An Essay on the New Aesthetic by Bruce Sterling (2012)
*Wearing the art critic hat. First posted in my Wired blog “Beyond the Beyond.”
An Essay on the New Aesthetic
by Bruce Sterling 04.02.12
I witnessed the New Aesthetic panel at South by Southwest 2012. It was a significant event and a good thing to see.
If you know nothing of the “New Aesthetic,” or if you have no idea what “SXSW” is, you should repair your ignorance right away. Go peruse this:
Now, I know full well that many people never returned from that link I placed up there. There was plenty going on over there to beguile them quite a while. I’m glad that they’re gone, because I intended, all along, to write a long, much-pondered essay for the rest of you. You, the people who marinate themselves in 5,000-word critical exegeses about contemporary aesthetics.
You people are either exceedingly determined blog-readers, or else you already know something about the New Aesthetic. Likely you’re as fretful about it as I am. Likely, you were part of that small elite physically there in that SXSW2012 audience, and hoping that you didn’t have to write this #sxaesthetic essay yourself.
You people already know who you are. So do I. Let’s cozy on up in here and get this over with.
Joanne McNeil of Rhizome was right when she said at SXSW that things like the New Aesthetic often happen. They do indeed happen, but we don’t see them around much, nowadays. The New Aesthetic is one thing among a kind: it’s like early photography for French Impressionists, or like silent film for Russian Constructivists, or like abstract-dynamics for Italian Futurists.
The New Aesthetic is image-processing for British media designers. That’s more or less what it is, and although it belongs to a small group of creatives right now, we have every reason to take it, and its prospects, seriously.
This is one of those moments when the art world sidles over toward a visual technology and tries to get all metaphysical. This is the attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality. These things occur. They often take a while to blossom. Sometimes they’re as big and loud as Cubism, sometimes they perish like desert roses mostly unseen. But they always happen for good and sufficient reasons. Our own day has those good and sufficient reasons.
The New Aesthetic concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.” That eruption was inevitable. It’s been going on for a generation. It should be much better acculturated than it is. There are ways to make that stark, lava-covered ground artistically fertile and productive. Lush, humanistic, exotic crops will grow from that smoking, ashy techno-rubble of ours, someday. I live to think so. I’m all for that prospect. It’s exhilarating to see such things attempted, especially in a small auditorium before the straights catch on.
What’s more, I rather like the trend-line there. I’ve seen some attempts along this line before, but this one has muscle. The New Aesthetic is moving out of its original discovery phase, and into a evangelical, podium-pounding phase. If a pioneer village of visionary creatives is founded, and they start exporting some startling, newfangled imagery, like a Marcel Duchamp-style explosion-in-a-shingle-factory… Well, we’ll once again be living in heroic times!
I admired the way that panel behaved. Everyone participating in it (for the record, that was James Bridle, Joanne McNeil, Ben Terrett, Aaron Straup Cope, and Russell Davies) had a clear idea of what the concept meant and why it mattered to them. They were fully-briefed and they sounded plausible.
James Bridle is the master of that salon. James Bridle has never yet claimed to be the Andre Breton-style Pope of the New Aesthetic, but in practice, nobody ever asks the central questions of anybody else but him. So, Bridle’s the guru there. Fine. To be an art-guru is never an elective office. I was glad to see a volunteer for this public labor. He chaired the panel and he did a good job of it. That role suited his extensive talents. He should do more of that.
He has company. The New Aesthetic has the “scenius” of London’s Silicon Roundabout to support it. These people are working creatives of Bridle’s generation, with their networked tentacles sunk deep in interaction design, literature, fashion and architecture. They do have some strange ideas, but they can’t all be crazy. They are focussed and energetic, and some of them are getting famous fast. With the New Aesthetic, they’re coming up with something that looks more or less like a weltanschauung.
Not being British, I always like to spare the blushes of the British. I don’t believe that the New Aesthetic crowd, who are Britishly reticent and decent and all that, much wants to be branded as a significant avant-garde group. It must pain them to be praised for being important to us foreigners. Still, it makes some sense.
