Digital Aesthetics, Art, Life and Museums Symposium Primer
Digital Aesthetics, Art, Life and Museums
A Collaborative Symposium at Penn State University
Foster Auditorium in Paterno Library
April 6, 2015 1:00PM3:00PM EST
Disclaimer: These are the personal views of Neal Stimler and do not necessarily reflect the views of The
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This work is licensed with a Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercialNoDerivatives 4.0 International
license. (CC BYNCND 4.0): http://creativecommons.org/licenses/byncnd/4.0/
Digital Asset Specialist
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Special thanks to Rose Cameron, Dana Carlisle Kletchka, Larry Ragan, James O’Sullivan and
William Doan for all their efforts working with me as I prepared for this symposium.
I am delighted to be engaging the Penn State University community in the symposium, “Digital
Aesthetics, Art, Life and Museums.” This program is a collaboration between myself, faculty 1
and staff at Penn State. The cooperative approach to the event is critical to the methods of my
personal scholarly practice. This practice seeks to build shared knowledge openly through
participatory and experiential explorations of the humanities at the intersections of art, life,
museums and technology.
In the initial interview portion of the symposium, I’ll address three questions that will position
the conversation with scholars from Penn State and the community. These questions are: 1.
What interests most you about digital aesthetics? 2. What is our fundamental sense of being
in the world with the digital and physical? 3. What are the critical aspects of our daily practice
with digital technology that foster a life of awareness, beauty and humanity? These questions
are intended to guide the dialogue and help participants to seek understandings of digital
aesthetics in the most integral ways they impact scholarship, daily life and relationships with
works of art.
Hayley Wildeson, "Digital Aesthetics, Art, Life and Museums with Neal Stimler," Center for Online
Innovation and Learning Blog, March 10th, 2015
I’ll offer my preliminary reflections to these questions at this time and offer some remarks as
related to purpose of museums in the 21st century as a primer to our conversation. My views
will be in flux as result of ongoing dialogue with colleagues and the public, as well as further
1. What interests you most about digital aesthetics?
I am interested to work with the humanistic disciplines and cultural institutions like museums,
as they format themselves to meet contemporary sociocultural and socioeconomic paradigms
lead by digital technologies. Digital technologies, especially networks of mobile and wearable
devices, are changing daily the ways we live and work. Moreover, digital technologies are
enabling and facilitating a human aesthetic experience which is characterized by its
increasing agility, globality, interconnectedness and modularity. Humanistic methods of
inquiry, and the content of cultural institutions like museums, can continue aid human beings
as they seek beauty in their lives by thoughtfully utilizing digital technologies to participate in
digital streams of experience.
2. What is our fundamental sense of being in the world with the digital and physical?
Our fundamental sense of being in the world is unified in the digital and physical. This reality
is called “digital monism” as defined by designer and philosopher, Stéphane Vial. Digital 2 3
monism is "the metaphysical postulate that our human world is inseparably digital and
nondigital, online and offline, or in obsolete terms, virtual and real.” In digital monism, "the
human world is a digitalcentered hybrid environment that tends to form a single (mono)
continuous substance, whose name is simply 'Reality.'" To learn more about digital monism
and it’s impact on the museum experience, consult the Storify of a joint presentation I gave 4
with Stéphane Vial at the Theorizing the Web 2014 conference, “Digital Monism: Our Mode of
Being at the Nexus of Life, Digital Media and Art.” I also recommend his book, currently 5
available in French, L’être et l’écran: Comment le numérique change la perception. 6
Stéphane Vial, "There is no difference between the 'real' and the 'virtual': a brief phenomenology of digital
revolution." (presentation, Theorizing the Web 2013 Conference, New York City, March 2nd, 2013)
Stéphane Vial, “Stéphane Vial: Philosophe, orateur, consultant” http://www.stephanevial.net/
Neal Stimler, "ttw14: Digital Monism: Our Mode of Being At The Nexus of Life, Digital Media and Art"
Storify, April 2014 https://storify.com/nealstimler/ttw14
Neal Stimler and Stéphane Vial, "Digital Monism: Our Mode of Being At The Nexus of Life, Digital Media
and Art" (presentation, Theorizing the Web 2014 Conference, New York City, April 26, 2014)
Stéphane Vial, L’être et l’écran: Comment le numérique change la perception
(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, September 4, 2013)
I see connections between Stéphane Vial’s work on digital monism and Luciano Floridi’s 7
