New Media Aesthetics — Is It Any Good? (Lev Manovich)

I’m still loving The Language of New Media, but does it work aesthetically? Do new media provide a model for the kind of deep, rich forms of aesthetic experience? I’m not optimistic. Lev Manovich asks the right question, but I can’t help but think the ball gets dropped. He points to military simulations and popular computer games to argue that all this new media works aesthetically.

While I have no doubt that these kinds of games and simulations do all kinds of interesting kinetic things, I don’t think any of this stands up visually to old media formats like old master or early modern paintings. To his credit, Manovich understands this as well. Because he’s not a new media absolutist, he wants to see how old media arts in painting and cinema might get blended into the digital arts.

The one bit of new media art mentioned by Manovich that I liked very much was The Forest by Tamás Waliczky. . Perhaps in part it’s because the visuals are based on a two-dimensional drawing of the forest, which means that the installation blends old and new media. But I here too I have too many doubts. The interactive version is based on a flight simulator. It consists of a platform on which the user-viewer’s seat is placed before the monitor. You meander by means of a joystick through a synthetic forest up in the branches and off the ground. And in the CD-Rom version, the black-white-gray tonalities of been reduced so as not to interefere with the program’s more kinetic values. You can read about this here:  

The Forest is very gentle and looks lovely. But practically, I don’t see how this all works. A lot of these immersive simulations and VR programs are limited to single viewers who sit or proceed through the program one at a time, closed up, tethered, in the dark, and isolated; adding to that is the fact that the sheer mass of machinery in which the user and the image-world are embedded makes such systems unwieldy and unmanageable. The interface is nowhere near as flexible as the traditional frame or canvas; and I think there’s still a lot to be said for a little bit of subject-object distance and shared aesthetic experience.

All this might only mean that, with the exception of digital art photography, which I tend to like, I am not visually interested in most forms of computerized art. As Manovich also notes, the objects are too object-oriented, the look isolated and brittle. I have no problem confessing that my exposure to computerized art is too limited. But still, I don’t like very much what I’ve seen and I have serious doubts about the little I do like.

So maybe the problem is me. Or maybe the problem is that the language of new media is still very, very young, meaning that it has not yet found its aesthetic measure. Like a Hollywood special effect, this may be harder than it looks, demanding years and years of labor, trial, and error on the part of many, many cultural creator-actor-users before it’s gotten right.

Still, I think Manovich would have been on sounder ground had he turned to digital photographers like Andreas Gursky, artists whose photographic work is invested in new media technologies, but more composed, painterly, and quiet than simulations and games. About contemporary art photography, I’d recommend to anyone Michael Fried’s recent Why Photography Matters As Art as Never Before. (Fried is an old school old media guy writing very smart things about digital photography.)

If anyone out there has any suggestions about what and where to see, please let me know. It’s not that I am not waiting to be convinced otherwise about the visual value of cyborg art and new digital aesthetics.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to New Media Aesthetics — Is It Any Good? (Lev Manovich)

  1. Javier says:

    Yes, there are lots of art works too based on the object and the technology. It´s also very disappointing when visiting an exhibitions with too may digital artifacts that do no t work because of technical reasons. But there´s a lot of cool digital art, more based on the digital culture than on the tecnological effects, try this (click on the top icons on that web):

  2. Javier says:

    or this guy, he also paints:

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