Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Toward a New Aesthetic: Winning and Losing the Object

The advance of history is (and always has been) intertwined with technology, and as much as new developments in technology and materials have driven aesthetic consideration, the objects one finds in galleries and museums would often not seem out of place in exhibitions from another century. Even as technology has made aesthetic advances possible[1], scholarship has often ignored the material art is made of. New technologies have been slow to find acceptance, if not by artists, then by the structures that guard and perpetuate the canon. It is no small irony then that the most profound innovation in technology has removed the necessity of the object altogether. Just a few years ago it seemed that discussion of the New Aesthetic was everywhere, but whether it was art or design or engineering or history was an open question that fit into the shifting projects found in the hacking culture of digital freelancers and start-ups much more easily than it did for art. Its history[2] is a strange collection digital epiphany and tech curiosities that are difficult to reconcile into a broader aesthetic movement, but nonetheless have managed to focus ideas about the employment of digital media to create art.[3] While digital art already existed[4], the framework of the New Aesthetic is important as the first digitally based aesthetic movement to gain mainstream traction. It posits an aesthetic framework (an “ism” if you like) that goes beyond mere tools of production to aesthetics, theory, and philosophy.

My own consideration of what the digital might bring to art started over beer, and with Greg Borenstein pounding on a bar table declaring that New Aesthetic and new media “would win.”[5] As a painter I am by definition invested in one of the oldest of technologies, and with the curious case of Wade Guyton’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum[6] freshly opened at the time I was very curious as to what “winning” would mean. Left unstated was the time table for the conflict and the ultimate terms of art’s surrender, but when one considers a more nuanced approach to the consumption of media and assimilation of technology, the definition of “victory” is likely to be more glitch-gray than black and white.

For the New Aesthetic to function as an aesthetic description or foundation for the production of art, as opposed to just a broad description of the interaction between culture and technology, it must define a framework that affects human understanding and consciousness at a deep level.[7]  Quirks of technology are easily assimilated and then forgotten or ignored; too often descriptions of the New Aesthetic resorted to an engagement with novelty[8] rather than attempting to assess the primary kernel of its import. Bridle posits the possibilities of an omnipresent digital network as a scaffold on which to frame and (more importantly) construct human interactions as what is fundamentally ‘new’ in the New Aesthetic[9] and this rings true; the evolution of digital networks stands as a shift that may define the transition of one epoch of history to another.[10] It also separates genuinely new ideas from the general explosion of technological advancement[11]: the network (as posited by Bridle) allows for a near infinite speed of transmission and dissemination of data that effectively reduces distances to zero[12], but a mere glitch in a scanned photo or rendered map is not effectively new[13]; robotics and drones allow for the application of work and force by means of data transmission, but machine vision is merely a further extension of previous augmentation of human sight.[14] There will always be endeavors that overlap classifications and defy any set boundaries, but making the effort at taxonomy is a first step in placing the New Aesthetic in a historical framework.

