From Rock Art to AI Generated Art

Left: Strange deer figures created by bronze age humans. Right: Strange deer figure generated with Midjourney.

My fascination with rock art has grown over the past few years. During the last year, I’ve also been struck by the output from AI-generated art as well. Sometimes I’m asked about why my project about interpreting ancient rock carvings is relevant today. With the rapid advancement of AI art generation, we’re witnessing a significant milestone in the history of art. A history with only humans in it. The ability to create art has been seen as one of the things that sets us apart from other species. Now we have a new player in the game. (Ok, ok. There are examples of animals creating art with this behavior strongly motivated by humans).

Rock art was the beginning of the recorded artistic history of humanity. Artistic expression has always been mystical, sometimes seen as the channeling of divine inspiration. What, then, are the implications of robots creating art? Why did our ancestors start creating art? There is no recipe for interpreting rock art and no agreement about the exact meaning and motivation behind it. Maybe it was created as a form of communication, a way of telling stories, or as a form of spiritual/religious expression. Maybe it was a combination of these motives, or something entirely different.

Interpreting modern art can be just as perplexing. Artists themselves may not be able to say exactly why they created a piece of art. I usually have some idea about why I create an image, but often the why comes after the creation of it. My intial intentions often transform throughout the process, and turns into something different from what I had intended.

The Future of Artistic Creation

My Bargue drawing after Hans Holbein done as part of my academic training.
Bargue drawing after Hans Holbein. 2014. One of many, many drawings done as part of my artistic training.

It takes a long time for people to master artistic skills. I spent years of training before I started being confident with my own drawing skills. The generation growing up today has the possibility to generate what they want in seconds. TThis convenience may discourage them from developing their own artistic abilities. Or if they do become artists, they may collaborate with AI, feeding it an idea and letting it do most of the work. A source of demotivation to spend the time to create art without AI is that everything will be suspected as being AI generated anyway.

Digital painting of a human alien hybrid.
My digital painting “Hybrid” from 2019. Something like this could easily have been AI generated in 2023.

The internet and social media have already led to a significant increase in exposure to art. With AI art it felles like there is complete oversaturation in the art world. With so much great-looking art around, it will become increasingly difficult for emerging artists to gain recognition based on the merit of their art alone.


AI generated painting of a happy woman in the garden of Eden. Example of AI being able to communicate feelings of joy.
Happy Eve in the garden of Eden, created with Midjourney.

A decade ago, the average person might have imagined robot-generated art would be very different from human-created art. But because the AI emerging today is trained on human-made content, what it generates is difficult to distinguish from our own art. While present-day AI may not feel emotions, it can evoke them due to the human data that goes into it.

AI generated painting of a weeping Jesus. Example of AI being able to communicate feelings of despairs.
Jesus Wept, created with Midjourney.

We may be witnessing the twilight of human artistic history. And we know relatively little about why we did it all. AI art generators are trained on human-created art, and so they reflect a lot of the meaning and motivation we imbue our art with. In this sense, AI generated art remains a part of our artistic legacy – for now. As AI-generated art becomes more prevalent, it will increasingly influence the its own training data, gradually distancing itself from human intention while optimizing it for human consumption.

Making sense of art has always been difficult, and now with AI generated art thrown into the mix it is becoming more difficult than ever. If we want to understand why we create art it makes sense to start at the beginning. That is why I feel the dawn of AI generated art makes the study of petroglyphs even more relevant than before.