Mind of Dalí, hands of DALL-E

AI art as dreamtime and the advent of metamodern art-as-emergent-relationality

Euthanasia of the Postmodern Art Zombie

I have come to maintain that the current flood of AI-generated art spells the absolute endpoint of the postmodern arts in the widest sense of that term.

Postmodern art, viewed in this deep-structural and inclusive manner, i.e. as an expression of the “postmodern meta-meme” or cultural stage of development, began in the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, reached maturity in fin-de-siècle expressions such as impressionism, absurd displays like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a porcelain urinal that becomes art *because* it’s in a museum) and early 20th century movements like futurism and eventually the catch-all “modernism” (so the art of high modernity was in fact quintessentially postmodern, it’s just called “modernism” due to the misnomer stemming from its concurrence with high modernity; this is the case as art is always ahead of the rest of society in terms of memetic development) and peaked with Andy Warhol’s bridging of pop, kitsch, and fine arts. These last phases also came to be called “postmodern art” in the mainstream textbook vocabulary taught at art schools but, again, let me stress that I mean that postmodern art in the deeper and more inclusive sense is being terminated by AI-generated art.

Since Warhol’s time until today, postmodern art has more or less been stagnating, where the once historically significant transgressions of artists have been attempted again and again — the repetition has set in like a broken record, and instead of evocative social evolution, the art world has largely come to signify some artful if colorful combination of snobbery, nonsense, refined versions of finance bubbles, and sheer fraud. (See my earlier article on NFTs as flowers of evil that can nevertheless save the world).

Now, while postmodern art as a truly generative expression ended decades ago, its zombified existence has indeed outgrown the size and influence of its earlier genuine expressions — it’s been alive and well, as far as Frankensteinian monsters go.

In face, then, of the existential horrors of AI art (we thought they came for our clerk jobs and that we would become painters of life itself, but they came for our most exquisitely creative endeavors), I would like to offer instead a *celebration* of a strange kind of progress, namely, the euthanasia of the postmodern art zombie itself.

But just to briefly take stock of the existential horror of AI art (not then, the “existential threat” of general AI, i.e. that it could end life on the planet as we know it, a prospect of which I am still a hard agnostic; but like agnostics of religion with God, I don’t find myself worrying much about it), I would like to stress the following:

Let us, by all means admit it: AI art is sublime. It is mind blowing. It is thrilling. It is absolutely beautiful. It is original. It artistic. It is dreamlike. Deny it all you want, protect your pride and integrity, sure. Meanwhile, prompted AI is literally winning art competitions and spellbinding a world.

To those who deny it, for those who claim there is no “spirit” in AI art, I challenge you: cover the hands of the artwork and perform a blind test. Given that postmodern art experts have mistaken literally chimp-made art for highly avant-garde works, I bet my car and birthday cake, you’re chanceless. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is depth, aura, and authenticity. That’s the grim bottom-line of postmodernity at large — and it’s a truth that has unexpectedly emancipatory potential once realized, as I have mused earlier in a long-read essay on the nature of “sincere irony”.

The *really* interesting part here is that there is something distinctly, well, *metamodern* about the AI-generated art. Through its shameless and absolutely massive stealery of other art, of the tender hearts and life projects of thousands upon thousands of actual human artists, all mixed into the chaos engine, bringing its own weird sense of order to the virtual world, it not only brings the postmodern insight and disenchantment (everything is surface, everything is structure, everything is stolen, power works by being able to direct and steer the knowledge and minds of others…) to its logical conclusion: the most original, participatory, and sublime art *is* the most crudely pirated one…. Speaking with Walter Benjamin: “aura” and “authenticity” are brought about by nothing less than theft combined with statistics. It also, and just as importantly, is the direct expression of the life conditions of the Internet age, as the adage goes since the best film of last year, it’s Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.

How, then, does the zombie of postmodern art die? Well, it dies by its own sword: crude market forces, in turn relying upon the control of surface appearances, of the setting of “scenes”. And, by all means, off with their heads — not every small and authentic struggling artist out there (their tragedies are real enough, and warrant respect), but the money-bloated madness of the bastions of today’s high-end trade between the super-rich and the fake cultural capital that money cannot actually buy them, as well as the really ugly and incomprehensible public monuments, sculptures, and paintings that we all spend so much taxpayer money on. There are many artists, and much artwork, I really won’t miss. Let the machine take them.

