The Downward Spiral: Taste, Figures, Images
Some years ago, I went out with some friends to Trisha’s, a basement bar in Soho in London, and after a few drinks a stylist, quite austere, softly spoken, leant over to me and asked quietly, “Do all the bad designers, know that they’re bad?” That’s a question I’ve often wondered myself. And today it’s so hard to tell the difference, and the boundaries between good and bad have disappeared.
“Before pop art,” Don DeLillo once said, “there was such a thing as bad taste. Now there’s kitsch, schlock, camp, and porn.” Much of the art that makes up today’s booming “ultra-contemporary” market is kitsch; it’s an emptied-out, backward-looking remake of styles from the past, often the very recent past. “Ultra-contemporary” because it doesn’t do anything new, but only refines already-present historical and contemporary art into exceedingly sellable and tasteful styles. Writing about last month’s auctions in the New York Times, Jason Farago addressed how the market has accelerated into speculative overdrive: with Ewa Juszkiewicz’s copy of a 19th-century French genre painting, Portrait of a Lady (After Louis-Léopold Boilly), going for $1.56 million, Flora Yukhnovich’s lifeless gestural remake of François Boucher’s Triumph of Venus (1740) going for $630,000, a pair of Anna Weyant’s Chinese Cynical Realist John Currin–like portraits going for well over a million each, and one of Lauren Quin’s cool Kerstin Brätsch–esque abstractions making $529,000. Christina Quarles’s curiously sexless orgy scene Night Fell Upon Us (2019) also went for $4,527,000 at Sotheby’s. This represents the triumph of what I and others have previously described as “zombie figuration,” now joined by a second wave of zombie formalism, and brought together under the meaningless temporal “ultra-contemporary.” In the timeless dissociative fugue of the present, biennials of contemporary art fill with dead artists while auction houses hammer through zombie remakes of artists still very much alive and well.
Every asset but bad painting is collapsing! You have to buy what you can and when it’s worth too much more have to sell it again.
The market, Farago observes, is controlled by speculators and value is accrued through speculation rather than museum shows, catalogues, and critical support as before. Many of them are working off Instagram, and the PDFs and previews that every gallery sends out, and art is now being viewed, curated, collected, and traded through online images, much more so than in person, and this process has only accelerated over the past couple years indoors. All art has become a sort of post-internet art, experienced through screens. This summer the trend is for paintings made by and, or, featuring, attractive young women, which makes sense, because Instagram is, at heart, about images of attractive young women; as has been much of the history of art. What’s in right now is kitsch and schlock and camp and, yes, a little soft porn. What’s so hot right now is inoffensive, middle of the road, pleasant on the eye, mediocre. Most of these new painting superstars are very, extremely, ultra “mid.” I mentioned one of the market star painters of Venice to my neighbor at a dinner and he just kept saying “gar-bage, gar-bage … gar-bage,” pronouncing the second syllable so that it rhymed with “Raj.” I probably started talking about how her paintings were just very mid. At the top of the market and in the biggest shows there’s not much very good, and not much very bad, which is a shame, because really bad art can be captivating, thrilling, fun to look at, can lead to great breakthroughs, but sweet tasteful kitsch leads nowhere fast.
Last Christmas, shortly before Netflix began to fall apart, they cancelled their live-action remake of the Japanese anime Cowboy Bebop. “The Cowboy Bebop thing is pretty funny,” one person noted, “but it really exposes how much Netflix just doesn’t make any fucking sense … a few weeks ago they were tweeting about how it basically was setting the data centers ablaze, now it’s cancelled.” Another, the “Marquis de Posade,” elaborated, “The contemporary economy is about manufacturing demand, and Netflix literally owns their own platform to do so. One of the biggest tools they have is exploiting social pressure by creating the illusion that everyone is watching x
What this is, is a failure to manufacture demand.”
Nobody but Netflix executives know the viewing figures, so nobody can see the lies. But they had to admit to shareholders that subscriptions are falling, which has led to shares plummeting too. We’re all in the dark until the kingdom starts to collapse.
