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The Aesthetic Society

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


We live in an 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 is 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.

Although researchers and popular authors have discussed many relevant aspects and trends in contemporary culture, this article is the first to introduces the term "aesthetic society." I present theoretical analysis of aesthetic society and sketch its history starting with the "design wave" of the middle of the 1990s (first design hotels, a first minimalist fashion boutique in NYC, first design objects store opening in Paris, Wallpaper magazine).

The next part looks at one phenomenon that exemplifies another stage in the development of aesthetic society: Instagram (2010-). In the 1990s and 2010s professional designers and companies were responsible for the growing democratization of sophisticated design in consumer products and services. In the 2010s, platforms such as Instagram and SquareSpace and fashion retailers such as Zara and COS allowing now many millions of people to create very aesthetic media and looks. (The part on Instagram in this article draws from Chapter 4 of my book "Instagram and Contemporary Image" published online in 2017 under CC license.)

Article  2020