Let’s talk about the balloon guy. You know: that balloon guy from Instagram. His stuff gets shared a lot, here’s an example:
Yeah, that guy! And no, before you ask, I’m not going to spend this whole essay just dunking on him (although that’s something that Twitter really does enjoy doing)
No, I’m not going to spend hundreds of words dissecting how bad his art is — and it really is bad — my question is a little wider: why is it considered good? Why is this man and his balloons (though it’s more than just the balloons, and we’ll get into that) everywhere? Why is this art so beloved, and what does it say about those who love it? What is the balloon guy trying to be?
Part One: Throw everything at the wall to see what will stick
After 20 years working in retail management, I put my career on pause for a year to start a life doing only things that fulfill me creatively and artistically. I paint, direct, write, am an amateur interior designer, and have done theatrical set and production design. I’m not a blacksmith, but I’m okay at everything else. Well, people have told me that, but these people usually turn out to be liars.
Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge something very clearly: I don’t know Michael Schneider (Portland is small, but not that small). I don’t have any reason to think that he’s a bad person, morally flawed, or deserving of any sort of ridicule for the sake of ridicule. Here I’m speaking just on the parts of himself that he has made public, and considering them as both the work of a human being as well as content made for consumption.
And, reader, there is a lot of content. Schneider split from his former career in 2012, and in the subsequent ten years has been documenting his artistic process. His blog is still going, and is, I think, sort of revelatory as to who this guy is (or, at least, who he presents himself to be). The original purpose of the blog itself was to tell “the journey from having a steady (if mundane) job to kickstarting one’s creative life.” At first, he seemed to put a little more stress on the “life” side: the blog is almost cringingly personal, closer in tone to a LiveJournal feed than a document about artistic development. Schneider’s tone is consistent throughout: self-deprecating. He often calls himself a narcissist for posting selfies, or desperate for being on dating apps, or a loser for having a blog in the first place, or pathetic for being over the age of 40, or some combination of those.
According to this blog, his idea for making art via Instagram started early, but from what I can see on his current account, he started dabbling into the realm of overly-staged photos in early 2013: photoshoots in clown makeup, vomiting tin foil at the grocery store, looking bored at Disneyland. There’s a mood of silliness there, a simple “hey, look at this!” to the gestures and ideas. Wouldn’t it be something if clowns were in a coffee shop? Or if we didn’t smile in a photo with Mickey Mouse?
Through the first couple years, his work wasn’t remotely viral, and his Instagram feed was very 2013-era posts: friends, cats, selfies, all with over-tinted filters. It’s shockingly boring; the first photo of his that got over 300 likes (of the artist holding to a plunger to his head) wasn’t until November, 2014. The plunger would keep coming back in his imagery, as would some new motifs —sexual attraction to boxed wine, covering his body in random objects. He still linked back to his blog for most of his staged photos, having an update about dates he’d been on, projects he was working on; like Carrie Bradshaw as a gay man in his 40s in Portland, in love with his cat instead of Manolo Blahniks (which I cannot fault him for, I’m obsessed with my cat too).
His first bathtub photo appeared in 2015, as the years crawled on, he added more to his repertoire: smearing food on his face, mylar balloons, a puppet. More and more of the feed became staged photos, though none of them seemed to say much: perhaps a little humor or juxtaposition, a clever angle. Then, finally, in mid-2016, letters:
A couple weeks later there was another flower-letter photo: this one of Schneider laying facedown in the grass, the flowers reading “PLEASE DON’T FUCK MY EX.” Ten days later they spelled “ONCE A FUCKBOI ALWAYS A FUCKBOI.”
More posts with letters followed: flowers again, spelling “BLACK HOLE OF VALIDATION,” or Barbie dolls spelling “UGLY ON THE INSIDE.” He also posted a lot of photos of emphatically falling down and started the motif of being absolutely submerged in food. And if, by now, you’re wondering where the goddamn balloons are: so am I!
Around this time Schneider also premiered a web series called This Ends Badly, which is initially described as “follows the lives and romantic foibles of a group of four friends: Summer, Marge, Nick, and Mike. And oh yeah, the “Mike” character is played by a puppet.” The “Mike” character is, of course, Schneider himself. By the time the series premiered, he was the main character, and apparently the only one who experiences “romantic foibles:” a series of bad dates and regretful hookups that are meant to be seen as “horror stories,” though really they’re just… bad dates, hardly horrific, mostly dull.
