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Gen Z and classical artwork: an unlikely pair?

My name is Erin, I volunteer at the D31 gallery, and as a student I’m interested in young people’s reactions to art, and what is popular among them, specifically with Generation Z.

Art to rebel or make commentary on society is very commonplace, and often youth culture contributes greatly to that commentary and to new, inventive styles of expressing it, so how did Fallen Angel by French Academic painter Alexandre Cabanel become the favorite artwork of Gen Z when it was painted in 1847?

Social Media is a driving force in popularizing anything, and the app Pinterest has become an easy way to share art, and from here, the image of the Fallen Angel was shared onto TikTok. It quickly became a trend to recreate the image – specifically the face of Lucifer in the painting – and it puzzled many due to its age, but TikTok and other social media platforms, notably Tumblr, has seen and held the rise of new “Aesthetics” which encourage young people to dive into interests they otherwise would not have, and are not often expected to. Aesthetics in terms of how the word is used today describe a set of ideals for something’s style based on how it feels, for example walking through the woods at night with a torch while wearing a plaid shirt could be described as “Cryptidcore”, baking bread is “Cottagecore”, it can be as specific or open as anyone decides to apply it.

The Dark Academia aesthetic is what saw the rising popularity of this painting. This aesthetic is characterized in the abstract ideas of boarding schools, tweed suits, black coffee or expensive teas and wines, reading banned books and, in the extreme, the dark aspect comes from even the possibility of mysterious death in this romanticized retelling of everyday life – inspired by books such as The Dead Poets Society, The Gold Finch, and even Harry Potter. Gen Z clings to these aesthetic ideals as a way to romanticize their own lives and make something out of nothing to feel passionate about, as there is increasing frustration with capitalism, consumerism, and fear of the regular 9 to 5, many young people want a form of escapism and this presents that opportunity in a practical way – simply apply yourself to new media, change the way you dress, and your mindset, (unless you already have all the fitting criteria, in which case it’s a lifestyle more than an aesthetic), all personal changes that don’t require outside change, as capitalism is seen as an immovable object met with a very angry but very tired force. The reason this is so relevant is because of Dark Academia’s love of old, timeless things, notably art.

Cabanel’s portrayal of Lucifer is intense, half his face is hidden, like he is guarding himself from an opposing force, but his pose being on the ground shows vulnerability, it is a fight against a much more powerful force. This pose also draws attention to the eyes, which is the section of the painting that was most popularized. It displays intense emotion, a mix of rage and frustration, and with a tear in his eye, sadness over loosing his place in heaven. Its unclear how Cabanel intended this art to be taken outside of the biblical context, but Gen Z identified with that vengeful, painful look in the angel’s eye, also feeling they are fighting against a force larger than them, and yet being defenseless to it, and grieving for an alternate life they could have had (dark academia, particularly) all the while feeling they are demonized for their feelings.

Something could be said for the religious commentary too, and how secularization, as well as alternate forms of spirituality are rapidly growing, but certainly not every participant in the trend followed that train of thought. Either way, this painting clearly struck a chord with the young generation and has led to a new love for the classics within it, encouraging young people to investigate art themselves and explore their identity, although ever changing maybe, through that channel.

To think critically about art, or to just enjoy it, art galleries provide everything you need. While Fallen Angel may be in Musée Fabre in France, the D31 gallery has art for all tastes and aesthetics too, so you are bound to find another artwork that might inspire you. To get in touch, all contact details are on the website.

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