Emoji summary: 🌎👅🖥
I’m a bad critic. I should confess a few things. When I look at art, I look at it quickly. It’s like I’m chugging a drink and the flavour barely brushes my tongue. I also don’t know anything about art history, and that’s only half a lie. I tried to read E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art when I was in Sixth Form and applying for Fine Art courses across the country, but it was just a big list and I didn’t have any faith in it. I rush through the permanent collections in museums. I haven’t read a blue plaque in my life, and yet I think about the future constantly; I’m just a weirdo running through time and galleries, too busy to look back, too fast to be pinned down.
Oh, and my final confession — which doesn’t make me a bad critic, it just might make me a bad person to some people in the art world ie. all of our readers — is that I think all online exhibitions are bad. Bad almost always, but when paintings or other traditional art are involved it’s bad by default. No spice, no magic; nowhere near the taste buds, not even in the mouth. I haven’t reviewed any online exhibitions before or during the pandemic because what I would write would be cruel. I know throwing things on the Internet is the only choice sometimes — politically, financially, access-wise, pandemic-wise — and I do believe that one day someone with an imagination will solve this curatorial dilemma. But until then, I’m going to keep my mouth shut and instead of writing about the specific online art-stuff that falls flat by my (impossible) standards (as somebody spoiled by video games), I’m going to bring your attention to what I think stays upright, even when it’s doing it by accident.
Bosch Bot. There is a Twitter bot that tweets a zoomed-in crop of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights every few hours or so. Made by an IT consultant called Nig Thomas, it’s been running for years. At the time of writing, it is 89.7K tweets into its continuous examination. I messaged to ask if it had repeated itself at all, and the maker told me that he doesn’t log the coordinates, but he thinks because there are 4 random numbers in play, it has a low likelihood.
If you’re not familiar, The Garden of Earthly Delights is a medieval triptych made somewhere between 1490 and 1510 by the Netherlandish master. The left panel shows Adam and Eve being brought together by God, who is painted looking directly at us. It presents the beginning of civilisation according to Christianity. That side is calm, a little tense given the fall that soon got these kids kicked out of the club, but spacious and bright in its dawn. In contrast, the middle panel is insane. Teaming with happy naked people on a sunny day, everybody is sinning to their heart’s content. It is overwhelming. A hedonistic Where’s Wally: the Gang Bang edition set in the Garden of Eden. It is as absurd as it is… hot? A gay man bends over with flowers coming out of his anus; a white man leans in to kiss a Black woman — who may or may not be pregnant — as they both ride on the back of a giant duck. Another couple have sex inside an empty mussel shell, pearls spilling out all around them. Everyone is drooling as they bite into huge pieces of fruit at the best pool party of all time. Through my modern eyes, it’s great. But the final panel on the right is a killjoy; switching to dark mode, violent and fiery, all of the sinners are pulled apart by demons and abstractions in a batshit depiction of Hell. It’s the conclusion in this lively story, and even the ending is cool.
The side panels are actually able to fold over the central one. Artists would make these triptychs to be placed on altars. The doors, when closed, complete two halves of an almost monochromatic world as it is being created by God. But of course, it is the busy scene behind the doors that is the reason for this painting’s fame. I love it. I think from my contemporary position, I cannot imagine the soft little people of the past ever imagining such debauchery, let alone painting it. But I’m not giving Christianity enough credit or these artists. I actually grew up as an altar girl and had a priest for a family friend; I can’t remember ever believing in any of it, but I remember reading about Hell and feeling scared for the people that did. Bosch grew up in a town packed with churches, he created works that were installed in these buildings, and he was part of a religious brotherhood. His lifestyle was very much dictated by moral authority as he heeded it from the Bible.
Because I am who I am, I want this artwork — the central panel at least — to be a crazed utopia. Inspiration for what to do this summer and every summer after. Buzzfeed’s 20 ideas for fun couple activities; Cosmo’s tips on ways to incorporate huge fruit, and other people, into your sex life. But because of this very real context, the piece can be read as a pretty straightforward piece of propaganda. It is determined by Bosch’s faith and the destiny he believed in for the people who veered outside of it. I think he would hit me over the head with a heavy book for thinking these things, but even the idea of that makes me laugh. He was living during the Renaissance when developments in art and science were speeding people away from the medieval age and into a modern one, which might have given him some good panic and inspiration for the hyperbole he has boiled into this painting. You know the recent memes that post pictures of something insane we do today alongside the caption ‘this would kill a small Victorian child,’ I think Bosch would die if he watched a single episode of Euphoria. Or maybe he’d love it. No, no, ignore me. He would probably think it was a fable.
