Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Eight people pose outdoors in front of a black tarp. They are dressed in a variety of bright and pastel colors, including brightly colored hair. Each outfit has a monochromatic color theme, and the outfits feature fishnet tights, sequins, and sea-inspired flourishes.

Are the Kids Alright? On Cottagecore, Quiet Luxury, Clean Girl and Other Internet Aesthetics


Edited by Aaron Meskin (University of Georgia) and Alex King (Simon Fraser University)

A recent New York Times Magazine article caught my eye because of its original title: “‘Aesthetics’ Are Not an Identity. Teens Deserve Better.” I thought, wait a second, ‘Aesthetics,’ in the sense in which I use the term, is crucial to my identity, and teenagers talking about the standard of taste is pretty great. But the author, Mireille Silcoff, meant something different by the term. She’s talking about internet “aesthetics” like Dark and Light Academia, Royalcore and Seapunk (see the picture above).

Silcoff argues that aesthetics like these do not offer much for today’s youth. True subcultures—punk, metalheads, skaters, club kids—Silcoff argues, are able to provide community and a robust sense of identity. Internet aesthetics don’t do a good job with these. Or so Silcoff says. Is she right? Alex and I thought we better check with the kids. So we reached out to some Gen Z and Millennial students and faculty for their thoughts.

But before we turn it over to the youth, this old Gen Xer wants to say one thing about subcultures. Back in my day, most teens did not belong to them! There were not—in fact—that many punks, skaters, and goths. They were subcultures. (Note that even being a fan of punk or goth was never enough to be part of those subcultures. I listened to a lot of punk and went to hardcore shows in my teens but was never a punk.) What about preppies? Maybe there was a preppy subculture at one time. If so, I’m not sure it’s one that deserves to be remembered fondly. But back in the 80s and 90s, preppy was—at least for most people—a fashion choice (i.e., an aesthetic) rather than a subculture. So I’m a bit skeptical of Silcoff’s nostalgia for subcultures. They might have offered some people a sense of community and identity, but for the vast majority of teens they did no such thing.

The seven authors of the pieces below provide a nuanced view of the role of aesthetics and subcultures in contemporary youth culture. They give us reason to think that the kids are alright.

— Aaron Meskin

  • Fisher Benson (he/him), college student in Philosophy, Knox College
  • Lola Chamberlain (she/they), college student in English and Philosophy, Knox College
  • Celia Gentle (she/her), Masters student, Simon Fraser University
  • Alice Harberd (she/her), PhD student in Philosophy, University College London
  • Nava Karimi (she/her), college student in English and Philosophy, Simon Fraser University
  • Evan Malone (he/him), Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Lone Star College
  • Angela Sun (she/her), Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Washington and Lee University

Fisher Benson

Fisher Benson is a junior philosophy major at Knox College in Galesburg, IL. He’s a music hobbyist, metalhead, and experimental pop enthusiast who adopts slightly more colorful versions of hardcore and emo aesthetics.

There’s a lot of truth in Mireille Silcoff’s piece. There is a dearth of tangible subcultures for contemporary teens to really sink their teeth into. The internet age has resulted in a sort of granulation of identifiable subcultures into micro-aesthetics and niche styles that don’t have much substance outside of visual appeal. That being said, we shouldn’t doubt the resourcefulness of bored teenagers in their quests to find meaningful senses of self. Although I can only speak anecdotally, mixing and patchworking aesthetics into the right fit for oneself seems to be the way forward, with or without the assistance of subcultures.

Just because there are fewer large and recognizable subcultures doesn’t mean that there aren’t still subcultures for teenagers to immerse themselves in; however, the way that immersion happens has changed a bit. I spent my teen years going to small punk and metal shows and listening to as much new music as I could find. I grew my hair out, bought band tees, and started to confidently carve out my identity as a metalhead, but I was simultaneously afraid of limiting myself to just that one version of me. I imagine that most teens feel the same: they don’t want to lock themselves into any one thing without exploring all their options first. They might be desperate for a sense of identity, but they’re also desperate to get it right.

