In the opening pages of Ben Lerner’s first novel, “Leaving Atocha Station,” The narrator went to the Prado Museum in Madrid and noticed a stranger bursting into tears in front of Rogier van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross”, a votive image attributed to Paulo da San Leucadio, and Hieronymus Bosch “Garden of Earthly Delights”. He watches the man until he leaves and follows him into the sunlight. The narrator had been worried for a long time that he would not be able to have such a deep experience in art. I imagine many of us have experienced a failure to be as influenced by a painting as we had hoped to be. I thought of this clip when I saw the first major announcement for Meta, the rebranding of Facebook as the metaverse, which is also happening in a museum. But here art moves – in every sense of the word.
The video begins with four young men watching Henri Rousseau’s “The Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo,” which is hung at the Cleveland Museum of Art. When they look at the frame, the tiger’s eyes flash and the entire painting appears and opens up into a 3D animated forest. Tiger, buffalo, toucans, monkeys and mandrills in the trees begin to dance to ancient tunes; The kids are swinging too. Fruit trees grow around them in the gallery. Above the rainforest canopy, in the distance, is a mysterious hexagonal gate, and beyond, in the misty red hills, the towering horizon of a great tropical city. It’s a spectacle that Facebook may well go back to its Silicon Valley counterculture origins: a psychedelic dream of a global community engaging in mass hallucinations.
Keyword in the video released by Meta To explain itself to investors, the art also appears prominently, opening with a demo in which two of Mark Zuckerberg’s colleagues find a piece of augmented reality street art hidden on a wall in SoHo. They have been brought to life through 3D animation and transported from lower Manhattan into virtual reality, growing into the nightmarish point of Cathulhu that surrounds their iconic characters. (Zuckerberg: “That’s cool!”) For some reason, the company wants us to think of art when we think of its new product. Perhaps because they want us to see it as a platform for creative self-expression – or perhaps just because fine art provides a more enlightening context than video games or working from home.
This apparent attitude towards art is at once stupid and appropriate. Stupid because he reduces art to mere gewgaw, convenient because other entrepreneurs have already taken this view. Rousseau’s Animation assumes the common logic of “Van Gogh’s Immersive Experience,” The ruthless Old Dutchman’s paintings of starry nights and ominous wheat fields are projected onto the walls and floors to create a scene, allure and backdrop for selfies. Both assume that audiences can only enjoy works of art when they are in the process of falling apart. And in the case of the Van Gogh experiment, the market has proven correct: there are currently at least five different competing Van Gogh experiments roaming the country. The copy has exceeded the original. This has remained a constant theme throughout Facebook’s history, which offers a pale simulation of friendship and community rather than the real thing. Meta promises to lead us further into the Forest of Illusions.
However, returning to the art of dreaming and escaping from reality is a tempting proposition. Rousseau, who had been painting bushland in his studio in Paris from his middle age, was escaping from his monotonous life as a retired municipal fee service. He is said to have often told stories of his youthful adventures and how his tenure at Napoleon III’s intervention in Mexico had inspired his photographs in the jungle; But these were all lies. In fact, he played in an infantry squad and never left France.
The important thing to remember about the metaverse is that none of this was made, neither the forest nor the technology to display it.
Rousseau found his actual inspiration in travel books and regular visits to the Jardin des Plantes, of which he once told an art critic, “When I go into the greenhouses and see the strange plants of strange lands, it seems to me that I am entering into a dream.” It was this space of strange dreams, where ferocious animals have the quality of children’s book illustrations and bananas growing upside down on trees, which he evoked in his paintings; It was the childlike originality and naive purity of these images that would be admired by his fellow artists.
In late nineteenth and early twentieth century Paris, Rousseau and his contemporaries (Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso, etc.) were preoccupied with inventing bohemian modernism, creating new ways of living and seeing the world. In our century, this visual role seems to have passed from artists to engineers, to Zuckerberg and his ilk. Who else is trying to invent new universes? Who would dare to make great virtuous fantasies? The artists did not return. It is the founders of Promethean in Silicon Valley who try – and usually fail.
The Meta Show is not an attractive show: it is in a way childish and ironic. But the vision of the future envisioned by a creative agency for a giant corporation has always been daunting. The problem isn’t that kids today can’t appreciate Rousseau’s masterpiece, but their elders, my generation, so unsure how to create anything that could compare to it – we’ve forgotten how to imagine a completely different world.
The important thing to remember about the metaverse is that none of this was made, neither the forest nor the technology to display it. You really can’t go to a museum and do that. It’s just an idea, hiss in the wind. Nothing to advertise. She is dead. The more you see the ad, and the keyword Zuckerberg details his vision in, the more he seems to have no idea what he’s making or selling. This is bad for a company but not for artists who thrive on open brevity. In fact, most of the keynote is a call to thousands of “creators” to help build an effective metaverse and a promise that they’ll get paid to do so.
Contemporary art is currently dominated by painting, sculpture, traditional materials and ancient methods of making. Meanwhile, companies outside the art world are using digital technology to recreate timeless masterpieces in the form of ephemeral gimcracks, as tourist attractions and predictable animations. But few artists do what Rousseau and his peers did: accept the realities imposed by new technologies – in their case, photography – and break old ways to create something new. An artist in Rousseau’s spirit might appreciate the potential of this new medium and want to make art for metaverses and a wider audience. Now, as in his days, he will not remake old works of the past, but rather come up with imaginary scenes from his dreams: scenes he has never seen in his life, in a style no one has seen before. Today, it seems possible, perhaps for the first time in this century, to invent entirely new aesthetics – as long as someone takes the reins of the technologists.
Image source: screenshots from YouTube
Dean Kesick is a New York writer and editor for Spike Art magazine. The last time he wrote for the magazine about the Pomodoro technique.