THE PROPAGATION OF THE AESTHETIC IN THE DIGITAL SPACE
An essay by Liv Taylor
I've been imitated so well I've heard people copy my mistakes.
The Age of The Internet has changed the world over and art and visual culture has not been left unscathed. The new medium has carved out changes in the way we think about and create the Aesthetic, and has evolved our understanding of the value of images.
Marshall McLuhan’s ideas explained that throughout history, media forms have shaped societies. In more recent centuries, through the invention and implementation of technologies like the printing press (creating a more widespread literate population), and electricity, (creating speed of communication) a mass man has been made: the world connected through technology. The Internet has not only become a vehicle for communication but also a whole new medium and way of life, changing human interaction and output as we know it. New languages have been created: technically, lexically and also, most importantly, aesthetically.)
A culture rooted in physical processes, where images and objects are inextricably linked to their makers and curation within space, is being reduced to pixels and binary code flung into a global space. It is at the exact transition point of the image as seen first hand by the human eye from the physical to the digital where identity concerning originality and authenticity begins to flux. This new communication technology has abstracted the image and artwork, constantly re-contextualising it and with each knew reproduction, moving it further away from its original source.
Here we unpick how the reproduction of art and the image in the Internet age – in the case of this text referring to something that has been designed or created with aesthetic intention (photography, sculpture, painting, illustration, design) – has changed; and in turn how this has fundamentally shifted, destabilised and ultimately liberated the creative culture.
Aura and The Art of Reproduction
In the Classical Era of the Romans and Greeks art was the result of labour-intensive processes, creating masterpieces where the only way to reproduce them was through further labour-intensive processes such as casting and embossing. Still, these pieces could be replicated, highlighting that the desire to reproduce the aesthetic has been a conscious thought since the first ‘art’ was made.
“What man has made man has always been able to make again”
The process of reproduction at this time was imbued too with craftsmanship, and copies were masterpieces in their own right. As Walter Benjamin surmised, genuineness of an artwork is often entwined with its ‘here and now’, the way it directly relates to its purpose, its environment and its maker. Whilst not being the originals, the copies of artworks in this early time period would have still maintained a level of ‘aura’, synonymous with the original and genuine artefact.
Aesthetic objects throughout history have been borne from divine or spiritual inspiration, or imaginative human expression that manifests itself in a physical form. Reproducing such artworks up until recently still involved a degree of skill, time, and consideration, and ultimately resulted in a physical outcome: something that felt authentic and original despite not being the master’s work.
The ‘Mechanical Age’ of course enhanced the speed and ease of reproducing the aesthetic, removing the human hand from the process and making artwork more consumable for the masses. With each new reproduction process – the printing press, the camera and now the digital – the artwork is removed further from its original maker and context, and so each reproduction moves further away from the authenticity of the original piece.
Where before, man had to go through great technical effort to ‘make again’ he now only has to sit at his computer and can, within seconds, save his own copy of the artwork. The distribution of these reproductions has been placed in the realms of the infinite: up until now, even in the age of photography and print, distribution of copies was limited to the constraints of budget, logistics and transportation.
Inevitably, through each diminished level of craftsmanship and skill involved in obtaining copies of artworks, the resulting outcomes are increasingly less worthy representations of the originals. With the ease and speed of the reproduction of images digitally, the question surrounding an artwork or image’s authenticity has become significantly harder to decipher, and perhaps, more relevantly, seemingly less important to the masses.
Artworks rooted in the physical, defined by aura, are instead reduced to pixels on a screen. What we are left with is barely a copy of the original, but crucially a representation of the original artwork. What matters now is what that image represents, not whether it is an accurate or authentic version of the original. Imagine Google Image searching ‘the Mona Lisa’- no one definitive image comes up. Colour, crop, and viewpoint all change, digital defects and warps appear, offering us something that can only ever hope to represent Da Vinci’s masterpiece, and doesn’t offer any of the experience that would be created in viewing the piece in person. Where perhaps a painted forgery of the Mona Lisa might still evoke some of the mystery and grandeur created by the original, the digital copy merely is a pixel rendering. We aren’t able to discern which is most like standing in front of the original, or even if any of them are photographs of the original. But perhaps this no longer matters, as all of these images serve the purpose of representing the Mona Lisa.
Rarely does an authentic depiction of the original exist in the digital, much less the original itself. The act of reproduction is too open to glitch and reinterpretation that instead, each time an artwork is digitally copied ‘new originals’ are made. These representations come to signify the idea of the artwork, and more often than not, fulfil the function as a reference to the original.
