Bruce Sterling's critique and love note to "the New Aesthetic"

Bruce Sterling's "An Essay on the New Aesthetic," is a dense, difficult, exciting critical look at the New Aesthetic, a kind of art movement centered in my neighbourhood in east London ("If you wanted a creative movement whose logo is a Predator supported by glossy, multicolored toy balloons, London would be its natural launchpad."). Sterling was set afire by a panel at SXSW this year, and hammered out this essay in response. It's part critique, part mash-note, and makes larger points about our relationship to machines and the aesthetics of their output ("an eruption of the digital into the physical").

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 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.

An Essay on the New Aesthetic

(Image: Sander Veenhof)


    1. It’s been named, so now it’s doomed.

      I think it’s a mixed bag. Without commenting directly on the “New Aesthetic” (which I’d never heard of until right now), whenever something becomes a “thing” you get a lot more people working within the idiom. Inevitably the increased focus and awareness leads to come cool expressions, but it also brings in a lot derivative posing.

      Does the signal to noise go down once something’s a “thing?” Probably. But if you’re willing to wade through the muck, some cool stuff will be found.

      These are just general comments on movements (or Movements), but I imagine the New Aesthetic will be no different.

  1. It seems to me that Sterling misrepresents machine vision, arguing that machines don’t have an aesthetic sense and are, in effect, a failed experiment in strong AI. But machine vision is all about human vision, it’s limitations and extensions. For example machines are as susceptible to camouflage as humans, and currently are used primarily to inform humans.

    He goes on to say that “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.” Count me in as a New Aesthetic guy with his nose pressed up against the portal.

    1. Have you been on one of those jets that has a screen showing the views from multiple cameras outside the plane? I can think of nothing cooler for in flight entertainment. I think those should be standard on EVERY flight. I hear they have them on Emirates Air.

      1.  I always enjoyed watching the NASA channel whenever there was a shuttle mission.  For hours the earth would roll on beneath the black with the little bit of humanity in between.  Mesmerizing!

      2. I’ve had that on Korean Air and Etihad (which is the UAE airline) and yeah, it’s awesome. But they disable it at takeoff and landing! Imagine my disappointment to watch it the whole time while taxiing, and then for it to be cut off when we’re actually taking off.

    2. Last bit fell flat for me as well… I lived in the Midwest and worked in LA for a few years, so made the flight several times a month over that time, and always opted for the window seat, if I couldn’t get the exit row. It never got old, and neither does Google Earth.

      Much of the rest of the essay is nicely thought provoking. With Sterling, sometimes he seems to rockets out ideas so fast that even if there are a few duds they are overwhelmed by the barrage of good ones.

      His book Distraction is like that for me… despite being less tightly plotted and coherent than his more successful works, there were so many great ideas in it I wanted to see brought to life. I’ve reread sections of it several times even though the overall plot meandered in and out of interesting territory.

      The RFID tagged building materials for semi-skilled assembly of complex architecture, and the  fluidly ad hoc teams of Makers who were central to the narrative were inspiring enough to draw me back to it from time to time.

  2. re: “whose logo is a Predator supported by glossy, multicolored toy balloons”

    You can’t just mention this awesome and then not show it.

  3. I really hope we can get through this whole New Aesthetic thing with less adorkable exuberance, intellectual babying and calming marimba drenched fanfares-of-childlike-wonder than one of those TED or RSAnimate videos.

    1.  Yeh, but have you seen Post-new-aestheticism? So high res, you can’t even see the pixels anymore. New Aestheticism is so last month.

    1. Regressive has unfashionable  for so long, it’s the new progressive.

      Become cutting-edge and embrace it! It’s the logical conclusion to the whole newness thing.

      1.  I think regression has been arguably popular before, particularly during periods of uncertainty. I heard a McLuhan lecture once in which he claimed that the trend of wearing jeans in American fashion started as a kind of inverted nostalgia, meant to refer to the clothes of agrarian, pre-industrial, life. By wearing jeans, people were taking on the roll of the clown, mocking their own context. He said that it was a consequence of seeing no clear future.

        I cannot help but think that, whereas in the late 20th century there was an increasing interest in progress, new identities, new ideas, broadening of horizons, and breaking out of old boundaries, in the beginning of the 21st century there has been a mounting confusion, cynicism, and ultimately anxiety about progress itself that has driven popular trends in art, music, and culture to lose interest in progress and take on nostalgia as the clown in despair; to take on the naivete of childhood in the late 20th century and reproduce it sarcastically (“ironically”) as a way of expressing confusion and uncertainty about the ambiguity of the future.

