Artificial intelligence has gotten awfully good lately, and people are starting to take notice.
The internet has been ablaze over the past few months with surprisingly good artwork and images generated by artificial intelligence. The technology has come a long way, and a recent slew of websites have appeared that claim to create AI-generated images or designs from any user-submitted prompt.
They became instant internet hits, and why wouldn’t they be? That I can type in “duck sitting in a desk chair eating waffles”, for example, and come back with a photo of, well, a duck sitting in a desk chair eating waffles, conjures up a some admiration even in my generation of digital natives. There’s endless novelty in all of this – I’ve spent hours on these websites asking the ever-mysterious algorithm to come up with different creations, each more esoteric and weird than the next. Like a seven-year-old in awe of the magician’s sleight of hand, I say, “Do it again, do it again,” and the AI runs.
After a while, however, I wanted more. Of course, the AI can generate an image of a “duck sitting in an office chair eating waffles”. It’s pretty easy to recognize the building blocks and mix them in a way that makes sense. What happens, however, if I put an abstract concept? What does the algorithm have to say about capitalism? What does it have to offer justice? What about love?
Of course, the AI can generate an image of a “duck sitting in an office chair eating waffles”. What happens, however, if I put an abstract concept?
So I had a very fun evening running the term ‘Catholicism’ through all the filters of ‘Dream by Wombo’, an AI image generator that tries to create artwork in different styles depending on the user request. A filter creates illustrations in the Ukiyo-e style of Japanese art. Another tries to reproduce watercolor works. In total, there are 22 different styles in which I could render the AI understanding of our faith.
Aesthetically, the results are stunning. Some of the images were just remarkably beautiful, although I didn’t quite understand what was going on. But I think many are also thematically revealing.
The first thing that stood out was the intense variety of focuses in these images. Some, like the Ghibli, Origin and Watercolor filters, sharpened on the complexity of Catholic architecture. This class of paintings associated Catholicism with some of its most recognizable cultural icons and its unique emphasis on communicating faith through beauty. Indeed, this way of looking at Catholic “aesthetics” carries a lot of weight in popular culture, both among those who grew up in the church and among a growing internet subculture interested in a certain Catholic beauty vs. -cultural.
Another recurring theme is special attention to the Blessed Mother. Although often difficult to distinguish in some images, Mary makes a number of appearances through the filters. There is a superb black light mary (who could remind us to wear masks?), the vague impression of a Vibrant Marywhich awaits us in all the colors of the rainbow in the Kingdom of Heaven, and even a little disturbing Mary Steampunkwho stretches out his bionic arms to embrace all of humanity.
Because devotion to the Blessed Mother is so distinctly Catholic, it is logical that it makes a few “appearances” in the algorithm. Once again, the AI has been drawn to one of the most “strange” aspects of our faith, one that many other Christians don’t quite understand. He enthusiastically channels the long tradition of Marian art throughout Catholic history, often with direct allusions to specific motifs from the Catholic artistic tradition. The most remarkable for me was the moon walker theme, which created what closely resembles traditional paintings of the many apparitions of Mary around the world.
“To Jesus through Mary”, as they say.
Other results are instructive in themselves. Take the remarkably disturbing and disturbing”Death” filter, which casts any prompt in hues of reds and blacks. In this one, the face of a Christ figure dazzles a cathedral that reminds me of St. Peter in Rome. It simultaneously communicates two radically different messages. The first, perhaps, is that Christ looks with sorrow at the many failures of the institutional church over the years. The second, however, is just as instructive: one has the impression that Jesus watches over his church, guides it and protects it.
I could go on and on. Some the figures employ the styles and motifs of Eastern Catholicisms, others represent the holy city of Jerusalem. Some filters draw us towards what seems to be the Eucharist, while others point to the Cross that shines in the bright light of Heaven. There were so many different angles taken by the algorithm.
But most striking of all? When I didn’t put any filter at all, the only noticeable result in the image was the scourged, sullen body of the crucified Jesus, bowing his head as he does in the crucifix hanging above every Catholic church. But you can’t even see the wood of the Cross, really. That’s not the focus – our attention rests squarely on the gloriously and tragically human body of our ultimate high priest, who offers himself as a sacrifice for the world. As it should be: “For I have resolved not to know anything while I was with you, except Jesus Christ, and crucified Him” (2 Cor. 2:2).
So what do we do with this strange collection of artificial impressions? I’m not quite sure; some of these images look like Rorschach tests. I can tell you, however, that after 22 laps of waiting for the filtered images to load, I left the exercise grateful, joyful, even, that the Catholic tradition is based on 2,000 years of deeply beautiful both aesthetically and theologically.
I look forward to seeing what the cathedrals are like in the Kingdom of Heaven, and I look forward with gratitude to meeting the Blessed Mother in a New Jerusalem. More importantly, however, I yearn to run my fingers through the wounds of the risen Lord and to believe because I have seen.
Until then, however, I participate in a sufficiently majestic faith, under all possible angles or filters, for me to believe without having seen. And if these AIs do eventually develop feelings, as has been so often theorized, I’m sure they’ll understand exactly what I mean.