Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

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This post appears as part of a collaboration between Oxford University Press and AFB.

This edition of the Artworld Roundtable will focus on Conversations on Art and Aesthetics. The book contains interviews with ten prominent philosophers of art. The interviews are conducted by philosopher Hans Maes, who is Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Art, and Director of the Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Accompanying these interviews are portraits by photographer Steve Pyke.

From the book’s website, where you can also read excerpts and view the portraits:

In Conversations on Art and Aesthetics, Hans Maes discusses … key questions in aesthetics with ten world-leading philosophers of art. The exchanges are direct, open, and sharp, and give a clear account of these thinkers’ core ideas and intellectual development. They also offer new insights into, and a deeper understanding of, contemporary issues in the philosophy of art.

The ten interviewees are Jerrold Levinson, Arthur Danto, Cynthia Freeland, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Jenefer Robinson, Roger Scruton, Gregory Currie, Paul Guyer, Noël Carroll, and Kendall Walton.

Our contributors are:

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What follows is a co-authored post by AFB staff writers Matthew Strohl and Mary Beth Willard.

John Corvino writes, of the narrowly decided Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, that the Supreme Court punted on many of the substantive issues:

What counts as protected speech, and why? Does it matter if the cake is custom? If it has words on it? How do we distinguish messages that are integral to one’s identity as a member of a protected class and those that are incidental to it?

We suspect it does matter if the cake is custom, but that the focus on messaging is a red velvet herring. To our minds, this isn’t primarily an issue of protected speech, at least in the sense being widely discussed in connection with the recent SCOTUS decision. Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George argue that custom wedding cakes bear expressive content, in particular, the recognition that the event the cake figures in is a wedding. We are skeptical about the prospects for this argument. As Chief Justice Roberts observed during oral argument, it’s hard to see why whether a cake is custom or not would make an expressive difference with respect to acknowledging the wedding as such. But the notion that a cake carries such expressive content strikes us as highly dubious in the first place. Setting aside any text or wedding imagery (which we assume would be a little too déclassé to be on offer in the first place from a cakeshop with ‘Masterpiece’ in its name), a wedding cake is just a really awesome cake. There is no systematic way to distinguish wedding cakes from other cakes on the basis of their intrinsic features. Wedding cakes are typically multi-tiered, but many high-end wedding cakes are one-tiered and there are plenty of other show-stopping alternatives to the multi-tiered cake. And, of course, multi-tiered cakes are often used to celebrate other occasions (including mermaid parties!). Continue reading

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In the penultimate measure of the first movement Clementi’s Sonatina No. 36, there is a short cascade of notes:

This sonatina is often used as a teaching piece, because it’s a great introduction for the early intermediate pianist to the techniques required in more complicated piano pieces. This little cascade is a good example of why. It’s short, only eight notes long. In the numbering system every beginner learns, your thumbs are ones; your pinkies, fives. The G and A keys are right next to each other on the keyboard, and one might expect that the prescribed fingering of two adjacent notes would require two adjacent fingers. Perhaps, because the sequence continues down the keys, the four and five fingers, so that other fingers are properly positioned to reach the next notes.

But that’s not what happens. The G is struck with the thumb, and the A with the fourth finger. To do this, one must curl the edges of the palm toward each other like a taco. Then, the second finger crosses over to reach the D, the third follows to strike the E, and then the sequence repeats. 1, 4, 2, 3.

To the early intermediate pianist, i.e., me, it is not immediately obvious why this should be. The sequence does not cover a great range, it’s not terribly fast, and at first, it’s terribly awkward. My first reaction was to reflect that no one is going to force’s my fingers into any position (I’m an adult; I don’t have to listen to the piano teacher if I don’t want to!), and anyway, isn’t it the production of the sound that’s artistically and aesthetically most important? Who cares how it happens?

(Above: a young Yuja Wang, playing Clementi No. 36. better than probably everyone on the planet.)

Of course, I was wrong, but it struck me that a similar approach is common in the philosophy of music. The aesthetics of music in the contemporary analytic tradition is the aesthetics of the experience of the audience. So when we investigate what a musical work is, or how music expresses emotions, we adopt the perspective of someone whose relationship to the artwork is that of the consumer. The artistic performance of a work of music is valued for the aesthetic experience of the audience, and speculating how this came to be is irresistible as it is irresponsible. Perhaps the analogy with the contemplation of the visual arts was drawn too tightly; perhaps once our attention was focused on music as art we focused on the only role available to those of us who aren’t artists, the passive consumer, focused on the hedonic experience of listening. The aesthetics of the production of music drops away; even if we attend to the experience of listening to live music, we write from the perspective of one in the seats. But how needlessly narrow! The divine madness of Ion is the madness of the performer. We shouldn’t overlook the dimensions of aesthetics of the creation of music.

