Geek Out

What Is The New Aesthetic?

At this year’s SXSW Interactive, there was a panel titled The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices. It was about technology, and how it relates to art and design. Since SXSW, there have been many discussions, including a sprawling, 5000-word essay on Wired, about the New Aesthetic’s shortcomings, its potential and its significance.

So what is the New Aesthetic, exactly?

The New Aesthetic processes reality through the lens of technology…

The New Aesthetic is an artistic movement. It is sometimes described as physical versus virtual, or the tension between humans and machines. Its major visual emblems include pixelated images, Photoshop glitches, gradients, render ghosts, and, yes, animated GIFs. Data visualisation, like an elaborate Venn diagram, can fall under the New Aesthetic umbrella, as can graphic information, like a Google Maps screengrab. Strategically placing marks on a human face, so a machine can’t recognise it as a face, is an act of New Aestheticism. Another popular trend: photos of people taking photos.

…but the New Aesthetic is not entirely New…

Although the first mention of “The New Aesthetic” only arose a year ago, this movement has been building for the better part of the past decade under a variety of names — Glitch, post-internet, etc. Whatever you call it, the New Aesthetic is now gaining momentum as a singular thing because a group of British designers, led by James Bridle, have compiled a mountain of essays, blog posts and images on the matter. These attempt to unify many of the stray ideas informing the The New Aesthetic.

…and it’s not just big old pixels…

Although pixelation is one of the most immediate signifiers of the New Aesthetic, it’s not simply 8-bit art or pixel art. The pixelated aspect of the New Aesthetic refers to the ways machines see and understand the real world. So the original Mario is an inspiration, but so are QR codes and low-res filters on sophisticated cameras.

…in fact, it’s a lot of eras all at once…

The New Aesthetic is a response against nostalgia. The internet, ironically, has allowed us to create a cut and paste culture from the trends of previous generations. As a result, there are very few aspects of our culture which are truly ours. Many of the New Aesthetic’s advocates hope that this new movement can change that.

…and because of that, it’s been called flawed…

Some accuse the New Aesthetic of superficiality. It remixes too much from what already exists. It doesn’t comment on society as much as it just collects images from the here and now. Others say its ideas are all over the place. They don’t fit together in a coherent manner. And some believe it does not have enough cats.

…but the New Aesthetic is spreading.

Regardless of what you call it or define it as, or whether you feel it’s significant or not, the New Aesthetic isn’t going to disappear. It’s the primary vehicle for visual design today. Elements of the New Aesthetic can be found in writing, fashion, music and even apps. This isn’t the last you’ll hear of the New Aesthetic.