Zoe Zhang/MiC.

As an artist and keen observer, it seems to me that 2D art uploaded to social media appears progressively similar in visual language. For instance, the fan art for a given fandom, whether it is “Better Call Saul” or “Naruto,” made in tribute to these fictional universes often take on an anime-esque style. Paintings, on the other hand, incorporate brightly-colored, graphical elements a la Jean-Michel Basquiat.

You cannot scroll through social media without seeing the same burning skulls, hearts, twisted portraiture of faces and photorealistic ones of trending celebrities in these paintings. Even small streetwear businesses are growing increasingly repetitive in their utilization of East Asian typeface, devil, guns and cross imageries. Quite hypocritically, I also engage in the curation of art that takes on these styles, but find myself confused as to why I am also subconsciously adhering to them. However, if I had to guess, the homogeneity of art in online spaces can be attributed to artists emulating other more popular artists for likes, follows and monetary compensation. 

Dopamine-packed provocations are rewarded. In an age of five-second attention spans and millions of short-form videos only a click away, how do you, as an artist, garner audience attention without the incorporation of pop culture and gimmicks? 

What I do know is that, as a 2D artist, you have a better chance of being scouted as the world’s next Naomi Campbell than becoming a rich, successful, cream-of-the-crop artist through sheer talent alone. Of course, most artists, myself included, operate from a place of innate passion for the practice and do not aim to become the next Norman Rockwell. However, as true adulthood looms, it is almost impossible not to consider how you can support yourself as an artist. There seem to be only two ways to become conventionally successful as a 2D artist: you either practicalize your art into a capitalizable skill, such as UX design, or you make it big on social media through creating art for a specific audience. For instance, making fan art of current popular TV shows will help art influencers gain more followers compared to making art based on original characters.

Upon being admitted into the Stamps School of Art & Design, I was always acutely aware of the fact that my degree, a culmination of four years of hard work, would only be worth a fraction of what my friends at the Ross School of Business are working towards monetarily. My professors mentioned this fact in passing and so did the guests gracing the stage of the Art & Design School speaker series. Although I had enjoyed all the late-night studio sessions and creative freedom given to me through the Art & Design School curriculum, I ultimately decided that I needed to enter into another program in conjunction with Art & Design to generate some more lucrative opportunities after graduation and took up a degree with the School of Information. While I continue my studies at the Art & Design School, I have also come to notice that a lot of my peers had similar art styles to myself and others.

I recall visiting the University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art in May, and encountering a group of beautiful, trendy girls my age. They took turns posing in front of a European oil painting, while their friends snapped photos of them. This observation, for some unknown reason, filled me with inexplicable anger. The museum’s collections encapsulated so much beauty and contemplation on the human condition and pain, so I thought to myself, how dare they pollute a museum that bore witness to the best humanity had to offer with Instagram photoshoots?

As soon as I left the museum, my emotions shifted from rage to insurmountable guilt: I observed my own betrayal of the integrity of art in them. I had projected my own shame onto these girls. I had transitioned from an artistic teen to an older adolescent and adult who had forgone their passion to chase more superficial pursuits. In the past few years, I have devoted an unfathomable amount of time to beautifying myself and reflecting this on social media. I was never able to create art with the same authenticity and imagination that I once possessed as a younger teen who frequented galleries, art classes and wrote creative short stories.

I remembered that, too, I have devoted lots of screen time at different museums to capture the perfect, color-coordinated shots for my Instagram story. When I do make art, I also create art for the sake of recognition and attention from others. My own art-making had shifted from a spiritualistic release of my creativity to a venue for seeking compliments and validation. Hence, these changes explained why I, too, started making provocative, gimmicky art that looks visually similar to many others’ online. 

Oddly enough, this attention-seeking, gimmicky nature can also be observed in fine arts. My peers and I seem to have been influenced by this particular element of modern art. To examine the beginning of this phenomenon, we must discuss the origins of modern art that paved the way for controversial 2D art that broke the rules of conventional portraiture, historical and religious paintings of previous years.

