After the annihilation of average.
“We have masterpieces because the gods will it.”
We tore down all the walls.
And thought we’d done a great thing.
Jay Z raps about Picasso and we see them as the same, only one costs more.
A machine produces art — and we can barely tell at all.
There's no high and low culture now; only culture. There's no fine or commercial art, just art. They all exist in the same continuum, creators and creation — subject and object — all just content, within the loving embrace of democracy… the healing power of commerce.
And it fucking sucks.
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It wasn’t always like this.
Art came from somewhere else. Emerged with meaning beyond itself; meaning that gave it a kind of supernatural status. Something bestowed with qualities that were witchy and weird, traced with bits of heaven, even.
This magic wasn't given, it was more like a gift — bestowed, or stolen, or something. Because we knew ourselves to be incapable of this greatness, as imperfect fickle beings; we look back at the historic creators of great masterpieces in wonder, best remembering ourselves as gutter things (a fact rarely stated, Darwinists and creationists alike agree on this one fundamental: human beings all came from dirt).
To create was to transform ourselves into creatures of light; that is — try to restore some of that reflected glory.
Are you buying this?
Creation is an attempted heist on heaven (in a non-literal sense fr fr). An attempt to be godly. Great art steals directly from the sublime. It has been our attempt at siphoning light into the void, thriving amid uncertainty and chaos, dancing through it, "our subjugation of the awful". For the needs of the age, art reflected our growing consciousness, giving us a god’s-eye view through forced perspective, then many perspectives, then concept itself by turning its attention to the gaping chasm of our existence.
Is this real? Is any of it real. Look at your hand, your face. Look in the mirror, ask yourself your own name. Mouth the sound slowly. Your name — is that real?
“Art is a divine and mysterious force that runs through all of us. It is a thing of supreme spiritual potential that only comes into its true and full being if we abandon all those cherished ideas about who we think we are or are not.”
— Nick Cave
Art was sacred.
Its value was inherent; required effort, craft, human hours of devotion, sanctified treatment.
Recognising its power, it has been a weapon, used to justify superiority, cultivated taste, social structures, and wrongdoing of all flavours. Its power has been exploited by the rich, pretenders, psychopaths, and idiots.
But its heart burns, still. Energy we can experience as powerful and true. Art remains a pathway to the sublime, or whatever you want to call it… something that breathes life into the parts of us that suffocate. It can save us, I believe that.
And yeah. I appreciate this is not a standard contemporary theory of art. It’s not meant to be.
“Religion, ritual and art began as one, and a religious or metaphysical element is still present in all art. Art, no matter how minimalist, is never simply design. It is always a ritualistic reordering of reality.”
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae
We’ve killed many things, and one of them was this mystery.
By forgetting art’s supernatural qualities, it has become a product like any other, collapsing its power into commerce. We assume it’s meant to say something, to mean something, to do something, be worth something, instead of simply be something.
We made it by everyone, for everyone, everywhere, all the time. You can buy a Basquiat doormat now. A Mondrian iPhone case. Listen to Jonathan Cage in the back of your Toyota; watch Florentina Holzinger on a 2016 iPhone.
This universality has been a delight and a degradation.
Van Gogh disfigured himself in the madness of his pursuit and, as his inheritors, we do him the grace to place his last work upon a drink coaster. Sylvia Plath killed herself; overcome by her interior demons she inhaled gas from an oven, and today you’ll find her quoted fondly on the side of coffee mugs. Frida’s just a girlboss with a monobrow.
Working artists aren’t forced to break convention but be conventional outsiders, bringing identikit stories of gender identity, sustainability, race, power, justice, trauma. What seals the deal isn’t so much great skill and panache, or a unique perspective, so much as buyability, brand recognition.
And now, after the art curators, and the educators, and institutions and buyers wiped out the magic, the engineers have come to shoot the survivors.
They bring with them a devastating and beautiful new means of creation, generative AI.