Of course, the performer may experience the music as if she were part of the audience, finding pleasure in the sounds of the music. Yet even in this she experiences the work differently than the audience. A concert grand piano is designed to project sound, and it’s heard best at some distance from the piano, because the sound waves need space to propagate. (This is one of the many reasons you don’t want to put a concert grand in a small room.) The player is also close enough to the instrument to hear every little resonance and feel every vibration, pleasant or not. A player can feel the bass notes on her face, and through the vibration in the floor. Less musically, I once spent an hour trying to determine the source of an annoying resonance that occurred whenever I played the middle E, discernible only to me, the player, only to discover that the small buzz was the result of the sheet music perched on the music desk.

Moreover, playing the piano is an intense physical activity, the piano itself a disguised piece of percussion that requires not just dexterity in the fingers but strength in the arms. It’s kinetic in the way of sports or dance. Overeager newcomers are often cautioned not to practice too much at once, because as the muscles in the hand fatigue they are likely to become injured. The action of the piano, the mechanism that transmits the motion of the keys to the hammers which strike the strings, in a fine instrument is so sensitive as to respond precisely to the speed and pressure that the player applies. The keys become extension of the fingers. There is a beauty in mastering the strike of the keys beyond the mere production of a pleasing sound, the feeling that this is right and correct and perfect.

Playing with proper technique facilitates the production of beautiful tones, and allows for the development of graceful phrasing. The reason the end of the Clementi sonatina prescribes such a fingering is not for the sake of those eight notes, but that mastering that pattern will allow the player to learn longer, more difficult passages. At the end of those eight notes, the hand is position to run up the keys or continue down. Keeping the hand compact and controlled helps in the production of sound.

But there’s just something gorgeous about the feeling when the fingering, after lots of practice, becomes natural. It’s hard to describe, and all of the immediate language that comes to mind is tired and overused: it clicks; it falls into place; it fits like a key in a lock; with the satisfaction of the last puzzle piece snapping into place. The joy of the fluidity of the phrase, even in such an elementary piece, can be understood only from the seat on the bench. The small point is that the aesthetic satisfaction of mastering a sequence is different from the aesthetic appreciation of the music. Yet both are indispensably, and one hopes, indisputably part of the aesthetics of music.

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Jack Woods interviewed by Roy Cook for AFB

Jack Woods is University Academic Fellow in Mathematical Philosophy (боже мой) at the University of Leeds. Prior to this post, he worked at Bilkent University (in Ankara, Turkey). He studied at the University of Minnesota (MA) and took his PhD from Princeton University. He works in philosophy of logic and mathematics, as well as metaethics, the theory of normativity, and philosophy of language. Recent publications include “The Authority of Formality” (Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol 13), “Logical Partisanhood” (Philosophical Studies), “Intertranslatability, Theoretical Equivalence, and Perversion” (Thought), and “Emptying a Paradox of Ground” (Journal of Philosophical Logic). Prior to studying and working as a philosopher, he played in short-lived punk bands and worked as a bouncer at clubs in Boston, including the Rat, the Middle East, and P.J. Kilroys (Fathers Too), nearly all of which are now closed.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: So, let’s begin with a good story about one of your tattoos.

JACK WOODS: So my favorite tattoo came about totally by accident. I had a bit of Latin – Ubi Dubium Ibi Libertas – tattooed on my chest at 19 and I did the translation myself. Thank god I did it mostly right, but – as I’m prone to do anyways – I made a spelling mistake and dropped an ‘r’ from ‘Libertas, resulting in my chest saying ”where there is doubt, there is [word that means nothing]”. Oof. Years later, a pal of mine was doing tattoos in his kitchen (they used to be illegal in Boston), and I asked him to correct the tattoo. He offered to squeeze the ‘r’ in, but I demurred. Better, I thought – and still think! – to have the correction public. So he tattooed the ‘r’ below the tattoo and added a correction caret.

The result is my favorite tattoo (well, except perhaps for my Hilbert tattoos). I like to think of it as saying ”it’s better to be right, on balance, than to look perfect.” But maybe that’s just me trying to post hoc justify my adolescent mistake!


