Lensa, and Portraits of Desire
On masks and the latest AI art trend
I am an artist. I’ve made art for magazines, for commission, and, at times, for myself. Though I use tools that a Renaissance painter might identify as witchcraft, I am nonetheless a participant in a heritage that stretches back to the earliest cave paintings. Perhaps even further back than that.
I am a human. I have a physical body with daily appetites that I must address. I am a thinking, rational being. I have a concept of myself, a collection of notions about who I am, how I present myself, and how others might perceive me.
Artificial Intelligence’s public foray into art smacks of an invasion in a way that other AI projects haven’t. While artists are regularly underpaid and under-appreciated, art itself is seen as something intrinsic to the human soul, influenced by each unique artist’s point of view and aesthetic.
We don’t think of art as something a machine would be able to imitate, no matter how good it gets at chess. It makes sense that we would be reluctant, even frightened by this development. But what if the art in question looked like us? And what if it looked really good?
Lensa, a photo and video editing app from Prisma Labs, debuted in 2018 but rose to sudden prominence after rolling out its “magic avatars” feature in November 2022. Based on images the user feeds it, the feature uses AI imaging to produce often flattering portraits, stylized with touches of artistry to mirror actual works of art.
These portraits have since flooded social media. Like any phenomenon on the internet, it has inspired backlash, backlash-to-the-backlash, and so on. Many artists have called out its use of AI imaging, which uses human artists’ work to generate the pictures without crediting or compensating them. Though it’s not without its defenders.
Some argue this is how human artists operate as well: we draw inspiration from an image or a collection of images to create something new. The artist Pablo Picasso is often credited with saying, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
As an artist, I have a stake in these conversations, and they are doubtlessly important. But the ethics or provenance of art and art-making aren’t the most immediately interesting dilemmas, to me. I’m interested in what people think when they see themselves, and what they’re looking for by sharing these images.
What exactly do you want this technology to do?
In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz’s profound reflection on identity, he dedicates a chapter to the tradition of Mexican masks, a Pre-Columbian practice that persists to the present day. He uses the enduring appeal of masks as a prompt for meditation on the paradoxical nature of self-expression.
For Paz, solitude is an inescapable condition, and attempts to overcome it, to break through it, often end in frustrating and absurd situations. Attempts to convey interiority become a performance. We have little choice, in other words, but to hint at a truth using lies, and so we ought to lovingly craft those lies, make them beautiful, and put intent behind their design, like the celebrated mask maker.
The result is a performance or an object that simultaneously reveals, but doesn’t expose. It communicates a truth, but hides the larger truth of the self, the endlessly complicated being behind the mask. Paz uses the example of a man in love.
“If we can arrive at authenticity by means of lies, an excess of sincerity can bring us to refined forms of lying. When we fall in love we open ourselves up and reveal our intimate feelings, because an ancient tradition requires that the man suffering from love display his wounds to the loved one. But in displaying them the lover transforms himself into an image, an object he presents for the loved one’s own—and his own—contemplation… He has offered himself as a spectacle, asking the spectators to see him as he sees himself, and in so doing he has escaped the game of love, has saved his true self by replacing it with an image.”
From what I’ve seen, people do and don’t look like their Lensa portraits. Sure, fingers and eyes get garbled, but it’s more than that. I recognize the portrait as the person I’ve seen before, can identify the familiar architecture of their face, but there’s something that distinguishes the image from being “them.” It’s not just that the muscles are often inflated or that the jawline is often sharpened.
What is it?
I think it’s the act of sharing the image that truly separates the real from the projected. If I somehow saw the image out in the wild, I would more readily identify the image as the person I know, albeit with many of their typical traits sanded away. It should go without saying that retouching photos is nothing new, and some of the Lensa magic avatars don’t fall too far outside the boundaries of what others may try to pass off as candids.
But the act of sharing the portrait points to a desire so naked and authentic that it makes the AI image seem that much more artificial in comparison. There’s a raw, distinctly human urge that, while not outright articulated, is implied and alluded to. It’s the desire to communicate some idealized version of self, even if there is an obvious chasm between what’s being presented and what is typically perceived.
I’d venture to guess that the person posting an unrealistic, ultra-flattering portrait of themselves isn’t being fooled, nor are they trying to fool others. Nor do I think that they believe the image has nothing to do with them, that it doesn’t represent them at all, or that it doesn’t elevate some genuine aspects of their appearances.
I think it’s more complex. I think most people know, on some level, that the self is a negotiated reality open at all times to reinterpretation at the introduction of new information. What the AI presents is good new information.
In 2015, a friend dragged me out of the apartment I’d been holed up in for three consecutive days. During all three of those days, I wore a hoodie with the hood up. I wore this to bed, wore it as I prepared lunch and then dinner, and wore it while watching TV on my couch. I could not and would not take it off.
At that time, I was suffering under the belief that if anyone saw me, saw my body, or saw my head, I would be both pitied and laughed at. I was too embarrassed to be seen. My ears were huge. My head was lumpy and in dramatic disproportion to my frame. The flesh on my face was drooping, melting away. My hair was coming out in patches and leaving scattered bald spots on my scalp.
