“It’s not judgment, but it’s taste. You have to have a certain amount of taste to decide what to do.” —Kevin Systrom, cofounder of Instagram
“I can’t really have a signature style or be bound to a medium. It’s very hard because there’s a style that emerges anyway, or maybe it’s more a feeling than a style.” —Parker Ito, artist
At some point in the slow history of a sensibility, a dim, barely perceptible shift takes place between two adjacent ideas. Think, for example, of the transition from silent cinema, once prized as the purest and noblest expression of the medium, to talkies. And the shift, coming as it does when one traditionally very powerful type of experience is felt to be inadequate to the needs of the time, often feels like an ordeal. Suddenly, every leading idea, in order to remain valuable, demands continuous, imperishable care.
In the arts, the results are typically mutually reinforcing, so that whatever no longer seems definitive or central to a particular form nonetheless retains some of its initial attraction and power. But in our time, it’s not an expanded or a refurbished form but a neglected idea—a tiny, disesteemed thing, pulled from circulation—that accounts for one of the chief realignments of taste in the visual arts: the transition from art, long vaunted as a special, and autonomous, area of sensuous intelligence, to creativity, to which art can only ever be superficially related. And the catchphrase of those cheering on the transition is a meager lexical scrap, drawn partly from commercial advertising and applied unreflectively to painting, photography, cinema, and the theater: the “look.”
Looks are easily seen without being sought out. They are familiar to anyone who has taken and enhanced a picture with a mobile phone stocked with Instagram filters; or who has used a popular program named, appropriately enough, Magic Bullet Looks, with “over 200 brand-new Look presets, designed to match your favorite movies and TV shows”; or who has watched movies conspicuously shot on 16-millimeter film (Young Bodies Heal Quickly, Listen Up Philip, L for Leisure) or with analog video cameras (No, Computer Chess), or that imitate whatever visual trait is thought to be most incidental to an earlier technology, and therefore most evocative (film grain, shallow focus, the artifacts of interlaced video, “milky” or low-contrast images, “flat” or undersaturated colors).
Looks aren’t unique to images. There are live performances with looks (immersive theater, with its prodigal vision of classical Hollywood cinema), just as there are paintings (color fields, all-over abstraction, moiré patterns) and photographs (the hot white of the flash bulb, the contrast of Tri-X, the color of Kodachrome) that are said to have a “good look.” The audience, which sees something of its own viewing habits, and its own tastes, confirmed by the image, is in any case continuously flattered: One can watch a movie like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and very easily single out what its director, David Lowery, calls the “dirty” palette of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, and feel gratified. What underlies the shift to looks is the belief in neutral, impersonal images: Anything can become a picture, and any picture, overlaid with a look, can be customized, shored up temporarily with a borrowed feeling. And that feeling is confused with evidence of achievement. Thus, all looks take the form of a direct address; each image, no matter how depersonalized and routine, always seems “personalized,” made-to-order, and aimed at gratifying an existing idea of what a ’70s movie or a ’60s canvas or an ’80s photograph is like. Nothing about an image with a look is inexplicit or ambiguous.