Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

April 18, 2024
by Aesthetics for Birds

Five Scholars Discuss Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter”

Beyoncé faces the camera in a shiny red, white, and blue cowboy-style suit and white cowboy hat. She rides side-saddle on a white horse in motion, her hair flowing out and matching the horse's mane. In one hand, she carries the reins, and in the other, a large American flag, of which only the bottom left quarter is visible. The background is black.
Cover of Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé (2024)

Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter’s genre-hopping and country-influenced new album, Cowboy Carter, has been one of the biggest pop culture events of 2024 so far. It has also been a major event in aesthetics. What do we mean by that? Well, in his groundbreaking 2016 book, Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, the philosopher Paul Taylor characterizes Black aesthetics in the following way:

to do “black aesthetics” is to use art, criticism, or analysis to explore the role that expressive objects and practices play in creating and maintaining black life-worlds. The appeal to exploration here is more expansive than it may appear. One can explore something by trying to give an account of it, in the manner of a scientist. But one can also explore something by poking around, in the manner of an explorer. In this sense artists explore the roles that expressive objects can play by trying to make them play one role or another, or by participating in and commenting on previous attempts to do this.

On this understanding, Cowboy Carter is itself a work of Black aesthetics, one where Beyoncé explores Black life-worlds through the lens of country and genre, as well as a host of other themes. We invited five scholars working in aesthetics and philosophy of art to comment on the album, and to engage with Beyoncé on these issues. Also, we wanted to make sure that the world knew that aesthetic thought about pop music reaches beyond the orbit of Taylor Swift.

In this roundtable, five aestheticians offer their reflections on the most recent work by Queen Bey:

  • Jeanette Bicknell (she/her), Independent Scholar and professional mediator
  • John Dyck (he/him), Lecturer in Philosophy at Auburn University
  • Charles Peterson (he/him), Associate Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at Oberlin College
  • Corey Reed (he/him), Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Butler University
  • Nicholas Whittaker (they/them), PhD candidate at the City University of New York, Graduate Center
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An old, white-bearded man kneels on the floor of a messy and dark laboratory, lit only by a bright point of light emerging from the side of a glass flask. Two young boys look on as the man stares at the small plume of light in awe.

April 11, 2024
by Aesthetics for Birds

What Is the Aesthetic Value of Science?

An old, white-bearded man kneels on the floor of a messy and dark laboratory, lit only by a bright point of light emerging from the side of a glass flask. Two young boys look on as the man stares at the small plume of light in awe.
Detail from “The Alchemist” by Joseph Wright (1771) [source]

We usually associate aesthetic experience with the enjoyment of artworks and landscapes, but I have always found incredible pleasure in science and its history. While I value artists and the artifacts they create, to me they are on a par with scientists, who also offer beautiful, awe-inspiring creations. Engaging with nature, the subject matter of science, can itself be the source of deep aesthetic experiences, but so too can engaging with scientific discoveries, instruments, and performances of experiments. Science can evoke unrivaled aesthetic responses in us.

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A black-and-white portrait photograph of a light-skinned man from the shoulders up. He has a moustache and a flat expression, and wears glasses and a hat.

March 14, 2024
by Aesthetics for Birds

Jonardon Ganeri on the Poetry of Fernando Pessoa

Countless lives inhabit us.
I don’t know, when I think or feel,
Who it is that thinks and feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought and felt.

I have more than just one soul.
There are more I-s than I myself.
I exist, nevertheless,
Indifferent to them all.
I silence them: I speak.

The crossing urges of what
I feel or do not feel
Struggle in who I am, but I
Ignore them. They dictate nothing
To the I I know: I write.

This is entry #92 in our ongoing 100 Philosophers, 100 Artworks, 100 Words Series.

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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.

March 7, 2024
by Aesthetics for Birds

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
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A photograph of a cake. The cake is placed on the middle of a wooden table. It is covered with light pink frosting and adorned with a circle of quartered strawberries. Imperfections make it clear that the cake is homemade.

February 29, 2024
by Aesthetics for Birds

The Hidden Privilege of “The Great British Bake Off”

A photograph of a cake. The cake is placed on the middle of a wooden table. It is covered with light pink frosting and adorned with a circle of quartered strawberries. Imperfections make it clear that the cake is homemade.
All photos by the author

An essay by Christopher Bartel (Appalachian State University)

The Great British Bake Off  (GBBO) is a show that I deeply love. But it is also one that unsettles me for its inherent classism.

