Aesthetic Futurity

By Edmund Zagorin

ABSTRACT: The evolution of artistic expression is often understood to be co-productive with a certain apprehended teleology of culture: “progress”, a notion itself instantiated by false axiomatic assumptions concerning biological evolution. These meditations will seek to critically interrogate teleological assumptions by de-structively mapping the future evolution of artistic expression through a radically empirical attention to the flows of cultural raw materials, media-structures, mediums, memes and messages. By attending to processes associated with growing media digitzation, inter-connectedness and fragmenting attention span, these meditations will seek to illuminate a cultural milieu which is comprised of unprecedented structural homogeneity yet capable of equally unprecedented artistic diversity.

I. A Biology of Art

The evolution of artistic expression is much like the evolution of biological species. In both cases, the raw material is a product of mutant variation—in biology that variation appears random, in the case of art it is attributed to creativity and, increasingly, strategic deviation from established convention. Across the field of this variation, certain selection pressures determine whether or not certain mutations survive. In biology, those mutants with advantages over previous versions of the organism are apt to proliferate, and that mutation becomes more prevalent in the variation. In artistic expression, different mutations enjoy widespread acclaim and are rewarded by the market, which in turn creates incentives for other artists to produce in a similar vein, or in other words, to embody their own artwork with this new mutation. I will here reflect on the quixotic nature of these mutations in an attempt to circumvent the rigid trajectory so often imposed by historians and social theorists, which assemble the historically constructed chronological assemblages into an artificial linear teleology. Whether this then becomes understood as progress away from barbarism or corruption of a prior Golden Age cannot redeem its arbitrariness. The attribution of some defining purpose of history or Spirit of an Age to ritual, formulaic and aesthetic representation has long characterized critical response to art of all different stripes, and must be resisted. These reflections will hopefully serve as a futurist’s de-structive genealogy[1], which seeks to expose the arbitrary construction of such grand narratives and the bricolage nature of historical condensations of aesthetic culture, as well as suggesting how the cultural raw materials of media structure, medium, meme and message might more forcefully manifest and as these expressive trajectories proceed apace.

The change of creatures, languages and memes over time is often referred to through the language of evolution. However, such language carries unfortunate teleological baggage which requires critical interrogation. One crucial misunderstanding of evolutionary theory can be epitomized in the axiomatic phrase: ‘survival of the fittest.’ This phrase is extremely un-useful, because people who use it almost always define ‘fittest’ as ‘those that are apt to survive’ and empiricists define ‘those that are apt to survive’ based on ‘those that have survived in the past’. Therefore the expression is converted into the tautology: ‘those that survived survived.’ In practice, whatever is meant by ‘fittest’ need not have a central role in determining survival. A meteor descending surprisingly out of a cloudless blue sky can destroy the world’s smartest and strongest man as surely as it can destroy a paraplegic infant. The millions dead of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes on the one hand and colonialist violence, structural starvation, modern genocides, and terrorist attacks on the other, were unlucky, not unfit. The high propensity of events to happen unexpectedly or for a reason entirely un-related to so-called ‘fitness’ increases the corresponding likelihood that even if there were some ideal organism or some ideal artwork, neither organic nor artistic evolutionary course would veer in that direction.

This misunderstanding, in biology referred to as determinism (or the idea that biology can determine an organism’s superiority independent of an assessment of that organism’s environment) is behind some of the most misguided political actions of the twentieth century. In reality, an entity is only fit relative to its environment. Since an entity’s environment is always operating under changing conditions and is always being partially re-composed through the mutation of other entities, the definition of “fitness” must also be in constant flux. In biological evolution, rising temperature may make thick fur a draw-back when it had once been an advantage, and if those animals have trouble surviving than maybe other animal’s sharp teeth and carnivorous digestive systems will be forced to subsist on vegetable matter, as in the case of the panda which must consume huge quantities of bamboo for it’s meat-designed digestive system to extract sufficient nutrients. In artistic evolution, if a large-scale war is in the making, such political foreshadowing may make impressionistic paintings of bucolic rural pleasantries seem naïve or overly sentimental, disconnected from the current mood or even propagandistic. This was the case among the artists of the ill-fated Weinmar Republic as the approach of the second world war neared. If the government intervenes in the artistic sphere, as in the case of socialist countries, then that will function as powerful selection pressure determining what mutations  actually succeed (although censorship itself is a selection pressure on the population of subversives that ensures that only the most insidiously subversive works become popular). These are examples of the ways in which selection pressures, both market and non-market, determine what forms of artistic expression become prevalent, both drawing on and informing the culture that intertwines them, and give inspiration to new artists to carry on and strategically depart from their work.