My friends and I had our common interest in metal and the metal scene, but we also had a lot of other interests we liked just as much, so we’d talk about them and swap recommendations or look for things together. Our dominant subculture was vital to our senses of self, but it didn’t rule us completely. It was something we participated in and supported by going to shows, buying merch, and talking to other fans, but that didn’t dictate absolutely everything we were. This is different from how Silcoff represents the subcultures of her youth—as all-encompassing and imposing presences in the lives of participating teens. This isn’t what we want. We want to be ourselves without worrying about how that impacts our status in whichever scene we belong to. Rather than looking for a community that would take us in, we just made one of our own that could shift and change with us, and I think that’s how most people in our generation value subcultures and aesthetics.

The endless wave of minutely differing aesthetics may be vapid and nonsensical, but it’s a mistake to think that it has replaced subcultures entirely. What you can see of these aesthetics on the internet is a sampler. It’s a starter kit to get kids interested in different styles or ideas that they might want to pursue. It’s a mistake to leave it there, though. The search for meaning starts with dialogue between curious friends who decide to explore these things together, encouraging each other to seek out music, art, hobbies, and other identity-defining experiences that might—but need not—coincide with the aesthetics they’re so drawn to. Kids will always find and create meaning where it’s missing, so don’t pity them too much.

Lola Chamberlain

Lola Chamberlain is a senior philosophy and English literature double-major at Knox College in Galesburg, IL. They feel at home in the Minneapolis puppet scene, at a Bluegrass jam session, and dressed in normcore.

The idea of “youth culture” always provokes a certain amount of hysteria from the parental generation—sex, drugs, no-good delinquents, etc. etc. The latest and greatest crisis in youth culture is, of course, the internet. Mireille Silcoff laments the rise of “core,” short videos or memes which collect clothes and objects into distinct aesthetics, divorced from any of the material or collective cultural practices which originally generated them. She thinks that core is a symptom of a trend toward hyper-individuality and loneliness. As a Zoomer myself, I think the hysteria is overblown. The error comes from a misinterpretation of young people’s relationship to the internet, which is never truly representative of how young people act or what we think is cool.

The internet does not straightforwardly reflect or create youth culture. Most young people aren’t cultural zombies, blindly copying whatever we see online. While we certainly take inspiration from the internet, we also have friendships with people in real life. Our style borrows from both. And in real life, we spend time with people who share our interests, tastes, and hobbies. In my high school, there were still the jocks who played sports together, the artsy kids who painted or sculpted, the gamers who gamed, and so on. While perhaps none of these groups are as visually distinct as punks or ravers, they still have semi-cohesive styles based on common cultural practices.

So when young people today look at different aesthetics or cores, we rarely look for a recipe telling us exactly what to wear or how to look. There’s still the impetus to fit in with our group of friends, and express our interests through what we wear. To most young people, core functions more as a point of inspiration than a rulebook to conform to. That’s why mainstream youth fashion is still relatively tame and homogenous instead of fragmented and bizarre.

And just like we don’t copy every aesthetic which appeals to us, we don’t share every part of our lives online either—especially those parts that might not please our parents. The lost IRL meetups that Silcoff grieves (raves, house shows, loitering in the park after dark) are still happening, but these are exactly the kinds of things that young people are most eager to keep secret and therefore off the internet.

Parallel to this point, the people who post and create aesthetic content for the internet do not represent the counterculture of today. Most of the subversive people I know in specific scenes don’t have Instagram accounts at all—it’s passé to cultivate a personal brand, to egotistically vie for relevance on the internet. I suspect we wouldn’t see members of current punk scenes making TikToks or BeReals. A content creator is a very particular kind of person who really cares about what their mainstream audience thinks of them and crafts their image based on what sells. Counterculture, in all its iterations, has always been about rejecting acceptance and validation from the mainstream—and so we shouldn’t expect to find it in the ranks of content creators.