AFB:  So your favorite tattoo is a corrected version of a mistaken original. Is this two tattoos? How should we individuate tattoos?

JW: It’s an excellent question. I think of it as one tattoo, but now I’m starting to wonder whether that’s right. Maybe it’s best to think of it as a composite of two tattoos.

Another case of this is on my arms. I have “Wir müssen wissen” on one, and “Wir werden wissen” on the other. Of course, the reference is to one quote from Hilbert, but they’re disconnected. Does that make them two tattoos?

AFB: This raises and interesting question about the ontology of tattoos. One of the questions inked people get asked most often is “How many tattoos do you have?” What do you say when asked this, and do you think there is a correct answer to this question?

JW: I think there’s probably not any single right answer to this question. It’s certainly not simple spatial continuity—there’s no reason that you couldn’t have two tattoos abutting one another. It’s also not directly correlated with a connected sequence of tattoo sessions – some people just go in and ask to have a certain body part covered (in a sleeve, etc.)

Another interesting problem here has to do with cover-ups. My first professional tattoo covered up a little ace of spades I got tattooed at a kitchen table (with a needle soaked in bleach… :-/) in my teens. It makes a difference to the color and texture of the tattoo that covers it up. But it’s intuitively not part of the tattoo anymore than an underpainting is automatically part of a painting. One suspects that there’s going to be some kind of intensional or dispositional account of what makes up a single tattoo, but where this isn’t fixed absolutely.

AFB: Cover-ups raise a number of interesting questions with regards to ontology. In some sense, the ace of spades still exists “under” or “intermingled” with the cover-up tattoo. Is the ace of spades still one of your tattoos (in the sense we might “discover” a second painting underneath a painting we are familiar with)? Or does the cover-up destroy the original?

JW: I wonder whether that’s contingent on the fact that we can’t, at least at present, simply remove the “overtattoo”. Again, I suspect that whatever is true here is going to be an intensional or dispositional fact. Or, rather, a fact about what we qua community are disposed to say about these cases in general in conjunction with facts about the tattoo itself and it’s intended design. So, for instance, I have a poem in Turkish on my right calf. Given that it was applied in one sitting and is coming from a unified piece of writing (by the poet Orhan Veli), it’s intuitively one tattoo. But, suppose instead that I just had a collection of Turkish words I liked the sound of and I got one tattooed on me every 6 months or so. Intuitively, if these facts are known about the case, we’d treat it as a bunch of tattoos that happen to be arranged in a way resembling a poem (or at least that’s what I suspect we’d say). So whether or not it’s one tattoo or a bunch has to do with far more than spatial contiguity (each word is separated, of course) and application procedure. I think this reflects the view I favor in aesthetics (and philosophy) generally, that we defer to a particular community in deciding the extension of certain aesthetic, normative, and ontological properties. Of course, there’s also the question about tattoos that mean things…here it’s plausible that our intentions play far less of a role.


AFB: You just mentioned “tattoos that mean things”. But how does this work? How exactly do tattoos get meanings? What communities might be relevant to determining what, exactly, a tattoo means, and how so?

JW: Well, let’s distinguish two things. First of all, there’s the sort of meaning intended to be expressed by a particular tattoo. Personally, I don’t have much truck with this; my tattoos are things I thought were cool, but they don’t have much significance. The only exception is my left forearm, which contains the address of a club – the Rat – I used to work at. This was part of a deal the entire staff of the club made. But I don’t think this kind of meaning is very interesting in the case of tattoos. We can imbue significance on things as we want, the only thing tattoos have going for them in this respect is that it’s hard to lose them, unlike a wedding ring or your lucky sock.

What I’m interested in is cases where a particular tattoo has “conventional” meaning. The most famous case of this is prison tattoos. We all know that – or we should! – that a teardrop means you’ve murdered someone (number of teardrops = number of murders), a hollow teardrop means you’ve tried to or stabbed someone up, a clock with no hands represents doing time, etc. Likewise, there are gang tattoos (one of mine bears a passing accidental resemblance to a biker gang tattoo, which got me in trouble once), sailor tattoos (crossed cannons mean you’ve served on a military ship, hinges (one of my favorite tattoos!) are for luck with your joints, etc.)