thinking on our state of being with the digital and physical. Floridi points to the blurring of
online and offline states with the term “onlife.” Onlife, as defined in The Onlife Manifesto:
Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era, refers to the “new experience of a hyperconnected
reality within which it is no longer sensible to ask whether one may be online or offline.” In his 8
book, The Fourth Revolution: How The Infosphere is ReShaping Human Reality, Floridi
further explains onlife as the condition when, "the digitalonline world is spilling over into the
analogueoffline world and merging with it." Onlife occurs in the “infosphere.” The infosphere
“denotes the whole informational environment...including cyberspace, the offline and
analogue spaces...it is synonymous with reality...where what is real is informational and what
is informational is real.” A video introduction to Luciano Floridi’s book is available on 9
YouTube as part of a BBC Radio 4 production done in partnership with Open University. 10
Focusing on the organic aspects of humanity’s relationship with nature and technology, I look
to W.J.T Mitchell’s discussion of “biocybernetics” in his book, What Do Pictures Want: The 11
Lives and Loves of Images. Biocybernetics is explored in multiple capacities in the text, but
the definition that most fascinates me is the understanding of our human condition as being
at, “the conjunction of biological engineering and information science that has made it
possible to produce physical organisms in the real world out of bits of data and inert
substances...The slogan for our times, then, is not ‘things fall apart’ but ‘things come alive.’” 12
We live a in time of embodied and wearable technology. These devices have become more
than isolated instruments to be pickedup, used and put a side. These are technologies that
touch us, move with/in us, document the traces of our existence and propel us forward. 13
Artists and scholars for centuries found beauty in the form of the human body and nature. We
must be cognisant of the aesthetic with the dynamic digital tools made from our own creative
imaginations as they impact our human bodies and natural world.
Luciano Floridi, “Luciano Floridi: The Philosophy of Information” http://www.philosophyofinformation.net/
Luciano Floridi, introduction to The Onlife Manifesto: Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era, ed. Luciano
Floridi (New York: Springer International Publishing, 2015), Open Access edition, 1
Luciano Floridi, The Fourth Revolution: How Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (Oxford, United
Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2014), Kindle edition, Location 816, 830, 878
BBC Radio 4 and The Open University, The Fourth Revolution, Narrated by Gillian Anderson, Scripted by
Nigel Warburton, Animations by Cognitive (Published on Jan 28, 2015, YouTube)
W.J.T Mitchell, “W.J.T Mitchell: Welcome to The Jungle of Imagery”
W.J.T Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2013), Kindle edition, Location 2896 http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00SOK9BF8
Geffrey Woo and Michael Brandt, "Humans: The Next Platform," TechCrunch, March 18, 2015
Penn State’s own Christopher Long has been an influence as well in blog posts on 14
technology and particularly in his remarks in the YouTube video, “Technology and the 15
Practice of Philosophy.” As his opening statement, Long states, “Technology has always 16
really been a part of human nature.” Speaking of the Titan Prometheus, he reflects:
So he [Prometheus] steals fire, fire from the gods, for them [humanity]. And in a way,
he gives us technology, he gives us art, he gives the ability to sustain ourselves, to
protect ourselves, to warm ourselves. So if we think about that myth carefully, we
recognize that even from the early beginnings of the ways humans have thought about
ourselves, technology has been inherent in the ways in which we’ve interacted with the
Long’s reflection demonstrates the ancientness of the integration between art, humanity,
technology and the world.
Humanity is in one holistic and monistic reality with the digital aesthetics. We can understand
this in reference to “digital monism,” “onlife” with the “infosphere” and “biocybernetics.”
Moreover, humanity and the arts have always utilized technologies to care for, interact with
and make our world.
3. What are the critical aspects of our daily practice with digital technology that foster a life of
awareness, beauty and humanity?
With digital monism as the nexus of one’s sense of being unified in the world with digital and
physical, a person’s daily practice can more acutely pursue a life of awareness, beauty and
humanity. The material is metadata, part of the identifying and descriptive aspects of reality,
but it does not confine the essential matter (i.e. content) of life’s meanings which move in flux
between digital and physical forms. Digital Monism is the quintessence upon which humanity
interprets and orients its purpose for being in the world. One is free to seek the pulse
expressive life, the feel the impact of aesthetic force and pursue humanness which is beauty.