None of this is to say that the internet has had no effect on young people today. But I think it’s important when writing and thinking about online trends for older people to remember that what happens on the internet is not reality, but a filtered, Photoshopped, and commodified version of it. And that’s internet 101 stuff!

Celia Gentle

Celia Gentle is a Masters student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. She’s currently working on moral and aesthetic testimony, and has an meaningless appreciation for rocks of all kinds.  

Subcultures are disappearing and the aesthetics that go along with them are being left behind as mere costumes. But this isn’t necessarily a reason to pity kids these days.

Heading into high school in the early 2010s, there was still a vestigial understanding of how the old subcultures worked. If someone dressed in a goth or country aesthetic, it could be assumed that they were a certain kind of person. As a result, most of us dressed in what can only be described as a normal, boring aesthetic. The only time we did dress according to specific aesthetics was during spirit weeks when we would have Preppy Dress Tuesday or Hippy Wednesday. These were days we could dress up in fun aesthetics without the baggage.

The issue on other days seemed to be that we were all afraid of being seen as posers. Or at least this was the case in Spokane, Washington. Each aesthetic was still connected to a meaningful idea of how to be, but there was no reason to choose one aesthetic over another except that it looked cool to you. There was a tension between the level of commitment to, and a lack of reason for, an aesthetic.

Gen Z seems to have resolved this tension by decreasing the level of commitment an aesthetic requires. It’s no longer true that how you dress necessarily reflects something meaningful about who you are. One doesn’t even need to have an aesthetic. The whole point is that you can have cottagecore vibes one day and western-gothic the next, and the only reason you need is that you felt like it on the day. Aesthetics are a fun way to play around with who you are without having to commit to a whole identity.

While one might worry that the lack of commitment would lead to a lack of community, this isn’t what we find. Even those who don’t commit to an aesthetic find community in the things they do commit to. In the aesthetic wasteland of my high school years, I was still able to build a community with the kids I took dance classes with. In general, there can still be meaningful activities that people are committed to even while their aesthetic are changing.

But another worry is that the thing people are committing to these days is just keeping up with the newest meaningless aesthetic. One only learns to dance because it’s part of the newest trend. As soon as they get bored, they move on to the next thing. But it’s not the lack of meaning behind aesthetics that is the real source of worry here. Instead, it’s the prioritization of something meaningless over doing something meaningful. And the lack of connection between aesthetics and meaning isn’t a reason to believe kids today aren’t doing meaningful things. 

Alice Harberd

Alice Harberd is a PhD student at University College London interested in aesthetics and moral psychology. She also works as a choral singer. Some of her favorite domains of aesthetic experience are: food, friendship, music, and nature. At the moment she is thinking about what part the aesthetic plays in our conceptions of ourselves – particularly the stories we tell about ourselves.

Full disclosure: I am a millennial, and one of the least online people I know. I depend upon my beloved friends Fran and Emma, true digital natives, to explain the Internet to me.

I was also a rubbish teenager. I never managed to be part of any subculture—I had emo friends and hipster friends, but the idea of nailing my colors to the mast and revealing myself as discernibly one thing or another embarrassed and terrified me. But there is no such thing as aesthetic neutrality, so indecision left me with a bizarre mish-mash of styles. I wore Ugg Boots and body-con dresses, but also enormous patterned jumpers with elbow-holes—cast-offs from my cozily unfashionable parents. Friends sometimes tried to help me out by sending me songs from LimeWire or taking me to Primark, but ultimately I was a hopeless case.

So, I find it hard to sympathise with Silcoff’s nostalgia for subcultures that solve the problems of identity by giving us all-consuming but singular answers to questions about who we are and what we care about. I think the answers to these questions, for many, are irreducibly plural. As Mary Midgley says in Wickedness (1984):

[Doctor Jekyll] was partly right: we are each not only one but also many… Some of us have to hold a meeting every time we want to do something only slightly difficult, in order to find the self who is capable of undertaking it…

I think Silcoff is right to take seriously the link between aesthetic tastes and identities: our tastes are thickly connected with our wider sensibilities in ways we simply can’t explain if we estrange the aesthetic from everything else. This is why so often conflicts in aesthetic sensibility are experienced as conflicts: why there seems to be a difficulty with straightforwardly being a mod and a rocker, preppy and a skate rat.

