The Beauty of Degraded Art: Why We Like Scratchy Vinyl, Grainy Film, Wobbly VHS & Other Analog-Media Imperfection

“What­ev­er you find weird, ugly, or nasty about a medi­um will sure­ly become its sig­na­ture,” writes Bri­an Eno in his pub­lished diary A Year with Swollen Appen­dices. “CD dis­tor­tion, the jit­ter­i­ness of dig­i­tal video, the crap sound of 8‑bit — all these will be cher­ished as soon as they can be avoid­ed.” Eno wrote that in 1995, when dig­i­tal audio and video were still cut­ting-edge enough to look, sound, and feel not quite right yet. But when DVD play­ers hit the mar­ket not long there­after, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to watch movies in flaw­less dig­i­tal clar­i­ty, few con­sumers with the means hes­i­tat­ed to make the switch from VHS. Could any of them have imag­ined that we’d one day look back on those chunky tapes and their wob­bly, mud­dy images with fond­ness?

Any­one with much expe­ri­ence watch­ing Youtube has sensed the lengths to which its cre­ators go in order to delib­er­ate­ly intro­duce into their videos the visu­al and son­ic arti­facts of a pre-dig­i­tal age, from VHS col­or bleed and film-sur­face scratch­es to vinyl-record pops and tape hiss. “Why do we grav­i­tate to the flaws that we’ve spent more than a cen­tu­ry try­ing to remove from our media?” asks Noah Lefevre, cre­ator of the Youtube chan­nel Poly­phon­ic, in his video essay “The Beau­ty of Degrad­ed Media.” He finds exam­ples every­where online, even far away from his plat­form of choice: take the many faux-ana­log fil­ters of Insta­gram, an app “built around arti­fi­cial­ly adding in the blem­ish­es and dis­col­orations that dis­ap­peared with the switch to dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy.”

Lefevre even traces human­i­ty’s love of degrad­ed media to works and forms of art long pre­dat­ing the inter­net: take now-mono­chro­mat­ic ancient Greek stat­ues, which “were orig­i­nal­ly paint­ed with bold, bright col­ors, but as the paints fad­ed, the art took on a new mean­ing. The pure white seems to car­ry an immac­u­late beau­ty to it that speaks to our per­cep­tion of Greek philoso­phies and myths cen­turies lat­er.” He likens what he and oth­er dig­i­tal-media cre­ators do today to a kind of reverse kintsu­gi, the tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese art of repair­ing bro­ken pot­tery with con­spic­u­ous gold and sil­ver seams: “Instead of fill­ing in flaws in imper­fect objects, we’re cre­at­ing arti­fi­cial flaws in per­fect objects.” Whether we’re stream­ing video essays and vapor­wave mix­es or watch­ing VHS tapes and spin­ning vinyl records, “we want our media to feel lived in.”

Or as Eno puts it, we want to hear “the sound of fail­ure.” And we’ve always want­ed to hear it: “The dis­tort­ed gui­tar is the sound of some­thing too loud for the medi­um sup­posed to car­ry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emo­tion­al cry too pow­er­ful for the throat that releas­es it. The excite­ment of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excite­ment of wit­ness­ing events too momen­tous for the medi­um assigned to it.” This leads into advice for artists, some­thing that Eno — who has made as much use of delib­er­ate imper­fec­tion in his role as a pro­duc­er for acts like U2 and David Bowie as he has in his own music and visu­al art — has long excelled at giv­ing: “When the medi­um fails con­spic­u­ous­ly, and espe­cial­ly if it fails in new ways, the lis­ten­er believes some­thing is hap­pen­ing beyond its lim­its.” It was true of art in the 90s, and it’s even truer of art today.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Cel­e­bra­tion of Retro Media: Vinyl, Cas­settes, VHS, and Polaroid Too

When Mistakes/Studio Glitch­es Give Famous Songs Their Per­son­al­i­ty: Pink Floyd, Metal­li­ca, The Breed­ers, Steely Dan & More

Bri­an Eno Explains the Loss of Human­i­ty in Mod­ern Music

How Com­put­ers Ruined Rock Music

Kintsu­gi: The Cen­turies-Old Japan­ese Craft of Repair­ing Pot­tery with Gold & Find­ing Beau­ty in Bro­ken Things

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Laurence Goldman says:

    Actu­al­ly, “degrad­ed art” mean­ing ana­log media, I guess, is not degrad­ed at all. The dig­i­tiz­ing of life has lead to a banal flat­ness and bor­ing­ness and life­less­ness . Con­nois­seur­ship and dis­cern­ment have been lost in the pop­u­lar­iz­ing of megapix­els and HDR record­ing.

    Have a look at some Kodachrome prints from good Leica street pho­togs from the 1960s and look at the col­or! My god! Go to the Alte Pinocotek in Munich and look at the well pre­served Andreas Breuer paint­ings. Lis­ten to a good vinyl record­ing of Pablo Casals on a good sound sys­tem. Go to Carnegie Hall and lis­ten, then lis­ten to an MP3 on your iPhone. Paint in a north light stu­dio for a few years, then have a look on Insta­gram. You have no idea what you’re miss­ing.

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