from ‘What We Know’ to ‘A New Aesthetic’

When we invented industrial manufacturing, we looked to Victorian era products and mass-produced everything from dishware to ovens with Victorian ornamentation. We did this until the Bauhaus came along and demanded that new technologies require a new aesthetic. The members of the Bauhaus “listened” to modern materials and processes and “heard” that they wanted to be simple and clean and not covered in lacy decor.

Another example: When we invented computing, we grabbed what we knew – a type writer and a TV set – and mashed them together to make a desk top computer. Only today are other types of computing starting to take hold. Google glass is a known example of mobile and hands free computing. Smart products with simple micro-controllers, another. Computing is finally moving beyond sitting at a desk or having your head down in a phone screen.

Today we have the desktop manufacturing revolution. There are all kinds of new technologies becoming available but none other has captured the publics’ imagination like 3D printing has. I think this is because the objects that a printer makes look like objects that we know from the store. Objects from 1950-2000 that are enclosed in injection molded plastic. Which is ironic because this late 20th c. aesthetic is the epitome of hiding a products’ inner workings from consumers–ironic because makers are interested in openness and product transparency.

We’re in that early stage of a new technology – making what we already know. It’s just what we do. In art school, that’s how I learned to draw – from copying 16th century masters. But I wonder how long it will take us to move from making what we know to demanding a new aesthetic–to listening to these new materials and processes and hearing what they want to be. And I wonder who will lead this change.

Beyond Out-of-Phase

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cascade effects of mass production.  The unintended consequences that happen when you mass produce and distribute stuff. Some artists capture this theme extremely well. Charles Sheeler, whose painting titled “Water” is pictured above, was commissioned to paint American factories in the early 20th century. His paintings position the buildings like cathedrals or, in this case, natural elements. They are beautiful to look at and terrifying to think about. (Water?? Really??)

A contemporary photographer, Ed Burtynsky, photographs landscapes that have been altered by industrialization. His images of mined quarries, for example, are beautiful in their geometry but terrifying when you stop and think about the hyper-consumption that created that geometry.

Another example of this aesthetic, from music, is the work of composer Steve Reich who is known for his work with phasing. He plays small units of melody in synch and then slowly, over time, moves the units out of phase. The results are neat and mechanical even as the pieces start to come apart. The whole effect of his work is a beautiful terror.

Which makes me think of this phrase from The Declaration of Independence (today is July 3):

All experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

This “beautiful-terrible” aesthetic that so many of us in the 21st century are accustomed to is an aesthetic that highlights “out of phase” and our willingness to suffer through it. Our industrial systems are beautiful in their efficiencies and tolerable in their familiarity but are wildly out of phase in the negative social and environmental impacts they create. Yet we continue to embrace an aesthetic that says, “It’s complicated. Just go with it.”

What I wonder is, what aesthetic will push us to free ourselves from this beauty-terror trance that we’re in?

Related Links

Cascade Effects

Charles Sheeler

Ed Burtynsky

Steve Reich

Nile Rodgers and Figure-Ground

There’s a formal principle in art called “The Figure-Ground Relationship.” In a painting, for example, the figure is the subject of the painting and the ground is the background. But great artists don’t think of the background as something that is secondary to the subject. Instead, they think that backgrounds are just as important. This is why designers value negative space. This is why academics value context. A subject is made more meaningful when placed in a ground or context that’s handled with care.

The interview above with music producer Nile Rodgers illustrates this concept of figure-ground. Rodgers talks about how his rhythm guitar grounds the melody, the figure, in a song.

“The main role that I learned to play in  R&B music was to support those stars that came up on stage and play more of a secondary role. But I wasn’t playing a secondary role. In fact, I was playing a primary role because a lot of the stuff that I was playing — if you take that part out, the song goes away. It’s just not there any more.”

He’s not being arrogant here. He’s just articulating the importance of each piece to a composition. To hear more NR, click here