How to Understand the ‘Millennial Aesthetic’ + Two Other Thought-Provoking Things to Read (or Watch) From Around the Art Web
A weekly digest of what's interesting in art media.
Every week, we scan the media for illuminating essays, conversations, and anything else that offers valuable new ways of thinking about art. Up this week: taxonomizing the “millennial aesthetic,” a provocative discussion about reforming museums, and an effort to bring some very old film back to life.
“Will the Millennial Aesthetic Never End?” by Molly Fischer, New York
A great example of how naming a style is a way of trying to kill it. Fischer’s essay surveys the cloying tropes that have come to be the default design grammar of the last few years, from home decor to subway ads to political logos, and throws a splash of critical acid on them.
What characterizes the “millennial aesthetic,” in her telling? It’s not just pinks and pale greens—though it is definitely pinks and pale greens—or potted plants and breast-themed throw pillows, empowerment-speak in ad copy and sans-serif fonts—though it is definitely those too.
The word cloud of key terms in this article gives you the more general sensibility: “gentle,” “enticing,” “placid,” “friendly,” and “knowing.” The “millennial aesthetic” favors “chatty positivity”; it likes “blank, clean surfaces” and soft lines; it is “casual, friendly, and impersonal.” It’s offbeat but not weird, while also being sexless and slightly infantilizing.
There’s a hint of a very twee bunker mentality, seeking the mental shelter of the inoffensive and non-judgmental. I’ve actually talked about a similar phenomenon in relation to the craze for Instagram Trap pop-up environments like the Museum of Ice Cream. They’re easy to mock for their aesthetic of slightly sedated positivity, but you can probably read their appeal to the purely affirmative as pointing to background currents of anxiety that are running through the culture.
Art doesn’t really figure into Fischer’s account (though she does reference cool artist Sara Cwynar’s video Rose Gold (2017), which looks at a rose gold iPhone as an artifact of taste destined to become a relic of its time). Since art is by definition trying to set itself off against the background of mass-marketable basic-ness, it is going to exist in some kind of suspension, assimilating bits of the dominant design language and at the same time pushing against it.
Still, Fischer’s “millennial aesthetic” idea does offer a lens through which to look at the recent turn to easygoing cartoon figuration and slogans of affirmation in contemporary art. Heck, of the five best-of “picks” that my colleague Andrew Goldstein named from this week’s Armory Show, two—Celeste Rapone’s whimsically distorted figuration and Adelaide Cioni’s big popsicle paintings—could credibly fit the bill.
“Why Are Museums So Plutocratic, and What Can We Do About It?” by Michelle Millar Fisher and Andrea Fraser, Frieze
Fisher, the founder of the Art + Museum Transparency Group, and Fraser, the important institutional critique artist, sat down for a long, detailed talk in the most recent issue of Frieze about the current wave of debate about the politics of museums. It’s a good exchange for the way that Fisher gives a sense of the personal and professional dynamics fueling the increasing unrest inside museum staffs, while Fraser keeps a sober focus on trying to come up with workable ideas that might actually move the ball forward in terms of making museum governance less plutocratic.
“Protest is an indispensable element of this, but transforming organizational governance can’t just be about getting a few toxic trustees off boards, which implies that the system is okay without them,” Fraser concludes. “It has to be about demanding a seat at the table.”
“A Trip Through New York City in 1911”
There’s a mini-trend in my YouTube feed right now of clips from the earliest days of cinema, augmented with AI to boost the quality to contemporary levels, a low-key eerie effect. In this case, a 1911 clip by the Swedish company Svenska Biografteatern gets the treatment (and experimental colorization too, though the effect is patchy). The result gives a charmingly vivid taste of the leisurely street life of the Big Apple 110 years ago, with kids ambling in the streets and horse-drawn carriages competing with early cars.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Scrolling the comments, I came upon someone who had taken the time to track down background on the people we were looking at in the long-ago film—filling out the clip in another way. Here’s the comment:
In one scene of the video there is a well to do looking family being driven around by a chauffeur. The license plate on the car can be clearly seen as 65465, so I wondered if I could identify them through this little piece of information.
I learned through the Federal Highway Administration that there were 81,370 auto-mobiles registered in NY by 1911. I also learned registration was published publicly and quickly found a listing for license plate 65465 in the Brooklyn Life Magazine showing a June 12th, 1911 registration E.M.F. – Mrs. Lochwicz 548 Eighth Street. The car in the video definitely looked like a 1911 E.M.F. Model 30 Touring Car, so I tried to find the family in the 1910 census and was able to find them living at 548 Eighth Street. The household consisted of six people; Head of house Florian Lochowicz, his wife Antoinette Lochowicz (listed as Antonie in the census), their children Francis, Emily, and Elsie, and a servant named Mary Moriarty.
Florian Lochowicz was born in Posen in 1871 and immigrated to America in 1890. His wife Antoinette was a distant cousin of his and she was the daughter of Konstantyn Cornelius Lochowicz and Julia Hectus. Konstantyn had immigrated in 1864, possibly due to the January Uprising in Poland. Florian worked as a barber and became very prominent because J.P. Morgan was patron of Florian’s. Florian died unexpectedly in 1918 but was worth $70,000 at the time of his death. His wife continued running the Barbershops into the 1950s and still lived at their Brownstone home in NYC at 548 Eighth Street.
(You can see a video explaining the full story from Jarrett Ross, aka the GeneaVlogger, here.)
There’s not really a punchline to this minor find. I guess I like less what it actually reveals, and more just how the pinpoint of biographical data throws into relief my sense of the pathos of the clip, as capturing a world that’s passed away into fragments.
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