Gustav Klimt, known to have bedded most of his models, famously implied themes of sex in his art under the repressive purity culture of late 19th-century Austria. His art depicted beautiful, bourgeois Austrian women with subdued expressions of desires and pleasures, covered in layers upon layers of gossamer-thin gold leaves. His magnum opus, “The Kiss,” suggests that the painting’s titular subjects were nude under their gold-encrusted blanket while embracing each other on the edge of a cliff, alluding to the dangerous repercussions of romantic passion.

Several decades later in 1917, French artist Marcel Duchamp debuted “Fountain,” the first time in art history in which a symbolic and ironic idea became the centerpiece of an artwork. He had essentially taken a mundane manufactured men’s urinal and quite humorously elevated it to the status of an esteemed fountain by signing it with a pseudonym. The simple fact that Duchamp had intended the urinal to become a fountain made it a piece of fine art. Not surprisingly, the art piece caused quite a stir in the uptight art world of western Europe.

At the turn of the 21st century, the element of shock seems to have become evermore prevalent in the art world. I recall coming across Damien Hirst’s “​​The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” which entailed the preservation of a 14-foot-long tiger shark in a tank of cyan formaldehyde. Mouth open in all its sharp-toothed glory, the shark is frozen in a state of predatory aggression, yet unable to engulf the viewer in its state of immortalized death. Hirst had previously also released an image of himself posing joyously next to a decapitated head in a morgue as well as several more installations featuring preserved farm animals, with some animals spliced neatly down the middle, revealing their inner anatomy.

It is for these artworks that Hirst became the United Kingdom’s richest artist. Similarly, Klimt and Duchamp also made their mark in art history in part due to their controversial decisions in art making, and tested the art world’s tolerance for provocative art. He had somehow firmly captured the modern art viewer’s attention while working in the relatively invigorating medium of art. This is quite impressive when you consider that art-goers in our day and age can easily engage in dozens of activities daily that are far more stimulating than attending a gallery showing in silence and contemplation.

Take, for example, all of the decadent or avant-garde garments displayed in Paris Fashion Week’s spring-summer 2023 collections by the world’s most lucrative high-fashion houses. The only garment that made a lasting impression on my and many other fashion amateurs’ memories is Coperni’s plain-white, spray-on dress as modeled on Bella Hadid. The closing act entailed Hadid coming down the runway nude for several technicians to engulf her body with a spray-on fibrous material called Fabrican that changes into fabric as it dries. Another Coperni employee then approached the supermodel to style the dress, creating a slouchy, off-shoulder look with a slit.

Although I do like the brand and Hadid, the dress itself is white with a common silhouette, and the spray-on technology is nearly 20 years old. The moment went viral because the brand featured the world’s most famous fashion model nude in a theatrical moment that perfectly resonated with Gen Z’s current obsessions with “It Girl aesthetics”. The spray-on dress was far more entertaining than zooming into an image on Vogue Runway and reading the fine prints of the design. There seems to no longer be room for art to exist in solace; there must also be an accompanying entertainment element to captivate the audience — to spoon-feed them a piece of art that would have otherwise been abandoned in exchange for entertainment pursuits that offer more stimulation.

Step foot in any gallery and you’ll observe older people contemplating pieces of art or engaging in quiet conversations on their observations. On the other hand, I’ve rarely seen Gen Z adults in this state.

Perhaps modern art and Gen Z art are simply evolving in accordance with the culture and norms of their respective time period, as art has always done throughout history. However, I do miss the sentimental element of art that required minutes of observation and transcendence to be fully absorbed and interpreted, which seems to be fewer and farther between nowadays. 

Somewhere, sometime in history, a young, amateur artist spends a month in his studio forgoing his duties to create a layered oil portrait of his lover to be gifted to her once it is dried and completed. Although her likeness wasn’t captured with surgical precision and he did not exactly master the lighting, upon gazing at her portrait, she is overwhelmed with complex emotions over this embodiment of devotion in the form of pigment meticulously spread out on a stretched canvas. This is the facet of art I long to be brought back.

MiC Columnist Zoe Zhang can be reached at zoezhang@umich.edu.