We might look for Beauty again
How the present art world's quest for ugliness has reached its zenith; and how A.I. might also push us forward to seeking Beauty in our art again.
This last week I read a brilliant—and disturbing—piece by Emma Webb in The Spectator entitled "Art is eating itself." Webb takes a tour of the Tate Modern and notes what she sees. I recommend reading it for an overview of what the art world looks like right now, where the post-modern quest for ugliness and its push towards portraying all norms as oppressive (many norms are established precisely for justice, which too many people forget) finally seems to have come to its zenith.
"I am not shocked that the Tate Modern contains modern art," Webb writes, after telling us about some of what she saw at the Tate, including a dark room where a video of marionettes act as Christian Crusaders roasting and eating what is presumably a Muslim (and despite a 'content warning', there the kids are, watching it); and including a books section for kids with titles such as "Self-Care in Underwear," "Julian is a Mermaid", "The Hips of the Drag Queen go Swish, Swish, Swish," (the books for adults seem a little less brainwashy).
"I do not want to limit artistic expression or burn piles of children's books," she says. "In fact, my problem is exactly that artistic expression is excruciatingly limited at the moment." This in the context of noting that the curators appear to have made decisions that all reflect a particular, comprehensive, and reductive ideology. "We have become one of Yves Tanguy's disturbing partly mechanical, partly organic visions."
"We have become one of Yves Tanguy's disturbing partly mechanical, partly organic visions."
- Emma Webb
Musical potential, she says, is “being reduced to jingle-length backing tracks for pre-teens' dance-memes[...] everyone is a creator prowling for content. We are living in a social-media culture so lobotimised by vanity."
She then writes about the recent A.I. song releases, in which artist's voices are being imitated by A.I. and put over newly A.I.-generated tracks. The most popular of these seems to have become a Drake A.I. clone.
I write this, in fact, while listening to Miserere by Gregoria Allegri, a choral song written for two choirs that culminates in a 9-part polyphony. Just human voices. It's so refreshing compared to an A.I. generated track. Perhaps I am also just getting old.
Some kind of dummy
Webb drives her point well when she notes some lines from an essay written by Orwell where he says the following:
"Modern writing at its worst, consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating familiar phrases [...] one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live performance but some kind of dummy [...] the appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx but his brain is not involved..."
What a sharp critique of our current cultural moment! It not only highlights the vapid nature of so much of our increasingly commodified art and music (about to reach a breaking point with A.I., I think) but it also highlights the vapid nature of our present-day journalism. And, dare I say, this plague has been trying to enter theology too, although there is still free thinking there if you know how to find it.
The reason for this little excursion into Webb's article is not to complain (which I can do very well) but to highlight the tremendous opportunity waiting in the wings. It's been a long time since the world has seen and experienced art, music and the likes aiming to represent beauty. I'm not saying it doesn't exist at all, and I’m not saying only classical art matters, but I am saying there is far less of that kind of art perhaps ever before. At least on the scale things are at right now.
This pic below, made with A.I. in the style of Yves Tanguy says a lot, doesn’t it? A machine emulating the style of an artist emulating the style of a machine. There’s a lot of subtext here!
How the aesthetic shapes us
Beauty envisions people; it makes them look towards something better, imagining how things could be better and inspiring them to make it better. Beauty and goodness go hand in hand. It's remarkable how our aesthetics shapes us. God made the world and called it "good". It's not just highly functional, but it is highly beautiful. Our present world, however, so often seems to only see art in terms of practical use, utilitarianism. What function does art serve? What function does beauty serve? What function does the human body serve? If all we are focused on is function and economics, should we be surprised that unleashing A.I. without considering the bigger ethical questions is where we are now today?
I do believe, however, that people are hungrier than ever for some kind of beauty—and this will only increase. The ultimate commodifying of art, and the ultimate reduction of so much of it to merely a narrow activism predicated on a shrunken worldview (as Webb’s article highlights) creates an opportunity for the straw to finally break the camel’s back. Therein lies an opportunity for artists to forge a new imaginative way forward.
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