Charting the New Aesthetic’s course from nascent network to digital aesthetic reveals a narrative that mirrors the interaction between photography and the emergence of Modernism. This may be surprising given the New Aesthetic’s emergence in the post-modern, digital era, but it has roots in the photograph’s mechanical expression of vision.[15] Photography was present at and arguably drove the birth of Modernism by assuming[16] the burden of everyday representation from painting. Likewise, the Arpanet was coming on line as the Minimalists and Conceptualists zeroed out the trajectory of the Modernist narrative. Where the Modernist artwork slowly reduced aesthetic investigation to pure form at the hands of a singular genius[17], the networked Postmodern art object grows out of a multiplicity of viewpoints and historical narratives; feminism, multiculturalism, and the histories of different geographic centers allow for the realignment of aesthetic ideas just as packets of data are switched around the network and reassembled into a useable whole. The restructuring of the pathways of interpretation away from a direct circuit is analogous to the (also Postmodern) theory that posits a shift of privilege in which the reader’s primacy in interpretation (and thus creation) of a work becomes paramount. Meaning emerges from the interconnectedness and interaction of the nodes in the network, i.e. the audience, instead of being dictated from on high by the artist. The ramifications for the artwork have been appropriately manifold, but the sea change lies in the relationship between the production of the work and how it is ultimately seen. A hallmark of digital technology in general, and the New Aesthetic specifically, is the possibility of near limitless[18] distribution via digital transmission and (one would eventually assume) production. However an object that is limitless is also by definition common, and therefore working outside the economic strictures of a unique object that propels the current art market. It would be foolish for those building fortunes within the art world to assume that their sale of a unique object will save them from digital encroachment on their business model. The limitations are essentially only of bandwidth; Hollywood movie studios should have seen the threat posed by the digital transfer of content coming as soon as it started to affect the record industry. As the underpinnings of photography’s false scarcity are challenged, the idea of an object that can be instantly copied via a suitable amount of code and an appropriately complex 3-D printer[19] has the potential to turn the concept of unique work of art into a forensic exercise rather than a matter for discerning connoisseurship. This should not be seen as a giant and unimaginable leap; artistic practice is already often turned over to assistants and fabricators, and non-unique works can easily set auction records.[20] The only question is if the change in methods of production will ultimately change the channels of distribution or if the entrenched interests of the market will assimilate new avenues proposed by advances in technology.

Historical precedent follows from art’s service as a tool of communication prior to the elevation of the status of the artist in the Renaissance. Church decorations to instruct and cow the faithful serve the same purpose as works by contemporary art, if a different master. Even as images were usurped by text and printing[21] for basic communication, art maintained a utility for conveying ideas to mass audiences. The history of church decoration gave way to traditions of mural painting, and the ingrained century’s old value of art to a mass audience evolved as the artists themselves supplied themes and direction. The Bauhaus took the evolution a step forward by incorporating industrial production as a theoretical vehicle to reach the masses; that the Bauhaus had a much more holistic view of the potential for integration of diverse media into a cultural movement set a precedent for the rise of the New Aesthetic, as does the fact that both movements feature many designers among their ranks.

A closer antecedent to the potential for the use of industrial fabrication by individual artists can be found in the work of Donald Judd and the Minimalists. Not only did they work with ‘off the shelf’ components of commonly available industrial materials and hardware[22], they were able to operate at a remove as they were able to fabricate their work via plans that could be sent by telegram or placed by simple phone call.[23] Those plans can be seen as Paleolithic versions of the code that will underlie (near) infinitely (re)producible 3-D printed artworks. The mature work of the artists associated with Minimalism brought sculpture to the same ground photography already occupied; the sculpture was no longer an object consisting of specific materials skillfully manipulated by the hand of the artist, rather it became possible to read the necessity of the object as the result of the execution of instructions, plans, or code. Born of common industrial materials, the existence as a set of basic instructions also allowed for the possibility of peculiar manipulations of time and space, with the artwork able to exist or not as needed, to be transmitted easily from place to place, or even to exist simultaneously in two places at once.[24] That the Minimalists recoiled from any of the inherent possibilities their practice opened up ties them to the terminus of Modernism and its exaltation of the singular object, and instead left it to the Conceptual artists that followed closely on their heels to inaugurate the Postmodern object within art. [25]

Where photography’s restructuring of the expectations of how what is “real” really looks is one legacy, another more subtle adjustment lies in simultaneously replacing the artist’s unique facture with a mechanical process that provides a seamless surface and infinitely repeatable image. The challenge was not only to aesthetic ideas and ideals, but to the market that distributed the images. The greater consequence of photography to the salon lay (and still lies) in the correlation of price to aesthetic value where the traditional signifiers of artistic scarcity have been removed. The technology associated with the New Aesthetic cannibalizes Modernist photography’s claims to truth and reality[26] and throws its full weight behind digital, infinitely repeatable manufacture.

