I’ve been seeing references to the ‘New Aesthetic’ for a while but never really understood the term. A rainy Bank Holiday Monday seemed a good time to try and understand what this is all about.
Following a recent panel discussion at South-by-Southwest, Bruce Sterling wrote An Essay on the New Aesthetic. Much of this feels as if Sterling is declaring that he, for one, welcomes our New Aesthetic overlords. There’s a slightly bullying tone to the article, an us-and-them separation which occurred in several pieces I've read about the New Aesthetic.
It is 5 paragraphs before Sterling attempts a definition: “The New Aesthetic is image-processing for British media designers”, apparently. Sterling sees this as an art movement, referring to Cubism, Impressionism, Constructivism and Futurism. "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," one that "concerns itself with 'an eruption of the digital into the physical'"
Sterling’s essay left me bemused. He seems more interested in the New Aesthetic as a movement than a category, which seems to be a common trope. But I didn’t want to dismiss this (after all, it took me weeks to decide that deconstruction wasn’t just clever pedantry). New things often take time to grasp. But it’s hard to find a clear description of the New Aesthetic – it is too new or else judged to be too insignificant for a wikipedia page.
The New Aesthetic is often defined by its strong visual element, as demonstrated on the Official Tumblr Feed. This visual style is summarised by Damien G Walter as "glitches and corruption artefacts in digital objects, render ghosts, satellite views, retro 80′s graphics" (the New Aethetic's love of 'retro 80's graphics' has prompted an interesting response by Dan Catt).
There is no recording availble online from the SXSW panel, although there are some good summaries. James Bridle, the panel's chair, writes: "One of the core themes of the New Aesthetic has been our collaboration with technology, whether that’s bots, digital cameras or satellites (and whether that collaboration is conscious or unconscious), and a useful visual shorthand for that collaboration has been glitchy and pixelated imagery, a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between “the real” and “the digital”, the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine". Bridle's related talk at the Lift Conference, We Fell in Love in a Coded Space is well worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch.
But the article that really persuaded me about the New Aesthetic was one by Russell Davies, another of the SXSW panellists: SXSW, the new aesthetic and writing. Starting from a simple typo on a printed notice, Davies goes on to say that "lots of what's great about reading and writing is the direct connection between reader and author, but what's exciting me at the moment is the idea that there's a third party in there too – machines, software, bots".
And it’s in the world of writing where this makes most sense to me. Writing is always mediated by some sort of technology, and different technologies have different effects. The poet Kenneth Goldsmith stated that, with the Internet, writing had met its photography, that the effect of being able to publish, distribute and generate text on such a scale would have as significant an effect on writing as photography did on painting.
Goldsmith responded to these issues, among others, in his book Uncreative Writing. One can see many other bizarre and fasinating examples of what modern technology does to writing. The company Narrative Science are working on software to automatically write news stories. Realtime website analysis is leading to media companies such as Gawker and the Mail Online optimising their stories to most efficiently produce advertising revenue, with fascinating effects on their style and content. There are content farms automatically producing ebooks and selling them on amazon. Recently Google Ngram was used to spot anachronistic language in Downton Abbey (what happens when word-processors add real-time detection of such things?). And then there is robo-poetics, poetry written by software to be read by software. Writing is becoming stranger than ever.
I don't know if all of the examples above fit within the New Aesthetic (is there an inspection council? A grading system of some type?). The issues questioned by the New Aesthetic are obviously not new, but it's good that those things have a name, and thus a means to collect and analyse them.
UPDATE: I've written a brief follow-up