The New Aesthetics: Problems and Polemics (Part 1)

by Patrick Lichty on May 7, 2012

The New Aesthetics: Problems and Polemics

(Author’s note: the sand under my feet is shifting as I write this. Was in an exhibition with Marius Watz and was at the Center for 21st Century Studies with Ian Bogost between start and finish, and their articles are great commentaries.  Therefore, while I am going to mention them, I’m going to stop reading and finish this essay lest I get bogged down in a textual version of Watz’ “perpetual newness”.)

In a 2012 issue of WIRED, writer and arguable futurist Bruce Sterling wrote on a panel at SXSW about “The New Aesthetics”, where he painstakingly deconstructed it through an art historical context for 5000 words, for which I am grateful.  He took the panel by James Bridle quite seriously, and found it as a bright point in the wilderness of digital art, but also felt it was only a good first step (which Ian Bogost also thinks, in his article for The Atlantic).  Merely stating the existence of The New Aesthetic and giving some examples/contexts for it (low-rez graphics, glitch, drone surveillance photography, and so on) doesn’t seem to be enough for Sterling.  Stating it represented a silicon aesthetic of how machines see tripped the idea up in its displacement from humanity itself as if the machine aesthetic is a happy artifact of human innovation.  I agree with Bruce that the New Aesthetic as presented at SXSW 2012 missed some parts to the flying drone being built in midair, and that having humans as collectors rather than curators misses the point of a movement.  Some of these assertions put forth in the panel (according to my documentation first simply lack some key parts to a movement, and secondly, forgets the anthropomorphic nature of machines, a fact that McLuhan reminded us of so well.

What I mean when I say that I agree with Mr. Sterling about the proposition as presented about The New Aesthetic is that Bruce brings up some historical movements, and most of them had something or else in common.  Most of them had several aspects; they had an ideology, politics, an ontology, and agendas behind them. Even in the Postmodern Age, or even if we are in a Trans-Modernist era or some such, Bourriaud and Relationalism had its observations and agendas, some of them lovely, some of them cynical.  We could say the same for FLUXUS, Performance Art, Gutai, and many others in the late 20th Century, even Dirtstyle digital art.

I feel like The New Aesthetic is still forming, and is so broad (including things like Glitch Art, Pixellization, machine vision, and the such that it seems that we have a problem with lack of granularity of practice the leaves the “movement” in a state of diffusion.  In The New Aesthetic, what seems to be said is “We’re seeing a digital optic aesthetic. Huh, that’s cool, but what does it really mean?”, as we have the pool party with the artifacted Styrofoam drone.  Statements like “Oh look. Here’s something cool a computer did. I’ll leave it here.” seem to be without meaning but still, there is a person choosing to leave it there, and what does it mean to do so?  I think that this is the question, along with, “What does this say about society?”  Yeah, what does it mean, and what are we trying to say through its emergence?  Being that that The New Aesthetic is a digital hydra with many threads to the conversation, it forces us to zoom back a little to put things on context.

One thing that Bruce Sterling does in his essay that’s of great interest in his analysis of the New Aesthetic panel is to compare it with other major movements, like Futurism, Situationism, and Surrealism.  We have to remember that Surrealism and Futurism were largely revolutionary groups, as well as the Situationists.  During the first showing of Clergyman and the Seashell, Antonin Artaud was so furious about Dulac’s treatment of the screenplay that he started a riot the night of the screening, after which Dali/Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou replaced Seashell on the docket.  People were outraged at the Dada soirees, and the Surrealists wanted nothing more to rip your sensibilities out of your head through your optic nerve.  And stomp on them.

Sterling aptly notices that much of the ideology in much of New Aesthetic work is lacking or absent.  He describes it as if it is a British design curiosity.  Even in its more extreme progeny, such as glitch, many of the artists are corrupting files out of technofetishism, because they can, or for “the lulz”.   This is not to say that there aren’t some artists like Menkman, Satrom, and Cates who are interested in how culture disintegrates with the injection of noise in a milieu (the digital) where noise is supposed to be absent.  Or another instance might be the street artist Space Invader, with his little invading aliens in the street.  It seems as if The New Aesthetic is working hard to evolve out of the “Ain’t it cool” locus, but maybe this is just a point of development.

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