Where else would something like this emerge nowadays, if not London? London’s not so perky and dopey as it was in the miniskirted days of Mary Quant, but it’s still London. There are even technical aspects of London — like the relentless machine surveillance — that no other region can match.
If you wanted a creative movement whose logo is a Predator supported by glossy, multicolored toy balloons, London would be its natural launchpad.
Having established this, I must now try something more difficult. I must try to explain the New Aesthetic to a wondering mankind. Everybody who attempts this seems to hope and feel that the New Aesthetic must be a private solution to their own personal creative problems. Well, I myself don’t believe that. As a creative who mostly types a lot of words in a row, I have some other personal creative problems. I do think the New Aesthetic offers solutions to some of London’s modern problems. That would be a big deal in itself.
The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture. It’s from London, but it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”
The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.
There are some good aspects to this modern situation, and there are some not so good ones.
Art movements used to be Left Bank café tables where disaffected creatives quarreled about headlines in newspapers. “Theory objects” from the Internet are squamous, crabgrass-like entities, where people huddle around swollen, unstable databases. We know more or less how analog art movements once behaved. We don’t yet know much at all about collectively-intelligent theory-object “shareable concepts,” whether they’re worth anything or can deliver anything. Maybe they will brilliantly synergize. Maybe they will ignobly crash. Maybe they’ll have the mayfly lifespans of their hardware support. Maybe they will become things even harder to describe than they are now.
First, some “good” aspects of the New Aesthetic.
Above all, the New Aesthetic is telling the truth. There truly are many forms of imagery nowadays that are modern, and unique to this period. We’re surrounded by systems, devices and machineries generating heaps of raw graphic novelty. We built them, we programmed them, we set them loose for a variety of motives, but they do some unexpected and provocative things.
Bridle’s collection of this material is huge. The evidence is impossible to refute. Anybody with a spark of perception who looks through this thing:
must recognize that modern reality is on display there. What we think about that, or do about that, is another matter. That it exists is not in question.
Look at those images objectively. Scarcely one of the real things in there would have made any sense to anyone in 1982, or even in 1992. People of those times would not have known what they were seeing with those New Aesthetic images. It’s the news, and it’s the truth.
Next, the New Aesthetic is culturally agnostic. Most anybody with a net connection ought to be able to see the New Aesthetic transpiring in real time. It is British in origin (more specifically, it’s part and parcel of a region of London seething with creative atelier “tech houses”). However, it exists wherever there is satellite surveillance, locative mapping, smartphone photos, wifi coverage and Photoshop.
The New Aesthetic is comprehensible. It’s easier to perceive than, for instance, the “surrealism” of a fur-covered teacup. Your Mom could get it. It’s funny. It’s pop. It’s transgressive and punk. Parts of it are cute.
It’s also deep. If you want to get into arcane matters such as interaction design, computational aesthetics, covert surveillance, military tech, there’s a lot of room for that activity in the New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic carries a severe, involved air of Pynchonian erudition.
It’s contemporary. It’s temporal rather than atemporal. Atemporality is all about cerebral, postulated, time-refuting design-fictions. Atemporality is for Zenlike gray-eminence historian-futurist types. The New Aesthetic is very hands-on, immediate, grainy and evidence-based. Its core is a catalogue of visible glitches in the here-and-now, for the here and for the now.
It requires close attention. If you want to engage with the New Aesthetic, then you must become involved with some contemporary, fast-moving technical phenomena. The New Aesthetic is inherently modish because it is ferociously attached to modish, passing objects and services that have short shelf-lives. There is no steampunk New Aesthetic and no remote-future New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic has no hyphen-post, hyphen-neo or hyphen-retro. They don’t go there, because that’s not what they want.
The New Aesthetic is constructive. Most New Aesthetic icons carry a subtext about getting excited and making something similar. The New Aesthetic doesn’t look, act, or feel postmodern. It’s not deconstructively analytical of a bourgeois order that’s been dead quite a while now. It’s built by and for working creatives.
