Reddit’s largest art forum with 22 million members went on lockdown this week after debates and accusations about what constitutes AI-generated art went viral.
On December 27, a digital artist named Ben Moran tweeted that moderators of r/Art banned them from the subreddit for breaking their “no AI art” rule. Moran had posted an image of their digital illustration, titled “a muse in warzone,” and moderators removed it and banned them from the subreddit.
Moran posted a screenshot of the direct message thread with a mod of the subreddit, where they appealed the ban and claimed that they didn’t use AI at all:
“I can give you guys the process or the PSD file of that painting,” Moran wrote, claiming that they’re not using any AI-supported technology and that the punishment is “not right.” They also linked to their portfolio on DeviantArt.
“I don't believe you,” a moderator for r/art replied. “Even if you did ‘paint’ it yourself, it's so obviously an Al-prompted design that it doesn't matter. If you really are a ‘serious’ artist, then you need to find a different style, because A) no one is going to believe when you say it's not Al, and B) the AI can do better in seconds what might take you hours. Sorry, it's the way of the world.”
Moran told Motherboard that this piece was a commission from their Vietnam-based studio, Kart Studio, which was established three years ago. The studio consists of a group of digital artists who collaborate on pieces, they said. A full-body portrait with a complex background can cost upwards of $500, according to Kart Studio’s website, with the studio sending the commissioner the art at various stages, including the initial sketch. For the muse illustration, a different artist started it, and Moran stepped in to complete it. It took Moran a month to complete (about 100 hours, they said) and they wanted to show the final piece to the community on Reddit.
“Being accused of being an AI artwork is just like telling me that I'm a random guy and all of my job is just typing some words to have a painting in one or two hours,” they said. “I think it's not a good comparison.”
Moran and Kart Studio’s signature style does look similar to the predominant style of AI-generated art that’s going around currently: painterly, Renaissance-style depictions of feminine figures wearing warrior-esque outfits that would easily fit in a Final Fantasy game. A lot of AI-generated art looks like this for a few reasons—mainly because it’s drawing from databases built from existing original artworks and images on the internet (and there’s a ton of busty anime online), but also because a lot of people simply want to see, and make, AI that features scantily-clad female figures. But it’s a style that existed long before AI-generated art became popular; Moran said they count artists like Ruan Jia, Huang Guangjian, and Piotr Jabłoński among their influences.
Since the rise in popularity of easy to use AI-generated art applications like Midjourney, DALL-E, and Stable Diffusion, many websites that host user-generated content and subreddits have enacted similar rules banning AI art; Animation site Newgrounds, art site Inkblot, and furry fandom art platform Fur Affinity have all announced bans on art made with generative systems, as have subreddits including r/Dune, r/Illustration, and r/DigitalArt. What constitutes “art” when an AI makes it, and whether these processes are ethical for the original artists these applications build their datasets from, has been a hot debate for the last year.
Moran has their own concerns about the impact of AI art on artists. They’re currently teaching an art class, they said, and they find the Renaissance style particularly valuable to honing the craft. “With the development of AI art, we can easily learn to do it in maybe a day, or a week, with no theory, just type some keyword and we get all the things we want,” they said. “There's no passion if you can create an artwork that way. And the biggest problem is that I worry about the development of AI art, all of the artists will lose their passion to create a painting.”
A moderator for r/Art told me that the “no AI art rule” has been in place for a year or so. “We don't necessarily have anything against AI Art, but when people can churn it out so quickly and easily if it's allowed the sub becomes nothing but AI art rather quickly,” they said.
“Moderators are human unpaid volunteers who donate their time for the sake of the community,” the r/Art moderator Motherboard spoke to said, when asked to comment on the exchange between another mod and Moran. “Sometimes they have bad days, sometimes they say things in the heat of the moment. We're all human. That said, if we were to reverse course now it's saying online trolls get to dictate the state of the community, which we're not ok with.”
The mod Motherboard spoke to said that the subreddit was brigaded—a form of online trolling against a person or community where members of another community flood their target with harassment—after troll site rdrama caught wind of the AI art debate happening on r/Art, at least partially because of the virality of Moran’s tweets, and because a YouTuber with a large following posted a video about the situation that’s gathered nearly 365,000 views.
“It would be one thing if it were members of the community upset, but this seems to just be trolls looking for an excuse who've literally never been involved with the subreddit in any way previous to this,” the moderator told Motherboard.
The subreddit was set to private for most of Thursday, but is now back to public. While it was private, a note from the moderators stood in its place: “This sub is currently private because we have been brigaded for the past week, with no significant help or response from the admins,” the mods wrote. “We expect to reopen once we have the support we have requested. We are ignoring all modmail and join requests, so please do not expect a response.”
A screenshot of r/art as it looked on Thursday
The moderators of r/Art expressed frustration at Reddit admins not stepping in to remedy the troll situation. Reddit declined to comment on the incident. According to Reddit, brigading violates the site-wide rules against organized attempts at disrupting a community.
Ironically, Moran and the mods of r/Art seem to be on the same side in the greater AI art debate—both sides see generated art as being detrimental.
“In my opinion, the development of AI is good for industry, not for the art community and artists,” Moran said. “AI, of course, is stronger than our brain. It's a mix of a thousand, or a million human brains of artists all over the world, so AI can do a ton of work in a short time. But as I said, it can cut off all the artist's passion and break the art community.” They hope that future artists aren’t discouraged by a technology that can slap together a painting in seconds—or the controversies surrounding its development and detection. “Stay strong artists,” they said. “Don't let the AI stop your drawing career and passion.”
Chloe Xiang contributed reporting for this story.