What makes some bad art significant is that the creators are so cocksure, that they are the person to tell this great story. How often do we encounter such an unfiltered ego attached to the body of such a ruthlessly misguided set of abilities?
This Ends Badly is poorly made, and perhaps its creator knows it. It appears to be a labor of love, confident in its right to exist while being an odd combination of technical skill and mechanical laziness.
It’s also, thankfully, unpopular: the most-watched episode is the first, with a mere 7.4k views; this drops in half by the next episode. In fact, it seems that Schneider’s YouTube channel flies completely under the radar: though he has nearly half a million followers on Instagram, there are currently only 386 subscribers to his channel.
Still, he stuck with it, producing five episodes over the course of two years, ending in late 2019. In 2020 he started a new series, Social Distancing, which is, of course, about the pandemic, told this time with felted puppets in miniature. “How does it feel so ominous and hopeful… at the same time?” intones the new puppet Mike, repeating what was, by then, already a cliché of the year.
Then, in 2018, he finally had a viral moment.
The Boxed Wine Boyfriend was first reported on Buzzfeed, and then made the rounds to become truly viral. And then, in the midst of his fictional courtship with alcohol containers, they arrived:
Soon the hot takes started rolling in:
“STRAIGHT MEN UNDERSTAND CONSENT WHEN THEY GO TO A GAY BAR.” “REVERSE RACISM ISN’T REAL.” “#METOO IS ONLY DIFFICULT IF YOU’RE A MAN WITH SOMETHING TO HIDE.”
By February 2019, a wedding with the boxed wine man was staged, and the balloon photos were pulling in thousands of likes. He was still posting other photo subjects, but their likes paled in comparison — people knew what they wanted. They wanted balloons. Except, of course, the ones that didn’t.
Like anything that goes viral, Schneider was due for some backlash. The balloon photos were easy to call basic, simplistic, asinine; Schneider’s face looking too smug, as though he had come up with each phrase himself. Unfortunately, Schneider seemed to revel in this attention.
This wouldn’t be the first time he’d use that specific tweet as his own content: it also found its way into his merch store, in case you or someone you love would like a new phone case or t-shirt. There were others, too: getting a trophy for finding a “lower common denominator,” posting mean tweets in public on “take one” sheets. It’s truly baffling how much he seems to enjoy being despised, capping it off with one of his most ridiculous ballon posts: “JUST BECAUSE YOUR ART GOES VIRAL DOESN’T MEAN IT’S GOOD.”
You can probably take it from here: the balloon posts continue, as do the food photos and a few other word posts, using more flowers and some neon. Schneider becomes more and more popular through 2019 and 2020, amassing half a million followers. He got some legit criticism in August of 2020 for comparing having a crush to mental illness, thankfully not making shirts out of tweets calling him patronizing. His most recent storm was for a post of balloons saying FUCK NUDES, SEND ME A DATED INVOICE FROM YOUR THERAPIST SO I KNOW YOU’RE WORKING ON YOURSELF.”
Part Two: There’s a lot of narcissism in self-hatred
I noticed a shift when the balloons posts started to get popular — not just in the narrowing of Schneider’s artistic output, but in the narrative he was expressing. For the vast majority of his time online Schneider has portrayed himself as unlucky in love and in dating; whether in the “horror stories” he inflicted on his puppetsona in This Ends Badly or in the multiple images of laying in bed with food or in the Boxed Wine Boyfriend — a character that was created because he did not have a boyfriend. Schneider’s work would swivel between different filters on this perspective: awkward dates, unappreciative men, the frustrations of online dating. All of it had the same dull tone over it: I deserve to be dated. I deserve to find a husband. I’m not the problem, the scene is the problem. Despite all the self-deprecation, all the jabs about his art or blog or self being bad, there was always this sense of desperate, insecure entitlement.
