Here is something I am thinking whenever I see a TikTok or a viral post of a stranger that was taken without their knowledge. Or when I see a beautiful image that has been passed down from aesthetic blogs to an aesthetic instagram account to a compilation TikTok about being That Girl to a moodboard that lives in the bedroom of a 28 year old in Brooklyn and owns a plant that costs two hundred dollars then sent back to Instagram again in the form of an interior design brag-pic. Maybe the picture on the moodboard is of someone holding hands with their partner or a breakfast someone enjoyed or a field of flowers. I think: I wasn’t supposed to access this intimacy. I wasn’t supposed to see this picture. I have no idea where it originally comes from, I have no idea what it means, and all I can do is look at this image which has come to me by complete accident. I can only look without knowing enough to feel moved or excited or even repulsed.
Consumption is not a material practice, nor is it a phenomenology of 'affluence'. It is not defined by the nourishment we take in, nor by the clothes we clothe ourselves with, nor by the car we use, nor by the oral and visual matter of the images and messages we receive. It is defined, rather, by the organization of all these things into a signifying fabric: consumption is the virtual totality of all objects and messages ready-constituted as a more or less coherent discourse. If it has any meaning at all, consumption means an activity consisting of the systematic manipulation of signs. 1
If I take in a Junko Mizuno painting attributed correctly to her, I can appreciate the shoujo influenced style and develop personal theories about her retellings of fairy tale imagery. I can decide if her choice to use vibrant color helps advance what she is trying to convey. I can even simply decide that it is beautiful and that I love it because of how it makes me feel. Thinking about these kinds of things is all a part of what it means to engage with art. However, if I come across her work without attribution on a catch-all "Japanese aesthetic" instagram, the most I can do is assess it as “cute” and decide if I like it on a shallow visual level or not.
This is the difference between engaging and consuming, and use of platforms which encourage moodboarding only heighten this manipulation of signs as each time a decontextualized image is plopped into a new virtual moodboard, it is manipulated in its entirety once again. Manipulation might mean stripped of all cultural context and thrown into a new home online under a limiting label like “kawaii,” in the case of the Junko Mizuno artwork. Or it might mean made stale, which happens eventually when the aesthetic cycle reaches its end. But in all cases, the substance has been scooped out until what we are left with is just the exterior of the image itself, but none of the meaning which used to lie beneath.
I’m trying not to be overly Kacyznskian about this although I think Ted was probably right about the industrial revolution and its consequences. I want to argue with myself and ask, what is a Pinterest board or an aesthetic compilation TikTok besides a collage really? And there’s nothing new or inherently insidious about making collages.
When I was a teenager, I cut up a bunch of CD liners and j-fashion magazines and some literary journals and taped the results all over my bedroom and I wrote all of my favorite quotes over my mirrors, and it made me feel incredibly cool to be surrounded by pieces of the things I found interesting and inspiring that I had remixed for my own purposes.
This could be an attempt to absolve myself of culpability in participating in the bad behavior I’m naming, but I do think the key difference here is that I knew where these images came from even if I did slice them away from their source. On the rare occasion I had a friend come over, if they were to point to something and ask “what’s that?” I was always able to answer the question although my answers were probably something like “that’s Lana Del Rey album art,” which is not that great in hindsight. But I digress.
The practice of selecting decontextualized images and placing them in a group that is meant to represent a specific aesthetic, which here means a dehumanizing compartmentalization loosely held together by a buzzword, is something which actively prevents learning in depth about art or anything at all (especially because these platforms by design encourage its users to never leave). It is simply a rote process of skimming off the surface to create a gilded veneer of expressiveness. Soon that expressiveness becomes more important than imagination itself as platforms like Pinterest or Instagram or TikTok guide their users towards sorting images into conceptual boxes over and over.
Exposure to the “That Girl” videos on TikTok made me curious about the rising popularity of these increasingly narrow and decontextualized aesthetic niches. I can see their numbers ballooning in real time with new kinds of __-core design categories popping up every day. I started thinking about this even more after learning that a brand I no longer admire was discarding the campy, colorful style that made them successful and unique in favor of cultivating a “Brooklyn Cool Girl” customer base and imagery with “Pyer Moss vibes.”2 Those buzzwords are just placeholders for moodboards and reveal a lack of understanding for the artistry and history beneath their desired facade. That this phenomenon has reached beyond its initial chokehold on middle class white women and moved onto actual designers has helped me understand why so much of contemporary fashion and art feels derivative to me.
