The Creative Process - Chance, Intuition and AI


Photo by Tiago Ribeiro

The Creative Process – Chance, Intuition and AI

According to a great many artists of all media, the element of chance, intuition or creative accidents are often credited with playing a major role in the artwork produced.  In Kristin Brenneman’s essay. Chance In Art, the writer reminds us that “chance” is defined as “something that happens unpredictably without discernable human intention or observable cause” and like myself questions why the element of chance doesn’t receive more credit for its prominence in creative endeavors.

She references the work of American painter Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956), French painter Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968) and German/French sculptor Hans Arp (1886 – 1966) for having produced their work with “random outcomes”. The writer cites Pollock’s iconic action painting process through the painter’s own words: “I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image etc. because the painting has a life of it’s own.”  According to the text, the painter insists that the source of his painting is “the unconscious…and that it is no “accident”. (Brenneman/Lachman 508), and describes his immersive state of creativity by insisting that “when I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I am doing”. I might add that when many artists are in this creative state, they are not aware of time or when they have last eaten. They are often entirely numb to outside interference from the surrounding world of any kind.

The writer suggests that during Pollock’s creative process, he varied his technique from thoughtful to thoughtless, achieving improvisation in his work. Or as expressed by Rohn, cited by Brenneman,  “Pollock controlled his parameters while welcoming the dynamics of spontaneity and flow”. These adjoining descriptions of Pollock’s process somewhat falls in line with cognitive scientist Stevan Harnad who in his 2006 essay, Creativity: Method or Magic references French chemist Louis Pasteur’s theory on creativity and the role of “preparation” when he concludes that he correctly recognized that the essential element in creativity “is still chance – the unforeseen, the unexpected – that the “fortuitous factor” is most likely to occur under “prepared conditions” and that both “deliberate and accidental” play a role in creativity. Given the above descriptions, we can surmise that the element of chance, the unconscious and thoughtful preparation could be in a codependent, symbiotic relationship to one another during the creative process.  

We will also want to ask how the element of emotion plays a role in the creative process. In her 2016 essay, Understanding Creative Intuition, Theresa Hardwell cites Bergson’ theoretical concepts throughout her essay, where he indicates that during the creative process, knowledge is in contact and even coincidental to an extended consciousness and insists that “creation is impossible without emotional engagement as it precedes intellect and is therefore the root of all creative activity”. (Bergson:1932:47)

Hardwell draws a distinct correlation between emotion and intuition when she states that “It can be seen that an expanded state of consciousness is a common thread that runs through the psychology and philosophies of creativity” and that “emotion enables communication with the unconscious regions of the mind – allowing intuition to emerge in a rational consciousness”. If we agree that chance, intuition, accidents and preparation are all part of the creative process and that Pollock’s unconscious state and Bergson/ Hardman’s emotional engagement are part of the expanded process, we begin to envision the web of intricate elements that comprise the complex course of human creativity. 

How will the use of generative AI play out in this new realm of creativity for visual artists? Can untold thousands of random Internet digital detritus scraped from every utterance of humanity offer the essential elements that have often been associated with the creative process? In the 2023 Christina Sterbenz ARTnews article DeviantArt’s Decision to label AI Images Creates a Vicious Debate Among Artists and User, the writer interviews Jason M Allen, the founder of Incarnate Games and the creator of the award-winning AI generated image, Theatre D’opera Spatial that took more than eighty hours to produce from Midjourney prompts. Allen states that for him, “It is impossible to remove the human element from the work. There’s always a user, there’s always a person, there’s always a creative force”. We can assume that for Allen, the creative force of AI combines elements such as preparation and emotion to their full affect. We can once again reference Harnad who recommends the “Metaphor” creative model to imply that a “surprising productiveness of the strategy of finding or even imposing similarities by juxtaposing objects, images or ideas – “reading off” or interpreting the consequences of the juxtaposition” might fulfill the needs of the creative process. I am wondering if Harnad’s “Metaphor” model might come close to describing Allen’s AI creative experience and an overall prompt editing or “reading off” process that users endure to create desired outcomes.   