But I don’t think the best way to handle these conflicts is to reach for an all-consuming template of cultural identification which simply denies some of my aesthetic selves, or says that they are lame. Silcoff says teenagers are “looking, hard, for identity, for validation, for the dignification of their taste.” I am sure they are—but I don’t think they need to look outside themselves, and towards the validation of conformity with a unified subculture, to do this. I don’t think they need anything except the resources to accept and delight in the pluralities they house.

Perhaps the lightness, the very changeability of TikTok aesthetics has this advantage over subcultures: you can try them on and take them off. They suggest a more realistic and joyful orientation to the plurality of identity than previous generations have managed—less shackled by the weight of authenticity as consistency. In SOPHIE’s magisterial riposte to Madonna, Immaterial Girls, she celebrates the plasticity of identity:

We’re just, im-ma-ma-material (I could be anything I want)
… (anyhow, anywhere, any place, anyone that I want)

Always the same and never the same

Nava Karimi

Nava Karimi is a third-year English and Philosophy double major at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. She enjoys learning about all kinds of philosophical topics and spends her time listening to music, reading, writing, and representing the stereotypical “alt philosophy major-barista” aesthetic.

Young people do not participate in subcultures in the same ways they once did, but it would be wrong to blame us. In the digital age, subcultures seem to be condensed and repackaged as the “aesthetics” found online, though they lack many of their former attributes. Subcultures provide community and a space for sharing ideas and activities, and to be a part of one can contribute enormously to a person’s sense of identity. Nowadays, we are faced with the constant pressure to consume, which leads to a commodification of self. As a result, our sense of self becomes dependent on the consumption of certain packages of goods and images.

The modern quest for a sense of self morphs into a desire for others to know that—“Hey! I consume these particular products and I have the associated interests!” I remember scrolling on TikTok in the 2020 quarantine era and finding handy guides to adopting cool new looks: for the “Clean Girl” aesthetic, you’d need to buy hair gel for slicked-back buns and lip gloss for the “no-makeup makeup look,” but for “Dark Academia,” you’d need endless sweater vests and fancy notebooks.

The aim is now to be viewed as living a life aligned with the associations of the aesthetic in question, rather than one aligned with the behaviors of participants in a subculture. These carefully crafted digital presentations of self extend to daily life: How do I dress more cottagecore? How do I look more fairygrunge? Identity is reduced to a few interesting buzzwords understood solely by a specific, chronically online crowd.

If these “aesthetics” are becoming a dominant type of subculture, it seems that it has never been easier to participate in them, but I find that is has also never been more lonely to be a part of them. Rather than requiring time, connection, and shared beliefs—or more importantly, beliefs and interests contrary to culturally dominant norms—all that is required now is a certain look. To be a part of these aesthetics is merely to perform the associated image. I laugh it off when people guess my music taste based on my septum piercing and the Doc Martens I’m wearing, but I find myself falling into the trap, too, conscious that I am trying to emulate an “Alt Girl Starter Pack” post I saw on Instagram earlier in the week.

I find myself caught between a desire to be a part of my preferred aesthetic and the recognition that this aesthetic is meaningless beyond the confines of the internet. Maybe we cling to these aesthetics merely from a desire to be perceived as different. It provides a kind of edginess, but in a more accessible way than committing to the lifestyle of a true counterculture. Or perhaps these online aesthetics are a manifestation of that same desire for community found in the members of older subcultures. Looking online and finding others who share your humour, interests, and image provides a form of closeness or belonging, and subscribing to a particular aesthetic may be the best way to achieve the shared experience of bygone subcultures in the digital age.