A momentary linguistic note: I am using the general term of ‘artistic expression’ to be inclusive of anything that the reader properly deems to be art. While small libraries could be filled with the books that have been written over the question ‘what is art?’ I submit that while it is relatively difficult (and somewhat fruitless) to arrive at a precise (or concise) definition of art, we can amusingly reverse Justice Stewart’s quip concerning the definition of pornography by saying that at least you can know it when you see it. In some ways the process of questioning the boundaries of its own social definition is an intrinsic element of the artistic process, manifest in objects, persons, performances, happenings and so on. Definitions here are not answers to questions that anyone should be asking. Or, as one of my college professors put it: “Art inspires. What’s inspiration? Exactly.”

II. Contemporary Selection Pressures

If we are interested in the future of artistic expression, we must first begin by asking what selection pressures exist, and whether they are primarily directed at artist, art-object, art-buyer or general art consumer. My observations here are not meant to be exhaustive, but primarily to address one particular trend which I feel is unique to our time-period and will have more to do with influencing the future of artistic expression than any other. That trend is the increasing demands placed upon the human attention span. We live during a historical epoch where everyone is expected to be a multi-tasker. Many of the people I know regularly do 4-5 things at once, whether they are working or relaxing. Those activities include: listening to music, checking email, writing email, reading news, checking a social networking service such as Facebook, sending messages through that social networking service, reading a blog or blog-aggregator such as Digg, searching for random cultural factoids and background on Wikipedia, playing some type of internet-based computer game, looking through collections of bizarre or cute images, text-messaging, and watching television, to name a few of the ones that jump most quickly to mind. For those who prefer to focus on labor as the locus of social behavior, it is easy to see how this trend is co-productive with a efficiency-oriented attempt to socialize white collar workers for constant multi-tasking by managers who correctly believed that in the short-term this strategy would increase worker productivity.[2] This multi-tasking socialization effort has proved almost disastrously successful.

This selection pressure is unique for a number of reasons. It exists in a category of persistent and unplanned mass social trends that has few historical precedents. Unlike a war or an economic crash which historically seem to come and go and operate somewhat cyclically, the trend of increasing use of computers throughout the economy shows no signs of calling it quits. And as that computing use becomes more integrated into economic, and subsequently, social life, it is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. Moore’s Law, named for Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, is an observation that the number of transistor on an integrated circuit doubles roughly every eighteen months, making the increases in emerging hi-tech capacity literally exponential.[3] Can you imagine someone a decade ago contemplating the possibility of youtube? Blogs that generate enough revenue that anyone can start one for free? Now youtube videos have become something of a sub-genre unto themselves and blogs of publications like Time magazine and Foreign Policy are outpacing the readership of their print editions. To many, this phenomenal acceleration of high technology seems more enduring even than the governments that may preside over them. One need only to look at the frequent failures and inconsistencies of Chinese internet censorship to see how the conceptual technology and memes that allow information to be organized are outpacing their antiquated opponents by leaps and bounds.