        I also cannot help but think this is a consequence of media, thinking of McLuhan again. Media has changed enormously in the past 20 years and while it initially went through its phase of early adoption and novelty in the late 90’s and early 00’s, its become part of everybody’s life now and there is a kind of backlash to it since people have not fully adapted to it and understood it as a new language. When new media flooded into the culture of the early 20th century, in America for instance, a similar hysteria arose as a response. On the timescale of cultural and social changes, the internet, cell phones, and other 21st century media have emerged very suddenly, and opened the door for enormous amounts of progress, but I do not think people have largely, even young people, learned yet to understand themselves as subjects in this new world.

        1. I understand what you’re saying (and often find McLuhan insightful), but should regressiveness be equated with nostalgia? I’ll have to ponder that one a bit. They seem related, but I’m not sure if there is a one-to-one mapping.

          And then the whole thing becomes complicated with “irony” is thrown in!

  4. “The New Aesthetic” is quite possibly the absolute worst name I’ve heard for a movement. Ever. It says absolutely nothing about what it labels beyond its newness.

    And while I can see the link amongst the pixelated and glitched stuff, I think that including “anything I put Impact Bold captions on” really stretches things a bit too thin for this to be useful.

    If my Illustrator-made work that occasionally brings in quite meticulously faked glitches is part of the “New Aesthetic” then I wholeheartedly reject that label.

    1. That was exactly my reaction.

       “What do you think of this new aesthetic that’s been emerging in the arts recently, the one they’re calling…..the New Aesthetic?”

      Anyway, I’ve been thinking for a long time about what comes after postmodernism, and logically it can only be the Pre-Incipient Movement.  Notice how everybody today keeps nattering on about how things like Can are “really ahead of their time?”  It’s all part of the Pre-Incipient Era’s obsession with cultural prescience, and with the idea of temporality as being in a constantly fluid, embryonic state of incipient potentiality.  Man, I could really sell this shit.

    1.  I got as far as the words “Go peruse this” when I reached my conclusion: Sweet Fanny Adams.

  5. This is low rent academia.  Not so much a manifesto as an undergraduate  plea to be taken seriously.  Deleuze, Guattari, Baudrillard and Harraway were all over this stuff in the nineties, but everyone was too busy making fun of post modernism to take it seriously. Now this guys talking about – spare me – a new aesthetic and talking up the rhizome literally 30 years after Deleuze first broached the idea. Apart from anything else, there’s a lot more going on in the world than people using 8 bit pixelisation in their art….

    1. Thats pretty much exactly my take on this extraordinarly woolly essay. Theres also a longer list than those you’ve cited who’ve been here and said all this before too (and said it better), Lev Manovich springs to mind. Chris Marker too before the nineties.

      However, post structuralism is most definitely not post modernism. Not really anyroad.

  6. I like Bruce Sterling, and I was very interested in reading his essay until I hit this sentence right at the top:

    “If you know nothing of the “New Aesthetic,” or if you have no idea what “SXSW” is, you should repair your ignorance right away.”

    Way to show contempt for your audience!  My knee-jerk, gut response to this was two words.

    1. It’s an important part of the Emperors New Clothes, that everyone be scared to point at the Emperor’s Van Dangler. “Don’t be stupid, think this is great!”

      Actually far too much contemporary art hides behind “If you don’t like it, you don’t understand it, and if you don’t understand it, you’re thick”. Which would be fine if so many artists didn’t just do whatever the hell they feel like, and let somebody else worry about interpreting it, which is cool and all, but the idea that there’s a particular way of understanding it is silly.

  7. Every six months another art “movement” comes around. I’m all for having fun with art, but to me, it always comes back to this:

    The dadaists threw out the rule book nearly a hundred years ago.  The idea that presenting something as art even though it didn’t start that way is fine, but it’s old news.

    See this comment? Art. Why? Because at least one person says it is. Now excuse me if I don’t stroke myself for 60 paragraphs.

  8. tl;dr but maybe my Untitled Harsh Noise Graphic Novel I put out a few years back is part of the New Aesthetic. It has pixels.

    1.  I didn’t even have to click ‘play’ know what what you were linking to.  I didn’t used to like this video, but all of a sudden it makes sense.

      1. yeah – love it or loathe it, it completely nails hoxton. although dalston is the new hoxton now, of course. i’ve even heard tell from friends of penny farthings being ridden to go with the handlebar moustaches..