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December 30, 2023
by Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics for Birds Staff Give One Rec from 2023

‘Tis the season for year-end recommendations! So some of our staff are bringing you one thing that we experienced this year* that’s worth telling others about.

From all of us, thanks for another great year. Hope you enjoy these, and we’ll see you in 2024!

*Although not necessarily from this year!

  • Roy T. Cook (he/him), CLA Scholar of the College and Professor of Philosophy, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities
  • Anthony Cross (he/him), Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Texas State University
  • Alex King (she/her), Associate Professor of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University
  • Matthew Strohl (he/him), Professor of Philosophy, University of Montana
  • Mary Beth Willard (she/her), Professor of Philosophy, Weber State University
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November 17, 2023
by Aesthetics for Birds
1 Comment

The Real Problem with AI Art

“We,” Emma Smith, Sculpture in the City, 2022. Copyright the artist.
Photo: © Nick Turpin

When Jason Allen’s Théâtre D’opéra Spatial (2022) won the blue ribbon in the Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition in the category for digital art or digitally manipulated photography, there was a very strong outcry in the media that this signified the ‘end of art’. Allen himself was quoted in the New York Times saying “This isn’t going to stop. Art is dead, dude. It’s over. A.I. won. Humans lost.”

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November 2, 2023
by Aesthetics for Birds
1 Comment

Eight Scholars on Art and Artificial Intelligence

a 15-image grid of faces rendered in different styles, some very abstract and others somewhat realistic
“can AI create art” by Stable Diffusion 2.1

In the past year, debates about artificial intelligence have taken over public discourse.

The use of AI in art and content creation raises moral issues. Because many AI are trained on human-created samples (including Aesthetics for Birds!), artists and other creators find it exploitative, some demanding compensation. But there are others who argue that AI will help artists, especially those with accessibility needs.

It raises aesthetic and artistic questions, too. Is AI art actually even art? If it is, could it ever be good art? AI rattles our existing concepts of artistry and creativity. It forces us to rethink the fundamental purpose of art. Perhaps it spells the end of art practices as we know them.

We asked eight scholars working in these areas to comment on the current state of art and AI. Their wide-ranging reflections, from Roland Barthes and Arthur Danto to Taylor Swift and LEGO pieces spilled on the floor, try to uncover what’s most human in art, and why we should care about that at all.

Our contributors are:

  • Melissa Avdeeff (she/her), Lecturer of Digital Media, University of Stirling
  • Claire Benn (she/her), Assistant Professor, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, University of Cambridge
  • Lindsay Brainard (she/her), Assistant Professor of Philosophy, The University of Alabama at Birmingham
  • Alice Helliwell (she/her), Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Northeastern University London
  • Adam Linson (he/him), Assistant Professor of Computing & Communications, Open University (UK) and Co-Director of the Innogen Institute (Open University & University of Edinburgh)
  • Elliot Samuel Paul (he/him), Associate Professor of Philosophy, Queen’s University, and
    Dustin Stokes (he/him), Professor of Philosophy, University of Utah
  • Steffen Steinert (he/him), Assistant Professor at the Ethics and Philosophy of Technology Section, Delft University of Technology
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Taylor Swift singing at a concert, wearing a sparkly black jumpsuit adorned with a red snake

October 26, 2023
by Alex King

How Swiftomania Turns Fans into Professors

Taylor Swift singing at a concert, wearing a sparkly black jumpsuit adorned with a red snake

The nineteenth century pianist Franz Liszt inspired an abject frenzy in his fans so intense that people of the time had to make up a special term for it. When reflecting on (and coining) “Lisztomania,” the German poet Heinrich Heine wondered why people were going so wild for Liszt. After discussing some outlandish suggestions, he mused, “Perhaps the solution […] floats on a very prosaic surface. It seems to me at times that all this sorcery may be explained by the fact that no one on earth knows so well how to organize his successes, or rather their mise en scene, as our Franz Liszt.”

Truer words could not have been spoken about the current age of Swiftomania. No one on Earth knows so well how to organize their mise en scene—public image, social media, interviews, music, fashion, concerts—as our Taylor Swift.

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