Another element to consider is the target. Of these more enduring forms of pressure, such as censorship or market demand, previous pressures have targeted the production rather than consumption of artistic expression. Censorship targets the writer more than the reader, the artist who can’t sell her paintings suffers more than the patron who can’t buy them, at least materially. The hi-tech pressure on the human attention span affects everyone, but as a selection pressure on artistic expression, the consumer is the focus. Focusing on the consumer has historically not been easy, because of the large numbers of consumers and their de-centralized location relative to artists who have gallery representation and must connect with the art market in order to become profitable. I should note that when I say consumers, I am referring to a new sort of consumer that high technology has made possible, a consumer that consumes without expense, that allows artists to produce money through popularity alone that generates revenue through advertising. This consumer of artistic expression need only view an image or a film in order to have participated in the act of consumption, as opposed to the traditional mechanism of consumer participation; spending money. In this, these new consumers can be juxtaposed against traditional art buyers who are also easier for previous selection pressures to reach, through attendance of gallery openings and art auctions and consumption of a specific sub-genre designed for art buyers. New consumers can be anyone, interested in the professionalized “art world” or not. They vote with their feet (or hands, on their keyboard) instead of their purses and increasingly in is those votes that have come to signify artistic success, along with the traditional markers of critical acclaim and premium market price.

III. Future Mutations

Just as the selection pressure of increasing demands placed on the attention span target the consumer, the consumer transfers that pressure onto the art object. If most consumption of artistic expression in the future occurs at the same time as a number of other activities, then it is reasonable to assume that artistic expression will rise to meet that need. If you are listening to music while you watch TV with the sound off (or on low volume) and write emails to people, you will want to listen to music that is more like a soundtrack rather than a discrete art-object unto itself. You will want that television program, let’s say the news, to communicate its message wordlessly. You will want your form of communication with others to be short and direct. Already, we can observe patterns in music, network news and communication which complement the needs of a consumer base which spends its time doing many things at once.

It is easy to decry the consumer-culture influences as leading only to the pointless and ugly simplifying of artistic expression into uninspiring and repetitive drivel. There are certainly many examples to point to of musicians that sound almost exactly the same as other musicians, television shows with characters that look and act like characters on other television shows, clothing that is designed to blend in with the clothing that others are wearing and so on. It is hard to doubt that the fragmenting of attention span is having a homogenizing influence on artistic expression.

Take the music industry as a good example. Radio disc jockeys have in large part been replaced as music selectors with the Scott SS32 radio automation suite[4], a program developed by Google which shuffles a playlist of 4-500 tracks and tells the DJ when to talk and when to break for ads. These playlists are assembled by market research companies which study the reactions of demographically homogenous groups to hundreds of 7-second song clips. Each member of the market group votes up or down whether or not to add the song to the playlist.[5] Because of this vetting process, music producers are increasingly using digital technology to polish songs to elide anything that sounds like an error, and add elements that make them sound like recognizable hits. This process is becoming an industry standard if it isn’t already.[6] We could blame greedy music producers or soul-less corporatism for this tendency, but the reality is that they are responding to the same selections pressures of a culture that increasingly does many things at once and therefore has less attention to understand a more complicated or non-conforming art object when it comes in over the radio. Next time you listen to the radio (which will probably be while you are driving) think about how long it takes you to decide whether or not to stay with a station that’s playing a certain song, and then think about whether or not you are making that decision primarily based on how innovative or how familiar that song seems to you. The fact of the matter is that the fragmenting of attention has created a market in which it is profitable to conform.

The music industry is an extreme example, however, and we can look at many forms of new media which form new parameters that encourage both homogenization and deviance. youtube is one of the best example of this formula: the medium homogenizes all content to the format of a short, several minutes-long streaming video, but the content is remarkably varied. In the evolution of artistic expression, just like biology, every homogenization along selective traits both decreases the likelihood of variance outside of those traits while increasing the propensity for specialization within them. Once all birds have evolved beaks, different groups of birds will evolve beaks more adept at eating certain foods, such as nuts, creating evolutionary niches. The same principle applies here. Once the pressure of fragmenting attention has concentrated mass-consumed artistic expression in selective mediums, innovation in content and specialization can occur within those mediums and at their periphery.

