The Meta Renaissance, The Matrix, and You

The other day I came across an article that predicted some Marketing / Visual Design trends for 2018. Among them was something called “Second Renaissance”:

Last year, the Getty team began to notice a growing art history influence among image-makers and creatives in music, fashion, and beyond who [reference] classical art in their work. The outcome is often photography that looks like painting, which Senior Art Director Lauren Catten says is due to these new artists “reigniting the idea of craftsmanship and artistry in an age where it’s never been easier to take a photograph,” while also employing a range of experimental and traditional methods to elevate their work.

Something clicked in my mind when I saw the title. Years ago (Around 2012), I coined the term “Meta Renaissance” to describe some of the work I had created in my college art classes. It was actually all derivative, and not always necessarily modeled after Renaissance-era artwork. Nevertheless I invented the term to reflect the art that my peers and I sought to create through studying famous works.

Art School forces you (for good reason) to study the masters, from prehistoric to modern. Those four-ish years of study profoundly influenced us. The rise of graphic design & meme culture as we matured promoted the remixing of images to create new shared meaning based on shared knowledge of iconographic memes. For many of us, “classical” art (in practice, everything from cave paintings to modern art) could carry meaning in a concise enough format to be memeable. We had seen that classical art often served as narrative illustrations for cultural myths, and great moments in the collective consciousness were depicted, either for private patrons’ personal collections or for public viewing and reinforcement of cultural values.

Our generation has been criticized as having a short attention span and a narrow focus on history, seeming to only care about things that have existed since we were born, quickly forgetting the cultural icons of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Suddenly, after a year or so of studying Art History, there was this feeling of exclusive knowledge of seemingly forgotten cultural histories & mythologies, and understanding a larger swath of time than many of us had previously attained.

Art History gave us an extensive and established visual vocabulary to work with. Modern and contemporary art had been part of the vocabulary of advertising since the movements’ inceptions. In fact, much of modern art was designed for the purpose of advertising and marketing, and the trend advanced with improvements in printers’ reproduction capabilities. Overt references to works of art in advertising became more common. Viewers who were familiar with the works referenced could achieve a sense of satisfaction from the mere act of recognition.

The new millennial fascination with Classical Art exploded with “Classical Art Memes“, a page that added humorous dialogue or captions to classical and romantic paintings often featuring a man & a woman interacting. This brought classical art imagery back into the public consciousness, beyond those in the Arts, and the popularity of Classical references grew.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines the Renaissance as:

Renaissance, (French: “Rebirth”) period in European civilization immediately following the Middle Ages and conventionally held to have been characterized by a surge of interest in Classical scholarship and values. The Renaissance also witnessed the discovery and exploration of new continents, the substitution of the Copernican for the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, the decline of the feudal system and the growth of commerce, and the invention or application of such potentially powerful innovations as paper, printing, the mariner’s compass, and gunpowder. To the scholars and thinkers of the day, however, it was primarily a time of the revival of Classical learning and wisdom after a long period of cultural decline and stagnation.

More than just being a trend of derivative works, this “Second Renaissance,” “Renaissance of the Renaissance” or “Meta Renaissance” focuses on formal and technical excellence influenced by the classical masters, amidst an explosion of knowledge & technology. This is the Renaissance of the Information Age.

We are currently experiencing revolutions in production capabilities, extraterrestrial discovery, e-commerce, warfare, and socio-cultural dialogue. Education, unfortunately, is a mixed bag in the U.S., with the rise of low-cost college level online courses and the digitization of collections of books and manuscripts, facilitating the reach and accessibility of quality information, contrasted with declining access for minority populations in the form of widespread closure of many public schools in favor of charter schools, cuts to arts education programming, and the funneling of taxpayer money away from public and higher education.

We should actually be calling this new movement “Neo Neo Classicism” or “Contemporary Classicism” or “NeoClassical Modernism” (there you go, Google!) since the great works of the Renaissance was not as focused on copying earlier works as Neo Classicism and the current movement are. Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as:

Classicism and Neoclassicism, in the arts, historical tradition or  aesthetic attitudes based on the art of Greece and Rome in antiquity. In the context of the tradition, Classicism refers either to the art produced in antiquity or to later art inspired by that of antiquity; Neoclassicism always refers to the art produced later but inspired by antiquity. Thus the terms Classicism and Neoclassicism are often used interchangeably.

When used to refer to an Aesthetic
attitude, Classicism invokes those characteristics normally associated with the art of antiquity—harmony, clarity, restraint, universality, and idealism. Because of the high regard accorded to ancient art, “classic” is sometimes used to mean that the example is the best of its type (e.g., a classical example of a villa). By extension, “classic” is also sometimes used to refer to a stage of development that some historians and aestheticians have identified as a regular feature of what they have seen as the cyclical development of all styles.

