Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Response to Bruce Sterling's "An Essay on the New Aesthetic"

Before I start, I'd like to establish early on the intentions of Bruce Sterling's article. He does not so passionately hate the New Aesthetic movement, as the some-20-odd paragraphs of his argument would have you believe. Rather, the display at the SXAesthetic panel awed him, but also raised some concern in terms of defining the movement with (the idea of) "seeing like computers." 

After browsing the hyperlinked websites I determined what the New Aesthetic was for myself. I have never experienced or seen anything of this genre before. While I definitely get a sense of Sterling's loathed "robot-vision," I also see something very captivating, but unappealing and dystopian at the same time. Procedurally generated images, snippets from articles about advances in technology, computer errors, and generally a strong anti-aesthetic. Looking at New Aesthetic works communicates a lot of anxiety to me about technology and its balance with the social world. Art created by a computer seems very detached and abstract, and I think it's through this abstraction that people are trying to start a conversation about this same uneasiness technology creates in the social sphere. 

Sterling's disdain for the art comes from the lack of aesthetic. I can understand this- a lot of this work isn't great to look at, or at least a good sample from the blogs don't give you much to work with. He compares it to the failed "aero-futurism" movement of the 1930s; aerial views aren't very interesting on their own, so it only makes sense that the fad came and died very quickly with little notice. "Robots" are not capable of generating aesthetically pleasing work. It is through this forced, romanticized perception that computers desire to create independently that Sterling feels the genre fails. "Robots" can not generate aura, and relying on cutesy-rhetoric of "seeing art through a robot's eyes" could doom the genre.

While starting off with a quote from renowned hipster Walter Benjamin puts a bad taste in my mouth, I can agree with Sterling to some extent. I do think he's being a little too critical of the genre for it's appeal to more light-hearted "cutesy" aesthetics. (In a way, he seems too hard to please. Work that looks like it was generated by a computer "lacks aura" and is visually boring, but art created in a way to make those computer-touches more appealing is also shallow and artificial. What do you want?) But I also think he's discrediting the power a lack of aesthetic can create. If anything, the feeling of discomfort communicates the dichotomy of machines integrating into our tangible space. This isn't just in the "cutesy-8-bit" sense he despises either. I think even work that's pure procedural cacophony carries the same spirit.

Part of me can't help but feel that Sterling is trying to not like this genre. A lot of his article discusses how he finds a lot of recurring elements in the genre to be overrated. His distaste for render ghosts, glitches, and pixel art seem pretty contrarian. The fact that he thinks a shallow fascination with glorifying these elements dominates the genre confirms this for me. Honestly, it feels like he's taking the piss out of everything. I can understand the annoyance with people perceiving the works shallow-ly, and the novelty of "seeing things through a computer's eyes," but don't let that annoyance define the genre for you. I don't sticking to these "aesthetics" are hurting the genre. 

For the most part, I agree that new artists coming into the genre with the idea of romanticizing technology's role in art so is a concern. However, Sterling's tone puts me off the article itself.  

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