Christopher P. Long, “Christopher P. Long” http://www.cplong.org/
Christopher P. Long, "technology Search Results: Christopher P. Long," Last update November 6, 2013
Christopher P. Long and Casey Fenton, Technology and the Practice of Philosophy, Performed by
Christopher P. Long, (Published on Nov 2, 2013, YouTube) https://youtu.be/387aFNA_HE
Bill Ivey, folklorist and former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman in the William
Jefferson Clinton Administration, offered a key term, “expressive life” in his 2008 book Arts,
Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. Ivey explains expressive
life as, “a realm of being and behavior...a gland or organ located halfway between the mind
and heart...half a reservoir for heritage...the other half...our individual voice…” Ivey writes,
“expressive life is the interior space where heritage and free expression operate
simultaneously.” In a 2009 lecture at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Ivey spoke of 17
expressive life as, “an area of knowing and doing, that links artistic practice with access to
tools, connection with the past, engagement with novelty and innovation in a broad frame that
possesses powerful implications for quality of life.” The attention here on the quality of 18
human life is that which springs from expression, the process and practice of manifesting
one’s fundamental understandings of isness. Isness is expression and expression is flux.
One the most significant texts I’ve encountered in the last year or so is Sarah Elizabeth
Lewis’, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. In this expansive
and inspiring work, Lewis irises in on the impact of “aesthetic force.” The term is exemplified
in the abolitionist, orator and publisher, Frederick Douglass. Douglass had the ability to hone
a mode of awareness, an inner thought picture or image, where one could bring into view the
entirety of one’s sense of being in the world. For an individual to access the selfemancipatory
momentum of aesthetic force, a person surrenders doubt and fear. Then an
interconnectedness of one’s thoughts, emotions and feelings can occur in a synthesis with
other living beings, nature and creativity.
Lewis describes aesthetic force in this way:
Its importance is its animating trait not what it is, but what it does to those who behold
it in all its forms. Its seeming lightness can make us forget that it has weight, force
enough to bring about a selfcorrection, the acknowledgement of failure at the heart of
justicethe moment when we reconcile our past with our intended future selves. Few
experiences get us to this place more powerfully, with a tender push past the
praetorianguarded doors of reason and logic, than the emotive power of aesthetic
Bill Ivey, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights (Berkeley, California:
University of California Press, 2008), 23, 24 http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520267923
Bill Ivey, UWMadison Arts Enterprise: Bill Ivey on Expressive Life, Performed by Billy Ivey and Andrew
Taylor (November 12, 2009, Internet Archive)
Aesthetic force permeates through us into panoramic practice of grace that unfolds into the
depths and horizons of reality that surround us in all directions. In my view, one can 19
experience aesthetic force in the everyday and in relationship with works of art. It’s what
swells and releases the pulse in organs of expressive life. Expressive life and aesthetic force
are essential ingredients in the discovery of humanness.
Zen humanist and artist Frederick Franck, is and was one of the most critical influences in 20
my life and scholarship. I’m deeply grateful for Dr. William Doan for being my undergraduate
thesis advisor at Miami University on a project about Frederick Frank. Franck’s many
publications and artworks sought the beauty and humanity shared across cultures, faiths and
traditions towards a panhumanness. The fundamental question he explored was, “What does
it mean to be human?” This concern became and is the essence of my pursuit of art history, 21
aesthetics and museum practice. I believe this pursuit underlies the making of resonant
artworks or technological advances that serve humanity.
This is among many of Franck’s critical insights into humanity’s sense of being in world for a
life aware of beauty and human dignity:
A new innocence, perhaps even a new naiveté, is needed. This is not something that
can be willed or concocted intellectually, but must be born from ‘grace.’ What we need
is a holistic view of reality, a view in which all our fragmentary modern knowledge
would be evaluated as mere preparation for the integration of its insights on a higher
level. This does not imply facile assumptions about some undifferentiated reality, but
a restoration of a view of the human in its dignity as a spark of the infinite fire (agni), a
microcosm, an image of the whole, a constituent of the entirety of the real: cosmically,
environmentally, communally integrated. 22
Franck believed that the potentiality for humanness was imprinted on our hearts and inherent
within us all. It was the purpose of human beings to discover this potential before our deaths.
Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 2014) Kindle edition, 9094 http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00DPM80AC
"Frederick Franck Pacem in Terris," Frederick Franck Pacem in Terris, 2014,
Frederick Franck, What Matters: Spiritual Nourishment for Head and Heart. (Woodstock, Vermont:
Skylight Paths Publishing, 1993), 31
Frederick Franck, To Be Human Against All Odds (Berkeley, California: Asian Humanities Press, 1991),
Frederick Franck, Art as a Way: A Return to the Spiritual Roots (New York: Cross Road, 1981), 38
For me, the pursuit of humanness through expressive life with aesthetic force is the pursuit of
beauty. Digital technologies are the means by which one can make/share individual/collective
4. Pausing Conclusion A Call to Purpose: Digital Aesthetics, Art, Life and Museums
The essence of an artwork is not confined to its bits, canvas or any other material. The
essence of a museum is not confined to its building. The essence of a collection is not
confined to an assemblage of objects. The essence of love is not confined to a body. The
essence of technology is is not confined to a device. The latter of all these serve as layered
platforms for exploring and discovering what it means to be human a monistic reality that is at
once digital and physical.