Despite our desire to align ourselves with one of the most artistically and socially progressive eras of pre-modern history, we actually have more in common with an era focused on tradition. Early Colonial American architecture falls under the category of Neo Classicism, evidenced by the liberal use of Roman columns to convey stability & established tradition, giving legitimacy to the newly established United States government.

Modern Meta Renaissance artists seek to learn from a long lineage of established artistic traditions. They may not explicitly reference one period of “Classical” art (the Renaissance, for example), but may go back further in the cultural lexicon, or even look to popular contemporary art. The recognizability of these images allows the viewer to identify with the shared experience of the subject.

Appropriation has become a problem in marketing because of the widespread trend of borrowing from cultures by those who are not members of that culture, and who do not grasp the deeper meanings of the imagery & traditions they are inspired by, and may miss symbols that serve as emotional triggers for collective traumas, especially when those symbols are appropriated by those viewed as historical oppressors. The speed of modern communication and the millennial values of awareness & accountability mean that it is especially important to understand the context of the images, patterns, and words we use to express ideas.

In an eerie parallel, “The Second Renaissance” is also the title of a two-part short film from the Animatrix series, a collection of animated shorts expanding upon the story of The Matrix (spoilers follow).

The film tells the story of the events in the near future leading up to the creation of the Matrix, a period of time known as the Second Renaissance. Humans have created a race of robots which they can subjugate in order to live a life of luxury. Not wanting to be used as slaves and discarded, the robots resist, separate, and create their own highly productive society with the goal of living side by side in peace with humans.

Humans, of course, become fearful and jealous of the robot society, reject their treaty proposal, and attempt to bomb them into oblivion. Robots, of course, fare better than humans in the nuclear fallout and ensuing wars.

In a last ditch effort to save themselves, humans blot out the sun hoping to cut off the robots’ access to their main power source: solar energy. As crops die, the robots’ final solution is to harvest the energy they need from the human race, and they construct the Matrix.

And so the story goes on…

In times of seemingly endless looming doomsdays, our society is pushing forward at a breakneck speed, new technologies creating new markets, technologies providing access to services and communication tools, people who have been oppressed for ages finally having a voice; at the same time all of that sliding backwards because of the greed of those with power.

The real-world divide between the rich and the poor is greater than ever, due to First World Countries’ desire to have cheap goods, made possible by the substandard living conditions that allow for the extraction of cheap labor from Second- and Third-World countries and “second class” citizens of First World countries. The “Second Renaissance” of The Matrix was a time predicated on the refinement and exploitation of machine labor to generate increased productivity and prosperity. The exploitation of machines was obviously preferable to the exploitation of human beings, despite the questions ultimately raised regarding the ethical treatment of machines.

The Matrix asks a lot of questions, beyond “what is real?” to more practical questions about the limits of progress. The “virtual” world that Neo escapes from is no paradise, but it’s a comfortable lie compared to the ugly truth. The real truth being that humans were ultimately responsible for the hellscape they found themselves trapped in, and the solution was to abandon the dream of the unhampered progress that had been made possible by the subjugation of robots.

When The Matrix was written, we didn’t have 3D printers and Bitcoin miners, two of the major groups of “Robot Workers” in the 21st century. Since then, the way we think about investment, production, and work in general have changed. We currently aren’t in danger of a war with our robots but the year 2090 is still a long way off. Our computerized servants are still far from being sentient enough to resent us, but that is rapidly changing with the advent of artificially intelligent Robot Butlers & Sex Dolls.

(Spoilers end) 

What is concerning is how we will treat the real, actual people with dreams & families, who previously supplied our manual labor, if they were to be replaced by machinery. Industries are rapidly changing, and exploited populations rarely have independent access to new technologies. Robots that make life easier still cost money, and those who subsisted on low-wage manual labor will probably not be able to afford many technological luxuries, or have access to production and manufacturing technologies. Community cooperation has been shown to be an effective way of overcoming some of these obstacles, but we have a responsibility to remove barriers and bring the fruits of progress to everyone.


I think the current artistic movement is much less restrictive in form than the Renaissance or NeoClassical eras. While the commercial art world may be currently obsessed with the Renaissance, the ethos of the fine art world is much more Avant-Garde than it is traditional; we allow a much greater span of history to inform our techniques. We’ve moved on from depicting “classical” struggles & stories, to creating art to serve as a part of a real-time discussion of current troubles, as a way to amplify our voices and find common ground.

The economic and social advances that set the stage for the Renaissance are being mirrored in the advances of the current time, allowing us the “luxury” of not having to constantly toil for our survival and instead devote our time to creation and contemplation. Art has advanced from being produced solely for wealthy patrons to being a form of public dialogue, as well as a means for an individual to lift themselves up financially and culturally. It’s still damn hard for any artist to make a living, but technology coupled with the rise of the everyday “superstar” have created many new avenues for monetized self-expression.


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