Aesthetics Internet Culture

Day 177 and Unaesthetic

Aesthetics are opinions. And opinions are totalizing. I’ve been on some bullshit recently about how taste is totalitarian. Mostly because I care about how aesthetics turn into politics. But aesthetics are almost always personal choices (except our biology which is another discussion entirely) which gives them wide latitude to be all encompassing.

That aesthetics are choices matters. We choose to articulate our aesthetics. If our tools have the capacity to articulate an aesthetic vision with clarity and fidelity it’s often been the choice of artists to render their vision closely to what is in their mind’s eye. Or sometimes we say fuck it, who cares, there is virtue going in the other way. I’d argue that is unaesthetic.

A deliberate decision to eschew aesthetics is literally the definition of unaesthetic. It’s not an insult. It’s just a choice. If we can tell something is a deliberate choice to pursue an aesthetic that is unappealing, unpopular, ugly or otherwise thumbing its nose its nose at beauty that is unaesthetic. Which is its own aesthetic. And it’s fine for that to be your taste but it is a taste.

Normative standards and boundaries are powerful. So rejecting them has become own own artistic and culturally pursuit. It’s become so popular “punk is dead” has become a layered insult.

Modernity has been on about how the search for universals of beauty is both hegemonic and homogenizing for most of the last century. That means everyone has to have the same standard and because we have the same standards we all tend to look alike. Think Stepford Wives or South Korean beauty pageant queens.

Understanding and telegraphing cultural norms of beauty is generally considered crucial for social competence and often for participation in any group. Think of how awkward it is to wear a suit into a startup or not wearing any makeup for sorority rush.

Sometimes I think beauty and aesthetic standards wish they were as totalitarian as technology. Protocols are literally limitations on what can and cannot be done. 8Bit and pixel art were originally protocol standards. What could be rendered wasn’t a limit of imagination but our tool sets. That’s why we obsessed on rendering and fidelity for so much of the history of computing. We’d say shit like “look how crisp” and we’d mean it.

That’s not true anymore. If anything we’ve got issues with too much fidelity. The uncanny valley of hyper reality upsets our mind because it’s hyper real. Aesthetics now has to cope with the ability to render even the most elaborate vision to exact reality. Now that’s a cool problem. But if you want to sell pixel art, call it punk, and tell me it’s actually a cool commentary on protocol limits that’s fine. But I’m going to call it unaesthetic. But it’s not worth being insulted about.

Unpopular take but crypto punks are unaesthetic
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Day 62 And Who Can Make Art

My ego dislikes debate, but my heart leaps at tension.

Over the weekend, my friend Phil and I decided to make a functional art installation called Illegal.Auction. The premise is simple: we are selling Fungible Tokens (or NFTs) of Culture. 

Unsettled ideas of generation and representations colliding with abstractions like finance are important issues both culturally and practically.

Art is for itself, so who cares either way. A certain dogmatic insistence that “medium is the message” is pervasive in the critiques. Are movies different than books? I don’t think they have anything to do with the price of milk. It reminds me of the classic Annie Hall scene (speaking of artistic intent and harm) where Marshal McLuhan explodes on a chattering group “you know nothing of my work.” Woody Allen’s character concludes the scene if only real life were like this. Well on Twitter you can recreate this scene everyday!

It is funny because commentary is distinct from creation. And a lot of people have takes on McLuhan that he himself doesn’t agree with. But who cares right? Interpretation of art is ostensibly art.

It’s very interesting to see just how angry people get about the worth and value of culture in particular. As if it’s some monstrosity to comment on the abstract financial value of some creation with worth that cannot be extracted.

If it were so easy to make value judgments about art then we would trade it on the Chicago exchange like pork bellies and orange juice. Not that we don’t already sell art and trade it and frankly it has been a massive tension through the history of human creation how we value that work, but now many have decided to insist that art is non-fungible. Not interchangeable on a one to one basis like an apple. And yet we are acting like everything can be valued and traded so easily with NFTs. By making art tradeable on exchanges, we have made some thing inherently non-fungible, fungible.

This is ultimately where Illegal.Auction came from. These conversations are important and transformative. That we choose to represent the tensions with representations of reproductions of jpgs of art is part of the art installation. That it is a functional sale is in inherent to the tension.

There is a part of me that is really worried that because I am not a practicing artist that is paid for work or represented in a gallery, that I don’t have a right to comment on these issues. I am a technologist and I do work in finance and the overlap of disciplines makes this an inter-disciplinary question in my mind. It seems like some people disagree with my right to create art (and certainly the morality of remuneration).

But if we insist that only artists can make art I don’t have any right to make installations remixing software and representations. But I’m not sure anyone reading this is comfortable with that world. I am not.

I think people want there to be simple yes no questions to these things. Is it legal? Did you steal? Is it a transformative remixing of a cultural artifact? Is it worth $1 million? And the truth is is that there is no easy answer to what political system is best or how much some thing is worth. Trillion dollar industries are based around the fact that we don’t have clear answers. Irate commentary doesn’t help any of us understand the infinite questions of worth and creation. It is good to do and helps further understanding but its crucial to remember indignation and moralizing is a function of ego.

