Over the centuries, aesthetics have gradually become less ‘important’ in design. Mix and match is the order of the day. The key element we miss in modern times is aesthetic direction. This lack of direction is only exacerbated by the rise of digital, in which the ‘Wiki mentality’ wisdom of the crowd produces large-scale mediocrity. The team mentality rules, and beauty takes a back seat. But, despite the seemingly bleak undertone of this article, there shines a ray of hope. A new concept of beauty is arising. When we fully grasp – and embrace – the new aesthetic parameters of our digital era (algorithmic, generative, immaterial and dynamic), we find new direction, promise and energy.
All designers must consider technology, function and cost into their design process. In addition, aesthetic factors play a role. Think here of color, shape, typography and (moving) images and sound. What’s more, every domain has specific dimensions within which aesthetic qualities manifest. For digital art, these are primarily interactivity, usability and generativity.
Aesthetics is the philosophical branch that focuses on the experience of beauty. This article is about applied aesthetics in the digital domain, and how the ever-changing philosophical ideas about beauty relate to the design of digital products and services.
Over recent decades, aesthetics have gradually become less ‘important’ in design. Today, art and design are typically quite pragmatic. This is partly due to the effects of postmodernism – the philosophical movement that has the greatest influence on our current ways of thinking and behaving. After two World Wars, people no longer believed in the ‘grand narrative’ or in progress thinking. Ideologies and principles took a back seat. In the free and applied arts – such as fashion and architecture – a variety of styles are recycled and applied at the artist’s own discretion. Mix and match is the order of the day.
The key element we miss in postmodern times is aesthetic direction. Art and design have become a well-styled – yet meaningless – empty shell. This lack of direction is only exacerbated by the rise of digital, in which the ‘Wiki mentality’ wisdom of the crowd produces large-scale mediocrity. Even courses in digital design spend little to no time on aesthetics. The team mentality rules, and beauty takes a back seat.
To make matters even worse, consumers and companies have become part of the design process. They throw around buzzwords like ‘co-creation’ and ‘design thinking’, without actually understanding what these terms mean. Under increasing pressure from a neoliberalist society, design has sold its soul to the devil. And now we are, to summarize it briefly and sadly, surrounded by meaningless beauty (styling) and mediocre ugliness.
Let’s take a moment, then, to return to beauty. First, by studying how the beauty ideal has taken shape in the past 2,500 years, and analyzing how it has changed over time. Up to and including its unfortunate demise in the era of postmodernism and the digital age.
But, despite the seemingly bleak undertone of this article, there shines a ray of hope. Something beautiful is going on in the digital world. There is light at the end of the tunnel. A new concept of beauty is emerging. What are the aesthetic parameters of this new type of beauty? And how can we eventually turn away from indifference and mediocrity and welcome beauty back to life?
In this world devoid of meaningful beauty or aesthetic direction, can we find hope?
By creating something outside of ourselves, we learn something about ourselvesThe German philosopher Hegel
The era of paradox
The 19th and 20th centuries can be summarized – insofar as that is possible – with two paradoxes: ‘beautiful vs. true’ and ‘autonomous vs. engaged’1.
The social and political unrest in the 19th century drove artists to illustrate not the beauty, but the truth. Not the truth of a given cosmic order or an ideal that must be realized, but the truth as a reflection of actual reality. For the first time in history, beauty becomes ‘suspicious’. This idea returns in the 20th century, with the German philosopher Heidegger. Heidegger is not interested in the beauty of the artwork, in formal characteristics of the artist’s expression, but in the work of art as ‘truth’.
The second paradox, ‘autonomous vs. engaged’ is the result of the modern distinction between different areas of life since the Industrial Revolution. Art retreats, and becomes autonomous: l’art pour l’art. Artists redirect their attention to the formal qualities of the artwork, such as coherence, form and composition. This is what we came to call ‘modern art’. At the same time, Marx and neomarxists, among others, take a more social view of art. They recognize the autonomy of art, but only in the context of ulterior social motives: autonomy for the greater good.
International art exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale and documenta in Kassel show that, in our century, we primarily follow the line of engagement. Artists want a renewed sense of belonging in the world, and designers even focus on making the world a better place. The philosopher Wittgenstein suggested, in proposition 6.421 of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that ethics and aesthetics are one. It appears that most of us agree with him. What is striking here is that the attitude of artists and designers today is fairly pragmatic. The truth and grand narratives and Hegel’s progressive thinking have disappeared into the background since postmodernism. The artwork can ‘just’ be beautiful. We no longer place large demands of principle on it.