It is generational. Most of the people in its network are too young to have been involved in postmodernity. The twentieth century’s Modernist Project is like their Greco-Roman antiquity. They want something of their own to happen, to be built, and to be seen on their networks. If that has little or nothing to do with their dusty analog heritage, so much the better for them.
So. These seem to me to be fine things. They’re not my own things, but I can see why they make good sense. They show promise. They have depth and breadth. They matter. They will have lasting consequence.
It’ll take a while for the New Aesthetic to go somewhere important, if it goes anywhere at all, but that’s all right. This decade of the teens already has a set character, it is crisis doomer gothic favela atemporal. The New Aesthetic isn’t like that, and doesn’t belong to that. It is a fresh and different thing. It’s an avant-garde, and it commonly takes years for society to recuperate an avant-garde. In 2012, premonitory blogposts; in 2022, solo shows and coffee-table books.
So we may anticipate. Now for some of the more troublesome aspects.
First, the New Aesthetic is a gaudy, network-assembled heap. It’s made of digitized jackstraws that were swept up by a generational sensibility. The products of a “collective intelligence” rarely make much coherent sense.
It was grand work to find and assemble this New Aesthetic wunderkammer, but a heap of eye-catching curiosities don’t constitute a compelling worldview. Look at all of them: Information visualization. Satellite views. Parametric architecture. Surveillance cameras. Digital image processing. Data-mashed video frames. Glitches and corruption artifacts. Voxelated 3D pixels in real-world geometries. Dazzle camou. Augments. Render ghosts. And, last and least, nostalgic retro 8bit graphics from the 1980s.
These are the forms of imagery that Bridle’s collaborators have thrown over his transom. There’s lots, they’re all cool, and most are rather interesting, and some are even profound, but they don’t march together.
Those cats just don’t herd yet; that puzzle is still in its pieces. One can try to cluster them, in a vague ecumenical way, by saying, “This is how contemporary reality looks to our pals, the visionary machines.” But that’s not convincing. I recognize that this is an effective, poetic formulation, and I’m touched by that, but it’s problematic. When you abandon the feel-good aspect of collectively discovering new stuff together, and start getting rigorous and picky about what you’re actually perceiving, the New Aesthetic Easter eggs rather overflow their wicker basket.
Let’s critically nitpick a little, shall we? Dazzle camouflage has nothing to do with “machine vision.” Machines are incapable of a state of mind like “dazzle.” Camou is all about human vision.
Glitches and corruption artifacts aren’t “machine vision,” either. Those are the failures of machine processing, and failures of machine displays built for human vision.
Satellite views are not new, but as old as the Space Age. Locativity is rather new, but aerial views were championed by Marinetti as “aero-futurism” way back in the 1930s. Aero-Futurism failed quickly, because aerial pictures are visually boring. If aerial views weren’t boring, we’d all stare in fixed awe from the portholes of our big boring jetliners, and even New Aesthetic guys can’t bring themselves to do that.
“Render ghosts” are not “ghostly.” They are unlikely to provoke any Gothic shivers in anybody who’s ever seen clip-art.
Finally, retro ’80s graphics are sentimental fluff for modern adults who grew up in front of 1980s game-console machines. Eight-bit graphics are pretty easy to carve out of styrofoam. There’s a low barrier-to-entry in making sculpture from 8-bit, so that you can “rupture the interface between the digital and the physical.” However 8-bit sculptures are a cute, backward-looking rupture.
So, these are some critic-style aesthetic problems, although it’s old-fashioned to talk that way about an archive assembled from the Internet. Beefing about a Tumblr full of cool pix is like complaining that a logjam isn’t as neatly assembled as a dam.
However, dams accomplish purposes that logjams can’t accomplish. Because dams have purpose. Crowdsourced heaps of eye-candy are inherently low on purpose. Nobody ever writes art-history about big committees.
The problem I’m describing here is rather like the famous Walter Benjamin problem of “art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” As we all know nowadays, when those machines showed up, that aura went missing, somehow.