Of course, any symbol can get imbued with conventional meaning, but tattoos are an extreme case where your intentions cross the public meaning. If you get teardrops and you haven’t murdered someone, people have every right to get upset at you – and, given the context, that’s a very bad thing! Likewise, I was close to having done a very bad thing in getting the tattoo that resembled a biker symbol, even though I had no intention to front and no knowledge I was perilously close to doing so!

So there’s another interesting thing here about the ontology of tattoos. What a tattoo is, I believe, is partially constituted in some cases by the public recognition of them as symbols, regardless of what the person getting the tattoo intended. If you have FTW tattooed on you, even if you meant “For the Win”, you’ve got a “Fuck the World” tattoo, at least in the eyes of most people who used to be typically tattooed.

AFB: Any final thoughts on the aesthetics of tattoos? Or on the aesthetics of your tattoos?


JW: As we’ve seen above, there are a lot of ontological questions that one can raise about tattoos, questions to me that seem to point to a social, dispositional, and intentional picture of the ontology of tattoos. There’s questions remaining even after this: Roald Dahl raises an especially gruesome one in his story ”Skin” where someone’s tattoo seems to be forcibly removed and stuck in a gold frame. Does it remain a tattoo at this point? Very hard to say. Of course, we can raise similar questions all over the place, but in the context of tattoos they seem to have an especial oomph and difficulty.

Though, again, for me, the meaningfulness of tattoos in the personal case isn’t especially interesting – I grimace a bit whenever someone asks what mine mean or talks about their reluctance to get a tattoo because they can’t figure out the perfect one to capture such and so. When I was getting actively inked, I had a habit of making the tattoo appointment far before I decided what I wanted… which is probably why I’ve got so many skulls on me. They’re kind of the black outfit of the tattoo world.

But the meaningfulness of tattoos in a more conventional sense is more interesting, especially when the older expressive value of being tattooed at all has mostly faded. But you can still express something by means of the content of our tattoos by picking up on conventionalized meanings, whether for good or for bad. And this, I reckon, is a good thing. You can also recapture a bit of the older expressive meaning of being tattooed at all by location of your tattoos: it’s still aggressive to get your neck or your hands tattooed. But I should stop here. Thanks for the chance to talk about all this!

P.S. Neck tattoos are going to be my post-tenure gift to myself.




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Latest development in the Fearless Girl case, brought to you only three weeks late courtesy of yrs truly and the end of the semester: the city wants the girl moved, citing traffic and safety concerns.

I can’t imagine that any one was surprised by this decision, given the statue’s story as an advertisement playing opposite an iconic piece of guerilla art. It was unlikely that it would stay forever. And at 250 pounds, it hardly presents the obstacle to removal that Charging Bull did; it’s a much easier call.

But the city is now planning to move the bull, too. It might be moved back to where it originally had been placed, right in front of the stock exchange. All good, right?

Now here’s where things get a little weird. DiModica, the artist who created Charging Bull, is suing the city, arguing that it does not own the bull, and therefore has no right to move it. And if the press coverage is accurate, the problem isn’t just that they’re moving the bull back to the original location, but that it’s being moved with the statue of the girl.

The girl, Di Modica has argued, alters the meaning of the bull. He intended it as a symbol of hope; it’s been taken more broadly as a symbol of New York and capitalism. But what he says he never wanted was for the bull to be a bully, and when it’s set to trample a tiny girl, that’s exactly what it looks like. And here, I think he’s right; the meaning of the bull won’t long survive the experience of crowds, treating it as a symbol of feminism and forgetting, after a while, that she wasn’t always there.

But I’m not sure that he’s right to think that the city doesn’t have the right to move it. It was an act of guerilla art, and it’s been so successful for no reason except public acclaim, and it’s evolved into an icon that he surely couldn’t have anticipated. More to the point, if it’s street art—and he’s adamant that it doesn’t belong to the city—then it seems that it has to live in that liminal space, not quite legal, not illegal. Part of its lifecycle requires accepting that the city might not always want it, and that its meaning hasn’t been in his control since that night in December.

Image credit: photo by Anthony Quintano via Flickr

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What follows is a guest post from K. E. Gover.

Monuments are inherently political in a way that other kinds of artworks are not. As the recent controversies surrounding the removal of civil war monuments has made painfully clear, monuments make a public statement about what citizens should value and remember. The Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel has recently proposed that Trump designate as a “national monument” the eight border wall prototypes located along the US-Mexico border, claiming that they have “significant cultural value and are significant land art.” By petitioning that the wall prototypes be preserved indefinitely as a kind of memorial to bigotry, Büchel implicates anti-immigration Trump supporters and the liberal elite art establishment under the same proposal. Continue reading




What follows is a post in our ongoing collaborative series with the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is based on a new article by Adriana Clavel-Vazquez, “Sugar and spice, and everything nice: What rough heroines tell us about imaginative resistance.