In looking at photography’s past as the New Aesthetic’s prologue it is important to note that art and its markets ultimately assimilated photography, and that photography hewed closer to the conventions of painting as commodity rather than effecting a dramatic change in the sale of images.[27] Whatever aid the emergence of photography provided to the birth of modernism, that project was ultimately carried forward within art by painting and the impressionists.[28] In the meantime photography was “ghettoized” as a medium for art, struggling for its technological application as documentation to not hinder its aesthetic potential; furthermore it is debatable if its novelty as collectible object was actually responsible for aesthetic prejudices against the medium.[29] Of course the market for art did not slow down during the interim of photography’s growth and the salons evolved into the current gallery system. Even more fraught for the emergence of the New Aesthetic is that it has arrived on the scene as that system has metastasized along with current rapacious trends in capitalism into an arena where intellectual property is fiercely contested and the distribution of opportunity skews to the very top of the market. If there is a fight within art now, it is not over the aesthetics of the object, but its economics and status as commodity.

In the aftermath of the 1970’s and conceptual art this approach to the art object has only been intermittently implemented. When subsequent movements or generations of artists have engaged with the possibilities inherent in such a “limitless” Postmodern object, they have mostly done so within the gallery system established by the art market. When Felix Gonzalez Torres radically undermined the uniqueness of the object, to the point of giving it away en masse, the artwork somehow remains collectible and valuable; the artists who drastically and most successfully challenged the limits of the art object now have blue chip representation. Art has maintained production and distribution systems that have not changed markedly, even as networked digital technologies have radically altered how most other cultural productions are made and consumed.[30] Despite the theoretical shift to Postmodernism, the production of the art object has largely remained stubbornly Modern: where the modernist artwork is defined by its position as a singular material expression of the artist’s vision[31], the postmodern object decouples the static artwork from any specific material[32] and instead is (theoretically) free to be transmitted, copied, hacked, and recoded. The promise of the New Aesthetic is the marriage of the artwork with the network such that the artist’s output[33] may become as simple, widespread, and easy as everything else that happens on a computer and across the internet.

In the face of such easy facility, with the continuing promise that it will only get easier, the central question (especially as it pertains to “winning”) becomes will enough artists shift to these new materials so that the New Aesthetic becomes the dominate aesthetic? I believe that the greatest factor will be the internalization of these tools by artists, such that they are drawing with code as easily and naturally as they mark a flat surface. Where artists think in terms of process and material, they will continue to doggedly produce discrete things[34] and treat the computer in the studio as just another tool that aids in the making of paintings, photographs, and sculpture. The art market’s ability to assimilate challenges to its hegemony[35] should not be underestimated; So long as artists are producing these things, the market has something to sell. This is a benefit to the artist[36] but it also ties art into the economic structure of capitalism, and compromises the potential of digital art and the New Aesthetic by reinforcing the economic status quo.[37]

As the first draft of art history turns more and more to promotion and discussions of sales figures and auction costs rather than aesthetic discourse, the work that is seen and discussed is work that can be sold and is selling. Perhaps instead of looking at this development in thought with scorn, writers, aestheticians, and theorists should consider if this development heralds a larger coming change in how art is made and distributed. The New Aesthetic has been popularized as the infrastructure of the network has been developed to accommodate global traffic, and that development has largely been driven by capitalist enterprise[38] so it only makes sense that as the population of artists continues to increase they will look for new avenues to show and exhibit their work.[39] The question for artists and the New Aesthetic is what sort of object are they putting on the pedestal, in the window, or on the screen? The emergence of the network portends that it may not be the same as what we have all come to expect, but the inevitable change will mean how the work goes from artist to audience has been completely rethought.


[1] From the importance of tube paints to the development of Impressionism to synthetic polymers and acrylic making color field painting technically feasible, art history tends to favor aesthetic discussions of a philosophical bent.