James Bridle obviously gets this, or he wouldn’t write manifestos about remaking electronic books so that they have some more Walter Benjamin aura. But Bridle is facing a new but related problem, which is native to our own time. It assails critics like Walter Benjamin, rather than Walter Benjamin’s hapless artists.
James Bridle is a Walter Benjamin critic in an “age of digital accumulation”. Bridle carries out a valiant cut-and-paste campaign that looks sorta like traditional criticism, but is actually blogging and tumblring. His New Aesthetic Tumblr bears the resemblance to thoughtful critique that mass production once did to handmade artifacts.
Now, this isn’t some personal James Bridle failing. Mr Bridle didn’t invent social media, any more than the industrial automation of atelier artwork was somehow the fault of Herr Walter Benjamin.
However, this is a pressing New Aesthetic problem, maybe the core problem at the root there. The bandwidth is available, the images are there, and the robots and digital devices get plenty of look-in. Where did the people go? Where is the aura, where is the credibility? Are robots with cameras supposed to have our credibility for us? They don’t.
We’re not going to be able to gloss over this gaping vacuity by “making the machines our friends.” Because they’re not our friends. Machines are never our friends, even if they’re intimates in our purses and pockets eighteen hours a day. They may very well be our algorithmic investors, but they’re certainly not our art critics, because at that, they suck even worse than they do at running our economy.
If machine vision was our pal, then we wouldn’t need James Bridle to assert that for us. We’d have a Bridlebot, a Googleized visual search-engine that could generate as much aesthetics as we want.
That won’t happen. Why not? Because it is impossible. It’s as impossible as Artificial Intelligence, which is a failed twentieth-century research campaign, reduced to a sci-fi conceit. That’s why the “New Aesthetic” isn’t about “robot vision” from “digital devices,” even when it claims that, as a rhetorical gesture to grant itself some aura.
The New Aesthetic isn’t a chromed android glistening with scifi robot-vision aura. The New Aesthetic is a rather old, and hearteningly traditional, story about a regional, generational cluster of creative people who are perceiving important stuff that other, older, and dumber people don’t get quite yet. It’s a typical avant-garde art movement that has arisen within a modern network society. That’s what is going on.
We’re all supposed to think that an avant garde is impossible within postmodernity, so we don’t talk about it much nowadays; the very term “avant-garde” sounds musty and weird now, very old-fashioned future. However, time passes, and such things happen anyhow, because generations change and technologies change. Changes in personnel and the means of production will trump the formulations of an aging philosophy. These avant-gardes pretty much must happen, and there isn’t any honest way to fob this problem off onto some romanticized vision-bots. The bots are just not going to carry that water-bucket. There’s an Uncanny Valley there.
Anybody with Instructables can make a working robot nowadays. Nobody builds Turing-Tested machines that hang out in a really-interesting London atelier and talk and act like Alan Turing, only much artier. If you don’t believe me, try that. Build it, do it. Smarter, better-funded people than you have failed at that for sixty years. It’s a lure and a snare.
Sure, there are ruptures and crossovers there: bots, infomorphs, algorithms, autonomous Yankee illegal killer aircraft, and so forth — but aesthetics is not a place where they can thrive. They can’t do that any more than a drone can lay eggs.
James Bridle has said many times that he thinks that “New Aesthetic” is a problematic coinage, that it’s “rubbish.” However, rubbish is what appears when one is trying to hide out in the tall weeds instead of manfully sweeping the floors. The true problem with the New Aesthetic is that it truly is a new aesthetic. It has to become one, even if it doesn’t much want to be one.
“Aesthetics” are more that whatever gets splashed onto Cafe Press T-shirts this season. Aesthetics are by their nature metaphysical.
Aesthetics are, by definition, how beauty is perceived and valued in a human sensorium. Aesthetics is therefore an issue of metaphysics. Perception, beauty, judgment and value are all metaphysical issues.
Our human, aesthetic reaction to the imagery generated by our machines is our own human problem. We are the responsible parties there. We can program robots and digital devices to generate images and spew images at our eyeballs. We can’t legitimately ask them to tell us how to react to that.
