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Bowie reimagined

David Bowie was not simply imaginative— he sparked others’ imaginations. In part because he was a good looking man, in part because he carefully crafted his own visual image, in part because he projected otherworldly qualities, but also in part because his body of work invited speculation, fans have been depicting Bowie in various fictional scenarios for years. This trend has only picked up with the advent of AI graphical mechanisms. This post is not a meditation on whether AI is good or bad or whether it has the potential of being a genuine artistic tool. Instead, I’m featuring fantastic images of Bowie that I’ve just come across here and there on line. Most or all of these were generated using AI. Are they art? Well, I’m going to come down on the side of yes, they are art. They are visual representations of somebody’s ideas, seeing Bowie as something he never had the chance to be— a character in a Marvel movie (stylized as if it were made then Bowie was the age he appears to be in the image), Bowie on a political poster, Bowie in science fiction movies, Bowie as he would look today, Bowie as a Disney character.

In one sense, all this is a type of fan fiction, and that’s not unique to David Bowie. But it is also another sign of Bowie having transcended from being a living, breathing rock star to a cultural phenomenon. I think its safe to stay that David Bowie is more popular, more famous and generally “bigger” today than he was in 2015, and certainly than he was in 2012 (the year before his surmise return to music with The Next Day).

These AI images offer a little piece of the puzzle of what’s exactly happening. In death, Bowie can be anything anyone wanted him to be. He changed his own image frequently, but while that expanded his appeal on the one hand, it also, inevitably led to disappointment. If you track down reviews of some of Bowie’s late 80s albums, or Tin Machine albums, for instance, you will find many of them dripping not just with dislike but disappointment. Reviewers wanted the latest Bowie album to be something it wasn’t, and wanted Bowie himself to be something he wasn’t. This extends to whatever character Bowie was playing at any given time. In life, I would occasionally hear some version of the idea, “I don’t like this Bowie.”

But, “in the death” (as Bowie said in the opening lines of Diamond Dogs), nobody needs to wait for Bowie to get to his next phase or his next album. It all exists alongside each other. There is no being disappointed with where Bowie is now— if you don’t like Tonight or Never Let Me Down, you’re not going to have to wait for him to get past that phase over several years to get to Blackstar. Just listen to Blackstar. Or go back in time and listen to Hunky Dory. Do whatever you want to do.

But we can only think about what Bowie never got around to doing. That’s where some of these artistic depictions come in. Of course, artistic depictions of Bowie are not at all limited to AI generated images, but I do think AI is democratizing art. We’re not too far out from someone wanting to see Bowie as the Vision in a Marvel-like movie that AI is able to make as a movie featuring an image that looks and sounds like David Bowie. There are ethical questions built into that idea, which again, I’m not going to attempt to tackle here. Those issues have, in part, to do with the idea that a computer program is doing the thinking and creating instead of a person. That’s far from the only ethical issue, but I mention it here because I don’t think these images are inherently unethical. Far from being devoid of creative thought, they are expressions of creative thought. On that level alone, I’m willing to say that Bowie’s legacy of getting people thinking is a positive. And if nothing else, these are interesting pictures…

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