To continue with the youtube example, at the periphery of the genre of free, short, web-based videos, one might look at the evolution of internet pornography into parallel fragmented search engines such as eskimotube, which in turn organizes sub-genre videos based on viewer predilection into separate, linked search engines and then streams those videos in the same way that youtube does. I should note that I use the word “periphery” only to describe social acceptability and the question of whether or not such productions are legitimately ‘artistic’. If, however, we looked at actual web traffic one would find that internet pornography swamps most other forms of hi-tech consumption of images and video by astounding magnitudes. As this genre and its manifold accompaniments have become more readily accessible through the exact same medium as youtube, they have created separate user-communities viewing different content based on fetishistic and racialized viewing preferences which, in turn, continues the process of internal specialization into different sub-genres that are organized and presented in different electronic fora.

The example of internet pornography is an important case study because it is an instance where numerical superiority of consumer preferences has yet to make a real impact on the social culture of consumption in terms of acceptability. According to the Internet Filter Review’s statistical information for 2006, 70 per cent of all internet pornography access occurs between the 9-5 workday, 20 per cent of men admit to accessing pornography at work, 1 in 3 companies has had to terminate employees for inappropriate web activity and 10 percent of men surveyed admit that they have an addiction to internet pornography. These statistics indicate that internet pornography has not merely a fact but a way of life for literally millions of American workers. While this may be surprising, it shouldn’t be, given that the internet pornography industry currently outpaces the revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix and EarthLink combined.[7] This is a prime example of the way in which an aesthetic environment, widely considered deviant, becomes integrated into an overlapping series of such environments within the workplace as people seek everyday ways to satisfy their need to see sexual images. While such a need may be sexually motivated, like it or not, it may also be many workers dominant interaction with any sort of creative production outside of advertising. As this trend and others like it continue to grow and permeate the cultural milieu, they will in turn form a profound selection pressure which will provide the criteria for success or failure of future aesthetic mutations.

Here we can talk about art as not an art-object but as a series of overlapping components: content, medium, and media-structure. For a youtube video of a puppy chasing its tail, the tail-chasing would be the content, the short streaming video would be the medium and the network of would be the media structure. While Marshall McLuhan’s quip that the medium is the message may at one point have been true, increasingly it is the media-structure that is dominating the medium which in turn reflects upon the content. Art objects are homogenized, hollowed out, shortened, stripped; the messages are apparent, explicit, easy-to-grasp; the presentation is designed to get attention, to shock and to titillate. These goals will form the principles that the market will use to designate the evolutionary winners in the new highly fragmented field of artistic expression, and it is those winners that will inspire artistic progeny.

For those who will say that the field of so-called “high art” (painting and sculpture) are immune from such influences, I would point to the meteoric ascendancy in the art world of the neo-Warholian Takashi Murakami whose work both thrives under and embodies the aforementioned selection pressures. His art alternates between dividing and combining the abstractly innocent and explicitly sexual, featuring sugary, bright colors and a surplus of cartoon eyes. There are now many artists like him, and increasingly this “high art” is virtually indistinguishable from the “graphic designs” which now appear on custom t-shirts or album covers. Both exemplify the type of eye-catching, provocative artistic expression which was once only a peripheral mutation and now is becoming dominant. This is the type of artistic expression that can catch a person’s attention when that attention is divided between many things. This is the visual equivalent of the type of song that you don’t change the station on because you want to see where it goes, what it does, even though it is not familiar. The challenge of new art will be increasingly to innovate along the lines that they can get enough attention from enough distracted consumers that they will be able to tell a story, represent an idea, or simply be beautiful. In the merging of communications technology through the connected artistic-economic spheres, it is too often this last criteria, subjective to begin with, that gets completely left out. Hopefully, it will be possible for a talented artist to develop new strategies in this difficult environment, to clear a space in which to reclaim it.

