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No Art, Just Vibes
In the past four years I have had three life-changing revelations. Here they are.
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March 2019: Stand-Up Comedy is Doomed to End Soon
At this time, I was still pursuing stand-up comedy. I was half-aware that I wasn’t going to pop, but my Calvinist-level compulsion to get up created the delusion necessary to smooth over the increasingly violent cognitive dissonance of someone who saw no future but had to get onstage every night.
Then I read some random article praising Dril and Weird Twitter. Perhaps Dril was coming out with a new book. I don’t remember. As someone who was not an avid Twitter enthusiast, all this was new to me. I laughed harder at half these tweets than I did for months at professional NYC showcases. I went back to Spotify to play a comedy album that I was in the middle of listening to. The comedian on the album asked the crowd “Anyone here watch Netflix?”
BAM! Between the eyes, it hit me how hoary and decrepit stand-up comedy was doomed to become. In November of that year, I quit stand-up. Months later, COVID ravaged nightlife globally and, between comedy clubs closing and a growing minefield of cultural sensitivity, I was vindicated. Like those guys in The Big Short who bet against housing. Nobody bet against stand-up in 2019. Nobody.
February 2023: We Are Entering a Post-Fame Era
From my Feb.18 post:
And so here we are, in the PostFame era. As Internet technology advances, there seems to be more and more centralization. In the ‘00s, the blogosphere was centered around a few blog and digital media empires. In the ‘10s, it was centered around a few apps. Now it seems like Bing and Google will be the only two web portals that people frequent (if, indeed, AI remains on track to being centralized). One major and obvious drawback is “publisher and advertiser risk. AI chat could hurt publishers and advertisers if users can get the answer without clicking any links." So Sydney Bing will tell you who the best comedian is. The best musician. Perhaps the best candidate[….]
[…] This is all to say nothing about the increased competition from AI content creators, artists, etc. If times are tight and companies can literally pay their stars zero dollars and get 100 percent of the profits, they will. Two days after SydneyGate, Fast Company heralded the rise of the synthetic celebrity. Of course many of these are human/digital hybrids for now. But the stage is certainly set for an entirely synthetic, autogenerative entertainer or influencer.
Why wouldn’t it be? When information is as free and abundant as it is online, an AI is less likely to feel intimidated by the competition. It certainly won’t demand any compensation. Plus, it turns out, more and more humans want less and less of the spotlight. YouTuber Elle Mills recently wrote about how important it was to walk away. And, in an era of panopticontent, where anyone walking in a major city is a potential TikTok lolcow, privacy, not fame, may turn out to be the rare prize.
Even in February though, I believed art might thrive:
This all seems bleak, no? If you only understand art as entertainment, then yes. I would argue though that creatives will almost have no choice but to be bohemians. The entertainers, the people pleasers, they will be forced to either be entrepreneurs that use AI to create artistic businesses, or they will be hobbyists.
Truthfully, the artists will probably be hobbyists too. Words like amateur and hobbyist will lose their negative connotations. In the Modernist era, many avant garde movements treated art as a lifestyle. Now, the lifestyle might be all that’s left.
The first Substack I wrote this year was about how Dimes Square as an artistic scene did not have actual great art but instead was based on the excitement of Web3 as well as its reactionary politics. Both of these are weak things to base a scene around, but Dimes Square is important in one sense: the personalities and parties are more important than their actual artworks. The future may have less kids trying to be Hollywood stars and more kids trying to plug into the scenius of the local scene, either as personalities or as fellow revelers.
April 2023: Art Will Be Completely Irrelevant
There have been two seemingly conflicting tech stories this past week. The first: Entertainment producer Adam Faze noticed that 49 songs on Spotify sounded exactly the same. Completely befuddled as to why, Ted Goia helped answer Faze’s question:
It’s no coincidence that this mysterious song first appeared in 2022.
That was when I wrote an article about the fake artists problem on Spotify. Unknown musicians were operating with multiple names, and getting huge traction on the platform. For example, I found a jazz artist I’d never heard of before, who had received more Spotify plays than most tracks on Jon Batiste’s Grammy-winning album of the year.
One source claimed that “about 20 people are behind over 500 artist names.” Many of them appeared to live in Sweden—which is, by complete coincidence, where Spotify has its headquarters.
And here’s the always-solid Terry Nguyen with the assist:
Why is Spotify doing this? For revenue—because it has yet to turn an annual profit. Now that podcasts are no longer a surefire money-making avenue, Spotify is pivoting, or rather, leaning into a strategy it’s kept in its back pocket. The streaming platform has surreptitiously hired producers to compose filler music since 2016. These tracks are then licensed to the platform at a lower rate than tracks from major labels. The rise of AI music generators has only made it easier for synthetic music—and media, more broadly—to proliferate.
