There's an art movement that is being called 'The New Aesthetic', and I've been puzzling out what it refers to and what it means. Bruce Sterling has talked about it in Wired recently. It's not an easy concept to grasp. I think the best way to describe the New Aesthetic is in reaction to a previous art movement, proto-surrealism.
Proto-surrealism was a fugue caused by the imagined future (postmodernism) clashing with reality. We expected jetpacks and flying cars; what we got were iPads and wars fought by drones. The previous generations had a clear vision of how the future would be, but that future did not come to pass. Proto-surrealism mashed up the old expectations with the new reality. The result is an art form designed to elicit a frisson of excitement. You recognize the old concepts, but realize the possibilities that exist when they are given new form.
Steampunk is proto-surrealism, although perhaps not the best example. We expected giant robots and wonderous devices but were unable to make them with electronics, so we dreamed them out of brass and steam. A better example of proto-surrealism might be the photoshopped WWII posters, like the one below. It's an old style poster, right at home in the 1940's, and with the 'Big Brother' tones that they expected the future to hold...but it stars a pink pony made out of computer vector art. The old, repurposed and blended with the new, is proto-surrealism.
Proto-surrealism: The past with a dose of WTF.
But now there's the New Aesthetic, and I believe it is a response to proto-surrealism. Instead of blending the old aesthetic with the present not-quite-what-we-imagined reality, the New Aesthetic is looking at the present with fresh eyes and insisting that there is beauty there.
Here's a gallery of examples from the New Aesthetic. I think the best example is Minecraft. Instead of trying to create a photo-realistic landscape (and never quite making it believable), the creator of Minecraft decided to find the beauty that exists within the real limitations of the medium. Our computers think of the world as blocks, so let the world be blocks. Other examples of New Aesthetic include James Bridle's Google Maps kaleidoscopes and -- this surprised me -- the USGS's Earth as Art project.
The New Aesthetic: The present, as pretty as we can make it.
The real world and our real technology can create wonderful visions. The New Aesthetic looks for that existing beauty.
(It excites me that I may have had a teensy-tiny role in starting a new artistic movement!)
Now, the New Aesthetic is obviously connected to all the bleeding edges in the tech world. It's also, as Bruce Sterling says, a gaudy heap of cats that don't herd well. But most importantly it is genuine. It's a clear look at what the world is like and where it can take us. We had an art movement like that in the 1800s. It was called Realism.
You know what really excites me? After Realism came Impressionism and Post-Impresssionism. When the art world got sick of viewing reality at every angle, they started warping and twisting reality into fantastical new creations. I couldn't name one artist from the Realism period, but the next period gave us Van Gogh, Seurat, Picasso and Gaugin.
(It seems that all art movements are nothing more than our culture pirouetting across the Uncanny Valley. When one gets too close to it, a Realism movement jerks it back toward perfect fidelity; then the dreamers jeté across the Valley toward abstraction, and iterations approach the Valley from both sides until the cycle repeats. This might get boring if not for reality's tendency to change.)
In my opinion, the New Aesthetic is a reboot and a transitional period. Post-modernism failed. Proto-surrealism tried to resuscitate it. New Aesthetic finally brings in something new. Whatever comes next, building off of and perfecting the New Aesthetic, will make epic works of art. Can't wait.