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.


    In an effort to keep this manageable [lump me into one of your keeerazzzy glitch/net.art/web-point-
    infinity/relational & new aesthetically-defined "artistic" categories if you will] here’s some [non-random + IMO relevant but not necessarily cohesive] points:

    1. I’ve only skimmed the "New Aesthetic" Bruce Sterling essays [all three of them] and don’t have an in-depth overview of the term “New Aesthetic” [henceforth now to be known as "Phrase That Will Not Be Named" in an effort to reduce the ridiculous amount of verification we are bubble-developing around it]. So there.

    2. My flickering attention-focus [hullo, continuous partial attn syndrome] has honed in on this particular attempt at avant-garde labelling because of how it perpetuates the tradition of “name the new art phase in order to perform/get x” [whether x = ego aggrandisement/monetary wealth/extend an individuals prosperity>cred value]. To employ a relevant phrase: it just smells wrong. And by smelling wrong I’m in no way referring to Bridle or his content [I have been rss_internalising his tumblr for some time now = it rawks: though I had no idea of his name until this whole labelling blerghness blew up] or any other glitch-luvin’ practitioners or creative types. After all, I’m one of them.

    3. My seeming lack of attention to research regarding the “Phrase That Will Not Be Named”, or lack of “deep (articulated) thought” regarding the issue isn’t indicative of a negative outlook on “the glitch”. Nor is it due to lack of engagement with the actual material/pulsing creative output that’s [possibly, hopefully] superseding many flattened contemporary “art scenes” [read: institutions as opposed to practices]. My lack of focused attention is due to the fact that *i’m_actually_living_the_aesthetic_in_question* + have been for years [New? bah!]. The life of a “Phrase That Will Not Be Named” advocate *requires* continuous partial attention: it *requires* a profound adherence to deriving substantiated [yet seemingly ephemeral] meaning from “the now” [ie connective novelty formation, expressive + anonymous appropriation devoid of ego/exclusive monetisation, the continuous fact of networked/communication immediacy/recursion, a burgeoning maker/hacktivist practice-aesthetic, the growing irrelevancy of standardised content/institutionalised values + associated comprehension loadings]. Dragging an antiquated, faux-trendoid label and slapping it over set of practices that have been in operation for as long as directed digital communication/tech platforms have coalesced = bad whiff, not to mention downright offensive. It’s the problem of seeking to stuff uncategorised, non-art-defined forms into format [+ vice versa], of assigning crusty paradigms/terms to output [like Bridle + his tumblr] that’s being subsumed into a discourse designed to pinpoint/catalogue/perpetuate. Drawing a [restrictive labelling] box around a set of expression[s] that exist as working practices seems like inverse encouragement: this disappointing need to contextualise>label>scene-create>institutionalise>monetise = sad[panda making. Google "sad panda" if you don't get the reference].

    4. Content curation isn’t art. The urge to perform it may be similar to what drives artists to produce: in many cases, content curation is a ceaseless search for connection through firehosed content streams/”novelty” verification that may just ellipse the need for art/culture classifications. Is it possible to conceptualise a world where the need to frame practice/process/product through cultural or artistic filters is largely obsolete? [reddit.com + 4chan.org + 9gag.com + tumblr.com = giving it a decent go.]

    5. Appropriating + remixing graphic markers/standards from marginalised or “other-fied” disciplines/decades does not a new genre/paradigm make, especially when begging to be [or deliberately engineered to be] monetised by a system and/or individuals determined to emergent-capture [yes, this includes institutionally sanctioned galleries + alternative galleries + oldschool curators + newskool aggregators + conference-merry-go-rounders + theorists + panels + karma-seeking discourse boffins]. Codify, hipsterise + aggrandise at your leisure, but be prepared for watered-down, digestible, bastardised versions of worthwhile social + expressive currencies.

    6. And so it goes.

    7. This too will pass.

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