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People are not happy that the SF Ballet used AI-generated art to promote ‘The Nutcracker’

A screenshot of the @sfballet instagram account, where AI art was used to promote The Nutcracker in a post on Nov. 9, 2022

Last month, ahead of its annual December production of The Nutcracker, the San Francisco Ballet posted an illustration of the show’s iconic protagonist to its Instagram account. But unlike Drosselmeyer’s familiar wooden soldier, human hands did not create this nutcracker.

“This AI art looks like CRAP, I can’t believe you did this instead of hiring real artists,” one person commented on the image. “Shame on you.”

The comment section is now filled with similar expressions of anger and accusations that the SF Ballet is stealing intellectual property and robbing living, breathing artists of the opportunity to earn money.

The uproar over the promotional materials is yet another example of how AI-generated visuals are stirring controversy in the art world. While casual observers might not think twice about this depiction of the ballet’s titular character—or two additional computer-drawn images of the Mouse King and Clara posted to the SF Ballet’s Instagram account—many feel that using artificial intelligence to create illustrations like these is tantamount to theft and represents a disturbing shift toward machines taking work from artists.

“I grew up watching SF Ballet but am so ashamed of you for using AI generated images for Nutcracker promo knowing full well it’s created from works stolen from artists,” another commenter wrote. “A despicable decision, especially for an arts org.”

San Francisco Ballet spokesperson Kate McKinney confirmed the images were made with AI generator Midjourney and said the promotional images were an experimentation with new technology.

“In the spirit of Bay Area ingenuity, we tried something new,” McKinney told The Standard.

But Imogen Chayes, a Bay Area-based artist who’s worked for Marvel Studios on She-Hulk said that the promotional content SF Ballet put out using AI could have been an opportunity for another artist.

“It’s tragic to me that a creative institution like the SF Ballet, a company that celebrates the traditional arts, would embrace a medium that’s extremely harmful to the art community,” Chayes told The Standard.

Although plenty have hailed the advent of AI-illustration tools, their use continues to be contentious, and few positive reactions could be found in the comments section of the SF Ballet’s Instagram account.