“Instagram shows us what a world without art looks like.” –Theses in Tweetform, #19
Ricky D’Ambrose, in “Instagram and the Fantasy of of Mastery,” a mournful essay in The Nation, examines what he sees as a fundamental shift in aesthetics: “the transition from art, long vaunted as a special, and autonomous, area of sensuous intelligence, to creativity, to which art can only ever be superficially related.” Society’s love for the overlay, the template, the filter, is on the rise, inexorably it seems. In place of a personal style born of a mastery of technique, we have the instant application of a “look,” a set of easily recognizable visual tropes, usually borrowed either from an earlier artist’s style or from the output of an earlier creative technology, executed through a software routine. The McCabe & Mrs. Miller look. The Brownie 127 look. The Ms. Pac-Man look. Looks take the work, and the anxiety, out of art.
With looks, there is no time for squinting, no time for whatever is, or might be, inexplicable. A look—insofar as it has any resemblance to style at all—is a kind of instant style: quickly executed and dispatched, immediately understood, overcharged with incident. To say that a film, a photograph, a painting, or a room’s interior has a look is to assume a consensus about which parts of a nascent image are the most worthy of being parceled out and reproduced on a massive scale. It means making a claim about how familiar an image is, and how valuable it seems.
The shift from style to look is abetted by technology, in particular the infinite malleability of the digital artifact, but it seems to spring from a deeper source: our postmodern cultural exhaustion, with its attendant sense that fabrication is the defining quality of art and that all fabrications are equal in their fabricatedness. As the erstwhile taste-making class becomes ever more uncomfortable with the concept of taste, a concept now weighted with the deadly sins of elitism and privilege, the middlebrow becomes the new highbrow. The egalitarianism of the digital filter makes it a particularly attractive refuge for the antsy flâneur.
An insidious quality of the aesthetic of the look is, as D’Ambrose notes, its insatiable retrospective hunger. It gobbles up the past as well as the present. The very style that gave rise to a look comes to be seen as just another manifestation of the look: “One can now watch John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence just as one watches Joe Swanberg’s recent Happy Christmas: in quotation marks. (Both have ‘the 16-millimeter look.’) The look and its source become, in the mind of the viewer who knows the corresponding filter, identical.” The exercise of taste, like the exercise of creativity, becomes a matter of choosing the correct filter.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to the visual arts. Popular music also increasingly has a digitally constructed “look.” Writing is trickier, more resistant to programming than image or sound, but it’s not impossible to imagine a new breed of word processor able to apply a literary filter to a person’s words. A Poe filter. A Goethe filter. A Slouching Towards Bethlehem filter. Instagram for prose: surely somebody’s working on it.
Should augmented reality take off, we’ll be able to rid ourselves of artists and their demands once and for all. We’ll all be free to exercise our full, transformative creativity as observers and consumers, imposing a desired look on the world around us. Blink once for sepia-tinged. Blink twice for noir. Already there are earbuds in testing that allow you to tweak the sound of a concert you’re attending. They’re controlled by an app that includes, reports Motherboard, “a bunch of custom sound settings like ‘dirty country,’ ‘8-track,’ ‘Carnegie Hall,’ or ‘small studio.'” Sean Yeaton, of the band Parquet Courts, admitted “it could be cool to match your soundscape to your mood in mundane settings like the grocery store, but [he] balked at the idea of giving the audience control over the live sound at concerts. He pointed out that it would be pretty fucked up to go see Nine Inch Nails only to make it sound like Jefferson Starship.”
I guess your perspective depends on which side of the filter you happen to be on.