The possibilites for synthetic art are vast. Unlike other forms, this consumes as it creates, with every new piece absorbed into the generative process, a small part of the whole. Perhaps in future we will fight for unique advantage; compete over the smartest Minds, an algorithmic arms-race. But for now, in order to be truly avantgarde, our task is to continually push at the edges, outrun the horizon of what has already been made and can be easily automated.
I don’t believe only humanmade art is meaningful. Yes — there’s raw magic in the things only we can do, it’s immediate and felt. But in the right hands, new technology will let us master new imaginative universes.
What matters most now though is how we treat the subject of what we create. Do you trust the engineers to get that right?
"Shit that arrives at the speed of light is still shit."
- David Abbott
The idea that democratising mass creation will automatically empower us is techno-utopian bollocks. The incentives don’t work that way… these tools, this economy — all weighted towards greater productivity; more growth and more money, more opportunity, not more magic.
The generative model doesn’t reward uniqueness, it contributes to a mass, a blancmange, a morass, a mélange, a mess. Something special becomes a copy of a copy, endless replication.
By making us all creators, all artists, it doesn’t mean we all become Basquiat, it just means a Basquiat on every doormat.
We put our great art back on the floor because deep down we remember we all came from dirt.
I believe the future is brightest if we set fire to it.
Destroy what we hate, let it burn. Piss on the ashes + laugh about it + force ourselves to find new things, make new things, ““make it new””. That is how I see us: dancing around the flames. A New Renaissance.
Collapsing art into everything was bad for art and bad for us.
But there is joy to be found here: when mediocrity can be mass-produced by machine tools, then fine art itself must necessarily evolve. How it’s created, thought about, talked about, celebrated and experienced.
For our purposes, average will be annihilated; the sorry heat-death of much of what passes for art these days, which in many cases is simply just content. What will survive will be the best of our ingenuity and imagination, the 1% beyond the edge. A New Renaissance.
So perhaps the first problem is less that AI can replicate the arts, but that it can be replicated so easily.
What is the future of the novel when an epic of text can be generated in a heartbeat?
What’s the future of the image when anything that can be spoken can be conjured up?
AI tools are nothing without the unimagined possibility they never foresaw. The point is to find new forms, break the borders again.
What is the future of the novel? Maybe unique manuscripts, or a return to live oral storytelling that is actually good.
What is the future of the image? Maybe a new generation of experimental performance only seen for real.
The way we see, experience and evaluate art will shift. Art that fades, must be seen with the naked eye, is there for a moment and then is gone — the scarcity becomes supernatural.
This new era will inspire the truly great work that cannot be machined and replicated. This is our chance to elevate the rare, the glorious, the ephemeral, the real. The things only we can make. Push beyond the horizon, inject the physical humanity into what we make, whether only with our own hands and bodies or with the newest of synthetic tools.
Truly pushing the limits of imagination and craft, instead of merely finding faster ways to deliver bullshit.
So what then?
Manifestos are easy. Practical change is hard. So let’s strike a match on some impudent suggestions for what’s next.
The first: In favour of secession, or fine art essentialism
The collapse of art into every other thing doesn’t fool us.
To create space and meaning for meaningful work, we need to redraw the boundaries. Pierre d’Alancaisez writes about how the arts must secede from the creative industries. I believe him.
By turning what was once called “heritage” and “the arts” into the “cultural and creative industries” (or CCIs), these optimistic policies forced the logic of instrumental neoliberal capital on all creative endeavours… the sooner the visual arts, dance or music realise that they must fend against the industrial exploits of giants like gaming or streaming, the higher the chances of them finding and articulating their purpose anew. The arts must secede from the creative industries. They have done this before.
To spend our time on non-economic matters, create for the sake of creation, express freely, gnaw at the wound, poke at the tension, deflate existence, to do pointless bullshit sometimes, to just make stuff, is humanity’s cultural birthright. We don’t need the pretence of economic endeavour.