The brand striving for Brooklyn Cool Girl making the choice to turn Pyer Moss into a vibe is interesting as Pyer Moss is an example I would point to of a brand that is actually bucking the phenomena of pinterestification as Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder and creator of the label, is obviously referencing Black American history in a meaningful way, evoking much more than just any insert-buzzword-here vibe. This is regrettably not the technique de rigeur of many designers so it will still be mined for aesthetic value and then depleted of its substance in the process. The concrete relationships that are attached to its objects are irrelevant to the brand’s eventual pinterestification by consumers.
To this point, I was dismayed to see pictures of Rihanna, drag queens and creepyyeha bras on the official moodboard for Ariana Grande’s sweetener tour.3 Surely one of the most successful pop stars of our day could afford a stylist capable of originality, but the capacity to imagine might be one of the few things money cannot buy.
I briefly used a Pinterest account to try out moodboarding myself and my experience there reminded me of one of my least favorite minimum wage jobs I’ve ever held. I like telling people now that I had a record store job because saying so aloud is just ineffably appealing, maybe because it’s suggestive of some gen-x cultural export that I’m nostalgic by proxy for. But the job itself was actually very bad. Not so much because of the customers4 or because of the work environment but because the job was not at all what I was led to believe from tumblr screencaps of Empire Records or High Fidelity. The job was simply not aesthetic. Instead it was profoundly, sincerely, painfully boring.
Sorting albums A through Z and placing them in their correct genres was making me genuinely insane. I developed very strong convictions about what the correct order of the alphabet should actually be (the letter i should come before h, in my opinion) and I questioned the metrics for genre conventions (why is Beyonce in our R&B section? Racism.) and staved off mental starvation by purposely misspelling artists names in the label maker. The puzzled look on customers' faces when they read “Boney Vair” in the pop section was all that was keeping me alive and after a while, even that wasn’t doing it for me anymore. In the fall of 2014 I was working twelve hour shifts for six or seven days in a row and this coincided with the time when I felt the most hopeless about my life. I couldn’t fight the mental exhaustion from boredom any longer and my only method of recourse was shutting off my brain and going about my sorting in the best coma-esque mindset I could muster and then every night I would cry myself to sleep.
It is hard for me to imagine doing a version of this for fun.
I have a friend living in Japan who told me about how many of the cutesy Japanese food pictures which pop up isolated on aesthetic pages and shared without any context are from reactionary nationalist sources. Similarly, many of the images that fall under the “cottage-core” aesthetic umbrella can be traced back to ultra-right traditionalist accounts by using a simple reverse google image search. Personally I am not shocked that western chauvinists have latched onto images which promote yearning for a simpler agrarian innocent past, but teenage girls have found these images through the content pipeline and repost them because they like the dresses. It is mostly white young women who have embraced this subculture so perhaps there is some underlying white supremacy afoot, but that is an essay for a different day.
This gives some pause to how we approach beauty in your everyday digital experience, or at least it does for me. I would not make a moodboard because I’m cool and have better things to do but, if I were going to, I would see it as my responsibility to understand each image’s source and context and furthermore make sure that those images should even be decontextualized in the first place.
Sorting images into different virtual piles to indicate like and dislike and constructing a persona from them without interrogating why those images are appealing or bothering to learn where they come from is fraught. It has the potential to radicalize people into reactionary beliefs just as easily as gameplay YouTube videos lead to Ben Shapiro leads Jordan Peterson leads to Sargon of Akkad.5 Moodboards are autoplay for women.
Whenever a Buzzfeed writer is eventually given a free moment from Jonah Peretti’s union busting antics to do a reverse image search of popular cottagecore pictures and reveals what I already have said here about their origins, I would not be shocked if the popularity of the aesthetic drops dramatically. Perhaps it will become exclusively part of the aspiring tradwife glamour. Because I find this style kind of boring to look at, I wouldn’t be particularly upset if this happened, but I do think this immediate dropping and picking up of aesthetic commodities once they have been deemed good or bad is indicative of a problem stemming from the floating signifier factory that is our present moment.
It comes as no surprise that the consumption, compiling and sharing of decontextualized texts, pictures and art has led many people to be unable to react to anything which doesn’t please them with nothing but great distress. Our pineal glands have been pinterestified, and we have only got the neural pathways for sorting into like and dislike piles now, aesthetic or not aesthetic, valid or not valid, problematic or unproblematic.
This is an unfortunate development especially in this current era where keeping one’s critical third eye open is crucial, partly because every American journalist is a CIA agent and partly because there is so much art out there that is morally bankrupt, boring, ugly, flattened and just bad! It is more important to know and understand fully why something is harmful than to excommunicate anything deemed problematic. Not only is the latter performative and accomplishes nothing, it is exactly why propaganda works so well on people with Instagram brain rot; they have not developed the practice of extracting the ideology from within things and have not honed the ability to think for themselves. Why else would the same people who shared black squares in June 2020 be posting about Cuba’s lack of intersectionality in June 2021?