        1. Damn, I used to commute through Dalston and Hoxton, must have left before the Penny Farthings made a comeback.  I’ll be honest though, I think that’s pretty awesome.

    2. Sorry, but IMO the sentiment behind that vid (not to mention the amount of work that went into it) makes the creators bigger dickheads than the folks they’re mocking.

      Me-too hipsterism may well be shallow and silly, but at least it deconstructs norms to some extent, whereas the idea behind this vid only detracts rather than offering anything much of value beyond assisting the categorisation of a subculture, something of dubious merit.

  9. I wrote up a summary of Bruce’s essay on my livejournal, with some added insight.  I think the New Aesthetic can be traced from Postmodernism straight through Proto-surrealism, in a kind of unified theory of art movements.  The New Aesthetic itself doesn’t impress me too much (except for the possibility that I may have had a tiny hand in starting it!) but what comes next may be terribly exciting.

    1. Sorry, but where the hell is the ‘new’ here ? Have you not seen any of the digital art of the last 20-30 odd years ? Have you not read any art theory at all either ? How does this differ say to the approaches of the Situationists, or Pop art ? Just being digital doesn’t make it new either. I am a digital artist btw. 

      Creating, or arguing for, any form of categorisation on art, or a group of artists, is to create limitations on interpretation and even more annoyingly limitations on creativity. You’re basically arguing for and creating a manifesto in a ‘do it like this, or you’re doing it wrong’ sense. Frankly, modern art, in all of its mediums, has grown out of such immaturity. Please catch up. Admittedly a lot of Digital Art has been, and continues to be.. um.. kind of structuralist in nature in that there are many examples where the medium itself is the expression as much as any of the affects of the art itself. Anyway, why we’re all swapping texts, try mine, I am at least a digital artist. Note how I don’t try to create rigid aesthetic categories of art, but try instead to argue for different and more open approaches to interpretation and understanding of the process of creating art in the digital form. Its not a great text, the conclusions need tightening up.. but hey, I want to play too. Stop yer bloody pigeonholing, what you see is what you see, its not a good thing to make others see it as you see it. Beauty within the limitations of the medium you say ? Yep, we’ve all been talking about that for many, many years and not just in the digital medium either. I cover the limitations in my essay, from the point of view of a practitioner. Check out the sections on Strata and Assemblages.

    2.  I’ll bite. Why do you think you are responsible (in part) for starting this artistic movement? You make this statement both in this post and your livejournal post, but do not provide an explanation for the uninitiated.

  10. Anything pixelated is clearly retro, despite claims to the contrary. I’m just trying to determine whether 8-bit or 16-bit consoles are the primary source of inspiration. The various factions, rivalries and aesthetic differences in the video-game world probably mirror that of other art movements. Maybe all of the video game eras will eventually become NA sub-genres? 
    * Arcade
    * Atari
    * Nintendo
    * SNES
    * Playstation
    * Xbox

  11. I feel like he protests a bit too much when it comes to “retro” pixellated graphics (8-bit or otherwise)–looking at examples of “New Aesthetic” stuff that seems very common and maybe the easiest visual signature to identify, and besides, retro-style graphics aren’t just about nostalgia for childhood video games, I’ve seen artists doing very cool stuff with it, like the weird, slightly Lynchian artwork of Uno Moralez

    1.  But why are they using it in the first place?

      Big chunky visible pixels have been completely obsolete for what, 15, 20, 30 years depending on how you count?

      I don’t think that you can simultaneously mine the art styles of the distant past, carefully mimicking flaws and limitations that no longer exist,  AND claim to be against nostalgia.

      I guess I sort of come at it backwards: If using an ancient art style because of its aesthetic beauty isn’t “nostalgic”, than what art is? At that point, does nostalgia even mean anything in the context of art?

      I don’t have a problem with nostalgia, particularly, but all these essays bring it up.

      1.  It could just be something as simple as a liking for the way your mind responds to low-detail imagery; perhaps it’s something slightly along the road to words painting a different picture for each reader, you know?

        No emphasis whatsoever on nostalgia necessary; just that we all kinda noticed this effect when it went away, and started playing with it after finding the uncanny valley so sterile.

  12. I started reading it in earnest, then went into skim mode for the last third.  I can hang with art, though I don’t get as deep into theory as some other posters here.  I’m definitely not as tech as Sterling or Cory or most of y’all, probably.  My take, for what it’s worth, is that the essay was a ranting, poorly written mess.  Or it was over my head.   Or both. 

Comments are closed.