So this is the nightmarish conclusion to that whole “lo-fi study beats” thing from the late 2010s. As Amanda Petrusich said (albeit sanctimoniously) in The New Yorker back in 2019, music is less for listening and more for productivity: “The idea of purposeful listening—which is to say, merely listening—is becoming increasingly discordant with the way that music is sold to us. (Anybody who has attended a live music concert in the last couple of years has already witnessed, firsthand, just how uncomfortable listening appears to make some people—so much so that frustrated musicians have started banning phones at shows.)”
Music seems to be more background than ever before. We have entered the Mediocre Uncanny. According to Tech Story #1. Tech story #2 is a little different: an original song sung by an AI Drake and an AI The Weekend went viral, prompting Universal Music Group to send cease-and-desists. This is a different story than most AI deepfake stories. Unlike AI Michael Jackson singing “I Feel it Coming,” this viral hit (“Heart on Sleeve”) was written exclusively for this AI project. Since this song is viral and addicting, we can’t say music is only for background right?
True, except this is an original song technically. It may not literally be someone else’s song, but no one would argue that it is derivative of Drake and The Weekend. It has to be or it wouldn’t work. But ultimately, who does the song belong to? On the unlikely off-chance that Drake and The Weekend like this song, can they really feel like it is theirs, or be slightly flattered and spooked at how alarmingly accurate the impersonation is? As for Ghostwriter (the mysterious writer of “Heart on Sleeve”), can we really say he is a songwriter expressing his thoughts, emotions, beliefs? Or has he become the Bob Dylan of hack writing, bringing to the foreground the previously frowned-down upon practice of writing hits with no personal touch, just writing in the voice of the star who needs a hit?
Ultimately Story #2 is a concrete, real-world example of the previously academic assertion on the death of the author. This alone is not enough to bring down art. But the death of the author and the audience may be. As Internet artist Brad Troemel wrote in 2013:
The accidental audience’s attitude toward what it sees is deeply predicated on the neoliberal vision of cultural migration, but its willingness to strip images of their status as property is so aggressive that it deserves a term of its own: image anarchism. Whereas image fundamentalists and image neoliberals disagree over how art becomes property, image anarchists behave as though intellectual property is not property at all. While the image neoliberal still believes in the owner as the steward of globally migratory artworks, the image anarchist reflects a generational indifference toward intellectual property, regarding it as a bureaucratically regulated construct. This indifference stems from file sharing and extends to de-authored, decontextualized Tumblr posts. Image anarchism is the path that leads art to exist outside the context of art.
“Image anarchism” would come to be known by the far more business-friendly term “content.” Anything online cannot remain in its intended form. It will be remixed, stiched on TikTok, outright stolen, whatever it is, it will always be part of the memetic spread. If it becomes popular. Paradoxically, works online that are not engaged with retain their initial form and have more integrity, but the only unpopular works I know of are my own.
This is to say nothing of generative, infinite AI works. Nothing Forever was the first major example of this. An AI generated Seinfeld tribute that would go on forever. But there are many AI streaming music stations too that just generate music infinitely. No one song, just multiple non-songs flowing into each other in order to create the same vibe. How do you judge or appreciate an artwork with no end?
Back in 2015, William Deresiewicz heralded the death of the artist and the rise of the creative entrepreneur. As the Internet took down the gatekeepers, more creative types had to do without less patronage and had to be their own bean counters. Even being a creative entrepreneur seems like a tall order nowadays. It requires an awful amount of money and time, just like any other business.
It would require a Generative AI writer to list all the reasons we got to the death of art, but I can produce a major cause: the Internet got too damn big! As I have previously stated, when content creators are lucky enough to get big \there is no Shark Tank angel investor to help them with their global audience. It’s on them to look prettier and prettier for the entire world without displeasing one person from any culture. This is like opening a pizzeria in suburban New Jersey and delivering to the world without hiring extra delivery drivers, stores, etc.
This model worked when the Internet was smaller, cooler and younger. There was a time when YouTube, in the late ‘00s, curated their front page with a team of coolhunters. Kind of like when you went to Blockbuster and you saw the staff pick (Blockbuster at this time was dying not dead). This became unsustainable as YouTube was grown by Google to consume the entire planet.
David Auerbach’s engrossing but alarming new book Meganets offers an illuminating perspective as well: quality content and content moderation are inffectual, naive strategies when it comes to trying to control something as powerful and unwieldy as the Internet has become over the past 20 years. Or, to use examples from pop music and comedy, there does seem to be an inverse proportion between the size of the venue and the quality of the work. Intelligent, intimate art does better in coffeehouses and theaters. Megawatt quasi-fascist spectacles do better in arenas and stadiums. Indie films are not meant for multiplexes, etc. Now imagine trying to perform for the entire world. No wonder a songwriter has a better shot writing a viral hit for Drake.
For now. Countless others are trying to make viral Drake and/or Weekend hits. Some original songs, some unlikely covers. As more deepfake Drakes flood the marketplace, Drake’s own actual music will be devalued. And the Weekend. Etc.
