Ethics Quiz: A.I. Cheating In The Art Competition?

Once again, Artificial Intelligence raises its ugly virtual head.

The Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition rewards artistic excellence prizes in painting, quilting, and sculpture, with several sub-categories in each. Jason M. Allen got his blue ribbon with the artwork above, which he created it using Midjourney, a program that turns lines of text into graphics. His “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” won the blue ribbon in the fair’s contest for emerging digital artists.

He’s being called a cheater. Just this year, new artificial intelligence tools have become available that make it possible for anyone to create complex abstract or realistic artworks by simply by typing words into a text box. The competition wasn’t paying attention, and in the era of rapidly moving technology, that’s always dangerous. Nothing in the rules prohibited entering a “painting” that was made using AI.Allen, who is a game designer, not an artist, had been working with the program and saw that the approaching  Colorado State Fair had contest for “digital art/digitally manipulated photography.” A local shop printed the image he had Midjourney make on a canvas and submitted it. He won the division, or the picture did, and the $300 prize.

He insists that there was nothing improper about his entry. “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” was submitted under the name “Jason M. Allen via Midjourney,”Allen said that he didn’t misrepresent the work. “I’m not going to apologize for it,” he says. “I won, and I didn’t break any rules.”

Ah, yes, Rationalization #4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.

Or maybe he’s right….

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day that has nothing to do with Biden’s %$!@# speech is …

Was his entry unethical?

Olga Robak, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, that oversees the state fair, said the category’s rules allow any “artistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.” The two category judges told her that they did not know what Midjourney was, meaning that  though Allen disclosed his use of it, he had not explained that it was an A.I. program. Still, they claim they would have awarded Allen the top prize anyway.
That is the answer that eliminates the controversy, at least.
“We’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes,” one critic Twitter user wrote on Twitter. “I can see how A.I. art can be beneficial, but claiming you’re an artist by generating one? Absolutely not,” wrote another.

Others, real artists, defend Allen, saying that what he did was no different from using Photoshop or other digital image-manipulation tools.

For the record, I think the picture is crap.

Here’s the relevant text of Rationalization  #4, and the also germane Rationalization #5 as well:

Ethics is far broader than law, which is a system of behavior enforced by the state with penalties for violations. Ethics is good conduct as determined by the values and customs of society. Professions promulgate codes of ethics precisely because the law cannot proscribe all inappropriate or harmful behavior. Much that is unethical is not illegal. Lying. Betrayal. Nepotism. Many other kinds of behavior as well, but that is just the factual error in the this rationalization.

The greater problem with it is that it omits the concept of ethics at all.  Ethical conduct is self-motivated, based on the individual’s values and the internalized desire to do the right thing. Barry’s construct assumes that people only behave ethically if there is a tangible, state-enforced penalty for not doing so, and that not incurring a penalty (that is, not breaking the law) is, by definition, ethical.

Nonsense, of course. It is wrong to intentionally muddle the ethical consciousness of the public, and Barry’s statement simply reinforces a misunderstanding of right and wrong.

Closely related to the Barry Misdirection is……

5. The Compliance Dodge.

Simply put, compliance with rules, including laws, isn’t the same as ethics. Compliance depends on an individual’s desire to avoid punishment. Ethical conduct arises from an individual’s genuine desire to do the right thing. The most unethical person in the world will comply if the punishment is stiff enough. But if he can do something unethical without breaking the rules, watch out!

No set of rules will apply in all situations, and one who is determined to look for loopholes in a set of laws, or rules, or in an ethics code, so that he or she can do something self-serving, dishonest, or dastardly, is likely to find a way. This is one reason why the ubiquitous corporate ethics programs that emphasize “compliance” are largely ineffective. By emphasizing compliance over ethics, such programs encourage the quest for loopholes. Remember that when Enron’s board realized that one of its financial maneuvers violated its Code of Ethics, it made compliance possible by changing the Code.

