Forget AI—We Need More Clip Art

Forget AI—We Need More Clip Art

We used to scoff at it, but in an age of relentless commodification, it now seems like a democratizing force.


When I was a child, I spent a lot of my life in Microsoft Word and later in Microsoft Publisher, its desktop publishing equivalent, making everything from menus for fruit stands to faux Crate & Barrel catalogs. My parents bought me Greeting Card Factory software for my birthday. Graphic design, it could be said, was my passion. In each of these projects, I used clip art, the stock imagery that usually came bundled with software or on a dodgy CD-ROM you’d get at Borders called something like “50,000 Best Clip Art Images.” For children such as myself, clip art was the digital equivalent of a sticker book—it was also an incredible way to play pretend, housed in harmless office software isolated from the Internet. It was free—at the point of purchase—meaning it could be used on everything from school flyers to actual menus in actual businesses, “CurlzMT” typeface and all. If you are older than 25, you probably remember clip art’s mix of vague abstraction (e.g., gestural line figures in oversize ’90s suits holding briefcases) and goofy cartoonishness. These aesthetics remain indelible parts of early digital kitsch, along with GeoCities (itself populated with clip art) or WordArt.

The other day I found myself needing to make a flyer for school. Instead of going into Adobe Illustrator or some other high-powered software, I figured I’d just go old-school and do it with clip art, perhaps semi-ironically. I opened Microsoft Word only to find that clip art has been replaced with something called “stock images,” which, it turns out, is the laziest assemblage of bare-minimum content—vague business photography so uninspiring that it is itself a parody of vague business photography—that would have the original clip art folks shaking their heads. Old-school clip art, which is to say, clip art made until the era of online distribution took off in the late 2000s, was both plentiful and diverse. Because photographs used too much storage space on CD-ROMs, most clip art was made up of vector illustrations that came in a variety of styles. Some were intended for more corporate use, others for the whimsies of birthday cards, back-to-school materials, and poster-making. Indeed, the phrase “clip art” itself, while technically a synonym of stock imagery, implies a more casual consumer role, a certain amateurism that’s perfectly all right because most of us are not graphic designers and just need a cute picture of a guy sitting at a computer. Some clip art, dare I say it, was handsome, even. You inserted a clip art CD when you needed it, and then put it back, like you would a book at a library. This probably sounds archaic, but as someone who frequently has to make images, it makes a modicum of sense to store your clip art in the same place as you would your other art supplies, rather than hoard thousands of vectors on a hard drive.

In making my generic flyer, I realized I had few options for image rights, and what options I had were paywalled at any given opportunity. A Google search is not very helpful either—it’s difficult to determine what kind of rights one has to imagery found on search engines. What’s worse is that, in the last few years, historical imagery on the web—including many images that should be in the public domain—has been swooped up and watermarked by GettyImages, Shutterstock, and iStock. If I want to find a picture of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, I see images that used to be unwatermarked when I was in music school five years ago locked behind stock image sites. What’s left in the search page are low-resolution uploads to Pinterest, a website that has parasitized Google Image searches to the point of being unusable.

These miscellaneous images used to simply come with programs like Word. Now, if one wants to procure some online, they’ll have to cough up some dough. The cost of using Shutterstock or iStock is exorbitant and they price by the piece. Other clip art options include repository sites like Freepik, but most of their images are watermarked, only editable in vector software such as Illustrator, and require additional subscriptions to be suitable for commercial use. The popularity of platforms like Canva—another freemium graphic design site that allows users to design flyers and social-media banners and the like—speaks to the fact that desktop publishing just isn’t that accessible to those untrained in complex, highly technical software such as Illustrator. Canva is the Greeting Card Factory of our time: an easy-to-use website that can produce some pretty good-looking results. But everything on it is monetized to the point of frustration—want to download at a specific resolution? It’ll cost you. Want to use the piece of clip art included in this free template? It’ll cost you. Want to use the software for commercial use? That’s extra. Native to each of these services is the illusion of freedom (or at least accessibility) and an inherent distrust of the person using the material as a potential IP violator. I didn’t realize how democratic clip art—generally remembered as being boring and corporate—was in comparison to today’s amateur desktop publishing landscape until I tried to find a cute picture to use on a stupid flyer I was making in Microsoft Word.

The extinction of clip art as a concept is a looking glass reflecting what makes the modern computer experience so unpleasant. It’s not even that nothing is free anymore; it’s that nothing is its own product anymore—everything has been reduced to the piecemeal, from individual images to creative labor itself. It is actually cheaper for me to hire a graphic designer on Fiverr than it is to buy a single image on Shutterstock. Hell, I don’t even own the means of creative production anymore—I rent them from Microsoft and Adobe. Meanwhile, copyright trolls and social media crawlers have locked down and watermarked so much of what’s online that searching for images is almost a pointless endeavor in and of itself. No wonder there’s so much demand for AI products like Dall-E and Midjourney. They, also now monetized, fill a niche that clip art once filled, which is to say, they take up a blank space on a page.

The Internet once offered us the potential of a creative frontier that was so unthinkably vast that we looked forward to the obsolescence of something as trite as clip art. Now, all we’ve gotten in return after three decades of so-called “innovation” is corporate greed and rent-seeking behavior that makes it harder and harder to use the computer for any kind of creative means. We once mocked clip art for being generic, not realizing that there is utility in simple forms of communication, for the ordinary and the easily accessible. I would love to have used clip art on my school project, which, in the end, I ended up drawing by hand.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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