Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

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

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.

Swift is the most Liszt-like celebrity of our time. People have spent exorbitant amounts of money to see her perform in her Eras tour (with some ticket resale prices nearing five digits), purchase special attire to wear to those concerts, plan their bathroom trips (or not) according to setlists. Some faint upon seeing her; others suffer from post-concert amnesia triggered by their heightened emotional state. She caused seismic activity equivalent to an earthquake in Seattle. Her Eras tour generated an estimated $5 billion for the world economy.

She has achieved this by forging an incredible relationship with her fans, the Swifties. She communicates with them via social media, as most celebrities do, but she also communicates with them through her music. Her artistic output is meant to be enjoyed by anyone, but it has also become rich soil where she plants secret messages to her fans.

She calls these secret messages her Easter eggs, hidden messages that fans can unravel to discover different bits of information or hints at what’s to come. She has discussed how much she enjoys leaving these “cryptic clues” for fans, even offering the following definition in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: “When you’re watching a movie or a music video and you notice something in the background, and that something leads to sort of behind-the-scenes information, that’s an Easter egg.” In the same interview, she went on to say, “I love to communicate via Easter eggs. I think the best messages are cryptic ones.”

In doing this, Swift has taught fans all too well to scrutinize her work to the tiniest detail. Fans fixate on songs, music videos, and other elements of her mise en scene, combing them over till they feel they’ve explored every shred of meaning that might be hidden within. Sometimes they’re wrong, of course (despite their protests, there are indeed coincidences). But they also uncover a lot. Although she’s just trying to talk to them, she ends up teaching them skills that educators are constantly trying to cultivate in their students. It’s just that she is dramatically more successful than we are.

The History of Swift’s Easter Eggs

the earliest eaSter eggs appeared in her self-titled debut album. in the liner notes, song lyrics are printed in loWercase wIth a Few uppercase letters scattered seemingly randomly throughouT. when isolated and written out in sequence, the capitalized letters for each sOng spell out a secret Message. swift explAined these easter eggs, stating, “i waNted to do something that incentivized fans to read the lyrics because my lyrics are what I’m most proud of, out of everything thAt i do.”

She did this for several albums while also expanding her Easter egg repertoire. She now drops hints in the music itself (for example, naming characters after real life people, as in “Dear John” or “Betty”), and in the staging for photos, music videos, and performances. Her Easter eggs don’t stop with her work. She has also come to encode secret messages in her fashion or other styling choices, public statements and interviews, and her social media posts.

These Easter eggs fall into a few broad categories. The first and probably most talked-about Easter eggs are foreshadowers. These are hints that foreshadow what’s coming next: release dates for albums and music videos, which re-recorded album will be released next, track lists, song titles, and so on.

Other Easter eggs are contextualizers. They add background information, giving fans additional interpretive resources. Many of the capitalized liner note messages are contextualizers. Red’s “22,” which is about the fun and confusing experience of being twenty-two years old, contains the hidden message: ASHLEY DIANNA CLAIRE SELENA, which is typically read as a reference to her then-close friends Ashley Avignone, Dianna Agron, Claire Kislinger, and Selena Gomez. Contextualizers are important because they have the power to affect our interpretation, as we might focus much more on the theme of friendship in “22” after learning of this, or specifically the theme of friendship among young women. (This is starting to sound like literary interpretation, isn’t it?)

Some Easter eggs are symbols. In one interview, she mentions how palm trees symbolize “rebirth, new beginnings, positive energy,” as in a much-discussed Instagram post. But there are symbols more specific to her, too. In the same interview, she talks about her common symbolic use of the snake, saying that it is “a mascot for feeling misunderstood, or being somebody that is not going to strike unless they’re stepped on.” And many see the snake as a reference to an infamous Tweet where Kim Kardashian is alleged to have called her a snake—which, if true, would make it both a contextualizer and a symbol.

Many of the Easter eggs are just little winks. They’re totally uninformative. They’re more like a secret handshake or an inside joke than anything else. As she says, if a cat appears in her music videos or other public imagery, it’s “just ‘cause I love cats.” To catch these winks, fans already need to know the information encoded in them. During her Eras tour, Swift wore a manicure of ten different colors, one on each finger. The colors of this manicure correspond, in order, to her ten albums, i.e., her eras. But to notice this winking Easter egg, you already need to have the relevant background knowledge: that there are ten albums so far, their historical release order, and that each album has a corresponding color (red for Red, of course, but purple for Speak Now, black for Reputation, and so on). These are the Easter eggs that, well, IYKYK.