When an organization or society makes compliance…doing the right thing to avoid unpleasant consequences… the focus of its attempt to promote ethical conduct, it undermines the effort by promoting confusion in the not-infrequent circumstances when doing the right thing hurts. The better approach, and the one promoted by Ethics Alarms, is to teach and encourage good behavior and ethical virtues for their own sake. When the inevitable loophole opens up in the rules, when the opportunity to gain at someone else’s expense is there and nobody will ever know, it is the ethical, not the compliant, who will do the right thing.

16 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: A.I. Cheating In The Art Competition?

  1. I remember someone saying years ago: “If the British Navy had easy access to steel, they wouldn’t have used oak to build their ships.” There is merit to the argument.

    I don’t think the image is crap. I don’t think it’s particularly original or thought-provoking, but it’s not horrible. A prize-winner? Hey, I’ve always preferred contests judged by objective measures, such as innings or the clock, to those dependent upon the opinions of judges – which can almost never be completely free of bias (protest though they may). Regardless of how an image is produced, it will always be judged subjectively.

    I think it’s cool that this guy was able to create that image by using words. As a longstanding wannabe musician, I understand the frustration: you practice your technique obsessively, you play out and get pretty good, you put a fair amount of investment into recording an album and you still get beat ignored while some asshole with lousy songs and a a mediocre voice but is willing to pay for autotune – coupled with a pretty face. He becomes a star, while you continue in obscurity. C’est la guerre, eh?

    But if we’re smart, we recognize the tools at our disposal. I suspect a lot of Ethics Alarms readers are fans of ’70s and ’80s rock; I encourage you to look for a documentary film called “Sound City,” which was made by Dave Grohl, who became famous as the drummer for Nirvana and later formed the last truly great rock and roll band, Foo Fighters. I won’t spoil the story – it’s not perfect, but it’sa fun watch. And it spends a fair amount of time with Trent Reznor, who created an important band called Nine Inch Nails, which emerged in the late ’90s.

    Reznor gets it. His point was that the technology shouldn’t be thought of as a crutch. For many people, it is, and he gets that. For people for whom the art is more important than anything, it’s not a crutch. It’s a tool to be used wisely.

  2. I’m trying out my own form of cheating. I’ve used an AI essay writer to answer the question.

    Sorry Jack, I’ve always wanted to try out this AI essay writer and this quiz reminded me. Here is the AI generated essay. I’m reluctant to post this because I don’t want to detract from your original question. Hopefully, you will find this interesting and won’t see it as out of bounds.

    Is using an AI generated image for entry into an art competition cheating?

    Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more sophisticated, and it’s generating a lot of creative ideas. Many people think that artificial intelligence generated art is plagiarized or copied from another artist. However, it’s interesting to consider whether or not this art is original. In fact, AI generated art has a lot of advantages over human generated art.

    AI has the power to churn out a lot of different art styles and techniques. One of the most impressive forms of AI generated art is generative models. Generative models are developed by self-learning software that creates infinite variations of artistic styles by drawing from different sources. These models are capable of creating any form of artwork that humans can imagine. This gives AI generated art a lot of potential to surprise and impress people in unique ways.

    Many people may look at an AI generated piece of art and think it’s copied from another piece. For example, an AI generated portrait of Anna may look exactly like the painting Anna by Kaspar von Leusenheim-Merthjenssen II. However, this is not necessarily the case. AI generated art may look similar because it’s based on how other artists have portrayed subjects. This way, people recognize how similar an AI generated piece of art looks to another one they’ve seen before. However, this doesn’t mean the original work has been copied or plagiarized.

    It can be hard to know if allowing AI generated art in competitions is ethical or not. On one hand, it’s possible that the AI generated art is genuinely creative and original. On the other hand, allowing AI generated art may unfairly disadvantage human generated artists who spend time working on their pieces personally. Ultimately, allowing AI generated art has its advantages as long as organizers make sure everyone knows what’s going on with the files submitted.