As sense-making machines, creativity is our gift. Children have genius-level creativity that’s simply worn out of us by the time we’re adults (“the creative adult is the child that survived,” etc etc). And yes. It’s mission critical for the human race to unlock creativity, it will save us, it is a passion of mine and I have spent my entire career trying to engineer more ideation and imagination in business and life.
But — we should also draw a line between creativity in its broadest sense and how we think about the creation of art. Shackling the arts to the government’s favourite hobby horse of ‘the creative industries’ is a political tool, a way for elite classes to signal sophistication before piling money into Raytheon. It makes it exceptionally easy to then feed the machine… pile substitutable images into a language model that generates endless content.
Fine art— work made as art for art’s sake — stands apart from industrial creativity. It need serve no purpose, no master. Art is distinct from pure craft, that is; an iPhone no matter how beautiful, will never be art, nor will a lazy Nike x Tiffany collab. To say otherwise is not only a disservice to the greats who came before us, but the people behind the cave paintings lmao.
Idealistic vision? Yes… with compromises to be made at every turn. How it’s funded, how it’s shown, how it’s experienced, who gets to choose any of these things.
Fine art essentialism is a belief in the human project, that we exist outside of commercial space, can elevate ourselves beyond the material and the political. In other words, a belief that there are pathways to the sublime. You can get there through intensive connective and sensory experience, yes you can get there by fucking, you can get there through faith, etc.
And yes, through art.
I see the objection. Reviving a sense of fine art’s special place in human existence risks bringing back the old riffs… classism and sexism and snobbery and decay…Jerry Saltz x1000, a legion of out-dated, snooty, three-piece-suit, pearl-set, Sotheby’s price guide-clutching, pince-nez wearing snobs who say every foreign word with an accent, the kind of people who’d have dogs like—
No. Art is our birthright, to experience it is oxygen for every human on earth who wants it. And we all have the right to reject what’s not real.
Art must exist because it must exist. It doesn’t have to be meaningful or beautiful. It just has to be.
Let it be portentous, let it be nihilistic. Let it be cheap, let it be worthy. Let it be humanmade, machinemade, hybrid, synthetic. Let it be outrageously expensive. Let it be free. Let it be real.
Let it be its own thing.
The second: The most important part of the picture is the frame aka The unique magic of you.
Certain traditional tribes on Earth were wary of cameras; they believed a photograph might steal a person’s soul. To me it’s clear the opposite is true: all a camera grabs are photons. They never quite capture your essence.
Think about the most magnetic individuals you know — it’s unlikely the fullness of their energy can ever be held by a static shot. Something is missing; their vitality, the sense of living presence, their existence-texture.
This speaks to the sensory truth of what we perceive, some things can only be felt. As much as we have collapsed image and reality, might be tempted to believe that a remote, virtual existence can be a viable substitute, there is undeniable magic in the real.
We have been persuaded that the Mona Lisa, and a picture of the Mona Lisa are the same. I’m increasingly of the view that they are virtually unrelated.
If you want to meet me, come see me.
Take Rothko. I used to hate Rothko… before I ever really saw him. Maybe the first time I encountered one of his paintings it was innocuous, in a doctor’s waiting room say, and the association stuck. Vague blocks of colour, the pervading sense of Yeah I could’ve done that, demarcations around ‘abstract art’, collectively giving me the sense of the visual equivalent of lift music. Rothko was background, soft jazz, nothing.
So I was unprepared for seeing an original.
Up close, what had seemed small and vague to me was, in reality, a canvas of human scale; the tones weren’t simple colour blocks but full of depth and mystery; the paint itself velvety and soft, nuance and microtone absorbing air and light and you.
Berger talks about how the felt sense of the brushstrokes on canvas collapses time and space, connects you instantly to the artist and the moment of creation. (Learn more, and there’s also the delightful fact that Rothko himself was such a catty bitch).
We intuitively understand that live music has a different, more vital presence than a recording. The space in which we encounter a piece defines its unique moment.
In the case of Rothko, seeing him live, in the presence of our shared texture I realised — he’s not basic, he’s tragic. From a place of immense pain, he taps at something deep in the amygdala, an unending fountain of ambiguity and distress, drawing us into the void.
