top of page

Beyond Computation: Why AI-Generated Art Lacks the Spiritual Essence of Art

Theology and Art

This blog is a shorter simpler version of my recently published journal article.

The recent development of AI-generated art in the digital world is nothing short of impressive! Yet, it lacks one thing, the human ability to contemplate the meaning of life, the spiritual and the transcendent, and communicate that in a deeply human way. So, what are we to make of this art form that produces, at least in some ways, better art than humans but lacks spiritual dimension?

Open-source AI-generated art programs, include DALL-E 2, MidJourney, NightCafé, and others. To get any of these programs to produce truly exceptional pieces, you would need to know how to write detailed text prompts, presumably with some knowledge of art and art styles. These prompts then create images that are both complex and realistic. One can also get these programs to spit out images in a specific artistic style, like Impressionism or Surrealism for example. Kevin Roose explains how this works in layman’s terms, it works by “scraping millions of images from the open web, then teaching algorithms to recognize patterns and relationships in those images and generate new ones in the same style.”[1] This begs the obvious question, is this kind of art computation or creativity, and if it’s computation, should we call it imaging, rather than art? There are copyright and plagiarism questions as well, but that’s for another discussion.

To answer the question about whether AI-generated art ought to be considered a genuine artistic expression, I found the writings of Dietrich von Hildebrand on Aesthetics particularly helpful. He wrote two hefty volumes on beauty and aesthetics, the first volume was about being in beauty, in nature, and the life of a human person. Here he offers a philosophical exploration of the value of beauty. In the second volume, he looks at aesthetics and beauty in artistic disciplines, like painting, architecture, sculpture, music, writing, and so on.

Von Hildebrand developed the idea of the first and second powers of beauty. It’s simpler than it seems. The first power refers to how we engage with art and beauty with our natural senses, like sight, hearing, smell, and touch. In other words, how do our sensory stimuli help us respond to beauty with experience and emotion? The second power is spiritual. Here, beauty transcends our being and moves beyond our sensory abilities. This power evokes in us a sense of awe, wonder, and contemplation. It points beyond itself towards something other, something transcendent. We have all experienced this whether it be in artistic expression or in nature. The last time I experienced the second power was a few weeks ago when I watched little Malakai Bayoh sing “Pie Jesu” on Britain’s Got Talent. You can watch it here. The second power enchants and captivates us, it moves us towards something greater than ourselves. It is simply sublime and positions us before the face of God, so to speak. Von Hildebrand lists five values of the second power, they are:

1. Beauty reveals God. Beauty reflects the infinite divine beauty of God and his creative power. It tells us something about who he is. Our spiritual person is developed when we experience such beauty.

2. The Objective Quality of Beauty and Human Experience. We may have a very real experience of beauty that fills our hearts with joy, and yet this experience is different from the artistic object itself. The quality of the piece of art is therefore not beauty per se, but happiness. While beauty is an apersonal entity, a spiritual quality like happiness, for example, is a personal entity, says Dietrich von Hildebrand.[2]

3. Human Creativity and God. One of the most fascinating reflections of von Hildebrand’s thought is that no matter the moral shortcomings, experiences, or poor personality traits of the artist, their work could still exhibit the second power. In other words, the sublime quality and greatness of their artistic project may misalign with the artist themselves. Their artistic expression transcends their spiritual and moral condition. The beauty of art transcends even the artist and captivates our very souls, bringing us into the presence of the divine. Surely this is a gracious gift of God.

4. Beauty Reflects the True Nature of Reality. Like Holy Scripture, which is the most sublime expression of beauty, the objective of the artist is to communicate the truth to others, says von Hildebrand.[3] He explains that the greater the value and significance of the truth in art and aesthetics, the greater the beauty.[4]

5. The Transforming Power of True Beauty. True beauty has the power to captivate and enchant us, but more than that it also has the power to transform our lives morally, and in love.

Reflecting again on AI-generated art. I argue that genuine art has an aesthetic beauty capable of both the first and second powers. AI-generated art has the first power but is incapable of the second. As the American-Japanese artist, Makoto Fujimura[5] says when comparing his work to AI-generated art, (1) he makes use of precious physical materials in an ancient Japanese artistic tradition, and this is very human, it’s creative. (2) People want an immersive human experience and human knowledge, not a computer-generated counterfeit created by algorithms. In this way, he believes his work is far superior. And (3) he has Christian faith which influences his artistic expression. Here you sense Hildebrand’s second power coming through. AI-generated art knows nothing of Christian faith and the experience of the sublime and the transcended.

There is potential for AI-generated art to be aesthetically pleasing and even evoke an emotional response from our senses, but it is devoid of all the values of the second power. And so, is it truly art? Perhaps it might be more appropriate to refer to it as AI-generated images.

Check out our new curated collection of Christian Classics.


Images created by DALL-E 2, MidJourney, and NightCafé.

Fujimura, Makoto. 2023. ChatGPT Threat? Mako Discusses Recent “A.I.” Development, Deep Learning, and Art.

Hildebrand, Dietrich von. 2016. Aesthetics. Vol. 1. Steubenville: Hildebrand Project.

———. 2019. Aesthetics. Vol. 2. Steubenville: Hildebrand Project.

Roose, Kevin. 2022. “An A.I.-Generated Picture Won an Art Prize. Artists Aren’t Happy.” The New York Times, § Technology.

[1] Roose, Kevin. 2022. “An A.I.-Generated Picture Won an Art Prize. Artists Aren’t Happy.” The New York Times, § Technology. [2] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics (Steubenville: Hildebrand Project, 2016), 1:48. [3] Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 1:285, 290–91. [4] Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 1:442. [5] ChatGPT Threat? Makoto Discusses Recent “A.I.” Development, Deep Learning and Art, 2023.


bottom of page