    Art competitions are great ways for people to show off their creative talents and ideas. However, allowing AI generated art in competitions can be controversial since no one knows where the artwork really comes from. Ultimately, allowing AI generated art makes it easier for people to enter competitions and be recognized for their work.

    Generated at

    • It reads like a high school student trying to meet the minimum word count with fluff. “C-” work at best. Lead introduces and provides background on the topic. Flows well and builds interest.

      However, only the fourth paragraph addresses the topic, and does so only with truisms and single sentence examples. This would be an adequate lead or concluding paragraph, but a decidedly light body of argument. The fifth paragraph meanders into irrelevant territory. The writing “ultimately” becomes repetitive, and adds unsubstantiated truisms not previously discussed.

  3. I see no difference in using this technology or any of the adobe products to enhance or manipulate an image if the rules state any type.

    If art is to be defined as an interpretive rendition of some human perception then introducing AI into such a contest is not an art contest it is a technical contest. If art is defined as anything that moves other humans to perceive something of relevance to them then virtually nothing is off limits.

  4. Why is the picture crap? Isn’t that the point of art? Some like Warhol, others (mine own self included) find it derivative and cynical, lacking originality or creativity. That doesn’t mean I am wrong – it makesy appreciation of art purely subjective. Same with music, ¿no? I like Bartok bit my wife thinks it’s brash and cacophpnic because she prefers Brahms.

    What is art? It is using known media to express an idea or provoke an emotion/reaction. Art is purely subjective and art contests are even more subjectivem, based on the persuasions of the judges.

    In this case, the competition was for best digital creation. This picture or work fell within the definition. I get the artistic purists position (my older brother is an artist – I suspect he would like the piece but maintain it does not qualify for the competition so it should not have won). The artist drafted the text and had ultimate control over the finished product. I say it qualifies and if the judges didn’t know about AI production, then it is on them to fix the qualifications. It is ethical to submit the production and, if the judges said it would have won anyway if they’d known about AI, then there is no conflict. This is not in the same league as a ball player juicing in the off season or a bicyclist blood doping to gain an advantage.


  5. I’d be hard pressed to call the program that generated the picture an artificial intelligence. It’s a tool, yes, but no more a tool than a TRS-80 or a spatula. It’s a computer program that’s very good at one specific task, but a task that happens if and only if a person orders that task. Théâtre D’opéra Spatial exists only because Jason Allen set code to GUI, just as David exists only because Michaelangelo put chisel to marble.

    Using the Midjourney program is not cheating, because it is just another tool to create a painting, just as cobalt blue and Adobe Photoshop are tools to create paintings. If a truly artificially intelligent entity entered and won a painting competition (assuming such an entity is possible), that would not be cheating either. That entity would be autonomous and sentient, comparable to a human in principle if not in form. To say that entity is cheating just by entering an art competition would be to say a human is cheating just by entering that same art competition.

    At worst, this is an ick factor. It is not an easy task to create a powerful computer program just as it is not an easy task to make a painting with brush and paint.

  6. Digital manipulation is digital manipulation. If they wanted to limit the software one could use, they should have called it a Photoshop/Fireworks/Pixelmator contest. It’s a shame that the judges didn’t have a quick way to find out what Midjourney was. Like maybe Googling it on their phones. (Which is what I would have done if I came across a reference to an unfamiliar program. In fact, it was what I did do. If I were a judge, I’d also be using Google Lens to see what matches came up to check for originality – closest matches were.) Not that the software should matter.

    I don’t think it requires more or less artistic ability than other means of digital manipulation. The medium isn’t what makes the artist. This one just requires the artist be able to articulate what he/she wants along with being able to visualize it. I think the same result could have been made with any of the traditional programs. I’m not sure that I understand what the problem with it is – using AI isn’t the same as hiring someone to do the art for you, you still have to do the work. Shouldn’t an art competition reward innovation?

    I am not fond of the winning piece (it looks like it should be a paperback book cover), but I haven’t seen the other submissions, so I can’t say whether I think it’s better or worse than them.