You simply don’t get that from a print in a doctor’s waiting room.
Not unless the news doesn’t go your way.
We long ago accepted the idea that a copy, an image, a representation of art was itself an acceptable version of a work of art — perhaps even, the art itself. That to see a photo of the thing counts as seeing it, like spending a few hours on an airport layover counts as visiting the country.
Berger wrote years ago about what reproduction does to our concept of the original. So in the silicon era, what does the machine see? What meaning is there when not only reproduction but creation itself is endless replication?
Synthetic art is beautiful kindling for the fire because it unravels the idea that an image of a thing can be trusted. Because any fake thing can be made to look real, it desanctifies the canonical nature of a thing or a word. Your eyes are defied. The image is not the thing — the image isn’t even the image.
The artist Oliver Jeffers enamels his work, dips his paintings in a way that obscures the image beneath.
It made me wonder what would happen if you enameled la Gioconda. Straight up butchered it, desecrated the original leaving only our still images of it.
Maybe it would be revitalised with fresh meaning.
The point at which you can casually double-tap a small picture to like it, a part of its magic is lost; the point at which you judge and evaluate work from a distance on a phone screen, a part of its magic is lost, the point at which you find yourself taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa the game’s fucking over.
Illuminations of saints have power, small bedside temples to Ganesh have power, hovering close to the stage where you can see the sweat of the dancer has power, truth just out of reach has power, even the illusion of something that might be true or might be real has an irrepressible magnetic presence.
It’s ours for the taking: a personal relationship with art; experience focused and aesthetic. Don’t be tricked into accepting substitutes. Increased accessibility of art has diminished its hypnotic power. Sorry, we cannot democratise divinity.
If you care about the art only an original will suffice, only a real moment experienced live really matters.
These are semi-religious experiences. To spend half an hour alone in the presence of a Caravaggio in the church it was intended for… If you wish to experience James Turrell then bathe in his light, if you care about Monet see his water lilies all at full size in the dim light of L’Orangerie. If you wish to reconnect to the tribal human within, journey to Time/Timeless /No Time by Walter De Maria, if you wish for the sudden shriek of mortal fear then gaze into the maw of Hirst’s shark, if you wish to be crushed beneath military-industrial might lie beneath the jets of Fiona Banner.
If we wish to remystify art we must get used to the idea that to experience the sublime always demands a sacrifice of some kind and that might be time or distance, might be effort, might be presence, but it will always be attention. There is no correct mode of use for art at any place at any time but the choice between accepting its mystic immaterial qualities and not is everything.
And the plaque next to the piece can capture nothing more than a real person’s living breathing essence can be captured in their obituary.
An image is simply a reference the same way a picture of a person is just a fragment, and our memories of them mere reflections of their shadows.
To experience art cannot be both special and easy; the most important part of it is its raw aesthetic power, elevates the ordinary, sanctifies the glorious, sticks crude fingers in our guts, comes on our face with sublime.
Art can be supernatural, again, if we allow it.
The third: Art is sacrament, artists to be spat on.
When I was nineteen, I almost killed a great one.
Gilbert and George – provocateurs, showmen, darlings (at times) of British art; well, I’m sure a few people have taken a shot. Most of all, they are famous for their idiosyncratic ways; in this case the circumstance was something like - the two of them have lunch in the same place every day; one takes a cab, the other walks, both in their tailored suits.
Most people would say I’m an average driver. Taking a left turn near Brick Lane in London, I came in a little hot, and rounding the corner slightly too fast, almost collided with a tall bald man in a brown suit — he had to physically recoil, leap back to the pavement he’d just stepped from—
Fuck! My brother gasped from the passenger seat — you almost just hit Gilbert from Gilbert and George!
Fifteen inches closer, I’d have taken my notorious place in history.
Still, looking back with no malice, I think: he really should have looked both ways.
What makes an artist special?
