I've stumbled over a few items randomly, which just coalesced into something in my head, so, here we go.
Sam Bankman-Fried, currently on trial for operating an enormous kinda-Ponzi scheme in the crypto world
(it doesn't seem to have been as coherent and organized as even a proper Ponzi, it seems to have simply
been a sort of maelstrom of money that leaked a lot until the money was gone) is having his private
conversations closely analyzed. As some point
he seems to have written something or other about Shakespeare, arguing that so many humans have been
born since Shakespeare that, statistically, there must have been many better writer after Shakespeare.
This illustrates a profound failure to understand how culture arises. Interestingly, while everyone had
a good time making fun of Sam, I didn't see anyone offer a coherent explanation of why he was wrong.
I plan to correct that here!
Second item: there's a guy, Devon Rodriguez, who's made something of a name for himself drawing
and painting People On The Street. He's all over social media, and if you're looking for youtube videos
on drawing portraits you're gonna have a hard time avoiding this guy's useless videos. He's a skilled
technician, but mainly he's a social media presence.
He has millions of followers, and the backing of at least one NYC real-estate developer, and so he got
a little popup show for his paintings. This show was reviewed on artnet by some hapless critic, who
pointed out that the paintings were not very good, and went on about social media influence.
Devon's PR machine, noting an opportunity, decided to pull out the "I won't let the haters stop me!"
page from the Social Media Influencers Handbook, and has been running that play for a while.
Here again we see the intersection of "Culture" in the form of Art and Criticism of Same with something
Finally let us recall that Larry Gagosian got himself a pretty girlfriend, painter Anna Weyant, a hair
older than 1/3 of his age, and appears to be trying to make her into a Major Painter using his credentials
as an art dealer. Weyant appears to be a significantly more interesting painter than Rodriguez, and is also
a fine technician, so I don't really have a sense of whether she's "good" or not, in any way that makes much
sense to me.
Let's keep these three little examples in mind.
Culture, contrary to common understanding, is not a distillation of the finest products of the finest
creative talents, elected by some alchemy that inexorably whittles away the inferior and reliably, eventually,
locates the best. It's just not. It's a hell of a lot more venal than that.
Bankman-Fried missed the point about Shakespeare: we have defined him to be great. Yes, the work
is technically good, the meter or whatever you want to name is excellent. Shakespeare is great
largely because, for him, the standard is how much like Shakespeare are you? Obviously, he is the
best at being like Shakespeare. The attentive observer might wonder out loud how much of "Shakespeare
was really good at specific important technical things" is actually "these specific technical things
are important because Shakespeare was good at them." It's fair to suggest that there's a bit of push and
pull going on here.
Larry Gagosian's efforts on behalf of Anna Weyant are specifically interesting, because Larry is absolutely a member of
the club of people who get to decide things like "who are the really great painters anyway?" He's not the only
And finally we get around to Rodriguez. He has essentially no backing from anyone in that club, but he has a lot
of social media followers, and he's got some rich people in his corner. Rich people who would probably like
to be members of the taste-making club, rich people who probably go to some of the same parties that Larry
What interests me here, though, is whether we're seeing something larger.
Why should a small club of goobers like Gagosian be in charge of High Culture? There certainly seem to be days when
they're picking shit at random (abstract expressionism? really?) and there's really no doubt that they do a lot
of selection based on how hot and/or slutty the artists are. Why shouldn't TikTok select the Important Artists?
The crypto bros made a brave attempt to seize a beachhead in Culture with NFTs. Unfortunately for them they were
thoroughly embedded in the crypto world, which turns out to be 100% scams, and also their art was really really terrible
shit, not even rising to the level of kitsch. It wasn't even populist, it was just dumb. The try was bold, though,
and it looked like it might work for a while! Beeple and his dumb $69 million dollar whateverthefuck looked like
a real thing for a minute (before we learned that it too was a scam, oops.)
I don't much like Rodriguez, in part because his work isn't very interesting (it all looks like it's an excellent
copy of some extremely bland reference photo, and some people think that's because they are in fact excellent
copies of extremely bland reference photos.) I also dislike him, though, because his videos gum up the search
for "how the hell do I draw a nose" with what are essentially ads for his work and his classes. I just want a few
pointers on how to draw a nose!
My opinion, though, should not really carry any weight. Who gives a shit what I think?
The very idea is insane that these things should be decided a small group of people with degrees in art history, and an even
smaller group of wealthy assholes who've eased their way into advising even wealthier assholes about which art to buy.
Why should this specific group be in charge of determining what we see when we go into museums and galleries? Especially
the museums and galleries funded by our tax dollars! Maybe we should be seeing a lot more kitsch!
On the other hand, there seems to genuinely be value in some small group making insane selections, however venal
the reasons, for future generations. Maybe it doesn't matter what gets picked, as long as it's weird enough, as long
as it's not populist kitsch. Maybe the job is simply to weed out things that are easy to like and pick some vaguely
coherent selection of stuff that's hard to like. Future generations then have something to think about, something to struggle with. I think I'd rather live in a culture where we have abstract expressionism to gape at, than a culture were it's all likable kitsch.
In general I would rather see the collapse of Art As High Culture. I believe in local art. Rodriguez would do
well as a Local Artist. He's entertaining, people like his pictures. I think people should totally be able to
buy his pictures, sit for portraits, whatever. I don't think we would be well-served by making him into
a Great Artist to Stand With Monet, but then, I'm not sure we're well served by the very idea that artists should
be elevated to some stratosphere.
But my opinion doesn't matter. This isn't the first time populist art has made an assault on the cathedral, and it
won't be the last. It'll be interesting to see how it shakes out, I guess.