Is Crafting ‘Super Prompts’ for A.I. Generators the Art of the Future? Probably Not
A.I. Clement Greenberg would like to have a word.
A.I. Clement Greenberg would like to have a word.
By the time I had anything to say about the “Harry Potter by Balenciaga” A.I.-meme craze, it was already almost completely played out and embarrassing. That itself is an important fact to me.
The timeframe we are talking about here spans a month. In mid-March, a YouTuber named DemonFlyingFox posted a goofy video featuring A.I.-generated models suggesting glammed-up, Balenciaga-clad versions of the actors from the Harry Potter films, spouting Zoolander-ish patter in A.I.-cloned Potter voices.
The clip’s combination of A.I.-powered novelty and lovable jankiness was charming enough to get a few million views. So of course people immediately went about beating the joke into the ground.
A phalanx of click-hungry content-preneurs threw their hat into the “by Balenciaga” ring, with videos doing “Star Wars by Balenciaga,” or “Lord of the Rings by Balenciaga,” or “The Office by Balenciaga,” or “Shrek by Balenciaga,” or “World Presidents by Balenciaga,” and on and on. DemonFlyingFox has made two more videos, to diminishing returns.
I first heard about it through a video from another YouTuber called PromptJungle, who helpfully offered a step-by-step guide to how anyone could easily build their very own “Harry Potter by Balenciaga” video using widely available A.I. tools: use ChatGPT to write the prompts; feed the prompts into Midjourney to create the images; synthesize Potter-esque voices using Eleven Audio; give the clips that eerie “talking painting” look with D-ID; etc.
The part of PromptJungle’s tutorial I find funniest—and most symbolic—is the first step. It instructs you to go to ChatGPT and tell it: “Give me the 10 most popular Harry Potter characters, just the names.”
In other words, it assumes an audience that doesn’t even know the most basic thing about the subject matter that makes the joke funny. The underlying question PromptJungle’s assumed audience wants to know is not “How can I participate in this trend about this thing I love?” It’s “How can I get a piece of the action around this thing I know nothing about?”
Clearly, the current explosion of generative A.I. apps opens up impressive new creative possibilities. But it also dramatically expands the reach of a kind of anti-creativity: the ability to rip-off, band-wagon jump, and hijack the idea of anyone who manages to do something noticeably original. Given the realities of both creativity (rare) and the digital economy (cutthroat), it seems to me that the latter is going to much more define the impact these tools have on culture.
In the face of any unease about the degradation of creative labor—and the reality that these A.I. generators are built on treating the entirety of the online image-world, and every artist’s intellectual property, as a free resource to train for-profit A.I. applications on—plenty of articles are here to blandly assure you, “don’t freak out—A.I. will also create cool new creative jobs!”
Specifically, crafting “prompts” is being touted as the hot new art skill, and “prompts” the hot new marketable commodity.
Some quixotic entrepreneurs have been pitching an A.I. Prompt Bible which will let me “Become an Artist Without Being an Artist,” via its 1,000 expert-crafted prompts—all for just $37. “You don’t need any technical skills, all you have to do is copy and paste some text and start generating amazing artworks!”
Here’s an example of one of those professional-caliber prompt it gives:
Goddess, Silky black hair, Dark aura, Perfect Features, symmetrical face, perfect smooth skin, Face portrait, Close up Image, Victorian portrait, Elegant Composition, Photorealistic, Dark Fantasy, High Quality, Anime, Sharp Focus, Hyperrealism, Digital Art, Anime art, 32k, Extreme detail
And here is what you might get from that amazing prompt.
The site promises “lots of income opportunities behind A.I. art,” such as selling your “Dark Goddess” images as stock photos or putting “Dark Goddess” images on print-on-demand items. And fame! “Are you ready to transform your social media and start posting original content? The algorithm will reward you!”
Looking over the A.I. Prompt Bible site’s star examples of what you get from its super-secret prompts, I have to say, they look… like any random page of A.I.-art results. Based on my own Midjourney experience, the skill level involved to get a similar level of quality doesn’t rise much above “type ‘Elon Musk in clown make-up.'”
It seems fairly clear that, if a skill is so simple to transmit that “all you have to do is copy and paste some text,” it also cannot be a skill that has much lasting value. Making a business out of selling prompts feels a bit like trying to make a business out of teaching people how to use “super-secret keywords” to find stuff on Netflix: For most ordinary purposes, it’s not necessary, and when it is necessary, it’s not that hard to look up. By design, having “proficiency with Midjourney and DALL-E” is probably going to be more like “proficiency with Word and Excel” than some kind of highly marketable resume skill (after all, Microsoft is sticking generative A.I. tools directly into both).
The A.I. Prompt Bible is a pretty inept proposition. Let’s turn, then, to consider PromptBase, a platform receiving medium levels of hype for trying to be the go-to marketplace for aspiring “prompt engineers” (per the site’s FAQ, “a new kind of technician, skilled at crafting the text prompts required for an A.I. model to produce consistent outputs.”)
