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The Aesthetic Society

Lev Manovich, “The Aesthetic Society,” in Data Publics, eds. Peter Mörtenboeck and Helge Mooshammer (Routledge, forthcoming 2020).


We live in aesthetic society (i.e., the society of aesthetically sophisticated consumer goods and services). In such a society, the production of beautiful images, interfaces, objects and experiences, are central to economic and social functioning. Rather than being a property of art, sophisticated aesthetics becomes the key property of commercial goods and services. Aesthetic society values space designers, user-experience designers, architects, photographers, models, stylists, and other design and media professionals, as well as individuals who are able to use social media, including making beautiful and refined images, and work with marketing and analytics tools. “Using” in this context refers to creating successful content, promoting this content, communicating with followers, and achieving desired goals. This article analyses one area of the aesthetic society that became particularly important in 2010s – Instagram. I discuss a few photo types shared on Instagram: casual, professional, and designed. I then cover in detail the strategies used by Instagram authors to create the designed images.

Who are these authors and what does their Instagram aesthetic production tells us about culture in the 21st century? I invoke four relevant terms proposed to describe modern cultures earlier: mainstream, hipsters, subcultures, tribes. I suggest that instagrammers are neither an avant-garde creating something entirely new, nor subcultures that define themselves in opposition to the mainstream, nor the masses consuming commodified versions of aesthetics developed earlier by certain subcultures. They are more similar to Michel Maffesoli’s tribes but exist in the digital global Instagram “city” rather than as “villages” in a physical city. According to Maffesoli, who developed his analysis of the “urban tribe” back in 1980s, the term “refers to a certain ambience, a state of mind, and it is preferably to be expressed through lifestyles that favor appearance and form” (1996). Such ambience and state of mind are the “message” of Instagramism, but now expanded worldwide and crafted through photography.

(The article is a revised version of Chapter 4 in Instagram and Contemporary Image book I published under CC license in 2017.)

Article  2019