The key takeaway thus far is this:

  • The AI art revolution is for postmodern art what photography was for modern art: a death sentence.

Once photography barged in during the late 1800s, emblematically around the same point history when painting technique had been refined to the point of practically reaching photorealism, the “modern” art project that had begun in Renaissance died. In the bloody paintpangs of that revolution of culture, modern art died, and postmodern art rose. Before long, pissoirs were the taking the stage alongside increasingly bizarrely pointy Picasso women. Postmodern artists will continue to exist just as photorealistic and classically correct painting continues to this day, but they will lose their position of relevance and status.

“Remember, Look Down at Your Hands. The Fingers: Watch the Fingers”

In dreamtime, there are no hands.


We can further notice another deep, structural analogy between AI art and dreamtime.

Consider the fact that AI, so far, for all its apparent ingenuity and stolen talent, cannot paint hands. What else cannot do so? Actually, looking at one’s hands is the very prompt people use to jolt themselves into states of lucid dreaming: during the day, you remind yourself to look at your hands hundreds of times. At night, when asleep and dreaming, you might remember to also look at your hands. In the dream, though, your hands will look somehow surreal, weird. Our dreaming minds cannot paint them, even while recognizing its own mistake. You realize you’re dreaming, and you gain control of the dream, you enter the state lucid dreaming, where you can consciously conjure up whatever fantasy your mind desires or wishes to explore.

Among the artists of textbook “modernism” was the surrealist Salvador Dalí, and in his work, he also expressed intuitions that were decidedly ahead of his time: many forms of what can only be thought of as metamodernist symbolisms and sentiments were present (for instance, images of the sacred which where also revealing and disenchanting, mirroring the metamodernist principle of sincere irony). And, of course, Dalí painted dreams. The earliest forms of AI art looked decidedly psychedelic — between dream and waking state and with strange sensual and fractal-like alterations — today’s rapidly advancing AI art looks more and more, well, dreamlike.

It’s a dream machine. We’re reapproaching what Australian aboriginals have called “the everywhen”: moments and events mashed up beyond space and time. In the popularized mistranslation that goes back about a century, the anthropology of religion has called it “dreamtime”.

Metamodernism: Art-As-Emergent-Relationality

Screenshot from a random feed on my Pinterest home page.


To wrap up the conclusion, then, we actually can begin to see what “metamodern art” truly is. Indeed, we didn’t even need the AI to see it: it was already on Pinterest for all to see. The sheer variance and creativity that came from *human* minds (not AI) using all available tools, digital and others, and seeing all other artists, and being influenced by all of the world, was staggering. The amount of “newness” was available for all to see, but it was among all the small artists, only a few of the big ones at art galleries represented it.

But it is not every piece of work in and of itself that represents “metamodern art” — no, it is the relation between them that becomes apparent when you scroll through them at Pinterest: it’s the larger structure of greater variance and generativity that is the metamodern art project. “Metamodern art” is in the relationship between all of the existing artwork, which by the way is exactly what AI is chewing right through, hence its incredible creativity. It’s in the betweeness itself. This is the art-as-emergent-relationality that I referenced in the subtitle to this essay.

On Pinterest, you can see how the number of truly unique artists and imaginations, drawing upon one another and using so many different artistic toolkits, has formally exploded. AI just brings this to the next level. We were almost there already. Now it becomes obvious to all but those in the most stubborn denial: visual creativity has become common. It has become cheap. Pastiche or anything else, it’s all there. That doesn’t make it any less wonderous with every unique artist, no. It just means that there are so many more of them.

The metamodern artist, then, is faced with a task that many are already rising to meet: the category of “art” was itself a modern construct, and we are now breaking out of that category. Art conquers the world in a wider sense. And in this conquest, the artist is not the one that paints the most authentic and sublime painting, but the one that imagines that which others could not have imagined, and could thus not have prompted and AI to perform, and that the AI would not be able to steal from the mash of existing art history.

The metamodern artist becomes the person to break away from the dream machine and to lucidly imagine that which was literally unthinkable to man and machine alike. Aesthetics can in this phase draw upon the inexhaustible fountainhead of creativity: nature, and thus natural science. My own favorite example are the these sculptures of mathematic ingenuity, by John Edmark. You can’t ask an AI to invent that:

Art breaking out of its confines — into science, into design, into the sociological imagination, into political relevance. Again, many *are* doing it. Welcome to the real world.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ’12 Commandments’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.