Everyone deserves to be loved and appreciated, but that does not inherently translate to being in romantic relationships. Having a partner is not an accomplishment in the same way that, say, landing a great job or winning a contest is; yes, it’s important to form bonds and it can be deeply fulfilling to be with another person, but that is a person, and you are not entitled to them. I find that position so aggrandizing and self-involved, huffing at the world and going “where is my husband” and then being additionally huffy at every man who turns out to not be your husband, as though he made the error of not realizing that he was responsible for you crossing the bridge from pitiful loneliness to complete human.
I’m getting sidetracked, I know. I’m sure there’s a post in me somewhere about the entirety of my thoughts when it comes to dating, being single, expectations, etc. It’s not to say that wanting a relationship or marriage is inherently bad; just that it’s also necessary to recognize that you can only provide your best self in that realm, and even when you do, that does not require the universe to provide you with a perfect match.
Leading up to the balloons, this bitter perspective was strong:
This Ends Badly was still in production, he was still blogging about bad dates and his love-hate relationship with Scruff. When the balloons started, they were mostly political hot takes: “ABOLISH ICE,” reverse racism isn’t real, etc.
Then, in early 2019, he started to post more phrases about relationships — except now, it wasn’t about how annoying it was to have to date people. Now the narrative was: people are toxic. Don’t waste your time with them.
“IF PEOPLE WANTED YOU TO WRITE WARMLY ABOUT THEM THEY SHOULD HAVE BEHAVED BETTER.” “LEAVE PEOPLE BETTER THAN YOU FOUND THEM.” “STOP SHRINKING YOURSELF TO MAKE OTHER PEOPLE FEEL BIG.” “STOP LETTING SOMEONE LIVE IN YOUR HEAD RENT FREE.” “SELF CARE IS CHOOSING NOT TO ARGUE WITH PEOPLE COMMITTED TO MISUNDERSTANDING YOU.”
At first blush, this seems like such a better way of thinking: of course you shouldn’t change yourself for someone else. Recognize the damaging and toxic relationships you’ve had and, yes, stop romanticizing them. It’s a very “I was music but you had your ears cut off” perspective, one that is imbued with a lot more self-respect than previous desperate screeds about how sad it was to be single. It’s also extremely late-2010s self-help language. In the age of therapy adjacent buzzwords, Schneider finally struck while the iron was hot (that’s a blacksmith joke, I’m so sorry). Toxic people, valid feelings, self-care, “DON’T SETTLE FOR LESS JUST BECAUSE IT BECOMES AVAILABLE,” the idea of relationships that don’t “serve you,” radical honesty, tenderness — in 2016, these words were becoming clichés in marginalized communities on Tumblr and Twitter, meaning that they had just started to leak into the mainstream posts of straight white women of the Live, Laugh, Love set. That, combined with the colorful and whimsical aesthetic of balloons on a wall (not to mention that, at the time, those mylar letter balloons were everywhere) — how could you expect anything less than success?
It bears noting that, in some ways, the “be tender and drop toxic people from your life” mindset can easily live on the other side of the coin from “why don’t I have a boyfriend yet.” Both perspectives can absolve a person from accountability, to say “I do everything right, it’s them that’s the problem.” You aren’t a bad date, the scene is just annoying. You can’t be a toxic person, you practice honesty and self-respect.
This seems as good a time as any to point out that, in the “obligatory tag cloud” of Schneider’s website, two of the largest tags are “Boring self-pity” and “Exercises in narcissism.”
And, as David Foster Wallace once said, “There’s a lot of narcissism in self-hatred.”
It is remarkable how much Schneider is at the center of his art, whether in a bathtub full of Peeps or surrounded by balloon letters on a wall. He’s not unique in this; Instagram almost requires a good dose of narcissism to participate (and okay, here’s my Instagram, it’s almost entirely my poetry and pictures of myself, I’m not innocent). But it’s clear that Schneider’s personal brand always had a touch of narcissism to it, whether in obsessive self-deprecating or his insistence on being the topic of every story, every photo, every web series. The blessing of social media is that it allows each person to express themselves as personally as they want to; the curse is that, at the end of the day, most of us aren’t really interesting: whether through living out a bland life or in having a bland voice. That isn’t, by the way, a bad thing: it is good to be honest and it is okay to be boring. Not every person should feel that they need to be extraordinary in order to be valid. You do not have to be art.
