An AI-Generated Artwork Won First Place at a State Fair Fine Arts Competition, and Artists Are Pissed

Jason Allen's AI-generated work "Théâtre D'opéra Spatial" took first place in the digital category at the Colorado State Fair.
Midjourney Photo
Screengrab: Discord.

A man came in first at the Colorado State Fair’s fine art competition using an AI generated artwork on Monday. “I won first place,” a user going by Sincarnate said in a Discord post above photos of the AI-generated canvases hanging at the fair. 

Sincarnate’s name is Jason Allen, who is president of Colorado-based tabletop gaming company Incarnate Games. According to the state fair’s website, he won in the digital art category with a work called “Théâtre D'opéra Spatial.” The image, which Allen printed on canvas for submission, is gorgeous. It depicts a strange scene that looks like it could be from a space opera, and it looks like a masterfully done painting. Classical figures in a Baroque hall stare through a circular viewport into a sun-drenched and radiant landscape.


But Allen did not paint “Théâtre D'opéra Spatial,” AI software called Midjourney did. It used his prompts, but Allen did not wield a digital brush. This distinction has caused controversy on Twitter where working artists and enthusiasts accused Allen of hastening the death of creative jobs. 

“TL;DR — Someone entered an art competition with an AI-generated piece and won the first prize,” artist Genel Jumalon said in a viral tweet about Allen’s win. “Yeah that's pretty fucking shitty.”

“We’re watching the death of artistry unfold before our eyes,” a Twitter user going by OmniMorpho said in a reply that gained over 2,000 likes. “If creative jobs aren’t safe from machines, then even high-skilled jobs are in danger of becoming obsolete. What will we have then?”

“I knew this would be controversial,” Allen said in the Midjourney Discord server on Tuesday. “How interesting is it to see how all these people on Twitter who are against AI generated art are the first ones to throw the human under the bus by discrediting the human element! Does this seem hypocritical to you guys?”

Motherboard reached out to Allen, who replied that he was embarking on a 12 hour drive and could not immediately comment. 

According to Allen, his input was instrumental to the shaping of the award winning painting. “I have been exploring a special prompt that I will be publishing at a later date, I have created 100s of images using it, and after many weeks of fine tuning and curating my gens, I chose my top 3 and had them printed on canvas after unshackling with Gigapixel AI,” he wrote in a post before the winners were announced. 

Allen said that his critics are judging the art by the method of its creation, and that eventually the art world will recognize AI-created art as its own category. “What if we looked at it from the other extreme, what if an artist made a wildly difficult and complicated series of restraints in order to create a piece, say, they made their art while hanging upside-down and being whipped while painting,” he said. “Should this artist’s work be evaluated differently than another artist that created the same piece ‘normally’? I know what will become of this in the end, they are simply going to create an ‘artificial intelligence art’ category I imagine for things like this.”

Artists are concerned about the rise of AI-generated art. Atlantic writer Charlie Warzel went viral after running an edition of the magazine’s newsletter with a Midjourney-generated picture of Alex Jones. A major publication using AI for art instead of a human upset a lot of people. “Technology is increasingly deployed to make gig jobs and to make billionaires richer, and so much of it doesn't seem to benefit the public good enough,” cartoonist Matt Borrs told Warzel in a follow up piece. “AI art is part of that. To developers and technically minded people, it’s this cool thing, but to illustrators it’s very upsetting because it feels like you’ve eliminated the need to hire the illustrator.”

Allen said he had clearly labeled his submission to the state fair as “Jason Allen via Midjourney,” and once again noted the human element required to produce the work. “I generate images with MJ, do passes with photoshop, and upscale with Gigapixel.”

Despite the controversy, the win has only encouraged him. “I’m not stopping now,” he said. “This win has only emboldened my mission.”