Netflix’s model is to manufacture demand and the same’s true of those flipping paintings they’ve only seen on Instagram. In the last few years, art speculators, NFT speculators, and auction houses running algorithms to predict the next big-money painter have completely transformed how images are valued. Manufacturing desire has grown more important than creating something beautiful or even desirable. That’s the logic underpinning auction-block hysterias, entertainment streaming platforms, endlessly scrolling social media; after some time, you don’t know what you want. You only want to want. Things are desirable because they’re desired. There’s too much money swilling round and every asset is collapsing! Every asset but bad painting is collapsing! You have to buy what you can and when it’s worth too much more have to sell it again.
Last year I wrote that the problem with NFTs was their aesthetics, and everything else (high prices, environmental degradation, the possibility of being indoctrinated into an evil worldwide cult) was a distraction: the problem was tasteless, puerile, nostalgic aesthetics. Now I see that I was wrong and that the bad taste is the point. I was listening to an episode of Contain about NFTs and the founders of the Tojiba CPU Corp project spoke about the kinds of series that have come to dominate the space: ~10,000-run algorithmically generated cartoon profile-picture (PFP) series like Bored Apes, Tubby Cats, Great Goats, Lazy Lions, Goblintown trolls, and so many other derivatives. They said, “Well now there’s more bad art than ever, in a way that I think most people could never have anticipated; and, I don’t know, I’m just not convinced that it’s actually that bad. I’m kind of addicted to just looking through it … If you’re interested in art, you’re interested in the proliferation of different aesthetics in different contexts. I mean, value is tied to what? I guess taste. And moving against taste is always potentially interesting. And this is the most tasteless thing, maybe ever.”
Do all the bad artists know that they’re bad?
None of these series are “art” in the sense that we speak of high art and nor do their creators want them to be. They are however a new strand of visual culture, the most tasteless aesthetic phenomenon in history (so far), and this makes them worthy of consideration, particularly given billions of dollars are being spent on them. A comic of a crestfallen monkey in a propeller beanie selling for $3.4 million at Sotheby’s feels like a mockery of the present and a suitably depressive, absurdist response to our culture, if no more absurd than other sales at the houses.
Speaking to the Financial Times How To Spend It magazine earlier this year, Larry Gagosian said the biggest shift in art dealing during his career was being able to send images around the world immediately, and that this had been great for business: “It created momentum, velocity, more transactions.” It helps manufacture demand. But it also “gives things less of a shelf life sometimes. Because you get image saturation, or artist saturation. I think one could suggest that images get exhausted faster, artists get exhausted faster.” This is true of all images, and perhaps all cultural forms. How desire functions has changed: the way something appears or makes you feel no longer matters so much, and images have been so hollowed out by escalating repetition, so debased, that an utterly tasteless image can become extremely valuable in ways that can hardly be comprehended. What’s novel about big PFP NFT series is not that they reflect an aesthetically bereft and lifeless culture, but that they’re supposed to, and that’s what gives them value.
Do all the bad artists know that they’re bad? Some must do surely. But NFTs are the first cultural form made by people that are fully aware of how bad it is, and don’t care at all; and aren’t taking an ironic stance, or playing nihilists or anything like that, they just understand the enduring appeal of trash on the internet. They are able to effortlessly produce worse images than anything art has come up with in decades. DeLillo suggested there was no longer such a thing as bad taste, but the NFT boom may have brought it back; or at least to have pushed kitsch to new levels of listless, enervated garishness, and saccharine vacancy. “nft vibes,” the artist Wretched Worm once wrote, “crazy quirked out. mad wack n then beyond that—beauty. ngl i love it all. i love the trash low quality animal pfp projects. shitty pixel art vibes. deviant art-core amateurism. i love the rugs. the scams. the illiquidity. dont fight it. let it in. then u find the art.”