This aesthetic flattening serves the status quo because as the image takes on a unique meaning for each viewer, it can no longer retain whatever radical meaning it once held. I remember feeling livid last summer when everyone was posting those black squares and wishing I could corner every person who shared one and demand they tell me what #blacklivesmatter means to them. I’m sure each person would have a different answer.
This conversion of the object to the systematic status of a sign implies the simultaneous transformation of the human relationship into a relationship of consumption - of consuming and being consumed. In and through objects this relationship is at once consummated and abolished; the object becomes its inescapable mediation - and, before long, the sign that replaces it altogether. - Baudrillard, The System of Objects, pg 201
Sometimes when I am walking home my brain betrays me and forces me to imagine myself from the vantage point of one of the people passing me on the street. I fix my bangs, correct my posture and look at my reflection in windows to check if my outfit looks alright. I don’t get to experience the warmth of the sun on my skin or take in the buildings around me without also wondering how me doing so looks to other people, and do those people think I’m pretty? Do they think my hair looks cool? Do they like my shoes or do they think I look like I’m in costume? It’s annoying when I catch myself thinking this way and I get frustrated that I can’t just be myself as myself without concern for the opinions of strangers. Who are these other people even? Why does it matter what they think of my outfit?
And that’s what really gets to me about platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest and others like them is how they force you to interact with the gaze that people see themselves through and more than that, legitimizes the need for that gaze to exist at all. Every post is a reflection of someone’s desire to be seen by strangers in a particular light, every photograph is developed in the sticky film of the poster’s anxiety about themselves and the quality of their performance.
When someone has achieved projecting their constructed aesthetic, what they have done is succeeded in flattening themselves. We experience and live much of our lives through a camera lens, but it harms our ability to relate to one another when we submit ourselves to self-objectification and let the way we share our lives become fragmented into collages of beautiful images that are supposed to represent our personalities. By seeing yourself in a fully externalized way, looking at yourself as you would an object, you destroy the history and meaning of who you are as a unique individual in this world.
Aesthetic categories, by their very nature, flatten and demolish history and meaning. They are rigid and frozen. Placing yourself in one freezes you with it. And it harms our ability to relate to ourselves when we begin to see ourselves through the same stifling aesthetic categories we consume objects in. If abstracted aesthetics destroy the relationship between the meaning and the image, judging your worth from how effective you have been in achieving your aesthetic ideal is to find self esteem through self-destruction.
There is no “that girl” and you don’t need to realize you are the “main character” of your life or describe yourself as written by a woman or ___-core or anything else. Romanticizing and idealizing your existence into abstract commodified aesthetic niches is limiting the complexity and sometimes erratic nature of being alive in the universe.
I was struggling with how to end this because I think it’s unfair to only share how exhausted I am without offering any solutions, but I was stuck because the ending is obvious. There is not any liberatory potential to be found within platforms that encourage you to squeeze yourself into increasingly narrow categories. Everything I have described happens by design because, duh! It’s easier to sell you things when your third eye is closed and you’re alienated from your labor and your humanity and the meaning of anything at all. So what’s the fix? Some good starts are carving out spaces for yourself online that aren’t on one of the blue websites and building community there, challenging yourself to interrogate your likes and dislikes and learn where the images you are viewing come from. Take the red pill, stop looking for meaning in the aesthetic cycles of commodities, reclaim your life for the unique and dynamic thing that it is, unfollow subwayhands from instagram, make friends, go outside, touch grass. Full communism today! It’s easy.
2. Unfortunately these quotes are verbatim ↩
3. Stubblebine, Allison. “Ariana Grande's 'Sweetener' Mood Board Is Called Out For ‘Appropriation Of Black Aesthetics.’” Nylon Entertainment, Nylon, 6 Sept. 2019, https://www.nylon.com/ariana-grande-sweetener-mood-board. ↩
Although they were annoying, and there was one guy in particular who that I was always catching shoplifting The Smiths albums and I have nothing against shoplifting but there is a question of taste, and also I would have preferred it if he were more talented at shoplifting so I didn’t have to be aware of it.↩
5. This guy is a nazi of some kind who is illiterate. Don’t look him up. ↩
6. This guy was basically a nazi but worse because he was also french. I do highly recommend Journey to the End of the Night though, it’s very good and it's one of the things he wrote before he went full nazi. ↩