Evan Malone

Evan Malone is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Lone Star College. Evan’s research explores the ways that genres function as aesthetic communities, generating their own concepts, practices, norms, and new agential identities. You can follow Evan on Bluesky at

When I was a teenager in the Houston straight edge hardcore scene, you wore a plain white t-shirt, skinny jeans, and Converse All Stars or Vans Sk8-Hi’s. If you were really committed, you had a tattoo of three black Xs. Everything about this was an extension of the scene’s values. It was egalitarian in that it didn’t offer opportunities for conspicuous consumption, no leather (popular in other punk scenes) meant no animal byproducts, and your tattoo was a way for the community to know your commitments and help you stay accountable. The same was true for the music. For instance, yelled gang vocals and simple songs meant that everyone could sing along together, building solidarity, regardless of skill. Every aspect worked to form an integrated whole, and that complete vision was a statement about us.

Scenes open up novel, communal aesthetic practices. Without a context, history, or community, it is hard to see musical features as anything more than the artistic choices of individual artists. It’s just as hard to see the fashion of a genre as anything other than expressing an individual person’s passing mood. “Aesthetics,” in this modern sense, lack commitment, community, and history, and that makes it hard for aesthetic communities to negotiate their identities and values.

The transformation, from scenes to aesthetics, is also seen in the shift from genres to “vibes.” The structure of streaming funnels us into a more isolated aesthetic life. Spotify’s algorithms strip genres down into their atomic units, tracks, and decontextualizes them for use as furniture music. If not organized around moods (e.g., chill and hype), songs are presented in a continuous undifferentiated stream with the express function of lubricating our movement through modern life. Does Youth of Today’s “No More” belong on your “Chill Cooking,” “Hype Workout,” or “Passive Recipient of Culture” mix? All of aesthetic life is rendered completely free-floating and modular. There is nothing fundamentally at odds, Spotify suggests, about having Double Dagger on your “Quiet Luxury” playlist, because it just comes down to how a listener feels or to what is useful to them. The question of whether and how aesthetic life can matter to a community never seems to arise.

Yet, where the tech world closes one door, it opens another. Every day new aesthetic communities pop up in online forums. Fans are more empowered than ever to develop their own genre communities, even in cases where the artists aren’t actually aware they make, for instance, mermaidcore. This has diminished the outsized power that things like labels and venues had previously. It even strips away the limits of geography. In principle, it presents the possibility of a more radically decentralized scene. The question that remains is whether the tech world of Zoomers can support an aesthetic community capable of valuing together, appreciating together, and developing aesthetic practices that advance their shared agency. The straight edge scene gave us a sense of meaning, identity, and solidarity. Can the mermaidcore subreddit do the same?

Angela Sun

Angela Sun is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Washington and Lee University working in ethics, social philosophy, philosophy of action, and aesthetics. You can find snapshots of her professorial attire on Instagram @prof_ange_.

I love clothes. (I’ve joked with my students that I became a college professor in part because I could wear what I wanted to work every day without fear of being overdressed. That’s a good a reason as any for going into academia, right?) I was also born in 1995, at the Millennial/Gen-Z cusp. I think that makes me a target of Mireille Silcoff’s article—a member of a generation whose aesthetics are rooted not in any specific culture, but in “being fun and a girl and buying things packaged with a bright color on a white background.”

I think Silcoff is right: girls my age aren’t interested in using style as a way of connecting with a broader community. A friend once joked that I dress like a Republican senator’s young, Asian wife. Being linked to that community is certainly not why I wear long A-line skirts, silk blouses, and Mary Janes. I don’t think about the clothes I wear (or the music I listen to, the movies I like, etc.) as rooted in or even related to the people I hang out with, the places I go, or my hobbies. Yet, I’m not sure that my aesthetic and social lives are pitiable in the way Silcoff suggests they must be.

