The Enduring 8-Bit Aesthetic
- Edward Stuart
- November 7, 2012
On June 13th of this year, PBS’ Off Book premiered a new video called The Evolution of 8-Bit Art. (WATCH BELOW) In the video, several artists and musicians explain why they work in the realm of the 8-Bit and why they think it has remained so strong far past its predicted expiration date. The people interviewed in this excellent short documentary had some great insight into the exact reasons why this art form, born of the simple nature of early video games, inspires so many artists, musicians and designers. I’m an artist myself, and I’ve always been fascinated by 8-Bit art, which caused me to dig a little deeper into what these creative minds explored in those amazing 7 minutes. So, what are the elements that allow the 8-Bit aesthetic to retain its popularity?
Even though the 8-Bit era of video games stopped right around the time that the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo made their debut, the art form itself endures. I’m not a hardcore gamer, but I have fond memories of playing Super Mario Bros., Metal Storm and Adventure Island after school. Nintendo Power was a regular on my reading list. Even my friends who are not designers or even art fans almost always appreciate a good t-shirt or print with an 8-Bit design on it precisely because they feel that same nostalgia that I do. For people younger than me, however, the nostalgia is different. They didn’t grow up with these video games, but those 8-Bit graphics and the corresponding music represent something that’s both approachable and somewhat alien—it gives them that intangible feeling of touching another era. When we played those games and looked at those screenshots, the era we were touching was the future. For them, that other era is the past. In this way, the 8-Bit aesthetic is preserved both at a concrete point in time and at a point that exists outside of time entirely. The 8-Bit exists in a unique place in our cultural hive-mind both because video games are popular and because it is simultaneously dated and timeless. The sheer sight and sound of those old games inspires both people older and younger than my generation to create remarkable art and music.
8-Bit graphics were forged in the fire of limitation, and all art and music that those graphics have spawned carries the same legacy. As all artists know, working within set confines sometimes breeds excellent ideas and results. The 8-Bit aesthetic gives the artist, designer and musician a set of very unique and very fun building blocks to work with. At their very essence, pixels are building blocks that can be arranged in a finite number of ways and then colored from a limited palette. The simple, bold designs present in 8-Bit art works very well in t-shirts and posters because there’s not as much room to muddle it up with extraneous details. This sort of electronic minimalism provides enough ambiguity to let the mind wander a little but still paints a solid picture. These stripped-down images full of pure color fields, straight lines and hard edges are instantly commanding—but they’re also very Spartan and accessible. It’s a simple way to communicate an image, soundscape or an idea that other art forms just can’t emulate.
In 2012, there is a large distinction between “analog” and “digital” art. 8-Bit art itself is a byproduct of the digital world, but the digital world of the past bears no resemblance to the digital world of today. Those original 8-Bit video games are the inspiration for modern 8-Bit art and design, and they rightly remain preserved in their cartridges and floppy disks for future generations. There is great pleasure to be taken from translating those uniquely digital elements into the analog, which many artists do with the 8-Bit aesthetic. Injecting a collection of pixels with an organic, human element creates something entirely new. When 8-Bit art is translated into the world of the analog, it creates a dynamic that cannot be replicated by other styles. An artist recreating an iconic frame from Dig Dug with acrylics and canvas represents the same unique challenge that an artist faces when trying to render a perfect still life piece in MS Paint. It’s certainly not always successful, but translating this very specific 2D style into the limitless 3D world is a fascinating concept.
I think the main reason that the 8-Bit aesthetic has survived as long as it has is precisely because of the subculture around it. It’s true that people who are not art fans, mainstream artists and famous musicians (Beck using a Gameboy, anyone?) are drawn to it, but they’re not the primary engine behind its survival and propagation. Aspects of this subculture are definitely invested in both retro and modern video games, but it goes far beyond that. In the world of the 8-Bit aesthetic, designers and artists have the tools to create a viable, striking alternative to mainstream art. 8-Bit art has a certain lo-fi charm, but it goes far beyond that. I think punk rock might be the best comparison to 8-Bit art and music. In the 8-Bit aesthetic, people see something that they can do themselves. They’re able to render something exactly how they want it to come out. For instance, a budding talent might be inspired by another 8-Bit artist and think “Hey, my favorite scene from Drive would look really awesome in the 8-Bit style… and that’s something I can actually do!” Just because anyone can do it does not mean there’s a lack of creativity—the technical elements of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” are quite simple, but they’re the only band that wrote that exact song, which is a vital part of the American punk canon. The 8-Bit aesthetic works the same way. This entire subculture is drawn to it because it’s empowering and it connects them to other artists.
Every artist and designer has his/her own reasons for working in the 8-Bit style, but there are some unifying elements that connect them all. As onlookers, we appreciate the simple aesthetics that whisk us away to another time and allow us to let our minds wander. The artists themselves appreciate those qualities as well, but they are also bound by the confines of the medium itself, the interplay between the analog and the digital and their participation in that particular subculture. It’s the product of a bygone era, but the 8-Bit aesthetic has laid down such strong roots that its lifespan will extend into many future generations.
Edward Stuart is an artist, writer, blogger, and decoration enthusiast. He writes for the canvas art supplier CanvasGalleryArt.com. Edward enjoys blogging about art, art history, design, and home decor.
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