The rise of short-form content and the reduction of art to aesthetics as a means of existing in the digital world.
The discussion of the role of technology in art takes on a very literal meaning when you enter a museum. The debate is personified through the two most polarizing demographics. Group one: the people who see anyone with a phone as a hazy-eyed robot indebted to the blue light in front of them. I imagine that they write their grocery list by hand and dream of retreating into the woods. Group two: those who obviously came to take pictures, candidly walking in front of the piece again and again to capture the perfect shot. They always scroll through their photos afterward. While the concerning amount of time and energy group one spends ridiculing everyone else leaves me wondering where we would be if this motivation was channeled into something positive, their apprehension towards this particular kind of engagement with art exists in opposition to a larger trend across all mediums: the rise of short-form content and the reduction of art to aesthetics as a means of existing in the digital world.
The switch to short-form content has transformed media across multiple platforms. From the rise of TikTok and the subsequent fall of YouTube to the emergence of streaming as the dominant form of music consumption. In the world of short-form content, there is no time for information to actually be processed. Everything must exist in its most minimized form to remain quick and easy to consume. Nuance becomes a burden and aesthetics, through their ability to consolidate and signal, become a digital commodity. While art lives in direct opposition to this format as it requires the labor of attention, an exclusive focus on aesthetics allows art to exist in its most stripped-down form where it is molded to fit the format of a digital space.
I observed this trend most recently at the MoMA when I witnessed the way that people were interacting with Tony Cokes’s “The Book of Love”1 and Glenn Ligon’s “Warm Broad Glow.”2 While both artists grapple with topics of racial narrative and depiction, the photos of and with their work were often paired with anecdotes of aesthetic appeal. A picture in front of Coke’s lights was a “cool” photo. A picture with Ligon’s videos playing in the background was also just a “cool” photo. It is not presumptuous to assume that these photos were taken with the intent of existing online because there was no real engagement with these pieces other than what they could signal in a digital space. These depictions of racial structures were transformed into fragments that existed to sit next to other images on a feed. This is not to say that anyone who took a photo of pieces did not meaningfully engage with them or that the act of taking a photo inherently dilutes the work, but when the sole desire to engage with art rests on the creation of digital content and the means of interaction becomes what it can signal online, the thought that the work is meant to provoke is dismissed.
The convolution of art into digital aesthetics can also be seen in the context of literature. My Year of Rest and Relaxation the 2018 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh became extremely popular online around 2021 as it was a key part of a growing digital aesthetic trend.3 The book which follows a wealthy, beautiful, and largely selfish unreliable narrator who has decided to sedate herself for an entire year, became a central part of an online niche that sought to reclaim the labels of insanity and hysteria that are often attached to women through the adoration of “crazy” female characters. While the sentiments surrounding the trend seem progressive on the surface, it ultimately diminished the book to an aesthetic that sought to glorify female pain and deprived it of the analysis it required. Often posted resting alongside scattered bedside tables containing prescription bottles juxtaposed with bows, expensive perfume, and other traditionally feminine items, the book became a way to signal a socially acceptable image of a disheveled woman. Its popularity rested on this aesthetic as a form of social currency. Photos and videos of girls holding the book “rotting” in bed like the protagonist became increasingly popular. An image of the reader: her hair was undone, her room was ornately decorated, and her lipstick was effortlessly smudged. She was “messy” but she was still cute. It was an aspirational pain that contradicted the very questions the book was meant to generate.
The heavy association online between Moshfegh’s work and symbols of delicate femininity such as hair ribbons and lace posits an important relationship between aesthetics and agency when analyzed in relation to Sianne Ngai’s aesthetic category of cuteness.4 In an interview with Cabinet on her book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Sianne Ngai positions cuteness as the “dominant aesthetic of consumerist society.”5 When asked to elaborate on the characteristics of things that people see as cute she points to the idea of the non-complex and its association with femininity and a lack of agency. Cuteness as an aesthetic creates a more simple exchange with what we are interacting with. This is visible in the relationship between the book which incites questions about class, gender, and isolation, and its reduction to what is “cute.” This aesthetic became a popular marketing tool as brands included the book and references to Moshfegh’s work in photoshoots and advertisements. With such distinct connotations online, one knows exactly who they are trying to market to just through the mere appearance of the book. This is not to say that any formation of digital aesthetics around literature is intrinsically reductive or even to blame the young women who partook in the trend. Rather, similar to the work of Cokes and Ligon, aesthetic engagement as the sole means of interaction reduced the work to a digital commodity. The function of the book became its ability to align people and things with a glorified image of female pain.
Music is another medium in which short-form media has led to a prioritization of aesthetics over the work itself. This shift is encapsulated by the switch from the album being the most popular mode of engagement with music to the playlist. The album is a complete work that requires consistent attention. Songs do not exist on their own they are chapters of a larger story, sonic theme, or emotional subject. In the age of streaming, the dominant institution has switched from the album to the playlist, a form that epitomizes short-form content through the fragmentation that it requires. Unlike the album where struggle and resolution are necessary to create some sort of comprehension, playlists are a work of aesthetic curation that pushes listeners to quickly switch from one piece of information to another. They prioritize the “vibe” over the complete project.
Playlists, specifically those created by large streaming platforms, have become such a preeminent form that they have moved the economic goalpost of music. Selling albums is no longer where profit lies and this is seen through the increase in extremely long albums. Longer albums ensure that at least a few songs will end up on popular playlists. This recent trend of 25-song albums cannot be analyzed without acknowledging the financial incentive for artists and labels to get songs on playlists. Playlists create streams and in turn money and popularity. In many ways, the playlist is the pinnacle of this trend of engagement based on aesthetics. Its very function is to pull out the highlights from a complete body of work and repackage them in an easily digestible format. This is not to say that the playlist has somehow killed music or even that artists have completely abandoned the art of the album in favor of streams. Every generation has believed that music is dying and yet it has persisted. However, this constant desire to repackage art in its most simple form does not occur in a vacuum and it is naive to assume that the form in which we consume media does not alter the product.
Aesthetics as our primary means of communicating with art is the result of a digital culture that balances on a dwindling tightrope of attention. Installations, literature, and music have a better chance of persisting on the internet if they do not require long-form attention. Aesthetics stabilize this tightrope as they consolidate and signal the information that does not have the time and space to exist online. We watch as these aesthetic trends emerge and see them get sold back to us. It is a cycle of insufficient engagement. Despite the reduction that this trend has caused, culture is always adapting and the way that we engage with art inevitably adapts with it. The belief that the internet is this dark entity that is destroying art is pessimistic and unproductive. It is easy to see technology as this unknown lurking evil that will lead to the destruction of all artistic engagement. A vision of a world full of people mindlessly scrolling because they are incapable of understanding a book beyond the cover is too convenient a picture. We have agency over the way that we choose to interact with things. We can shift our focus and do the work to understand art beyond aesthetics.
- Cokes, Tony. The Book of Love. 1992, MoMA, New York.
- Ligon, Glenn. Warm Broad Glow. 2005, MoMA, New York.
- Moshfegh, Ottessa. My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Penguin Press, 2018.
- Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Harvard University Press, 2015.
- Ngai, Adam Jasper and Sianne. “Our Aesthetic Categories: An Interview with Sianne Ngai: Adam Jasper and Sianne Ngai.” CABINET, no. 43, Fall 2011 www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/43/jasper_ngai.php.