The end of art
In the previous century, one of those demands of principle was “less is more” from the architect Van der Rohe. Adolf Loos pushed the idea even further with “decoration is crime.” A few decades later, Robert Venturi claimed the opposite: “Less is a bore.” Another era begins.
In the period after modernism – postmodernism – everything disappeared. Including history, art and art history. The French philosopher Lyotard announces the end of the grand narrative, and Foucault goes so far as to describe, with a certain satisfaction, the end of mankind.
The conscious consideration of history and art history, and our ability to progress beyond them, is a modern concept based on the progressive thinking of Kant and especially Hegel. This concept lost its meaning after two World Wars. The belief in the grand narrative and ideals disappears. History becomes a grab bag, out of which one can pluck inspiration. ‘Mix and match’, the artist as bricoleur. In the free and applied arts, various styles are recycled and adjusted to the artist’s perspective. High culture becomes less high and today, low culture is considered valuable.
Awareness of art history is disappearing2, but aesthetics have returned. Art can ‘just’ be beautiful again. It primarily just needs to be fun. The autonomy of art has been lifted. Artists and designers are no longer satisfied with focusing on the formal aspects of art and design. Instead, they emphatically claim their role in our lives. ‘Human-centric design’, ‘planet-centric design’, ‘inclusive design’ and ‘positive design’, are the concepts that describe the new position of the (applied) arts. Ethics and aesthetics are one, once again.
Conversely, normal life appropriates the arts. Think, for example, about ‘lifestyle’, ‘boutique’ and ‘fashion’ as the qualitative characteristics that describe hotels. Art as a kind of ‘seasoning’ to make everything tasty and elevate it to new levels. Characteristics like ‘minimalism’ and ‘conceptualism’ are direct references to Minimalist and Conceptual Art movements, which are now widely embraced by the public.
German philosopher Walter Benjamin describes how artwork had its ‘aura’ taken away in the time period of technical reproducibility. Plato introduces the concept of beauty in classical times. It flourishes with Kant and Hegel, and falls apart with Benjamin. “This is not a time to finish anything. This is time for fragments,” argued Marcel Duchamp strongly at the start of the previous century.
Finally, the relationship between content and the medium with which it is communicated has changed. Modernistic media, photography and film are based on the idea that a reality exists that develops independently from the medium, and the medium registers it from an external perspective. In prolific mobile videos, the exact opposite is true. There, the medium itself changes first, and reality changes with it. The primacy of the transforming image is typically postmodern3. Resource-free thinking and designing from content (‘content first’) seem plausible at first glance, but are actually ideas from another time.
The concept of beauty falls apart in the postmodern era. And the rise of digital is making things even worse. The last relics of (now) meaningless beauty are cleared away and thrown in the garbage. We are slowly but surely retreating from all connections with beauty.
But are we losing all sense of interaction? Have we fundamentally changed as people, to the point at which originality and invention are dirty words? Digital guru and Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier think so. He wrote a manifesto about mass mediocrity.
In You are Not a Gadget, Lanier discusses how, somewhere around the start of the 21st century, social networks replaced individual creativity. He describes a state of ‘Digital Maoism’, and its negative impact on progress and innovation. The glorification of the group, at the expense of the individual.
The crowd mentality manifests itself in our language and approach. ‘Co-creation’ – a current hot buzzword – assumes that a group of companies, consumers and designers create value. With ‘design thinking’, creative techniques are applied to create business value. This brings about the death of autonomy. The powerful impact of the creative genius is eroding, and being undermined by the pursuit of the almighty dollar.
In this world devoid of meaningful beauty or aesthetic direction, can we find hope? As arts are democratized by the rise of digital and sold to the highest bidder, can we recalibrate our concept of beauty?
In the spring and early summer of 2018, there was an exhibition on ‘artificial imagination’ in the Grand Palais in Paris, called Artistes et Robots. According to the curators, it was an important exhibition because it was the first museum exhibition of the robotization of art. They coined a collective name for robotic, generative and algorithmic art: Artificial Imagination.
The exhibition starts with patchwork robots that paint, dance, and write music. They are expressions of the deeply engrained desires of writers and inventors to imitate life, or even out-do it. The robot simply copies the mechanism of our movements to create realistic facsimiles of human works. It is a familiar concept, including the fear that it invokes, that dominates modern films and web conferences. We enjoy being creeped out by the human-like behavior of robots.
The exhibition gets even more interesting when the robots disappear. With automated design techniques, the artist delegates the execution of his work to the machine, and only designs the algorithm and parameters that govern the machine’s actions. Interactivity takes the stage. Counterprograms, context, and variables in the surroundings determine the appearance, and the artwork essentially lives its own life.