It is more than obvious that AI platforms pull thousands of random outcomes from the guts of the Internet for the users, but who or what is using intuition and chance here and does the selection process from thousands of images or words replace an unconscious creative state of Hardman/Bergson’s “emotional engagement”? As an artist on the margins of the AI quest looking in, generative AI seems to be doing the heavy creative lifting while AI users are becoming expert editors. As we work with AI prompts and ponder the miraculous speed and novelty of machine scraping technology, do we risk losing the emotional and coincidental intuition that is fundamental to sapiens creativity or is it somehow included in the selection process? 

I will venture to answer by referencing a 2020 non-AI body of work I produced called the Christ on Fire series of large-scale prints which was for all intensive purposes, born of chance, intuition and ultimately, failure. It is a body of work that Harnad might refer to as the “Anomaly” model where creative insights are often provoked by “encountering an anomaly or a failure of existing solutions”.

The series began with the Chance purchase of a large Bible illustrated with reproductions of the Italian master Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) from a second-hand bookstore in Toronto. I didn’t realize at the time of purchase that all of the Biblical images were attributed to Michelangelo. I was in the process of building life-size book towers and needed to use the Bible at the base of the construction for stability. Before relinquishing the hefty volume to the tower, I felt it necessary to document a page with an astounding black and white Christ on the Cross black chalk drawing (1538 – 1541), reproduced from the British Museum. It was fortuitous that the Bible’s red ribbon bookmark chanced this particular drawing to my attention in the first place.

Christ on the Cross, (1538 - 1541), Black Chalk (British Museum original) Michelangelo

The studio process of documenting the black and white image printed on a gloss paper background presented further unexpected challenges. The combined studio light source and camera settings offered a gold version of the image. No matter how I adjusted the studio lights, camera settings or location of the Bible page, the camera refused to document the original page in its black and white format. I eventually accepted the new gold gloss spray overtones that now infused the black and white reproduction.  By chance and experimentation with the gloss page surface, I discovered I could control exactly where sprays of gold light could burst from the body of the Christ figure. By documenting the gentle creases I created on the page, I could produce still images of the figure with various bursts of gold explosions traveling the thicker outlines of the ink, like rivers of molten lava that appeared to scorch the very fiber of the paper when printed.  Was this a matter of “divine inspiration” or simply a stubborn form of failure that worked in my favor? My guess is the latter.

Feet Burst, 44" x 60", High Res

When questioning my personal process of chance in the context of generative AI, I have to ask if image prompts would have made the outcomes I eventually favored but had no idea I wanted in the first place. Without a doubt, through hours of prompts, AI would have definitely made hundreds if not thousands of suggestions. AI may have even unearthed the blazing gold color I eventually succumbed to. However, would the platform have convinced me to conflate an inflamed Christ figure with the “witch burnings” of thousands of women in the 1500 – 1700 centuries in the name of Christ that I eventually equated with the resulting Christ on Fire print series? I somehow doubt that I would have produced this series with AI or arrived at the eventual concept of the body of work if I didn’t accidently venture through my own process of failure and that of the unconscious creative mind.

Full Body Burst, Left Side, 44 x 60, High Res

Through my years of creative production, I am convinced that when producing work, artists draw from every corner of the creative process and deserve to experience the full range of chaos that creativity offers. I don’t compare a body of work produced with generative AI and another produced without AI to compare the aesthetics or to insist that one has a better outcome than the other, but to simply consider the differences in the creative process that may start to be implemented as we venture into the AI realm.

Within the rapid stream of images delivered through prompts, failure is not an option. As long as there are prompts, AI delivers every time. It may not deliver exactly what a user is looking for, but sooner or later through extensive editing, an artist will find what they want or an entirely new element of surprise that is deemed worthy of execution. Chance, accidents and intuition are very much part of the generative AI route, but I can’t help but feel that there are definite shifts taking place within the process where crucial elements of the creative process will be shed and others traded for the sum knowledge of humanity that beckons stronger than the sum total of the earth’s rare earth magnets.