On PromptBase, for a few dollars each, you can purchase a prompt, crafted by an aspiring prompt engineer, for any of the big art mills. These are aimed at generating anything from “Fairytale Animal Book Illustration” to “High Quality Tiny Animals on Fingers,” and from “Curvy Disney Princesses” to “Adults Only Disney Princesses.”
PromptBase’s terms of service are clear: “All prompts available on our marketplace are the intellectual property of their respective creators.”
This disclaimer is very funny since many popular prompts contain references to living creators whose styles they are harvesting to get their marketably specific look, e.g. Chinese artist WLOP, maker of willowy digital pinups; Kuala Lumpur-based Lim Heng Swee, who does cheerful cartoon “doodles;” French illustrator Tom Haugomat, known for his clean lines and aura of tranquility; or German painter Michael Hutter, conjurer of gnarly medieval-ish fantasy.
These are not well-known names to me—and that’s probably not a coincidence. The keyword needed to generate a “Georgia O’Keeffe”- or “Salvador Dali”-style is obvious, and therefore not saleable knowledge. There is only really a need for prompt-engineering relatively obscure artists. The prompt economy exists to capture whatever value is in an artist’s signature style, and to reprocess it into a generic look—without them.
I gather (from a Medium post by Elinor Carrick on her experience selling prompts) that using living artists’ names as keywords is divisive. If it is pervasive nevertheless in the PromptBase bazaar, it’s because a proper name is a shortcut to reverse engineer all the steps that an artist has put, over hours and months, into crafting a look that feels unique. Prompt engineering, being an extremely low-margin trade, is going to be relentlessly pressed to simplify the steps of its own labor—a sure incentive to anti-creativity.
On the other side of the trade, as soon as any aspiring engineer generates any traction around a prompt, I just don’t see what stops rivals from quickly cloning it as well, selling it for less or giving away the recipe for clout (a la PromptJungle’s ‘How to’ video).
In September, the Verge offered up designer Justin Reckling as a star of the new “prompt engineer” field. He said that “Block Cities” was his big hit, a prompt that generates isometric tiles of Sim City-esque skylines. It remains, nine months later, among PromptBase’s big sellers.
But since you can now use images to inspire other images, without even buying Reckling’s 26-word prompt, I am able to put a link to a “Block Cities” image into Midjourney, combining it with “Williamsburg Bridge” to get something pretty serviceable, in less than the time it would take me to put my credit card info into PromptBase. (I did actually buy his $2.99 prompt, incidentally.)
At that time, Reckling estimated he needed to sell between five and 10 of a given prompt to pay for the labor it took to figure out and fine-tune its formula. But it’s just going to be very, very difficult to maintain any kind of practice that generates sustainable value built on top of tools that are based on slurping up, reprocessing, and abstracting every bit of content on the internet in the first place. By design, the bulk of the profit is going to go to the generators; the promise of “lots of income opportunities” is mainly a pitch to get you paying them.
Chatter about the emerging prompt economy has already moved on from selling prompts to selling “super prompts,” according to Bloomberg—“instructions that can run to many hundreds of words and are designed to force the A.I. to delve deep into its dataset.” So the amount of labor needed to make something saleable is going up even as the value of that labor is being pressed down by the built-in ease of copycatting and the surge of people trying to get a hustle going using these tools.
Reckling told the Verge he was “not too worried” about his own intellectual property, as long as he got paid by enough people to reveal his prompts. But he quickly added, “I think our society should provide social safety nets, like universal basic income, to help those in the creative field who might be struggling financially. This will become increasingly important as automation continues to affect different professions.”
I do want to give the last word to Clement Greenberg though.
Late to the party on the Balenciaga thing, I still wanted to make my own art-themed version of the meme to make sure I understood what I was talking about. It seemed obvious that my subject matter should be mid-century art-critic grandee Clement Greenberg, author of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” For the fashion, a subject I know very little about, I picked the brand Ed Hardy, icon of 2000s dirtbag couture (which may or may not be making a nostalgia-fueled comeback?)
My favorite part of this process was that ChatGPT seemed to suggest that “Ed Hardy” content was the equivalent of hate speech.
With some fearless effort, however, I was able to crack the code, laying some Greenberg musings over fashion-model versions of painters he championed (Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Clyfford Still, Grace Hartigan, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner), all dressed in Midjourney’s finest Ed Hardy outfits.
What did I learn from this process? I learned that half-assing the creative process with these tools is easy, but it’s fiddly and time-consuming to get to something you find actually interesting, if you let yourself half-way care. I learned, to my delight, that it’s tough capturing the character of the face of someone like Clement Greenberg.
Still, with medium effort, yes, I was able to deliver this very niche joke. As for what kind of value it delivers, for art or for society, best to just let A.I. Greenberg speak.
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