But Schneider committed himself to living an “artistic life,” and for better or worse, this is what that looks like. Yes, other artists center themselves in their work, through memoir and self-portrait. The issue isn’t that Schneider is the central figure, but what he says in that space.
Part Three: Just because your art went viral doesn’t make it good
When you see a photograph of Schneider up to his neck in spaghetti and meatballs, captioned “me when my therapist says it’s okay to use food as self care,” what is your takeaway? Does it say something about consumption, the ethics of care, the politics of food? Does it light a spark in your brain, or do you just chuckle, or groan, or think “that’s gross” or “that’s such a waste” or “why are there sliced black olives in this pasta”? What do the food posts even do other than offer a defanged image of the absurd, like overpriced novelty wrapping paper?
We could spend hours debating what is and is not art, with any objections to Schneider’s self-indulgence being met with “Art is subjective! You don’t have to like it!”
This is the part of the essay where I say that I think it’s totally great if you like the balloon guy’s art, that I don’t judge, maybe it’s helped you along the way and that’s great. And yes, that’s true! I don’t mean to stomp all over your favorite artist just for the fun of it, or to say that, by liking this content, you lack any sort of artistic taste or refinement.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s good art.
Let’s look at the balloon pictures, which are far and away Schneider’s most popular pieces. At first glance, they fit easily into the world of Instagram infographics, like this one from Chani Nicholas:
I would argue that these posts aren’t exactly art, but more of a combination of design and philosophy; perhaps the written part can have a poetic element to it, perhaps the design is aesthetically pleasing. There’s an artistic lineage here, to be sure: Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer come to mind. But there’s also a milquetoast suburban lineage, too: the world of embroidered pillows, bumper stickers, black shirts with white text. For decades mediocre aesthetics have been defined by trite expressions and clever one-liners, whether etched into reclaimed wood or on a shirt at Spencer’s.
You could argue that there’s a world of difference between Schneider’s “DON’T HAVE SEX WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE STILL UNDECIDED. VOTE!” and, say, a shirt that says “Women love me, fish fear me.” But they serve a similar purpose: sharing an idea, a sense of humor, how the wearer or the artist sees themself. Schneider doesn’t have the profound rage of Kruger or Holzer’s work (though he did base a post on Kruger’s, replacing the portrait of a woman with himself, and the text “your body is a battleground” with “there are no original ideas,” which — do what you will with that), neither is he intent on pushing any particular envelopes; though his art is certainly political, in the liberal world of Portland it is remarkably tame, as shocking as a yard sign that says “In this house, Love is Love.”
The balloon photos aren’t art. I’m sorry. They’re clichés in three dimensions, tweets spelled out in balloons on a wall and photographed next to a man who seems to be very proud of himself for having taped those balloons to the wall. It is art in the same way that an advice TikTok is film.
Actually, if Schneider had started his artistic journey a few years later, he would almost certainly be on TikTok: pointing to the empty air around him, later filling it with text about toxic people, about voting, or whatever else will bring in likes.
Part Four: A lampshade over a balloon
In February, Schneider did an interview with Vice in order to, as the magazine put it, “explain himself.” It included this revealing exchange:
Lampshading is a technique that calls attention to something obvious and potentially damaging to a piece of work in order to deflect criticism. In this case, it’s Schneider calling his own work cringe in order to disarm anyone who might find it bad: he’s saying that he’s already ahead of you, that he knows it’s bad, haha, that’s actually the joke. It’s a lazy and obvious shielding technique, but nonetheless successful, and it’s been part of Schneider’s schtick from the beginning. Remember the self-degrading tone of his early work? Making merch out of mean tweets? Ironic posts about viral art not being good? All of this is Schneider’s attempt to have his cake and eat it too (especially in posts that literally use cake).
It’s clearly disingenuous, if for no other reason than the notion that he can somehow make art that is free from critique. And I don’t just mean “ugh, I hate this guy” critique, I mean actual critique, trying to figure out what he’s saying, what the purpose of the art is, where it fits into postmodernism and discourse, how it converses with the world around it. Criticism is not hatred; criticism is a way of understanding art, contextualizing it, and appreciating it. There is no need to create such a distance between your work and criticism, to draw a line in the sand and dismiss anyone across it as a hater — “people maybe just want a villain”, as Schneider himself says. Yes, there’s plenty of hate, it’s Twitter, we all revel in engaging in some “fuck this guy” discourse every now and then, to nobody’s benefit. But when that dust settles, it’s still worthy of critique, no matter how mean some people have been or how many times a post was shared with the caption “This!”
