At the turn of the twentieth century, the French art critic Louis Vauxcelles ridiculed the new, emerging art styles that would eventually usher in modern art. Vauxcelles panned the works of Henri Matisse and other artists using a similar bold style as “les fauves” (wild beasts). Vauxcelles also derided the early work of Braques, who was developing an even more radical style with Picasso, as “bizarre cubiques” (bizarre cubes). Vauxcelles wasn’t alone. There was great backlash against these new artistic styles, especially in the United States where they were branded as “degenerate” and the product of mental illness by the top American physicians.
Vauxcelles’ monikers stuck. Eventually, Fauvism and Cubism prevailed in toppling the artistic conventions of the Renaissance, leading to the rise of “modern art” of the twentieth century, but not without tragedy. To fund its quest for world domination in WWII, the Nazis confiscated and sold tens of thousands of modern artworks they branded as “degenerate art.” It took decades and WWII for modern art to prevail.
Today, we are witnessing the next great disruption to art. Fitting for our digital age, the disruption is wrought by new technology.
NFTs have created a new market for digital art by solving the problem inherent in natively digital copies–they are all the same or fungible. With NFTs, every digital artwork can now have its own unique, nonfungible token and virtual ownership. Just in the past four months, ChatGPT-based text-to-image generators have unleashed among the masses tools to create digital artworks simply using text prompts. The explosion of AI images through popular platforms such as Midjourney is downright dizzying.
Perhaps no AI artist has captured the imagination as Refik Anadol, a Turkish-American artist based in Los Angeles. MoMA is exhibiting his grand AI artwork Unsupervised, which ends this week. With MoMA’s permission, Anadol took the publicly available data of MoMA’s entire corpus of artworks and “trained a sophisticated machine-learning model” to create dynamic artworks from the data. It is Anadol’s first solo exhibition in the North America.
Why Elite Art Critics Don’t Like refik Anadol’s Unsupervised
Showing one’s art in MoMA, which was the first institution devoted to modern art, would be an achievement of a lifetime for many artists. But the elite art critics aren’t impressed with Anadol’s Unsupervised. Travis Diehl of the New York Times concluded: “‘Unsupervised’ is only a screen saver.” Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine lamented: “The whole thing looks like a massive techno lava lamp.” Ben Davis of Artnet warned: “this style of art feels emblematic of a moment in which a tech aesthetic of perpetually novel gadgetry is culturally dominant while the humanities, with their unprofitable baggage of historical and moral concerns, are being allowed to wither.”
Indeed, the most favorable review was by Andrea K. Scott of The New Yorker, who described “[t]he most dramatic of these supplies cresting sloshes of rainbow-bright fluid with a disheartening amusement-park vibe,” while recognizing that MoMA was the first major art museum to host a color photography exhibition and the current focus on AI and generative art “is long overdue.”
If there is a more positive review by a prominent art critic, I couldn’t find it.
Why people loved refik Anadol’s Unsupervised
I spent two hours at Anadol’s exhibition to see with my own eyes what all the fuss was about. I sat through the exhibition’s visual series several times (they are different) and observed how people, both young and old, responded to it.
I’m not an art critic, but here’s what I saw: people absolutely captivated by Anadol’s Unsupervised. There was a buzz or electricity in the air. I overhead people saying “fantastic” and “beautiful,” and I saw people sharing the visual experience with their loved ones with pure joy. Parents with their children, young and old couples on a date, people speaking different languages sharing their reactions to this new form of AI art. Some people even applauded. Yes, applauded.
When the rates of depression among U.S. adults today are triple the rates of the past, and the worst among young adults, according to a 2023 study by Northeastern researchers, we should not trivialize artworks that provoke such inspiration, joy, and positive reactions among people. To dismiss Unsupervised as a dystopian screensaver is more a reflection of one’s own myopic view of art than it is an accurate assessment of the art itself.
What was my reaction to refik anadol’s Unsupervised
Anadol’s Unsupervised is stunning. It hits you over the head, and, at first, you don’t know what to make of it. It’s a visual awakening. It has what John Quinn, the lawyer who became the biggest collector of modern art in the first quarter of the twentieth century, called “radium.”
Quinn wrote to Judge Learned Hand upon seeing Cubist and early modern art: “I have a theory that every generation has its own art … painting that is alive and full of radium. All of the radium has gone out of many old paintings.” (Eakin, Picasso’s War, 24).
When historians look back at this period, I think they will say the same thing. AI and digital art will be the twenty-first century’s art, which defines this generation. Something that is new, alive, and full of radium, a part of a Virtual Renaissance.