I took hundreds of photos of myself during this period of what I now recognize as psychosis from a wide variety of angles, fishing for information that would either disprove or validate my delusions. I wanted both in equal measure. Photos that disproved my suspicions calmed me down for an hour or so. Photos that upheld them made me feel like perhaps I wasn’t going crazy.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I was indeed losing my grip on reality. The actual status of my body was nowhere near what my brain was cooking up. Point blank, I was wrong about what I looked like. Except, that didn’t really matter, did it?
Even at the height of my episode, my suffering was never about what I did or didn’t look like. It was the belief I had attached to my perception of my body. The truth was, even if my body had matched up with my worst fears, I could have gone to the grocery store without issue. I would have looked like, well, a person. It was as though the paranoia had found a suitable host in my anxiety over my appearances.
Frustratingly and despite treatment, the paranoia would go on to leap to other anxieties. Some of these had to do with my body, yes, but some didn’t. Looking at old photos of myself from back then, I wish I could say my main thought was, “Wow, you had nothing to worry about!” My main thought tends to be, “Wow, you were worried about the wrong things.”
The anxiety simply shifts and reflects more contemporary dilemmas.
These struggles have given me plenty to chew on. Some of the lessons have been painful. Some have been useful, and some have been useless. But one thing I do appreciate about it is that it’s prompted me to approach my body with a certain mindfulness.
The conclusion I’ve reached is that I’m not alone, and I don’t mean that in the sense of my mental illness. I mean that, for everyone, the body is a belief. We have our understanding, our concept of our body, but the body itself is a separate animal, in uneasy collaboration with our self-concept. The body has its own urges, its own processes, and its own agendas outside the purview of the seat of self.
The body belief is equally intricate, hundreds of thousands of “if’s” wired to their corresponding “then’s.” If I don’t work out today, then I am ugly. If I am ugly, then I am worthless. If I had bigger biceps, then I’d get hit on more. If I got hit on more, then I’d have a romantic partner. For many, the body belief is a prison, an oppressive theocracy of one, and they crave a rewiring.
Let’s call my condition “body dysmorphia.” In the grips of it, I reliably take several photos of myself. I seek myself out in every mirror, looking for evidence—of what I fear, but also, what I hope to be false. On a good day, the information I glean from this obsessive behavior will disrupt my flawed perception of my body. It will force me to rearrange it into something that causes me less misery.
Some mirrors are more flattering than others. Over time, you learn where the good ones are.
I tend to describe social media as “a reality.” Not reality, necessarily, but not…not. If you exclude the robots, social media consists of real people communicating with each other and, at least in my case, real emotional stakes to that communication. Sometimes you land in a niche digital community, and those people, or at least their avis, become your daily familiar faces.
You might fall into a rhythm. You know what is said and what isn’t said, what’s funny and what’s cringe. You learn the language, and the language constructs a culture, and a culture congeals into a reality. Is it you navigating that reality, or someone else?
Who is the “me” on social media? It is a public project and a projection. It is something that is piloted, but also the pilot. We use social media to connect with others, but in a curated way. We want to tailor how we are perceived, but what do we want to do with that perception? Convince ourselves that’s who we really are? Incorporate it into how we see ourselves when we step away from the computer?
The digital self tends to be an idealized version of the person behind the computer. Me, but better. It’s no wonder that much of our online lives is spent seeking out new ways to identify ourselves—we text our moms asking what time we were born so that we might get our full astrological birth chart, we take personality tests and atomize our sexualities. We want to be known. We want to differentiate ourselves from the crowd, but also, be a part of a community.
We are building something from the ground up, something in our image, but enhanced.
The digital life and the offline life continue to merge. Though it’s a legless laughing stock at the moment, the existence of the Metaverse speaks to a desire to reach some other plane of existence where we have more control, to climb into a better, more customizable self. The technology just isn’t there right now, but it might be one day.
Would that self be “you?” Would it look like you? Would it reflect certain aspects of you while erasing less favorable ones? If you could, would you step into that kind of reality today, right now?
The body is a house of pain. It has aches and needs, and we’re stuck in it. Throughout the course of human history, technology has been developed to ease those aches and meet those needs. It exists to make our lives easier, to help us overcome our limitations so that we might reach something better, might be something better.
The future of AI remains to be seen, but its present tells us a lot about ourselves. In an economic system driven by appetites, AI is a sort of reflection of what we’re hungry for. Our Instagram and TikTok feeds adjust themselves to scratch our specific itches, telling us, “this is what you want.”
For most, I’m sure the Lensa “magic avatars” they shared simply looked appealing, and so they shared them. But the appeal speaks to an appetite that the app knew to cater to. This is how many technologies and apps find success.
Indeed, it seems that every app we use is a mirror, showing us a different side of ourselves, for better and for worse. It’s no wonder we would find ourselves paying money for an app that shows us an ideal reflection.
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Wow. Such an incredible writer. The proverbial file of "best articles by JP Brammer" is overfull, but you can bet I'll be trying to cram this one in there too. Beautiful prose, thought-provoking, and one I'll be re-reading again and again
There is always the flipside of technology and I hate that. AI productions fall into the "fake" category to me and it should be distinguished from art that comes from the human soul. I really wish that we could love ourselves. The older I get, when I look in the mirror, I see what appears to me to be a caricature forming of the real me that is still imprinted on my brain from my younger days and how I think I look. It catches me off guard and I wish that I had appreciated the pre-caricature phase of my life. It seems to me that it's difficult to grow old gracefully no matter what AI can do.