[2] The name comes from a Tumblr started by James Bridle and blew up with Bruce Sterling’s article for Wired discussing a SXSW panel. If you start following the links you’ll find Bridle’s essay on the same panel and can work your way back through discussions by Joanne McNeil, Ben Terrett, Aaron Straup Cope and Russel Davies that smartly dovetail the New Aesthetic with broader digital concerns in a variety of media and contexts.

[3] After 2 years since its heyday we can see Doug Aitken’s ‘Station to Station’ project linked to Bridle’s terminology, and as that project winds down the auction house Phillips de Pury has made the first foray into auctioning digital art. While the sums were small in relation to what normally constitutes the auction market, this sale represents a major step forward in digital art entering the mainstream art market.

[4] One can go back as far as Manfred Mohr’s experiments with computer generated art. More recently terms like new media art and net art have been used to describe digitally based production. All of the terms seem more descriptive in describing the medium (i.e. akin to “painting” or “photography”)  rather than descriptive of a school of thought (i.e. “Abstract Expressionism” or “Minimalism”).

[5] It is fun to think that artists can still get together and argue the way we imagine they did back in the days of the Cedar Tavern. In addition to Borenstein, the group included artists Kevin McCoy, John Powers, and William Powhida, as well as Joanne McNeil of Rhizome and Bridle himself.

[6] And seemingly caused no small amount of consternation in the digital arts community. Much of the rancor seemed to stem from the assumption that Guyton was an electronic or digital artist who was poorly representing his roots and concerns. However Guyton’s work comes out of a conceptual reaction to painting, and his relation to the technology he employs is much more akin to prior generations’ use (and abuse) of screen printing and other basic tools of mass production; his employment of digital tools is merely a matter of utility.

[7] This may be as close as I ever get to trying to pin down and define the amorphous and variable production that gets labeled as “art.” On one hand this definition feels so incredibly weighty that almost any individual work would not be able to support it, and in that regard it should be pointed out that this applies more to movements consisting of many artists working simultaneously within a single cultural context; on the other hand this definition probably applies to the ‘80s Neo-expressionist painters, so maybe it’s not such a high bar after all.

[8] For instance, the aestheticization of the glitch is hardly new. Richter and Ruff’s respective smears have entered the canon, and rely only on the language of abstraction to raise it beyond a mere error in representation. The revolutionary aspect of misregistrations in digital representations of real space lies not in the error, but in the existence of the underlying system that makes digital mapping and transcription possible in the first place.

[9] One could argue that these interactions go further and facilitate the beginnings of human ‑ machine interactions, but I think that this ascribes a consciousness that is lacking in our silicon counterparts; Sterling is correct in pointing out that such descriptions are essentially fanciful, and obscure the greater focus on what emerging machine processes or “vision” might mean to human consciousness.

[10] The turn to the machine age was largely a measure of a definition of the increased capacity for work. I will leave the political implications of this to the remaining Marxists out there, and instead rely on (very) basic math to indicate the scale of the shift: where work is measured in horsepower, there is a huge transition in the amount of production, but not in the fundamental scale of the measures used. Simply put, a person riding a horse at 30 mph increased their speed tenfold, but the move to a steam locomotive only roughly doubled that (it’s just that the train is now carrying over 100 people and a whole mess of heavy things, and is traveling hundreds of miles without stopping). We’re still only looking at modest jumps in scale that human cognition can easily assimilate. The advent of digital networks shifts the definition of work to the generation and movement of information. In this regard we are seeing jumps in speed (microseconds) and mass/ volume (exabytes and beyond) that are vast orders of magnitude greater. The historical shift represented by the New Aesthetic can be compared to the difference between Galileo walking down the street in Pisa to the Space Shuttle entering orbit to fix the Hubble telescope.

[11] I would argue that this may be an effect of the New Aesthetic Tumblr being more of a search for possible ideas and observations than a tightly curated presentation of such.