I encourage museums to focus on fostering aesthetic experiences with our publics by using
humanistic methods of inquiry and practice utilizing digital technologies. Museums should be
courageous in their efforts to inspire the public to seek and approach beauty in its spectrum of
articulations, forms and gestures. Museums can better serve people by aiding them to
awaken a sensitivity that recognizes expressive life and aesthetic force within their daily lives
and in communion with works of art this is a key to the mission of museums in the 21st
century. In my heartmind, this is/has been the essence and purpose of of art, life, museums
and technology since Prometheus gave us the fire of imagination that burns within all
Expressive life, aesthetic force, beauty are the what museums must continue to nurture in
response to the flux of technologies that through their creation, iteration and interaction yield
new and reflective understandings of humanness. This is a boundless process that places
priority value on collaboration, compassion and connection. It is a practice of grace and virtue,
which aims to be aware of its own imperfections with humility, while remaining unwavering in
its pursuit of an artful life rich in human dignity and purpose.
I look forward to our conversation on April 6, 2015 from 1:00pm–3:00pm EST at Foster
Auditorium in Paterno Library on the campus of Penn State University or via livestream.
Please join our dialogue via Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #psuda.
BBC Radio 4 and The Open University. The Fourth Revolution. Narrated by Gillian Anderson,
Scripted by Nigel Warburton. Animations by Cognitive. Published on Jan 28, 2015, YouTube.
Floridi, Luciano. “Luciano Floridi: The Philosophy of Information.” Philosophy of Information.
Floridi, Luciano. Introduction to The Onlife Manifesto: Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era.
Edited by Luciano Floridi. New York: Springer International Publishing, 2015. Open Access
Floridi, Luciano. The Fourth Revolution: How Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. Oxford,
United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2014. Kindle edition,
"Frederick Franck Pacem in Terris." Frederick Franck Pacem in Terris. 2014.
Franck, Frederick. What Matters: Spiritual Nourishment for Head and Heart. Woodstock,
Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 1993
Franck, Frederick. To Be Human Against All Odds. Berkeley, California: Asian Humanities
Franck, Frederick. Art as a Way: A Return to the Spiritual Roots. New York: Cross Road,
Ivey, Bill. Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. Berkeley,
California: University of California Press, 2008.
Ivey, Bill. UWMadison Arts Enterprise: Bill Ivey on Expressive Life. Performed by Billy Ivey
and Andrew Taylor. November 12, 2009, Internet Archive.
Lewis, Sarah Elizabeth. The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014. Kindle edition.
Long, Christopher P. “Christopher P. Long” http://www.cplong.org/
Long, Christopher P. "technology Search Results: Christopher P. Long." Last update
November 6, 2013 http://www.cplong.org/?s=technology
Long, Christopher P. and Casey Fenton. Technology and the Practice of Philosophy.
Performed by Christopher P. Long. Published on Nov 2, 2013, YouTube.
Mitchell, W.J.T . “W.J.T Mitchell: Welcome to The Jungle of Imagery”
Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 2013. Kindle edition. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00SOK9BF8
Stimler, Neal. "ttw14: Digital Monism: Our Mode of Being At The Nexus of Life, Digital Media
and Art." Storify. April 2014. https://storify.com/nealstimler/ttw14
Stimler, Neal and Stéphane Vial. "Digital Monism: Our Mode of Being At The Nexus of Life,
Digital Media and Art." Presentation at the Theorizing the Web 2014 Conference, New York
City, April 26, 2014. http://www.slideshare.net/reduplikation/ttw14c4vialstimler
Vial, Stéphane. “Stéphane Vial: Philosophe, orateur, consultant” http://www.stephanevial.net/
Vial, Stéphane. L’être et l’écran: Comment le numérique change la perception. Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, September 4, 2013.
Vial, Stéphane. "There is no difference between the 'real' and the 'virtual': a brief
phenomenology of digital revolution." Presentation at the Theorizing the Web 2013
Conference, New York City, March 2nd, 2013.
Wildeson, Hayley. "Digital Aesthetics, Art, Life and Museums with Neal Stimler." Center for
Online Innovation and Learning Blog. March 10th, 2015.
Woo, Geffrey and Michael Brandt. "Humans: The Next Platform." TechCrunch. March 18,