One reason why style and community don’t go hand-in-hand for me is the models of strong female friendship I had growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Spice Girls—five best friends who promoted girl power, individuality, and self-expression—were known for each having a unique aesthetic and persona within the group: Ginger was bold and confident, Scary fierce and edgy, Baby playful and girly, Sporty athletic and tomboyish, Posh sleek and sophisticated. The question “Are you a Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, or Samantha?” was a recurring topic of conversation in high school and college; it’s fun to think about which Sex and the City character’s distinctive style your own is most like. But the girl group that had the most profound impact on me was probably the one depicted in Ann Brashares’ Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Lena, Tibby, Bridget, and Carmen couldn’t be more different personality- and style-wise, but they love each other unconditionally. The pants that miraculously fit each of them despite their various sizes and shapes are a not-so-subtle symbol of the irrelevance of superficial differences (like aesthetics) when it comes to love and friendship.

Sure, there were also lots of representations of aesthetically defined subcultures: Mean Girls comes to mind. Who can forget the ROTC guys, preps, jocks, band geeks, and (of course) the Plastics sitting in the segregated high school cafeteria? Such depictions provide interesting social commentary, but they make teen subcultures sound depressing. I also don’t think they’re representative of what high school is actually like anymore. When I was in high school, there were certainly popular and unpopular kids, but they weren’t, strictly speaking, cliques. They were merely friend groups whose members hung out together, not groups of friends defined by an aesthetic and shared interests. Of course, members of the same friend group often shared common features; it wasn’t an accident that some kids ended up in the same groups. But they weren’t defined by subculture. At my high school, friend groups were defined racially: the popular kids were White.

It’s always exciting to meet someone who likes the same clothes as you, listens to the same music as you, or shares the same hobbies as you. But it’s not clear to me that lacking the aesthetic resources to define one’s style in terms of a specific subculture deprives one of valuable friendships and community. In fact, I think there is something beautiful about communities defined not by a shared aesthetic, but by mutual love and support, something that Silcoff’s account of the value of aesthetically defined subcultures overlooks.


  1. “Every day new aesthetic communities pop up in online forums. ” – Malone

    Few of us are noticing just how radical an act of conceptual engineering this is–to use the word “community” in this way. A “community” in which one can never be sure whether ~25% of the “people” you are talking to are bots or AI or trolls or operatives from foreign intelligence services? I respectfully submit that this is not a community.

    • Thank you for taking the time read the roundtable and to comment!

      I would be very happy to engage in a bit of conceptual engineering, but I don’t know how radical the use of ‘community’ to describe members of an online forum actually is. After all, people routinely talk about the ‘scientific community’, which is equally geographically dispersed, and has similar worries about the role of bots and foreign intelligence operatives. Scientists simply can’t be sure whether they are reading the words of an actual scientist or a bot these days (

      This is to say that there seems to me to be a sense in which people use ‘community’ to refer to the totality of all individual members within a set (e.g., the Twilight fan community, the model train community, etc.). Individual members are taken to be a part of these communities even if they aren’t in regular contact with other members. In this way, we can at least say that there is a community of people who participate in a given online forum organized around some aesthetic or genre.

      However, if, by ‘community’, we mean something deeper, in which a community is more than the totality of individual members of the set, that is exactly the question I think we need to struggle with. Whether these online communities can support communal valuing and communal modes of aesthetic engagement (rather than describing a collection of individuals involved in individual aesthetic engagement), I think, remains to be seen. Maybe you think this is already settled, but we should also notice that whatever answer we give is contingent on our particular snapshot of contemporary social media architecture. The design of the various platforms pushes us into particular modes of engagement, and those platforms could just as easily be redesigned to be more or less individualistic. The same is true with regards to whether these communities are ‘real communities’ in the dual-character sense of the term, in which real communities might embody the trust, mutual positive regard, and familiarity we want from communities (and so on). These features might make up the evaluative aspect of community, but I (personally) think that regular usage of the term at least also permits talking about communities in the more nominal and thinly descriptive sense.

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