[12] Consider how understanding of the recent events in the Egypt and the Middle East differ from previous, “non-networked” social and political events. Reporting is no longer filtered or shaped by media control, but is simultaneously diluted by the sheer volume of information available.

[13] Errors in transcription have been around as long as there has been writing. While these accidents may provide a sense of beauty or an uncanny alteration to how we perceive our interactions, they were supposed to be caught in whatever the contemporary equivalent of the proofing process was; I suspect the fact that we see more such glitches now is a result of the combination  of ever greater output (of course facilitated by the digital utility of the network) and lower editorial standards (of which I and every other self-publisher who lack an editor beyond the software we use are probably guilty of).

[14] Corrective lenses and telescopes having been around for a very long time.

[15] Of course the other side of the New Aesthetic coin is the proliferation and distribution of language as text. This can be traced back at least to Gutenberg, and the transmission of art via printed copies in the form of etchings can be seen as a forerunner of the photographic distribution of multiple copies of the same image.

[16] Or usurping, depending on your point of view.

[17] One that was inevitably white and male.

[18] Any description of the limitless will bump into the technical definition of infinity very quickly, and my description of the ‘limitless object’ is not suggesting anything on a universal, or even galactic magnitude.

[19] Any new technology is always subject to severe limits of engineering that are practically wished away for raw potential. If a 3-D printer is analogous to an automobile, then consider what today’s “model-T” versions will give way to within the next century.

[20] The difference between “5 unique versions” and an “edition of 5” strikes me as  a minor difference aimed at collectors rather than artistic exploration of the differences between versions.

[21] Perhaps the first ‘new aesthetic’ revolution.

[22] Which is just another version of “infinitely reproducible”, and also gives rise to the same problems that dogged photography as a medium.

[23] This had happened before, but Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s use of it was essentially only as a gimmick. Similarly Tony Smith was able to “phone in” Die, but it was really the only project that he did so (probably because the form was about as simple as possible). Judd was able to make his relation with his fabricators central to his practice but not foreground it in the art object as a concern or theme (say the way Jackson Pollock’s process became central to his drip paintings once Hans Namuth’s photographs of him working were released).

[24] See discussion of Count Gussipe Panza’s interaction with Andre and Judd in ‘The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art’ by Martha Buskirk, MIT press. This treatment of the object leads to the possibility of the complete dematerialization of the object allowed for in conceptual art.

[25] Lawerence Weiner: “Statements” (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece.

2. The piece may be fabricated.

3. The piece need not be built.

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to the condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

[26] As the ubiquity of Photoshop renders the veracity of nearly every image as suspect, the mantle of objective “reality” once claimed by photography must now commonly be recognized as false.

[27] By adopting the conventions of the limited edition, the illusion of scarcity is preserved, even though the negatives of a print usually still exist and more images could be printed. It is a common practice that when such a (usually large scale) photograph is damaged, the conservation treatment is usually to simply reprint the image and then confirm the destruction of the damaged work so that the number of prints in the edition is maintained.

[28] Which when tied to the necessity of the development of tubed paint to Impressionism, is another example of the underlying influence of technology on art.

[29] It certainly did not help that the early limits of the technology severely limited formal options for expression. In this regard the story is the same for each new medium that comes along, and we’ve seen it play out similarly with film, video, sound art, and computer and net-based art. New pioneers begin working (or often more accurately, playing) with a technology, and try to find out just what it can do or how far it can be pushed before it starts to break down and exhibit interesting fissures or glitches that are unacceptable in commercial application. They may not even think of themselves as artists, and often their work disappears from view for not being recognized, collected, and cared for. Of course the same is true of painting, it is just that over 500 years of history has obscured the difficulties of moving from being part of the wall to a portable object, and the shift from guild-era craft to high art.

[30] Consider only what iTunes, Garage Band, digital cameras, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and e-readers have done to the market for music, TV, movies, books, and newspapers and magazines.