Why Swifties Get an A+

Now, Taylor Swift isn’t the only person to use Easter eggs. There is a long, rich history of artists sending encoded messages to their audiences. Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie” has innumerable little Easter eggs. Marvel and Star Wars movies make insider nods to their own histories and foreshadow their future release plans. And Queen Elizabeth was famous for using her fashion choices to express hidden messages.

In scholarly circles, there are much more influential examples. Renaissance painting contains frequent references to ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Symbolism is everywhere in literature and art. There’s even a nineteenth-century art movement named after its use of symbolism. James Joyce is infamous for his countless abstruse allusions, as an entire book of annotations can help you unravel. In fact, literally all allusions are kinds of Easter eggs. They too are contextualizers, symbols, and winks. And foreshadowing is itself a literary term for “Easter eggs” in a text that hint at what’s to come in that text.

High school teachers and college professors spend endless time and energy trying to get students to understand these concepts. They inspire and proselytize and plead so that students will learn to analyze Joyce or Renaissance art the way that Swifties already dissect Swift’s songs, social media, and music videos. Compare this analysis of a Renaissance basin from the Getty Museum to a prominent fan analysis of Easter eggs in Swift’s video of “All Too Well: The Short Film.” Considered back-to-back, they’re clearly doing the same thing. Swift has, in effect, taught an entire generation of fans to engage in art criticism at a level that educators would be thrilled to see. Those fan Easter egg videos definitely get an A+.

Swift has said that “Easter eggs are a way to really sort of expand the experience of seeing something or hearing music.” Her re-recordings are another way to achieve this goal. Some aspects of the re-recordings resemble contextualizers by adding additional interpretive information: re-titlings, changed lyrics (and deliberately un-changed lyrics), and accompanying new music videos and liner notes. They resemble symbols, too. After all, appending “(Taylor’s Version)” to every single re-recorded track is in its own way a symbol of protest. They resemble winking Easter eggs in that the faint sonic differences from the originals are accessible only if one is very familiar with the originals. Their associated media also include foreshadowing Easter eggs, where she’ll hint at which re-recording might be coming next. The point is this: the re-recordings, and in particular these aspects of the re-recordings, are like Easter eggs. They too can “expand the experience” of engaging with Taylor’s Versions.

Easter eggs expand the experience of Swift’s mise en scene in just the same way that allusions and symbolism expand the experience of watching a movie, reading a novel, or looking at art. Some people think that it’s just pop music; it ain’t that deep. But Swift is a practiced expert in subtle messaging. She’s organized her creative output and public presentation very carefully. Maybe it’s reincarnation, or maybe it’s karma, but she’s a Joyce-meets-Liszt for the twenty-first century. Haters gonna hate, but she’s just gonna keep at it. And I only hope that some of those close-reading Swifties use their skills to become art historians or English professors someday.

Alex King is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University and the editor-in-chief of Aesthetics for Birds.

October 19, 2023
by Aesthetics for Birds

What’s Wrong with

The banner image, containing the website's wordmark, set against a close-up photograph of a band's printed setlist lying directly on a wooden stage

What follows is a guest essay by Jeremy Davis (University of Georgia).

A few months back, I went to a New Found Glory concert (I have a soft spot for early-aughts pop punk; sue me). Midway through their set, I noticed that a woman a few rows in front of me kept looking at her phone. In my experience, when people are on their phones at shows, it is usually to send a text or post a selfie to their social media. But this woman was doing something I hadn’t seen before: she was looking up the band’s setlist on

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Painting of a nude, male presenting subject standing with their torso bathed in a rectangle of sunlight. The shadow of their right hand seems to be pinching their right nipple, referencing the painting Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs.

October 13, 2023
by Aesthetics for Birds

Ray Briggs on Self-Love and Sin

Painting of a nude, male subject standing with his torso bathed in a rectangle of sunlight. The shadow of his right hand seems to be pinching his right nipple, referencing the painting Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs.
Self-Love and Sin, Gabriel and Her Twin, by Aaron Feltman [source]
Painting of two nude women behind drawn-back curtains. Both are sitting straight up beside each other, and one is fondling the other's nipple. There is a fully clothed woman by a fireplace far in the background.
Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters, unknown artist (c. 1594) [source]

This is entry #90 in our ongoing 100 Philosophers, 100 Artworks, 100 Words series.

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Action shot of a school-aged boy dribbling a basket ball.

October 5, 2023
by Aesthetics for Birds

On Being Inspired by Movies: The Wonderful Silliness of My Childhood Hoop Dreams

Action shot of a school-aged boy dribbling a basketball

An essay by Antony Aumann (Northern Michigan University)

I was twelve when I saw The Pistol: The Birth of a Legend, a biopic about the basketball star Pete Maravich. It wasn’t a good movie—think Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, but a lot cheesier and focused on shooting hoops—so I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that it had a significant impact on my life. Watching it inspired me to spend my teenage summers dribbling a basketball in the driveway, hoping to become a star myself.”