The Emerging and Egalitarian Aesthetic
The vastness of the digital space means that almost unlimited copies of ‘new originals’ can be made. In fact it is hard to even discern where any one-digital image ‘is’ at any one point: the artwork is represented by digital coding, a recipe formula which allows it to be recreated anew limitless times. Each replica code a clone, indistinguishable from any notion of an ‘original’ version. The artwork – like Schrödinger's Cat – can exist everywhere online, whilst simultaneously not occupying any physical space at all.
It would seem, at this stage in the throws of the Digital Age we are exploring this infinite amount of space offered by the medium, and putting anything and everything in it. Perhaps a later stage in the evolution of digital media might offer ‘less’, a more refined and considered Internet, where limits and boundaries are created for data and only the ‘best’ being shared; but it seems unlikely that people will turn back, the infinite quality of the Internet offers unique opportunities for sharing, harbouring creativity and equal chances to access the aesthetic.
The sheer volume of The Aesthetic existing online creates a homogenous mass of information, sometimes hard to navigate and decipher. The art world seems to have been destabilised to the point that there is no hierarchy of imagery, no overarching institution or bourgeoisie defining what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. This is now decided by the masses across the globe through small actions of ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’, racking up new ‘copies’ of artworks and continually defining what is relevant.
This new emergent art world creates a space where a fifteen year-old girl’s Tumblr can be just as sensational or poignant to ‘the people’ as the prestigious Magnum Photography website. Art, previously defined by institutions, has been knocked off its pedestal, and images of cats created in seconds using meme generators are just as representative of aesthetic culture as Hockney’s latest sketches, arguably even more so. Items that an institution or artist might have discarded, that wouldn’t have found their way into printed or gallery collections, are now worthy of attention and are being revitalised in ways which only specific artists or ‘higher powers’ might previously have had control over.
The aesthetic has become liberated, with artworks being taken out of the cryostasis of the ‘here and now’; in their representative coded forms, they begin to reach those who would never have had access to them before. Through blogging platforms such as Tumblr, new connections and coincidences can be found between images that in the physical world could never have occurred, previously being rooted by time, location and the control of the artists and curators who owned them.
The Material as Subject
This liberation for many has created a refreshed attitude, with people outside of the traditional boundaries of the art world taking an interest in aesthetic culture through social media and sharing platforms. But of course this comes at a cost, this liberation for some creates a lack of control for others: the creators. Those who don’t want their artworks taken into the folds of the masses are faced with the choice of not participating in the digital world or accepting that they are inevitably handing control over their images to others and the creation of ‘new originals’ or copies.
In print for example, a book or magazine has often been designed, curated and considered to a point that the creators are committing it to print in a finished form. Designers have decided the precise way the images will be sized and cropped, the way the text will fall across the page, and the order in which the content is seen. This, in the tiresome back and forth over the ‘death of print’, is used as one of the strongest arguments explaining why print still prevails: for its ability to offer control. From the weight and millimetre size of the page to the print finish and page order, it allows makers to truly stamp their vision on their output; print represents a committal of an idea to something physical, and in this digital age even more so embodies the idea of a considered concept and object.
And yet the digital still holds the final power. An innate desire to view and ‘experience’ the physical aesthetic world through the screen has created a ‘print porn’ effect. Designed books become represented digitally- often in a styled photograph rather than a scan or PDF ad verbatim version - and all the effort of makers to curate the viewers reading experience is lost. The view through the camera lens removes the original printed piece from its function as communicator, and places it as a subject, removing it from it’s ‘here and now’ as experienced through someone’s exploring hands and eyes.
A new artwork is created – a representation of a book – where the importance of the specific content starts to fade, and the new image comes to represent ‘nice printed matter’. In this way, books are forced into the category of art objects, photographed and viewed in the same way as sculptures or paintings. The print medium shifts from communicator to art object or relic, as the new digital media marches on.
Curating Alongside The Thousands
The existence of ‘print porn’ is one of many trends that proves that though manifesting in the screen based world, much of the imagery consumed online is seemingly rooted to the physical: that which has aura. Unsurprisingly it is still those things which we cannot immediately have or be a part of, those things which might be under lock and key or only for a privileged few that we are most intent on sharing and seeing online. People are using the web, hoping to explore every moment, object and location in the world, nay, the universe, all through the portal of their screen.