I was very skeptical Mark Fisher said that we are culturally stuck in the past. I chalked it up to poptimism and the Marvelificiation of cinema. My hope was that online art could once again revitalize culture like it seemed to in the ‘00s. The web not only seems stuck in Memory Lane, but more so. Which is perhaps the most poetic irony of all: the more futuristic and advanced our tech becomes, the more lovingly we look at the past.
Well it would be poetic anyway, if anything still had an aura. As Walter Benjamin said almost 100 years ago in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the artwork loses its aura as it is infinitely reproduced. This deaura-fication has spread through new media to our interpersonal relations, to our reactions to national tragedies, why wouldn’t it extend to art?
One last cause of death for art: the weightlessness of cyberspace.
Tempting though it is to blame TikTok for the weightlessness of cyberspace, the truth is drama and depth will never work online. Everything gets compressed online. Bowling balls move too slow. By necessity, the Internet needs fast balloons. Even with the current AI hype, what actually went viral? A silly digital Seinfeld ripoff, deepfake videos of Biden vaping loud and playing Fortnite and a “photo” of Trump getting arrested that, as soon as people realized it was fake, became a source of lulz.
Art is Dead. What Now?
I have enjoyed using Midjourney for artworks. Here is one that I particularly enjoyed prompting.
<realistic> photography of super mario brothers dressed as 1960s hippies, 35 mm film
I enjoyed making this. Well, not making this. Prompting this, I guess. although that sounds too dry. I enjoyed conjuring this. That’s what a lot of this feels like: magic spells. When I do this, I am not actually trying to express an emotion or make a statement. If I could summon ‘60s Mario Brothers in person, I would. This is the next best thing.
Conjuring comes from the world of magic of course, which brings up the subject of dark magic. Many are of course using AI for hoaxes. But some are doing the reverse: claiming they have made some breakthrough in AI when it was really an OK song or camera trick. Here is a good example.
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This video claims to have created a white guy avatar that is lifelike and convincing using AI. Look at the comments though; it’s a hoax. Dead giveaway: Convert Skeleton, used to create the “avatar,” does not exist. ]
Plato was skeptical of the benefits of art because it was twice removed from the ideal, whereas reality was once removed. AI art is thrice removed. From a non-human intelligence. Or a seemingly alien intelligence anyway.
AI was of course a creation of the military-industrial complex. With such a military pedigree, it is no secret why compliance is a large part of the AI’s toolkit. LLMs try to make the poetic more prosaic, to make the mysterious clearer. The exact opposite of art. But this is bad if we want art from AI.
Look at the controversy of racist AI, or of prompting racist AI. For years, one of the setbacks of AI was that the results were inevitably racist. To this day, the solution seems to primarily be to inhibit the AI so nothing offensive comes out. Which is of course ineffective.
If you look above, my prompt with the red circle said “No art, just vibes.” I never asked for a person, let alone a black person. Nevertheless, Midjourney gave me four black people. I would guess this is not evidence of racism. A simple Google image search of “just vibes” shows the majority of the people there are black people. It's either that or the word '“vibe.” Since Midjourney still has a tough time writing words, it will resort to black people because, for whatever reason, black people are primarily photographed when the words “just vibes” are involved.
AI does not have a racist view because it has no view. No view, no art. Arguably it has no intelligence either. But what if it did? When I work/play with AI, I feel like Eliot talking to the alien in ET. Giving it Reese’s Pieces. Taking it bike riding. This is especially the case when interacting with chatbots.
Like I said, AI was born in military labs. But so was LSD research in this country. When the military used it, they thought it would make a truth serum. The prisoner would be too scared of death or psychosis and just give up the secrets. When LSD was unleashed on the public, however, it gave birth to a politics of consciousness. It also fueled the anti-war movement. So perhaps the current AI mania is really America trying to nervously rattle China’s cage about AI supremacy. But we may end up with the most robust politics of consciousness since the 1960s.
Many more questions, answers and mysteries lie ahead. But one thing that has been revealed: art may be dead but vibes aren’t. Arguably all we can expect from AI is vibes. A Seinfeld vibe. A Drake vibe. Even when you ask a serious, work-related question, it’s more likely to give you a smart-sounding answer than a correct one.
Vibes-based culture does not begin and end with AI of course. From Blackbird Spyplane:
A lot of great culture in the modern era is predominantly vibes-based, like a bunch of A24 movies, or Frank Ocean songs, or the Fire of Love documentary, where they don’t ever tell you what the f**k these charming French weirdos were actually studying, much less learning, when they stood in sick metallic suits at the edge of hella active volcanos — the footage is powerfully vibey enough to do more than its share of the work.
My guess as to why: it’s all content and it’s all background. I can theoretically write this while Spring Breakers is playing on TV. Podcasts would not distract me either; it would feel more like the office chatter of actually interesting coworkers.
One day I may listen to a podcast of chill vibe AIs to distract from the din of my high strung AI coworkers.
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