After five seasons of House of Cards, it was finally Claire Underwood’s turn to be a proper rough heroine. In seasons one to four we find an interesting contrast between the moral transgressions that make Claire and Frank Underwood rough heroes: she is a ruthless, selfish, and drunk-with-power woman who is uninterested in motherhood; he is a ruthless, selfish, drunk-with-power man who has murdered several people. But in season five, Claire (finally!) murders Tom Yates, her journalist lover who had been given full access to the Underwood’s in previous seasons, and who was ready to publish an incriminating tell-all book. After poisoning him, Claire gives herself a couple of minutes to spare a few tears before calmingly leaving dead Tom behind. 2017 was the year of the rough heroine in pop culture: in addition to Claire Underwood, appreciators were given Grace Marks in Netflix’s adaptation of Alias Grace, and Katherine Lester in Lady Macbeth. But why did it take so long? Rough heroes, like Walter White, Patrick Bateman, and A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, have been around since, like, forever. Continue reading

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What follows is a post in our ongoing collaborative series with the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is based on a new article by Henry Pratt, “Are You Ready for Some Football? A Monday Night Documentary?

When I lived in Wisconsin, I had a large, hairy housemate named Brian who watched a lot of hockey and football on TV. Sometimes he’d even do so shirtless to avoid stains from marinara sauce. It turns out that, unbeknownst to me at the time, he’d seen thousands of documentaries and was something of an expert on them.

Wait—what? Quoth Gregory Currie, in his prominent article on the category: “game shows turn out to be documentaries about their participants, chat shows documentaries about the interviewer and interviewees, and sports programs documentaries about the activities of the athletes” (294). Continue reading

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Eva Dadlez interviewed by Roy Cook for AFB

M. Dadlez is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma. She received her Ph.D. from Syracuse University. She writes on issues at the intersection (often at the collision) of aesthetics, ethics, and epistemology. She has written two books on the preceding: What’s Hecuba to Him? Fictional Events and Actual Emotions (Penn State Press 1997) and Mirrors to One Another: Emotion and Value in Jane Austen and David Hume (Wiley-Blackwell 2009), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters including “Art, Ink, and Expression: Philosophical Questions About Tattoos”, Philosophy Compass 10(11): 739 – 753. Her edited collection for Oxford University Press, Jane Austen’s Emma: Philosophical Perspectives is presently in production. Dadlez is also a feminist ethics dilettante and an occasional novelist. She has indulged in the composition of a mean-spirited academic satire (The Sleep of Reason) that lampoons higher education in America. She also draws a lot and has many tattoos of owls and foxes. Continue reading

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I met a critic, I made her shit her drawers
She said she thought hip-hop was only guns and alcohol
I said “Oh hell naw!” But yet it’s that too
You can’t discrimi-hate cause you done read a book or two
What if I looked at you in a microscope, saw all the dirty organisms
Living in your closet would I stop and would I pause it?
…Speeches only reaches those who already know about it
This is how we go about it

– André 3000, “Humble Mumble


What follows is a guest post by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò.

This blog recently hosted a post on country music which defended country music partly because of its interaction with the class dynamics between the working class people who listen to the style and the broader culture in which they do so. The author of this piece comes close to a trope I’ve noticed in many online discussions of art, which feature people “critiquing” the performative politics of the authors but not the aesthetics.

It seems to me like some people these days think their political judgments should lead their aesthetic judgments. In the last few years I’ve been in more conversations than I care to remember about why this or that music is good or bad based on the politics or political symbolism of the artist or their work – why we should like this music because it’s made by representatives of this or that identity group, or we should hate that music because it’s “cultural appropriation”. And, worse, I’ve gotten through many of these discussions without drums or melody or harmony so much as being mentioned, much less being the focus. Sometimes, I was myself guilty! Third and perhaps worst of all is something I think of as a predictable result of the social environment helped along by the first two things: A lot of people in various artistic mediums seem very interested in discussing and preening the social significance of their work but uninterested in developing the fundamental skills of their craft. So, in the spirit of self-criticism: I want to try to do all of these things less because I think these tendencies are bad for art. By the end of this piece I want to have explained why I think that. Continue reading