Digital Aesthetics

What are aesthetics? Before studying classical aesthetics as understood in he works on aesthetics by Baumgarten, Kant, Schiller, Hegel and others, the term aesthetics described, in my mind, the study of beauty. Over the course of the class however it has become clear that it is not merely beauty that is studied, but to a large extent perception and the pleasure that is derived from beauty. Why is there a need to rethink this definition when applying it to the field of digital media? How can the content of a literary digital work, changing sometimes from reader to reader, be aesthetically judged? This section will offer some explanations before bridging the gap from theory to practice.

According to Alexander Baumgarten, aesthetics are the taste or judgment of what is perceived, stemming from the Greek αἰσθάνομαι (aisthanomai, meaning “I perceive, feel, sense”). Art Digital Magazine writes in its article on digital aesthetics, that an anthropological approach for inquiring into art would encompass not only looking at the artwork, but also at the specific cultural context in which the work was created. As stated earlier in the reader response theory, external influences may change reception and perception of artworks. “Some cultures may emphasize the importance of visual presentation, others sound – a variety of emphases coming from our five senses, in effect, different cultures focus on different aspects of presentation, but in the end following this inquiry will reveal a multisensorial approach to different cultural approaches to art making and art appreciating. And, of course, individuals within any culture may bring a novel way of reinterpreting existing cultural norms” (Art Digital Magazine).

Digital, is defined in the Online Etymology Dictionary starting in the 1650s as “’pertaining to fingers,’ from L. digitalis, from digitus. The meaning ‘using numerical digits’ is from 1938, especially of computers after c.1945; in reference to recording or broadcasting, from 1960” ( All those definitions can be connected to digital literature, since it is normally read on a computer, which is controlled by the user with the help of his digits.

While the field of aesthetics existed for over two hundred years and digital media has been produced for several decades, there is no clear definition to which digital aesthetics adhere. As Simon Penny wrote in 1996, “Interactive art represents a radical phase-shift in western esthetics.” The machine-mediated interactivity that digital literature provides is an experience unlike any other in the world of visual and plastic arts. Penny points out, that six hundred years of painting have provided us with a sense of what an aesthetically pleasing still image is. The same has been established for moving pictures in the little over a hundred years that films have been made, and it is certainly true for traditional literature as well. Adding the interactivity and digital component to art however will result in a close look at how to critically view something that can change in real time. Jonathan Crary is quoted with saying that “meaning in an artwork is constituted between the viewer and the work, that the ‘techniques of the observer’ are as important as the techniques of the artist”. This brings me back to the reader response theory once again and in the next section I will look at several examples of German digital literature (Penny, PDF).




Das Epos der Maschine »