IV. Mutations Adapt

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a noise? Probably. If an artist creates an art-object and no other person experiences it, is it art? Perhaps. If yes, the drug addict is the highest and most prolific form of artist. If no, then it implies that art is not located in the artist or the art object, but rather occurs in the space of the encounter between the consumer, whether viewer, listener, feeler or so on, and the art object. Just as all art-objects appear to become more simplified as a result of the proliferation of high technology and the increasing demands placed on the human attention span, the artistic experience itself is becoming more varied and complex. Consider a music producer who is putting together a song with a rock band. Many of the component parts will be quite simple, a simple base line, a steady rhythm, a guitar player, a singer. Recorded separately each track of each instrument may seem mundane and even boring. If there is improvisation, it will likely be done only by one instrument at a time. Yet when the finished song is assembled, it sounds professional and innovative even though that innovation is distributed to only one instrument at a time. The artistic experience is increasingly being accomplished more by the consumer than the work of art, and it being assembled by the consumer at the site of consumption from various component parts, in the same way that a single song is assembled out of different tracks of instruments. The person who listens to music while watching television has assembled, for the moment of experience, a different artistic encounter than either medium would be absent the other. In this way, the rich bricolage artistic experience is accomplished through strategies that we are only just beginning to realize. For now, this assemblage and process of assemblage is not considered art. I would wager that before long, it will be.

The future of artistic expression is with the consumer, not the artist. After decades of killing the author and burying the artist, they really may be dead. New artists will create raw materials for the consumers to assemble artistic experiences with. Perhaps centers will open that will combine mixed media for individual or group performances. We are already beginning to see something like that through artistic collaboration which makes use of high technology, such as those of the poet Anne Carson with choreographer Robert Curry. Commercially, companies will be able to profit by contracting with inter-media artists to produce aesthetic environments that combine complementary assortments of music, film, news media, television, and reading material along with appropriate lighting, temperature and perhaps even scents.

For now, the consumer, often unknowingly fashions these aesthetic environs from surrounding mediums willy-nilly. This will become more planned as more people understand how acclimated consumers have become to a mixed-media environment. It has become increasingly common for bands to pair their performances with film clips in addition to lighting shows, and to experiment even further with projection technology, integrating action in the film with a chorus or climax of their music, such as in the case of RJD2 or Black Moth Super Rainbow. That is one of the beginnings of the new media integration that will occur as people increasingly don’t have the patience to experience any art-object in quantity, but find the jarring over-lap of different incongruous elements to be aesthetically unpleasant. New art will not have a center but will exist as experiences occurring at the intersection of many different mediums and content, where the content will sometimes jump from medium to medium. Some of it will be planned and organized, much of it will simply happen. New forms of planning will generate new genres as well as new mediums for new forms of composure, which will in turn demand new strategies for integration into these new aesthetic environs. Cultural nay-sayers and pushers of cheap nostalgia and sentimentality may continue whining about the virtualization of aesthetic experience, wishing for the “reality” of the ‘60s to return. Such critics do a disservice to themselves by making their criticism irrelevant, much like Adorno’s reactionary complaints about jazz. This future of artistic expression offers possibilities of variance and mutation greater than ever before in the history of humanity. As consumers, it is ours to synthesize.


[1] Marzec, Robert P. An Anatomy of Empire symploke – Volume 9, Numbers 1-2, 2001, pp. 165-168

[2] Butcher, David R. “National Productivity, Multitasking Efficiency, Individual Engagement” Industrial News Room, July 5, 2006

[3] Wolf, Gary “Futurist Ray Kurzweil Pulls Out All the Stops (and Pills) to Live to Witness the Singularity” Wired Magazine, 3/24/08

[4] see “Radio Automation” information at

[5] The Word “Why records DO all sound the same” February 26,2008

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jerry Ropelato, “Internet Pornography Statistics” Internet Filter Review, 2006 []

Edmund Zagorin (’11) is a Philosophy and International Affairs major at University of Michigan Ann Arbor.

Art courtesy of larkie

[i] Marzec, Robert P. An Anatomy of Empire symploke – Volume 9, Numbers 1-2, 2001, pp. 165-168

[ii] Butcher, David R. “National Productivity, Multitasking Efficiency, Individual Engagement” Industrial News Room, July 5, 2006

[iii] Wolf, GaryFuturist Ray Kurzweil Pulls Out All the Stops (and Pills) to Live to Witness the Singularity” Wired Magazine, 3/24/08

[iv] see “Radio Automation” information at

[v] The Word “Why records DO all sound the same” February 26,2008

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Jerry Ropelato, “Internet Pornography Statistics” Internet Filter Review, 2006

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