On any given blog feed, people share images of a sun-drenched windowsill of tropical succulents in handcrafted pots, a celebrity-filled ‘selfie’ from an awards ceremony they were unlikely to have been privileged enough to have been invited to, the latest copy of the most hip magazine, a rare Mid Century piece of furniture or sculpture from the latest gallery across the Atlantic.
All of these things when shared, in part, make the same statement: these are things that I align myself with, these are things that I recognise as valuable, and by sharing them on my blog, I am creating a version of them which I can own.
The medium in which the aesthetic world is carried out has evolved, and shifted from the physical and elite to the digital and democratic. Everyone is curator, and everyone’s digital personality comprises of their own collection of images, signifying objects, moments and places from almost all of time and the whole of the universe.
New Histories from Physical and Digital
This constant documentation of the physical by the digital, from a historical perspective, acts to archive and track aesthetic trends and themes on a larger scale in ways never possible before. The discourse between print and digital for example, can be observed through online galleries of images, through global visual conversations between makers and consumers and ultimately, proving the staying power of a certain image or aesthetic is defined by the number of these ‘new originals’ or copies that are made.
In this way, the digital serves as an archiving tool on a micro scale - as individuals curate their own visual worlds through blogs and social media, and on a macro scale as emergent trends present themselves and proceed to seep out into the whole of visual culture, advertising, films, fashion... and inevitably back into digital reinterpretation. Individuals and corporations alike are able to tangibly (in the digital sense at least) access people’s pictorial consumption and add to it, creating a visual marketplace of feedback loops, regurgitation and evolution, that can be traced through a series of links, hashtags and web-archives. Perhaps this only serves to document a ‘fast-food’ type of aesthetic consumption, with acts of mindless re-blogging and uneducated interactions with images, but nevertheless these new histories are being documented everyday.
Digital Creative Commodification
Where before most peoples interaction with art and the visual was on a very internal or localized level – a fleeting thought or comment shared with a companion – opinions and reactions are being externalized, in an almost physical, or at least measurable way. Social media, blogging and the Internet’s new vernacular of ‘likes’, ‘shares’, ‘reblogs’ has created a digital commodification of the visual, whereby people gain recognition and gratification of their creative output or imagery through these social media interactions. An image that gets a certain number of ‘likes’ or ‘reblogs’ is deemed a successful image; an artist is successful if their work ‘trends’ through the various methods of sharing and re-representation, permeating the web as far as possible.
The number of people who have seen a particular image, and therefore who are able to form an opinion of it, is quantifiable through the availability of digital analytics, or just by the all-important numbers underneath it, on show for all to see. Studies have shown that people get physical reactions to interactions on social media networks, bursts of serotonin are released when someone responds to something you have posted online. This new media is changing our very psyche, training us to receive physical pay-out through these digital interactions, and this simple but powerful change, perhaps, is one of the driving forces for so many people sharing work in the digital realm.
A transaction system is born: the creators get the serotonin payoff and a quantifiable, traceable reaction to their pieces, and on the other side, the viewers, in ‘liking’ a work or sharing it on their own blog, feel as though they are receiving or owning a little of the image - taking it as theirs into their own visual digital archive. Notably, this new transaction system, for the most part, negates the need for any monetary exchange (where before we might have paid to see work exhibited in a gallery, or bought a print) and so the digital medium further changes the way in which the visual is bought and sold, and fundamentally changes the way we perceive the value of and create certain visual works, though in this case, perhaps for the worse...
This bustling-beyond-extreme marketplace, where people are taking images for their own, transacting in binary likes and dislikes, featuring and sharing left right and centre, obviously poses new considerations for creatives and sees them reacting and participating in new online communities.
The digital medium of the Internet has come to interfere with both ends of the creative process, offering seemingly new avenues for inspiration as well as opportunity for global exhibition and recognition.
We now have an innate and unavoidable awareness (that few can shake off) of our individual online presences, and that if we put them out there, our images have the potential to be seen by an unlimited number of people. In addition, we too are able to see what the masses are reacting to, what’s hot and what’s not, and are able to adjust our creative output accordingly. Many traditional artists might laugh at the idea of tailoring work and imagery to any audience or being affected by external creative activity, but in reality, our connection to the digital makes this nigh on inevitable, whether consciously or unconsciously.
The continual translation of the physical to the digital occurs as makers want to share their wares with the global community. In turn, others are inspired to turn their own hands to new processes, having seen them portrayed through digital means. As well as the ‘new original’ copies made through sharing and reblogging, inevitably facsimiles are created as people react to what they see online.
