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Friday, January 21, 2022

What will art look like in the Metaverse?

In the opening pages of Ben Lerner’s debut novel Leaving Atocha Station, his narrator walks into Madrid’s Prado Museum and watches a stranger sobbing in front of Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, a vowed portrait attributed to Paolo da San Leocadio and The Garden of Earthly Delights ”by Hieronymus Bosch. He watches the person until he leaves, and follows him into the sunlight. The narrator has long worried that he is not capable of such a deep experience of art. I believe that many of us have experienced the inability to be moved by the picture, as we hoped. I was thinking about this excerpt when I watched the first major ad for Meta, Facebook’s rebranding as a metaverse company, which is also running at the museum. But here art moves – literally.

The video begins with four young men looking at a painting by Henri Rousseau, The Battle between a Tiger and a Buffalo, which hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art. When they look into the frame, the tiger’s eyes flicker, and the whole scene comes to life and opens into a 3D animated jungle. Tiger and buffalo, toucans and monkeys, mandrills in the trees – everyone starts dancing to the old rave melody; children jump too. Fruit trees grow in the gallery around them. A mysterious hexagonal portal rises above the rainforest canopy in the distance, and behind it, among the misty red hills, rises the silhouette of a large tropical city. This is a scene that suggests Facebook may return to Silicon Valley’s countercultural origins: a psychedelic dream of a global community sharing collective hallucinations.

The main video, which Meta released to explain herself to investors, also includes art, opening with a demo in which a pair of Mark Zuckerberg employees find a piece of augmented reality street art hidden on a wall in Soho. It comes to life with 3D animation and is taken from Lower Manhattan to virtual reality, transforming into a Cthulhu-like nightmare blob that surrounds their avatars. (Zuckerberg: “That’s cool!”) For some reason, the company wants us to think about art when we think about its new product. Perhaps this is because they want us to see it as a platform for creative expression, or perhaps simply because visual art provides a more edifying context than video games or work from home.

This obvious attitude towards art is both idiotic and appropriate; idiotic because it reduces art to a mere trinket, appropriate because other entrepreneurs have already adopted this point of view. The animated Rousseau embodies the popular logic of “Van Gogh’s immersive experience,” in which somber Old Dutch paintings depicting starry nights and ominous wheat fields are projected onto walls and floors to create a mesmerizing spectacle that grabs attention and creates a backdrop for selfies. Both suggest that viewers can only enjoy works of art while they are in the process of being destroyed. 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 traveling the country. The copy surpassed the original. It has remained a consistent theme throughout Facebook’s history, offering a pale simulation of friendship and community instead of real things. Meta promises to take us further into the forest of illusion.

Still, a return to the art of dreaming and escaping reality is a tempting proposition. Rousseau, from middle age, painted the jungle in his studio in Paris, avoiding his own boring life as a former municipal paid employee. He is said to have often told stories of his youthful adventures and how his watch during Napoleon III’s intervention in Mexico inspired his jungle paintings; but it was all a lie. In fact, he played in an infantry squadron and never left France.

In regards to the metaverse, it is important to remember that none of this was done, neither the jungle nor the technology to display them.

In fact, Rousseau drew inspiration from travel books and regular visits to the Garden of Plants, about which he once told an art critic: “When I go into glass houses and see strange plants from exotic countries, I feel like I enter a dream.” It was this eerie space of dreams, where ferocious animals resemble children’s book illustrations, and bananas grow upside down in trees, that he painted in his paintings; and his fellow artists admired the childish originality and naive purity of these images.

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In Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rousseau and his contemporaries (Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso, etc.) were busy inventing bohemian modernity, creating new ways of living and seeing the world. In this century, this visionary role seems to have shifted from artists to engineers to Zuckerberg and his ilk. Who else is trying to invent new universes? Who dares to weave grandiose utopian fantasies? There are no more artists. Silicon Valley founders Promethean try – and usually fail.

Meta’s proposal is not appealing: it is both childish and cynical in some way. But the vision of the future created by a creative agency for a mega-corporation has always been dire. The problem is not that modern children cannot appreciate Rousseau’s masterpiece, but that their elders, my generation, do not know how to come up with something that could compare with him – we forgot how to completely imagine another world …

In regards to the metaverse, it is important to remember that none of this was done, neither the jungle nor the technology to display them. You really can’t go to a museum and do this. It’s just an idea, a whisper in the wind. Announcement about nothing. This is Meta. The more times I watch the advertisements and the keynote speech in which Zuckerberg explains his vision in detail, the more he seems to have no idea what he is doing or selling. This is bad for the company, but not for the artists who thrive with an open brief. Indeed, the main theme is a call to thousands of “creators” to help build a functioning metaverse and the promise that they will be paid to do so.

Contemporary art is now dominated by painting and sculpture, traditional materials and ancient manufacturing methods. Meanwhile, non-art companies are using digital technology to remake timeless masterpieces in the form of fleeting stunts, projected tourist attractions and animations. But few artists are doing what Rousseau and his colleagues have done: embracing the realities imposed by new technologies – in their case photography – and breaking old ways of creating something new. An artist with a Rousseau spirit may appreciate the potential of this new medium and want to create art for the metaverse and the general public. Now, as in his time, he will not remake old works from the past, but will come up with fantastic scenes from his dreams: sights that he has never seen in his life, made in a style that no one has ever seen. Today it seems possible, perhaps for the first time in this century, to invent an entirely new aesthetic – if someone takes the reins into the hands of technologists.

Source photos: screenshots from YouTube.

Dean Kissick is a writer and editor for Spike Art Magazine in New York. He last wrote for a magazine about the Pomodoro Technique.

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