[31] A position that is subject to reinterpretation by advances in theory, understanding, or intellectual fashion (even if such revisions do not affect the production of the artwork).

[32] Performance and time-based work being a separate case; its temporal nature can only be experienced directly, and subsequent reference is only to the artifact,  record, documentation, or memory. These may come to act as surrogates for the artwork, but bear a different indexical relationship to the common understanding of an art object that can be returned to as an unchanging entity. It is probably not a coincidence that art media where time played a central role began to fully emerge with the advent of Postmodernism.

[33] Call it work, production, practice, or transmission.

[34] Be it ever more complex productions that challenge architecture or feature films at the top of the market, or seeming small scale, ephemeral gestures that are none the less preserved at the bottom, these works still mostly fit easily into standard taxonomies of art practice.

[35] Where said hegemony used to be confined to the distribution of the artwork, it also now seems to be usurping the interpretation, criticism, and historical narrative of art. As the vast sums of money moving through the upper echelons of the “art world” have rendered interpretation irrelevant and criticism as beside the point (as such analysis does not have any effect on what is bought and sold), the market has begun to dictate what curators and museums preserve and exhibit (by virtue of the people doing the buying simultaneously pricing out said institutions and then turning around to lend or donate said works as members of the museum board), so artifact and scholarship wind up serving the market as well.

[36] Contrary to the romanticization of abject poverty, I have yet to meet an artist who prefers to go to a day job rather than being able to go to their studio.

[37] An artist I know produced an edition of three large scale digital prints of computer rendered imagery for an exhibition, and the gallery asked if she could paint or draw on each print, turning each into unique work. This would have completely compromised the aesthetic intent, removing the viewer’s sense of engaging real life through a mediating electronic screen, and questioning the identities that we present both on-line and in the flesh. The seamless and un/hyper-real crispness of focus on the surface of the paper would’ve been completely disrupted by the addition of pencil or paint (and would have interacted poorly with the imagery in any case, likely looking just slapped on over the top), but the works would then have been unique, and more saleable at a higher price. I am happy to report those prints were shown unaltered, and unhappy to report that they are still rolled in the artist’s studio.

[38] Think of the transition from Napster to  iTunes, the expansion of Amazon.com into all facets of retail, or Hulu challenging network and cable television distribution.

[39] From Artsy to Amazon and Saatchi, and to smaller digital platforms like Paddle 8 or Artsicle, the network provides a much greater breadth of economic possibilities. Many of these players are working on lower rungs of the market, but this offers more possibilities to new or emerging artists. It also offers a greater ease of entry into the market for new collectors, which is a way to grow the audience for art outside of just the outsized ticket line for the next museum blockbuster.

Written by Brian Dupont

October 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

One Response

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  1. Hi Brian. Interesting post. I don’t know if I was pounding on the table exactly, but if I was, I wasn’t arguing that the New Aesthetic, in particular, would win, but that net-native forms of cultural distribution would. The point I’ve made is that the net is displacing other established venues for art distribution and funding. Kickstarter is bigger than the NEA. And, historically, the question of who sponsors art has an enormous effect on what art is. Art was very different when it was “funded” by tribal peers, religious institutions, and royal patrons that it was in the modern era when it’s been funded by the market and (more recently) the international biennial system. I think the transition to internet-centric art funding will be a similar-sized change.

    And, so far, internet-native artists have little regard for the long-running conversations that have been at the heart of art’s interests for 500+ years. As someone with a background in art history, I think it would be a serious tragedy if the sustained explorations of perspective, space, narrative, power, image, etc. that have been at the heart of art in ever-evolving ways, were completely disrupted in favor of the pleasurable thrill of pop-cultural recognition and the trivial formalism I see in a lot of current digital art. And I say this as someone who considers himself (and many of his closest friends) a digital artist.

    So, that’s the “winning” I’m predicting and why I’m exorcised about it.


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