The phenomenon of creating new pieces to ultimately be photographed or scanned, or at least with the full knowledge that most people viewing the work will do so through a screen, is something that makers and craftspeople alike never particularly had to consider until as recently as the past five years.
In the world of Instagram for instance, where any wonky ceramic experiment photographed in natural lighting is likely to get hundreds of ‘likes’, one wonders whether artists and image makers are making these pieces out of a genuine artistic expression or exploration of a certain process, or a desire to get the recognition that they are able to ‘make one too’ and to join a trend that they have identified to keep in the fickle digital consciousness.
Physical expressions of creativity become the subject rather than the object of an artwork, and these ‘unique’ pieces,surrounded by an aura created through the fact they are made using the human tool of the hand, often in limited or one-off runs, actually find themselves disappearing into the homogeny of cyberspace, where images of poundshop-plunder on pop-coloured backgrounds are ten a penny, and a page is refreshed every few seconds for the next image. What previously might have been perceived as a unique and genuine creative expression begins to appear unoriginal and disingenuous when it inevitably appears alongside a look-alike in the digital high street.
The New Creative Process
This regurgitation and reinterpretation of images as a consequence of the digital is seen by many as a negative effect. We ask: is making art with a conscious knowledge that it will be viewed digitally an authentic way of working as an artist? Is recognizing a trend, or seeing something online and then recreating with your own ‘original copy’ of it a negative thing? Can we be satisfied by ‘likes’ and ‘reblogs’ alone?
The reality is, in fact, that this is merely an evolution of the aesthetic process. In order to move forward we should embrace this new working mode, where reiteration or even copying of an idea is actually a form of collaboration; with each person bringing their own representation of an image or idea into the fold and others inevitably in turn reinterpreting or reacting to it. The digital has created communities for almost every type of aesthetic output. Practitioners of niche or forgotten processes might find others who are honing the same skill, or those interested in a certain sub-group of a certain comic fandom, for example, might come together to create their own canon.
This new era of sharing online and digital stimulation harbours creativity that might not previously have been explored. We have the capability to be inspired by, for example, some extremely localised Filipino folk-art-gone viral, to take the root of an Arts and Crafts designer’s idea into our own practice, or might be impressed by a new method of weaving and be inspired to interpret our own stories through warp and weft instead of pen and ink.
We are in the age of creating ‘new originals’: ideas, artworks, objects and collections that so often are inspired or even created using existing pieces and images, but importantly are also inherently our own.
By putting everything ‘out’ into the digital, we also have an opportunity to get a lot back from it. The meticulous and even mindless encounters with digital imagery are exercising our aesthetic muscles. We are training ourselves to seek out the specific, or perhaps to encounter the random. Yes, the vast homogeny of the Internet can be difficult to navigate, but surely any increased interactions with the visual, the creative, art – whether digital or physical – will only prove to hone our own personal visual ideas, to allow us to create these histories and connections for ourselves rather than in a prescribed way from a specific and limited book, institution or lecture.
Ultimately, the online visual marketplace needs to be navigated with positive intentions and an awareness of this ubiquitous medium. So much can be gained in doing so.
The digital has accelerated the rate of reproduction of the aesthetic – making a pilgrimage or toiling over a lengthy and involved process is simply not necessary to access reproductions of images, and this change has swept over the globe with a speed that has perhaps shocked us. People have always been copying, reinterpreting, re-representing and referencing art, but now the craftsmanship in reproduction has declined, sometimes making the ‘new originals’ seem less valuable, more throwaway and unconsidered. Once we get over the question of ‘how they came to be’ however, these new representations are no less inspiring, enjoyed, and still serve the purpose of signifying the original artwork. Originally art was borne from an individual’s authentic original thought or viewpoint – to shock, to innovate, to stimulate – anything else referencing, or of those things was deemed inauthentic, merely a copy.
But the digital has changed this. There is now an inevitability of reference and representation that should be accepted as part of the new creative way, something that in itself can be creative. Feelings of inspiration are still genuine, and any new iterations will always be ‘originals’. The ritual of looking at art has changed, been transformed in mere decades.
With so much to choose from, it would be foolish to stand back from the digital and be sceptical about the volume of reproduction and re-interpretation of the aesthetic and to miss out on the possibilities of sharing what excites with a wider audience and participating in something that inevitably, is greater than the sum of it’s parts. We can’t fight it so we might as well join in.
This essay was commissioned for Limner journal #4.
Text and images by Liv Taylor, copyright Liv Taylor and Studio Operative, 2016.