    • “I am not fond of the winning piece (it looks like it should be a paperback book cover), but I haven’t seen the other submissions, so I can’t say whether I think it’s better or worse than them.”

      I second.

  7. The image may be crap in some viewers’ eyes but it is a lot better than the body of work produced by Mr. Hunter Biden, who was awarded far more than $300 for his crap.
    I personally abhor CGI in cinema. Providing voices to animated objects is NOT acting. AI will certainly take over the human imagination because it is easier than developing human talent and we are all about ease.

    • The image may be crap in some viewers’ eyes but it is a lot better than the body of work produced by Mr. Hunter Biden, who was awarded far more than $300 for his crap.

      Now THAT was nicely played.

  8. I don‘t think your rationalizations are applicable in this case.

    This is a specialized setting with applicable rules.

    Those rules are there to inform participants as to the limitations of the competition. Anything within those limitations should be fair game (literally).

    The rationalizations you mention suggest that there are “unwritten” rules to the competition, but having unwritten rules in such a very specific framework would be unfair, as competitors would not know the true basis for decisions made.

    If they changed the rules to disallow what this person did, fine. But that would not change the fact that he played fairly under the rules in existence at the time he competed.


    • Is someone who types text into an app, who has no art training or background as a graphic artist, an artist by any current and rational definition? That’s my problem with this. There are devices that do essentially what is done by animators at the beginning of Fantasia using Bach’s Fugue: they turn the music into lines and colors. Who’s the visual artist in that situation? Bach? The person who chooses Bach’s work and turns on the sound?

      • I suspect Mr. Allen went through many iterations of this to arrive at the final image, tweaking the appearance by adding to or changing his descriptive text. I doubt he just put in, “draw some contest-winning art” and submitted the first image the software produced. He had a vision for what he wanted to create, and used the tools at his disposal to make it reality. Isn’t that an apt description of “art”?

        The visual artist in your Bach example is the person who wrote the algorithm that converts the song into animation. If the program is configurable, allowing the user to change variables to get different results, then that person is also part of the artistic process.

        I think Allen, by crediting the piece to himself and the software, avoided any ethics fouls here. It’s an accurate statement of who produced the piece, and how.

  9. There’s a key difference between AI-generated art and art created using digital tools like Adobe Photoshop, and that is where the composition decisions are taking place. Where do the processes occur that translate the abstract ideas of the prompt description into a concrete image with lines, colors, shading, et cetera?

    For a real artist, those processes happen in the brain. Sure, some of the digital tools have their own algorithms to produce certain shapes and gradients, but the artist knows what those tools do and how to use them, just as they would know what effects they can get out of a certain type of paintbrush. (Yes, even the tools that use machine learning algorithms to smooth or clone areas of the image.)

    A tool that turns words into images does not require artistic skills to use. It may not have violated the rules of the contest, but I doubt that contests of artistic skill will fare well if they do not prohibit the involvement of AI that composes images from scratch based on a prompt. As for how they enforce it… maybe they could require a recording of the creation process? Until the AI learns enough to simulate that as well, that is.

  10. I am an unrepentant nerd. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise for many, but I feel like it needed to be said. I started hosting a weekly tabletop game, and part of that is prepping various locations/themes. storylines for the players to follow.

    I’ve started using AI generated work because 1) It’s cheap. 2) It’s cheap. and 3) It’s fast. AI generated work is a crapshoot, but every now and again the algorithm returns something really profound, and I’d argue that knowing how to work with the algorithm to get better results more often is a form of artistry…. Just different.

    A friend of mine carves hunks of wood into birds, she hates going to competitions and being judged against parquets, but that happens to her a lot in small competitions because it’s under the broad category of “things made from wood”. I think that as AI art catches on, separate categories will need to be made, but art has always been in the eye of the beholder, and while knowing the art has been painted by a dog or by a program might color your perception of it… It’s still very obviously art.

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