It’s summer 2022. NFT marketplaces are awash with lurid and unsightly animals. Auction houses overflow with tasteful restagings of the past. Google’s new text-to-image AI, Imagen, the first batch of photomontages from which were published last week, sits somewhere in-between, stitching together childish illustrations in response to written text prompts. Its portfolio features scenes like, “A cute corgi lives in a house made of sushi …
A single beam of light enter the room from the ceiling. The beam of light is illuminating an easel. On the easel there is a Rembrandt painting of a raccoon …
A robot couple fine dining with Eiffel Tower in the background …
An art gallery displaying Monet paintings. The art gallery is flooded. Robots are going around the art gallery using paddle boards—” this imaginary gallery is hung with dreadful, baleful approximations of late-period Monets that the AI has not yet mastered nor come anywhere near. They look more like Schnabels. The whole scene’s a terrible bastardization of what Marinetti and the Futurists might have envisaged when they cried out to, “Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers!” and usher in the bright new technological future. The Rembrandt painting of a raccoon also looks like pure shit.
“What do you want to imagen? Please put the text below today and we’ll try to get back to you with an image, subject to our internal review. #imagen
Sorry, we can’t present every image. For example, images including people, graphic content, and sensitive material will not be published.”
The weirdest quality of Imagen is that Google researchers won’t allow it to make images of humans. This comes down to concerns about racial biases and stereotypes in the datasets it’s trained on. But, however much we may wish for a more equitable picture of society, I don’t believe erasing humans from the imaginations of our new image-making tools, or replacing all the white people with raccoons, is a convincing solution to the problem of representation. Like God instructing his people to destroy all the idols, to smash the craven molded images, Google has banished all images of humans from the minds of its AI; in their place we find soft CGI animation imitations of life rendered in a mawkish aesthetic of Corporate Ratatouille.
Text-to-image models don’t have to look like this. OpenAI’s Dall-E 2 doesn’t, and neither does Midjourney. The only reason Imagen has such a picture-book affect is because Google, a company with all the power to form our reality – and to paint our memories inside our minds – wants it to. We have forgotten how to imagen a different world.
Poor remakes of historical art, cuddly anthropomorphic animals, and Left Bank automata are the faces of the Imagen launch, as they were also the faces of Mark Zuckerberg’s launch of Meta, the first major campaign for which featured Henri Rousseau’s Fight Between a Tiger And a Buffalo (1908) coming to life, and the tiger and the buffalo, and the toucans and the monkeys and the mandrills in the trees all dancing around. Both are celebratory visions of a world that is fake. A world of cartoons and art in which all is unnatural and everything is artifice.
Des Esseintes, the aesthete hero of À Rebours (Against Nature, 1884), by Rousseau’s Parisian contemporary and fellow civil servant Huysmans, crafts for himself a life composed of artificial, disquieting sensations and environments because he has tired of nature and her nauseating monotony. Of course, he still desires beauty. The Silicon Valley giants building their new worlds also turn against nature, but go further and turn against beauty too, and this makes a kind of sense because for the digital realm to truly flourish, it has to reject the real in some manner, and not just remake it in another medium.
The new forms of image-making of the last couple years seem pitched against nature, against beauty, ugliness, taste, aesthetics, against the real. I don’t think the artists behind the most popular PFP series have much interest in aesthetic judgments of any sort, or in representing anything. Likewise the scenes conjured by word-to-image models like Imagen are generated by written phrases, and so can only illustrate concepts and sometimes styles, and cannot depict anything happening in the real world: they are indifferent to reality and also to Platonic forms; rather they are a distillation of all the images in their dataset, the images under which the world is disappearing, the rising tide of images that once gave Karl Ove Knausgård his feeling “of the world disappearing, that our lives are being filled with images of the world, and that these images are inserting themselves between us and the world, which for that reason is becoming lighter and lighter and less and less binding.”
Images drawn by code make the world seem lighter and less binding still. Reality is concealed below signs that point nowhere: there’s no such thing as a Tubby Cat, not in life or in fiction. Rembrandt never painted raccoons. He never saw a raccoon in his life! These images are not simulacra because they don’t represent or imitate anything. The new modes of figuration don’t refer to anything at all. They are pictures from somewhere else. They are garbled whispers of code in the fall. Containing no meaning, more empty than a black square.
DEAN KISSICK is Spike’s New York Editor. The Downward Spiral is published online the second Wednesday of each month.