What amazes me is how willingly Schneider leans into the hate and aggression, how gleefully he’ll point to mean tweets or backlash and go “lol, guess I am pretty terrible!” It’s his self-deprecating persona made cartoonishly tall, almost to the point of becoming a beast of denial, though I’m sure that some would mislabel it as humility.
You could be reading this and dismissing my take as being excessively intellectual — especially after already labeling Schneider’s art as mediocre. I would argue, though, that engaging critically with the balloon guy and his oeuvre is necessary because, like it or not, this is art that is loved right now. This is culture. And it’s immensely revelatory, in that it shows the flaws in publicly obvious, statement-heavy but un-subversive art: these bad balloon photos are, in many ways, the inevitable conclusion to Banksy, to Rupi Kaur, to the entire western world of viral art. It is the apotheosis of clickbait, as digestible and offensive as a bathtub full of pasta. It deserves context and critique instead of bland admiration; if for no other reason than to bring fans of the balloon guy closer to the world of understanding art and thinking critically, to expand their horizons to different and better creators.
Part Five: The balloon writing on the wall
Despite not being my bag, I don’t have anything personally against the balloon guy. As I said before, I don’t know him, and haven’t heard anything through the Portland grapevine that points to him being secretly terrible. I can even give him credit where it’s due: the early parts of his journey, from leaving his steady job to pursue art when already pushing 40 to the vulnerability shown in his blog, are commendable. I don’t think I have that amount of courage — even if Schneider is plenty narcissistic, it takes gumption to be vulnerable.
I’ve also been going through this art for a few days now, and I have to say — I kind of like the Boxed Wine Boyfriend! As a concept it’s funny, Schneider is good at staging Getty image-style photographs, and it speaks to a more vulnerable part of his career, where he was more inclined to speak about his romantic life, his breakups, his heart. Sure, it was overdone and eventually got irritating, but as a concept, and for a few images, I think it was pretty good!
That said, I haven’t spoken yet about some of the more problematic parts of Schneider’s work. He’s posted poor jokes about addiction and recovery. There are blog posts that include a lot of ableist and problematic language (because those posts contain potentially harmful material, I won’t link them here). He’s had several controversies of misappropriating quotes or speaking over more marginalized voices than his own. In today’s climate, a cisgender white man centering himself in the realm of self care or political discourse can be, at the very least, suspect. He has gotten better: incorporating more people of color, women, disabled people, and fat people into his work. He properly attributes quotes now, and seems to be more conscious of what he’s doing; in the Vice article he even admits that he’s hired an assistant to research whatever phrase he’ll be putting on the wall. I also don’t want to seem to be making the point that these messages are necessarily bad, just incomplete. Self-care is important, but so is self-reflection and community service. Cut out the toxic people in your life, but do so with a mirror firmly in one hand. Get their therapy receipts, sure, but be ready to show them yours.
Back in college, I read E.E. Cummings’s novel The Enormous Room. In the early edition that I found in my university’s library, he had included an interview with himself, a sort of socratic posturing in order to explain his thoughts on poetry, creativity, et cetera. I had to, of course, return that copy of the book, but one part always stuck out to me:
Q: What do you think those that aren’t artists become?
A: I believe nothing happens to them, I believe negation becomes of them.
I don’t think there is anything incorrect in assuming that, at the very core of his work, Michael Schneider yearns to be liked — to tell the joke that gets the most laughs, to make the post that gets the most likes, that changes the most lives. I understand that drive personally: after all, we’re both Sagittarians. Our own charms cannot exist in a vacuum.
To create art is to know existential dread where nothing becomes of you. As much as I might shrug at Schneider’s work, I can still feel that dread emanating from each post. Why else would he leap away from his day job into an artistic life? Why else would he spend a decade creating, attempting, failing, plotting? Why else sacrifice his own privacy, insecurities, self-esteem, if not for the chance at that one singular high that art can create: something happens to him. Something becomes of him. He has made something.
If only there was more to it than that.