Finally, the robot emancipates itself. In a world where everything is connected and controlled by artificial systems, the manifestations of robots become human and personal, like a new family member. An example would be voice interfaces such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa.
But it’s not all about the robots. The ultratechnologists at teamLab – a Japanese art collective – blend art, science, technology, nature and design into stunning works. At teamLab, artists work closely with programmers, engineers, animators, mathematicians and architects to create works that connect humans to nature, and nature to technology. The increasing popularity of their exhibitions proves that humans are hungry for Artificial Imagination.
Artistes et Robots and teamLab’s creations have historical significance. They are the first attempts to show the possibilities of a marriage between AI and art. It is certainly not a ‘marriage of convenience’: an enormous amount of creative energy must be expelled to create the works. But in the digital age, we see the ‘mix-and-match’ mentality fall away. Gone are the random mixings of styles that dominated the past few decades. Aesthetic direction is back. And although it appears in an entirely new, digital outlet, it might just be the road back to beauty.
The aesthetics of digital design
Artificial Imagination can be recognized by the following aesthetic parameters:
- Algorithmic. An algorithm is an endless list of instructions that lead to higher goal from a given starting position. The artist puts this process into action and designs the system.
- Generative. After starting this process, the artifacts are more or less generated autonomously.
- Dynamic. Situational variables have an influence on the appearance. Every scene is unique and will never appear again.
- Immaterial. The artifact becomes disassociated from its material. It exists in the imaginative capabilities of the beholder (in applied art, we usually speak of a ‘user’), who repeatedly makes the concept of the work topical.
The rebirth of beauty
By reviewing a brief history of beauty, and watching the concept continuously change, it becomes obvious where we stand today. Postmodernism has had a big influence on our way of thinking about beauty. Aesthetics is central to life and is no longer autonomous or ‘high culture’. We are engaged as designers, but don’t have too many heavy principles or grand narratives. A new pragmatism dominates. In short, aesthetics have become meaningless. And aesthetic direction is M.I.A.
The digital age has effectively killed our most recent concept of beauty. Large-scale mediocrity is the order of the day. That mind (and skill) set are unfortunately transferred to a new generation of designers. Their lessons at design schools are filled with courses on co-creation, collaboration and design thinking. But never, in the history of beauty, have meaningful artworks emerged from a team. ‘Wisdom’ and ‘crowd’ are not good bedfellows.
The German post-war painter Gerhard Richter identifies the disadvantage of this new situation. He states that the motivating factor for the greatest utopia has now also disappeared1. Richter’s artworks are grand gestures, but also contain an undertone of skepticism or even cynicism that are obvious to the observer.
The title of this chapter seems, then, misplaced at first. But Artistes et Robots, and teamLab’s creations, show there is light at the end of the tunnel. A new concept of beauty is arising. When we fully grasp – and embrace – the new aesthetic parameters of our digital era (algorithmic, generative, immaterial and dynamic), we find new direction, promise and energy. That includes the fears and moral panic that arises as we incorporate the machine and the algorithm into our lives. Fears and panic that crowd thinking and digital buzz- words will not relieve. But if we can overcome our fears and leave postmodernistic indifference and skepticism behind us, we can find true beauty in the algorithm. And thereby begin a new era of aesthetics.
1. Zijlstra, O. (2007), “Wat doet die rode vlek daar linksboven?”. Terra, the Netherlands.
2. Reijnders, F. (1984), “Kunst-geschiedenis, verschijnen en verdwijnen”. SUA, the Netherlands.
3. Brams, K. and Pültau, D. (2016), “De aankomst, de verwerking en het afscheid van het postmodernisme in Nederland”. Rob Scholte Museum. URL visited on 28 May 2018.
4. Eco, U. (2010), “History of Beauty”. Rizzoli International Publications, United States.
5. Rundell, J. (2010), “Aesthetics and Modernity. Essays by Agnes Heller”. Lexington Books, United States.
6. Dorléac, L.B. and Neutres, J. (2018), “Artistes et Robots”. Grand Palais, Paris. Exhibition visited on 3 May 2018.
7. O’Brien, N. (2018), “Ian Cheng. Love me, hate me, play with me”. In Metropolis M. Issue 2 April & May 2018.
8. Hendrikx, B. (2018), “Een genealogie van generatieve kunst”. In Metropolis M. Issue 2 April & May 2018.
Dynamic Design Magazine
This article is part of our Dynamic Design Magazine, Spring 2019. Download the complete magazine here. Do you want to continue the conversation about this article? Or are you interested in receiving a print edition of the magazine? Reach out to Mirabeau's Creative Director Henk Haaima.