In the first pages of Ben Lerner’s first novel, “Leaving Atocha Station”, its narrator goes to the Prado Museum in Madrid and watches a stranger burst into tears in front of Rogier van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross”. a votive portrait attributed to Paolo da San Leocadio, and Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”. He looks at the man until he leaves and follows him into the sun. The narrator has long worried about being unable to have such a profound experience of art. Many of us, I imagine, have experienced the failure to be moved by a painting as we hoped. I thought about this passage while watching the first big commercial for Meta, Facebook’s rebranding as a metaverse business, which also takes place in a museum. But here, art moves, literally.
The video begins with four young people watching “The Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo” by Henri Rousseau, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art. As they gaze into the frame, the tiger’s eyes blink and the entire painting comes to life and opens up to an animated three-dimensional jungle. The tiger and the buffalo, the toucans and the monkeys and the mandrills in the trees, all begin to dance to an old rave tune; children jump too. Fruit trees grow around them in the gallery. Above the rainforest canopy in the distance looms a mysterious hexagonal portal, and beyond, in the misty red hills, the towering skyline of a large tropical city. It’s a scene that suggests Facebook may be returning to the counter-cultural origins of Silicon Valley: a psychedelic dream of a global community sharing collective hallucinations.
The video keynote that Meta posted to explain to investors also highlights the art, opening with a demo in which a few of Mark Zuckerberg’s colleagues find an augmented reality street art piece hidden on a wall in SoHo. It comes to life through 3D animation and is transferred from Lower Manhattan to virtual reality, becoming a nightmarish Cthulhu-type drop that surrounds their avatars. (Zuckerberg: “That’s awesome!”) For some reason, the company wants us to think of art when we think of their new product. Maybe that’s because they want us to see it as a platform for creative self-expression – or maybe just because fine art provides a more uplifting context than video games or working out. residence.
This apparent stance towards art is both feeble and appropriate; silly because it reduces art to a simple gewgaw, appropriate because other entrepreneurs have already taken this point of view. Rousseau animation assumes the popular logic of ‘Van Gogh’s immersive experience’, in which the austere old Dutch paintings of starry nights and menacing wheat fields are projected onto walls and floors to create an enveloping spectacle. , an attraction and a selfie backdrop. Both assume that the public can only appreciate works of art when they are being ruined. And in the case of the Van Gogh Experiment, the market has proven them right: there are currently at least five different competing Van Gogh Experiences touring the country. The copy has passed the original. This has remained a consistent theme throughout Facebook’s history, which offers a pale simulation of friendship and community in place of reality. Meta promises to lead us further into the Forest of Illusions.
And yet, the return to an art of dreaming and escapism is a tempting proposition. Rousseau, painting jungles in his studio in Paris from his middle age, escaped his own monotonous life as a retired employee of the municipal toll service. He is said to have often told stories of his youthful adventures and how his period of service during Napoleon III’s intervention in Mexico inspired his jungle images; but they were all lies. In fact, he played in a brass band and never left France.
One important thing to remember about the Metaverse is that none of it was done, neither the jungle nor the technology to display it.
Rousseau found his real inspiration in travel journals and regular visits to the Jardin des Plantes, of which he once said to an art critic: “When I enter the greenhouses and see the strange plants of the countries exotic, it seems to me that I am going into a dream. It is this strange dream space, where ferocious animals have the quality of illustrations in children’s books and bananas grow upside down on trees, that he evokes in his paintings; and it is the childish originality and the naive purity of these representations that his fellow artists would come to admire.
In the Paris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rousseau and his contemporaries (Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso, etc.) are busy inventing bohemian modernity, creating new ways of living and see the world. In our century, this visionary role seems to have shifted from artists to engineers, to Zuckerberg and his ilk. Who else is trying to invent new worlds? Who dares to spin great utopian fantasies? Artists don’t do it anymore. It’s the Silicon Valley founders of Promethean who regularly try – and fail.
Meta’s offering isn’t appealing: it’s both childish and cynical. But a vision of the future imagined by a creative agency for a mega-corporation was always going to be appalling. The problem isn’t that today’s kids can’t appreciate a Rousseau masterpiece, but that their elders, my generation, don’t know how to find something that could compare to that – we forgot how to imagine a completely different world.
One important thing to remember about the Metaverse is that none of it was done, neither the jungle nor the technology to display it. You can’t really go to a museum and do that. It’s just an idea, a whisper in the wind. An ad for nothing. It’s Meta. The more I watch the ad and the speech where Zuckerberg explains his vision in detail, the more it seems like he has no idea what he is making or selling. It’s bad for a business but not for artists, who thrive on an open brief. Indeed, much of the talk is a call for thousands of “creators” to help build a working metaverse and a promise that they will be paid to do so.
Contemporary art is currently dominated by painting and sculpture, by traditional materials and ancient manufacturing methods. Meanwhile, companies outside of the art world are using digital technology to recreate timeless masterpieces in the form of evanescent gadgets, tourist attractions and projected animation. But few artists do what Rousseau and his peers have done: accept the realities imposed by new technologies – in their case, photography – and break old ways to create something new. An artist with the spirit of Rousseau might appreciate the potential of this new medium and want to make art for the metaverse and the general public. Now, as in his time, he would not recreate old works from the past, but would create fantastic scenes of his dreams: scenes he had never witnessed in his own life, rendered in a style no one had before. never seen. Today it seems possible, perhaps for the first time in this century, to invent a completely new aesthetic, provided someone takes the reins of technologists.
Photographic sources: screenshots from YouTube
Dean Kissick is a New York writer and editor of Spike Art Magazine. He last wrote for the magazine on the Pomodoro technique.