a deep love of life for all its sorrows and joys to create something like this, and that, that sense of love was more moving that the picture itself, or perhaps equally moving, or perhaps it’s completely impossible to distinguish between them.2
Which is why I, my tech brain, the one that’s seen what AI can do, how it can be quite creative with words — I actually do think that AI-generated music has a decent chance at making music just as “good” as what great musicians make. I think it’s possible, at least for music.
I don’t think that you can, knowing that it was AI-generated, ever wonder how much the AI loved life because the AI doesn’t love life, it can’t, not in the way we love life.
Context matters in how we experience these things, and sometimes it matters so much that it’s a bit absurd. Modern art seems to me a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the idea that the story behind a work of art or that its context is what matters, to such an extent that most people, lacking the requisite context, have no fucking idea what they’re looking at in a modern art museum and if you’re like me, maybe you’ve found yourself alone in a cavernous white room, surrounded by odd objects when the absurd strikes you like an existential taser.
“Perhaps you’d be more comfortable with something more representational?” asks the security guard, she’s seen that look of terror before. “Yes” I say, “can you take me back to the impressionists?”
Context matters a lot in movies too — I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at the Metrograph in New York on a dark and cold night when I was feeling low and exhausted and then here was this intense bright wave of love, at just the right time and place for my soul.3
My favorite place in Chicago is The Music Box Theatre, not just for their curation, but because there’s really nothing like seeing a movie in a packed grand theater with an organist warming up the audience. It matters that there are still physical places where you can go and see great art and entertainment, because it’s not just that we get to see things on a bigger screen, but it’s that we know that others care, and we can share some of that joy and sorrow and joy with them, a collective inspiration.
It’s not just the thing, it’s the act of making the thing, and then, the act of sharing the thing.
The reverse of this phenomenon is when a film is made cynically. Sometimes I watch a film and have a kind of visceral negative reaction. It’s not just the content or the craft, but something worse, something ugly, like the opposite of a gift — some films seem to despise the audience, to hate people. Watching those films feels ugly, it feels like something has been taken from me. It’s rare, but not rare enough. ↩
I think it also helped that I knew almost nothing about it beforehand, except that it was a musical and French and from the 60s. ↩