I have to wonder what the consequence would have been if I’d struck the man dead. (Other than, well, the obvious).
Art as a commercial presence frustrates because of its shape, similar to power law industries like sport, acting and music.
And we all want a piece of it.
“Everyone wants their kids to be creatives… because they believe that those children will then have a life of satisfaction and significance when they grow up, something they find hard to find. in their own lives.”
- Elizabeth Newman
If we see a future where art is more “special”, less manufactured, commoditised, democratised… what does that mean for artists?
Our usual starting point is both self-serving and economic. The way we talk about the lives of makers often feels so mechanical; talking about wages and money, or some contrived bollocks about the creative economy.
Why does money come into it at all? Maybe we’re starting from the wrong place, the idea that to be an artist should be a job at all.
Remystifying art doesn’t mean turning artists into saints. I don’t think that framing helps. We don’t need more monsters. (All great movements attract speculators.). Does the world need more celebrities? Lmao, no. Imagine cultivating a new hyperclass of talent— like online creators, but brattier; like movie stars but less lit and probably just as vacuous; the trope of the art student is already annoying — it does not need an accelerant.
We’ve got it backwards; artists should be in the dirt and art shouldn’t be.
Rebuilding grace and mysticism into the arts is not about more snobbery, but more sensitivity. This isn’t about drawing people to their practice because of money, status or prestige (lord knows there’s little of it anyway), but attracting those who need it like blood, or air.
One must also consider the role of the social, spiritual role of the artist —IMHO it’s better seen as a duty, a calling, the way we think of having a talent for healing pushing you to be a doctor or nurse, a teacher serving the youth, or a banker, destined to serve Mammon by making insane amounts of money.
“The sympathetic truth is that intellectual gifts are distributed unequally, no more virtuous to possess them than height or red hair, and in fact that possessors of these gifts owe a great duty to mankind.”
Many of those I have found compelling in their work are those who have through their practice overcome some great hardship, transmuted their pain into something transcendent. Powerful art often blossoms from those who’ve done this. Often it comes from outsider groups who in their explorations of self and belonging uncover value for us all.
Maybe there’s too much glamour in the game. A great artist (of sorts - and not one I almost killed this time) once said something to me like… the sacred nature of art should be balanced by the lowered status of artists, and in that spirit I’ll say: if art is sacrament, artists should be spat on.
We have no problem doing this towards acceptable targets. We love to pull old dead masters down a peg or two, slap them around on the ground. We've taken apart Picasso on a whim, remixed his oeuvre; and I think this is dumb but not bad, actually… in the sense that it creates our permission to remake the codes of respect.
It’s hard to be blasphemous from within the system, and maybe that’s what we need. As Newman would have it, “like mystics, our work is doubt”.
Think of an artist like a sadhu, a holy person, an artist might be perceived with a certain wary curiosity, helped survive out of benevolence because it is understood they play a role in our spiritual wellbeing; their life’s work an artifact for the commons.
This is a shamanic role for artists when the means of medoicre creation is held by the masses. Their position is different - these figures are jesters, blasphemers, provocateurs; their role to interrupt boundaries and frames.
To treat them as celebrities misreads this intent; to involve them in a sociopolitical discourse misreads their role for social good. Artists are secular priests of the soul, they’re not our social workers. The future belongs to those who can survive and keep creating; occupy that space in life where they summon their energies day after day, continue to reshape reality.
Yeah let’s do it. Smash the system. De-canonise. Derogate. Blaspheme. Make the work sacred, the artist desecrated. Sorry Jeff Koons. Sorry Gilbert + George (again). Sorry Tracey. Sorry Banksy. Sorry Sarah Lucas. Sorry… *cocks pistol, covers face with a pillow, whispers* sorry David Hockney.
There is work to be done, and the magic won’t find itself.
This isn’t the definitive version of this piece. Maybe there isn’t one… Like the context around us, my views are constantly developing and evolving. As this happens, I’m going to keep reshaping this; trying to find better and truer expression. I welcome constructive debate and criticism.