I hasten to assure you that I’m not making lame vitalist claims that our human reactions are mystical, divine, immaterial, timeless or absolute in truth. I am merely stating, as a stark and demonstrable fact, that our machines have no such reactions. To rely on them to do that for us is fraudulent.
Hiding that aesthetic problem under a machinic fairy-tale is like hiding the political problems of the Internet by stating that it’s a Noosphere. That can be done. It’s undoubtably a cool thing to say: Teilhard de Chardin said that, and John Perry Barlow said it. A theologian, a poet and songwriter, cool guys, I love those guys, lots of them around. Critically speaking, that is rubbish. The New Aesthetic is gooey all over with noosphere sauce. It can’t go where it needs to go, unless it climbs out of that old rubbish patch. Over it, around it, through it, whatever it may take.
The New Aesthetic is a genuine aesthetic movement with a weak aesthetic metaphysics. It’s sticky with bogus lyricism.
I will hammer that iron nail a bit more, in case you aren’t getting it yet. Because this is the older generation’s crippling hangup with their alleged “thinking machines.” When computers first shoved their way into analog reality, they came surrounded by a host of poetic metaphors. Cybernetic devices were clearly much more than mere motors and engines, so they were anthropomorphized and described as having “thought,” “memory,” and nowadays “sight” and “hearing.” Those metaphors are deceptive. These are the mental chains of the old aesthetic, these are the iron bars of oppression we cannot see.
Modern creatives who want to work in good faith will have to fully disengage from the older generation’s mythos of phantoms, and masterfully grasp the genuine nature of their own creative tools and platforms. Otherwise, they will lack comprehension and command of what they are doing and creating, and they will remain reduced to the freak-show position of most twentieth century tech art. That’s what is at stake.
Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics. They just don’t have any. Tossing in more software and interactivity, so that they’re even jumpier and more apparently lively, that doesn’t help.
It’s not their fault. They are not moral actors and they are incapable of faults. It’s our fault for pretending otherwise, for fooling ourselves, for projecting our own qualities onto phenomena that we built, that are very interesting to us, but not at all like us. We can’t give them those qualities of ours, no matter how hard we try.
Pretending otherwise is like making Super Mario the best man at your wedding. No matter how much time you spend with dear old Super Mario, he is going to disappoint in that role you chose for him. You need to let Super Mario be super in the ways that Mario is actually more-or-less super. Those are plentiful. And getting more so. These are the parts that require attention, while the AI mythos must be let go.
The New Aesthetic dusts off the Turing Test in a new Super Mario robot-vision guise, but it can’t get away with that attention-compelling metaphysical maneuver. That’s why it does smell of rubbish, and why the things it assembles look like a dustheap, instead of a coherent creative program to transform the way people perceive their reality.
The New Aesthetic can’t even get away with the seemingly mild error of claiming they’re “metaphorically” the same– that a “render ghost”, for instance, is metaphorically about being a sensitive creative among the hordes in East London who suddenly realizes how many cameras the cops have. No. The British cops have boatloads of surveillance cams, heaps of ’em. Better cams all the time. That cop network isn’t going to magically become an art connoisseur. The aesthetics of surveillance cams are not value-free. Because aesthetics are not value-free.
So the New Aesthetic is really a design-fiction, it’s a postulated creative position. By metaphorically pretending that machines are our friends, we can see what they ‘see,’ and think what they ‘think’… We do get a payoff for that effort. We achieve creative results that we would not have gotten without that robot disguise.
I don’t dismiss this approach. That can work, more or less. Mark Pauline, for one, used to get tremendous effects by moodily staring at his performance robots, and trying to “do what they really want to do.” The robots didn’t really want to do what Mark darkly imagined they did, but Mark Pauline was, and is, a strong and widely influential artist.
But that’s merely a tactic — it’s a hoax, a put-on. I write fiction, so I have no inherent problem with pretending things, but an insincere aesthetics is bad for you. This insincerity is all the difference between a beautiful portrait of your spouse, and a beautiful portrait of your spouse repurposed as a deodorant ad. Same pixels on display, so why aren’t they both just as pretty?