With all its fine details, The Garden of Earthly Delights is a jigsaw of allegory that can be interpreted and guessed at by historians who are able to situate its meaning in religion and the wider culture of the time. But there is no single truth when it comes to reading the symbolism. The pearls spilling out of the mussel shell might allude to purity and therefore virginity. The cherries balancing on the head of a woman with long hair could indicate her vanity. The boar dressed as a Nun sniffing the ears of a scared man is meant to be a demon in disguise. The fish all over the garden in the central panel could refer to something being out of its natural habitat but might also be a nod the local metaphor of a phallus? Meaning is layered and vaguely lost to time, and yet it is still effective and entertaining and weird. It can be viewed in person at the Prado in Madrid, or if you have a better computer than mine you can download a reproduction of it from Wikipedia that is 30,000 pixels wide. If neither of those are possible, you can always follow Bosch Bot instead.
I know I said that I knew nothing about art history but the drip feed this Twitter account has given me over the years has nurtured a genuine interest in this one artwork. Look at it! I love the Mordor-looking spotlights over the silhouettes of burning buildings, and the Elden Ring-looking bird character eating a man while it wears a massive cauldron on its head. There is another man, huge, bending over inside the third panel. We can see people milling about in his chest because he is broken and hollow like ceramic. But then his arms have branches and they both disappear into boats on black water, so what is he? He doesn’t make any sense and he feels frightening because of his strange makeup. I think it’s cool that the first panel continues to be sweet, the second to be rambunctious and the third holds a curse that is alive to this day. Without the drip feed crop of the bot though, I wouldn’t feel as strongly about any of this. I love the song because I know the lyrics now, because somebody told me the words one by one.
Maybe I’m not a reader or a listener or a kinaesthetic learner, maybe my learning style is Twitter User instead. You know how it is on that app — you see an obscure subtweet and end up trawling through comments and quote tweets to figure out what is going on and who’s involved because you want in on the gossip. There is a funny parallel in the scandalous moments tweeted out from The Garden of Earthly Delights and the daily social media drama, a parallel that has led me to do the same kind of digging. But when I get to the end of a thread that is collating evidence of Tristan cheating on Khloe Kardashian again, I am full of knowledge that begins and ends there. Bosch Bot has baited me into consuming actual art history knowledge. It has tricked me into a greater enjoyment of the work. I am so mad! I love it!
I think of all the times I struggled to read a book in the library at art school because it was long and boring, and how I wish the book was made into an obscure jigsaw like this account has created in gamifying the triptych. Over time, I have been able to piece it together in my head, refer to the original — the answer — or see tweets remembering that the silver giraffe is centre-right of the left panel, next to the tiny kangaroo with floppy dog ears. Before I followed the bot, I knew I enjoyed The Garden of Earthly Delights but I couldn’t see these distinct elements. I could only see the forest, not the trees. It was all over the place and hard to grasp. It’s like the account is bringing us up close to every tree and branch, every leaf and animal that hides in its canopy. I can see an impasto scratch of colour, and the cracks that have split the paint over time; I can see a man hugging an owl that is even bigger than him, and a naked man crushed by a lute with lines of music painted over his backside.
It sounds silly because I should be able to see all of these things anyway on account of it being there in front of me to look at, but I think the bot helps me to see things in the painting that I wouldn’t be able to see on my own. It’s like a guide telling me which way to turn my binoculars; a bot as curatorial tool for audience engagement and attention. And beyond this, I think I just much prefer its online setting. Galleries aren’t the churches they think they are, and naturally, I spend more hours on the timeline instead. I like that the art is meeting me where I am instead of expecting me to come and bow down to it; I don’t need to slow down to look and look and look because the art is fast food, speeding up to meet me. The bot is quickly choosing new coordinates for the framing of the overall triptych and in doing so we are able to quote tweet and meme all of its ridiculous moments, as if it just one big doodle full of drolleries. It’s why Bosch Bot and the @WeirdMedeival account have such a kinship.
I love the irony. I love that the irony does and doesn’t honour the original painting. The Garden of Earthly Delights and all its medieval religious propaganda concerned with the effects of modernisation is continuously deconstructed by this bot, and then consumed by a modern crowd who gives it new meaning. It is accidentally funny, like using Andy Warhol’s work to advertise soup. Bosch was right. The modern age really is us just doing whatever we want. You have to laugh.
I love Bosch Bot for selfish reasons: it makes me feel less guilty about all the things I am doing bad in my job as a critic. I don’t spend long looking at paintings so it both slows things down for me and speeds them up. I know nothing about art history but I could stand in front of that painting IRL and confidently tell you things about it. And when it comes to online exhibitioning as a format, it presents one solution. I don’t think it is enough to put a picture on the Internet like you would a painting on a wall when the wall isn’t really there, so the painting can’t be either. Bosch Bot is presenting the painting, albeit with a blasphemous treatment, in a way that shows genuine familiarity with the spatiality of the Internet and its culture too. It is posting constantly, it is moving. It is posting in the slipstream and I am watching what it does from the splash zone.