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Illustration of a man, a girl, the sky and some birds in monochromatic pink being engulfed by water full of fish in monochromatic sea blue

September 22, 2023
by Aesthetics for Birds
1 Comment

Sean T. Murphy on JD Salinger

Illustration of a man, a girl, the sky and some birds in monochromatic pink being engulfed by water full of fish in monochromatic sea blue
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” illustration by Jonny Ruzzo [source]

This is entry #89 in our ongoing 100 Philosophers, 100 Artworks, 100 Words series.

[Content warning: The following contains a brief depiction and a discussion of suicide.]
Excerpts from J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”:

“Muriel. Now, listen to me.”
“I’m listening.”
“Your father talked to Dr. Sivetski.”
“Oh?” said the girl
“He told him everything. At least, he said he did – you know your father. The trees. That business with the window. Those horrible things he said to Granny about her places for passing away. What he did with all those lovely pictures from Bermuda – everything.”
“Well?” said the girl
“Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital – my word of honor. He very definitely told your father there’s a chance – a very great chance, he said – that Seymour may completely lose control of himself. My word of honor.”


“Sybil,” he said, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll see if we can catch a bananafish.”
“A what?”
“A bananafish,” he said, and undid the belt of his robe. He took off the robe. His shoulders were white and narrow, and his trunks were royal blue. He folded the robe, first lengthwise, then in thirds. […]. He bent over, picked up the float, and secured it under his right arm. Then, with his left hand, he took Sybil’s hand.


He got off at the fifth floor, walked down the hall, and let himself into 507. The room smelled of new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover.
He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies calibre 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.”

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A mosaic of Socrates and six other men in himations lounging outside. Socrates is using a stick to point to the ground, and the men seem to be thinking and talking.

September 7, 2023
by Aesthetics for Birds
1 Comment

How To Illustrate Philosophy

A mosaic of Socrates and six other men in himations lounging outside. Socrates is using a stick to point to the ground, and the men seem to be thinking and talking.
Plato’s Academy mosaic, author unknown (c. 100 BCE-79 CE, Pompeii) [source]

What follows is an essay by Thomas E. Wartenberg (Mount Holyoke College), based on his recent book Thoughtful Images (OUP, 2023).

The first illustration of philosophy that I have been able to identify is the Roman mosaic from Pompeii made in the first century C.E. that you see here. It shows a group of men focused on a standing man who is speaking. The figures have been identified as Plato holding a stick and pointing, surrounded by other philosophers from Ancient Greece, though there is debate about who they are.

This beautiful mosaic illustrates an aspect of the Platonic practice of philosophy: it depicts a group of men having a discussion. This is an important aspect of how philosophy was done in Ancient Greece, and it accords with the famous portrait of Socrates doing philosophy with his followers. It thus represents an advance in the illustration of philosophy, for the only traces of philosophy in previous works of art were the busts of famous philosophers.

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Three lovely tacos

March 30, 2023
by Alex King

Taco Bell and the Paradox of Ironic Appreciation

Outdoor signage of a Taco Bell restaurant
Taco Bell, Nottingham, England [ALAMY]

What follows is a case study by Alex King, republished from Bloomsbury Contemporary Aesthetics, the newest module of the Bloomsbury Philosophy Library. Bloomsbury Contemporary Aesthetics is anchored by a set of exclusive and original case studies contributed by some of the leading voices in aesthetics today, and written to introduce new students to the broad range of topics in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, from interpretation and ontology to appropriation, taste, curiosity, and the aesthetics of confusion. More information on Bloomsbury Contemporary Aesthetics follows at the bottom of the page.

He leaned over, laughing, and sneered just a little: “But like, ironically, right?”

I had just told him that I loved Taco Bell.

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A black bedazzled jacket. Vertical and lines going up and down the entire back form bars on a jail cell beyond which a lonely cowboy plays a guitar.

March 2, 2023
by Aesthetics for Birds

Nose to the Rhinestone: The Authenticity of Country Music’s Sparkling Suits 

A sky blue rhinestone suit jacket and pants with nautical-themed patches sewn on.
A suit designed by Nudie Cohn for Hank Snow, reflecting the singer’s time as a sailor in Canada before becoming a country singer (source)

What follows is a guest post by Evan Malone (Lone Star College).

If there is one thing that country music fans love to debate, it’s what songs, artists, and subgenres count as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ country. Whether it’s ‘countrypolitan’, ‘bro-country’, or ‘boyfriend country’, whatever is popular on mainstream country radio and CMT is liable to be met with accusations of killing country music, and the verdict is always the same: It’s inauthentic. 

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