In the opening pages of Ben Lerner’s first novel, “Leaving Atocha Station,” His narrator visits the Prado Museum in Madrid and sees a stranger crying 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 watches the man until he leaves and follows him in the sun. The narrator has long worried that he is unable to experience art so deeply. Many of us, I imagine, have experienced a failure to be moved by a painting as we expected. I thought of this route when I saw the first major ad for Meta, Facebook’s rebranding as the Metaverse company, which also happens to be a museum. But here the art is moving forward – literally.
The video begins with four young men watching Henry Rousseau’s “Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo” which hangs at the Cleveland Museum of Art. As they peer into the frame, the tiger’s eyes twinkle and the entire painting comes alive and opens up into a three-dimensional animated forest. The tiger and the buffalo, the toucan and the monkey and the mandrill in the trees, all dance to an old rave tune; Children also go together. Fruit trees grow around them in the gallery. Above the rainforest canopy, in the distance, is a mysterious hexagonal portal, and beyond, in the misty red hills, the vast skyline of a great tropical city. It’s a view that suggests Facebook is returning to Silicon Valley’s countercultural origins: a psychedelic dream of sharing a global community in collective hallucinations.
Meta released video keynote Art is featured prominently for investors to explain themselves, opening with a demo in which some of Mark Zuckerberg’s coworkers find a piece of augmented-reality street art hidden on a wall in Soho. It’s brought to life by 3-D animation and ported to virtual reality from Lower Manhattan, developing around their avatars into a nightmarish Cthulhu-like blob. (Zuckerberg: “That’s awesome!”) For some reason, the company wants us to think of art when we think of its new product. Maybe it’s because they want us to see it as a platform for creative self-expression – or perhaps because fine art provides a more editable context than video games or working from home.
This outspoken stance towards art is at once silly and appropriate; Silly because it reduces art to a mere silliness, fitting because other entrepreneurs have already embraced this approach. Animated considers Rousseau’s popular argument “Van Gogh Immersive Experience,” In which paintings of the starry nights and ominous wheat fields of the Dor Old Dutchman are projected onto the walls and floors to create an enveloping, charm and selfie backdrop. Both believe that viewers can enjoy artworks only when they are in the process of being ruined. And in the case of the Van Gogh Experience, the market has proven them right: There are currently at least five different competing Van Gogh Experiences touring the country. The copy has outgrown the original. It has remained a consistent theme throughout Facebook’s history, offering a lighter imitation of friendship and community rather than the real thing. Meta promises to lead us further into the forest of illusion.
And yet a return to the art of dreaming and escapism is a tempting proposition. Rousseau was painting forests at the beginning of his Middle Ages in his studio in Paris, escaping his own monotonous life as a retired municipal toll-service worker. He is often said to have told stories of his youthful adventures and how his tour of duty at the intervention of Napoleon III in Mexico inspired his paintings of the wilderness; But these were all lies. In fact he played in an infantry band and never left France.
One important thing to remember about the Metaverse is that none of it was created, neither the forest nor the technology to display it.
Rousseau found his real inspiration in travel books and regular visits to the Jardin des Plantes, of which he once told an art critic, “When I walk into glass houses and I see strange plants of foreign lands, So I feel like entering a dream.” This was the supernatural dream space, where ferocious animals have the quality of children’s book illustrations and bananas growing upside down on trees, which he depicted in his paintings; And it was the childish originality and naive purity of these depictions that his fellow artists would come to admire.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Paris, Rousseau and their contemporaries (Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso, etc.) were busy inventing Bohemian modernity, creating new ways of living and seeing the world. In our century, that visionary role has passed from artists to engineers, to Zuckerberg and people like him. Who else tries to invent new universes? Who dares to spin grand utopian fantasies? The artist is no more. It’s Silicon Valley’s Promethean founders who try — and regularly fall short.
Meta’s offering isn’t flashy: it’s both childish and cynical somehow. But the vision of a future crafted by a creative agency for a megacorporation was always going to be terrifying. The problem isn’t that today’s kids can’t appreciate Rousseau’s masterpiece, but that their elders, my generation, are unsure of how to come up with anything comparable to it—we totally Forgot to imagine a different world.
One important thing to remember about the Metaverse is that none of it was created, neither the forest nor the technology to display it. You can’t really do that by going to a museum. It’s just a thought, whispered in the wind. An ad about nothing. This is meta. The more often I see the ad, and the keynote where Zuckerberg elaborates his point of view, the more it seems that he has no idea what he’s making or selling. That’s bad for a company, but not for artists who thrive in an open brief. In fact, the main thing 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, traditional materials and old ways of making. Companies outside the art world, meanwhile, are using digital technology to remake timeless masterpieces as obsolete gymcracks, such as projected tourist attractions and animations. But some artists are doing what Rousseau and his peers did: accepting the realities imposed by new techniques—in their case, photography—and breaking old ways to create something new. An artist with the spirit of Rousseau can appreciate the potential of this new medium and wants to create art for the metaverse and the wider public. Now, like in his days, he would not be remaking old works from the past, but coming up with imaginary scenes from his dreams: scenes he had never seen in his life, rendered in this style. which no one had ever seen. Today it seems possible, perhaps for the first time in this century, to invent entirely new aesthetics – as long as one takes the reins from technologists.
Source photos: Screen grab from YouTube
Dean Kisick is a writer and the New York editor of Spike Art Magazine. He last wrote about the Pomodoro Technique for the magazine.