Personally I don’t think that wealth has any moral value. I don’t want to have to be wealthy in order to be valuable. Or if a piece of art I make does make money do you have a right to tell me it is objectionable because this isn’t how you make money? I guess you do. Whether you can stop me from doing it is a central questions for the ages and also literally why it is important to create pieces like Illegal.Auction in the first place.

This commentary I think is worth having. Not whether speculative infinite land grabs with financial instruments make you worth more to billionaires. They probably do. That’s fine! I think people are mostly offended by the idea that non-artists can make art. Especially if a transaction takes place. If we had stamped illegal on the jpgs and blocked out NOT ART on them would it have made it better? Conceptually I’m not sure that that’s true and probably reflects the viewer’s own sense of value and worth more than a legal, political or moral reality. Also I personally think it cheapens the point just to make concessions to dogmatic insistence on ownership in a space that isn’t settled because frankly it cannot be.

Much of the narrative and coverage around NFTs is that they delineate ownership, value and origination more cleanly. I’d argue that they are actually having the opposite effect. NFT’s are ripping away edifice and abstractions that we use to assign value and worth. And that makes people uncomfortable.

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Day 45 & Noblese Oblige

With great power comes great responsibility” is a comic book classic known as the Peter Parker principle. If you are bestowed with gifts, you must gift them back to your community. Noblese Obliege or “nobility obliges” suggests that nobility comes with a responsibility to fulfill obligations to the people who guarantee your status.

This sounds like a social good, and sure it anchors all the great heroic narratives of our modern age, but it appears to be unraveling in modernity. It used to be that we believed the morally good are the ones with gifts, if you weren’t wealthy it was because you didn’t deserve it. It was a bit of a religious and heroic tautology. But it worked! The nobles and the superheroes felt an obligation to their subjects insofar as publicly demonstrating their inherent goodness was crucial to demonstrating their nobility.

A key component of noblese oblige was showing off moral worth by giving to the people without the insistence that the people be inherently good. The people didn’t need to be worthy to get anything. Being worthy was the job of the nobility not the peasants. Which meant that all gifts from nobility to peasants were inherently gratuitous. No one deserves to be given gifts. Gifts were bestowed at random and in significant largess.

I’d suggest the reason our institutional trust is breaking down is not because we are wising up to inequality, but because the narrative arc of nobility living up to its responsibilities have broken down. America’s first robber baron class understood this with their grand social gifts of libraries, parks and endowments. Some of our Billionaires still do. But we no longer feel the gifts match the obligations. No matter how much this new nobility gifts, the rabble is still pissed.

Maybe it’s the insistence on making charity go to worthy causes. Or welfare go to people that deserve it. That is ass backwards. The nobility are supposed to be good. The peons with outstretched arms never had any worth to begin with. If they did then they would definitionally be noblese oblige too. You can’t ask everyone in the system to be good, moral, and true. That’s fucking exhausting. Even Christianity got that sin was so encompassing that literally only God could be expected to be without it. Probably why we used to let nobility get away with bad behavior. That is fine as long as they did their part. The prodigal son got shit without deserving it. That was the moral of the story.

The trouble with a time that has broken with historical arcs of goodness is that now no one is nobility or peasantry. No one is noble or good. Which means nobody deserves anything they get. Which is about as close to the war of all against all as I can imagine. Hobbes would be pleased.

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Distraction unto Death

I wasn’t allowed to watch television as a child. My mother has a firm view on the pedagogical benefits of using your full cognition range as a developing child. She simply thought the television did too much work for you which hindered building mental acuity in a child. But she also has a more personal reason. She believes distraction breeds stagnation.

As I’ve mentioned before here, my parents were utopian hippies committed to the manifest destiny of Silicon Valley. A classic book of the radical “information longs to be free” crowd Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death showed distraction as the primary tool of the tyrant. The real tyrant wouldn’t need force. They only need us to be distracted. Bread and circus for the plebeians to keep us complacent. In this sense my mother feared Huxley’s Brave New World more than she did Orwell’s 1984. In her view information need discourse, disagreement, and nuance. Television wasn’t a medium suited to debate. Particularly news programs who digested and provided a narrative and a moral arc. No one could discern facts or testable hypotheses from a story. That was an affront to enlightenment values, science, and frankly even religion (she hates when you drag belief into science). So I didn’t watch television as a child as quite literally it would make me stupid and lazy.

It is with this knowledge that I realize the main weapon the populist right has wielded the last four years was distraction. A constant drum beat of incessant crisis after crisis. Never having a moment of peace after outage after outrage was laundered through mass media insistent on making sure it never became normal. The #Resistance committed to remembering that “this is not normal” wore us down daily.

So in a way I think we have come out from under totalitarian thought. It was impossible to make progress on problems when one could only see the next crisis. The question is now how do we react from having constant distraction finally relieved? Do we realize the mess we are in? Distraction bred stagnation. But can we shake it off and begin to the think for ourselves again.