If aesthetics could be hacked like code, then a beautiful rose, in the beak of a beautiful flamingo, flying in a beautiful sunset, would be 3X-beautiful. It isn’t. It never will be. You can’t make it be. That’s not the way the world works.
A sincere New Aesthetic would be a valiant, comprehensive effort to truly and sincerely engage with machine-generated imagery — not as a freak-show, a metaphor or a stimulus to the imagination — but *as it exists.* The real deal, down to the scraped-metal chip surface, if necessary.
Artists have used mechanical means of perception for a long time now. One doesn’t have to apologize for this nowadays, in the way Baudelaire used to wring his hands over daguerreotype cameras. That fight’s over. Everybody’s got hardware. People who can’t read have hardware. Every ivory tower we possess is saturated with hardware.
One doesn’t need to retreat into mystic obscurantism in order to understand that CERN is worthy of interest. CERN invented the World Wide Web. Contemporary artists don’t have to grasp at metaphors in order to log on to the CERN website. CERN built it, we live it now.
You can have all the machinic imagery out of CERN that you want, but the question is: what does it mean, how does it feel, what you do with it, how can you create? Is is beautiful, ugly, worthy, worthless, how is that good or bad, how does it change us?
It’s easy to sidle over to the subterranean cyclotron to take Instagrams of the many curios at CERN. I’ve seen them, they’re strange to me, but they’re not strange to the guys who built them. An aesthetics that’s overdependent on weirdness lacks ambition as an aesthetics. Weirdness is merely relative. Weirdness is never value-free.
A genuine New Aesthetic in CERN would ask for some aesthetic help there in CERN, in tackling one of the biggest problems in the history of aesthetics. Which is: why is some (but not all) mathematics “beautiful?”
The “beauty” of mathematics is a fact of creative life. The beauty of software code is also a fact of creative life. Math people and coders both know that those beauties are real, real like anvils. Yet that is a truly deep and wicked aesthetic problem. A modern aesthetic movement who could resolve that problem would have a grand achievement. Instead of merely collecting weird seashells on the vast Newtonian shore, they’d be able to state that they had carried out a huge land-reclamation project.
An intellectually honest New Aesthetic would have wider horizons than a glitch-hunt. It would manifest a friendlier attitude toward non-artistic creatives and their works. It would be kinder with non-artists, at ease with them, helpful to them, inclusive of them, of service to them. It’s not enough to adopt a grabbier attitude toward the inanimate products of their engineering.
I see some daylight in the general cultural situation. I was happy about the New Aesthetic panel, because it revealed things I had never seen. It was exciting because it touched something new, true and real.
The arts and sciences are, clearly, almost equally bewildered by their hardware now. The antique culture-rift of C. P. Snow doesn’t make much sense five decades later — not when sciences and the fine arts are getting identical public beatings from Lysenkoist know-nothings. Those abject talking-heads, abandoning charge of their machine-crazed economy.… Come home, artists and scientists; all is forgiven!
Our hardware is changing our lives far more profoundly than anything that we ever did to ourselves intentionally. We should heed the obvious there, and get used to that situation. We should befriend one another, under that reality. We should try to see what that means.
People have tried such things before. The Surrealists once valorized the “imagination of the unconscious.” But, as the Situationists pointed out, a generation later: the imagination of the unconscious is impoverished.
Valorizing machine-generated imagery is like valorizing the unconscious mind. Like Surrealist imagery, it is cool, weird, provocative, suggestive, otherworldly, but it is also impoverished.
That’s the big problem, as I see it: the New Aesthetic is trying to hack a modern aesthetic, instead of thinking hard enough and working hard enough to build one. That’s the case so far, anyhow. No reason that the New Aesthetic has to stop where it stands at this moment, after such a promising start. I rather imagine it’s bound to do otherwise. Somebody somewhere will, anyhow.
That is my thesis; that’s why I think this matters. When I left the room at the SXSW “New Aesthetic” panel, this is what concerned me most. I left with the conviction that something profound had been touched. Touched, although not yet grasped.
I’d suggest getting right after it.