Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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Musician and philosopher Matt Lindauer interviewed by Alex King for AFB

Matt Lindauer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He specializes in moral and political philosophy, moral psychology, and experimental philosophy, and has published work in Philosophical Studies, Journal of Moral Philosophy, Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, and Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy, among other venues. He is also a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. His band Myrna recently released their debut EP on Kitty Wizard Records and a full-length release is coming soon. His solo project Utena also produced a recent album that was recorded almost entirely on his iPhone between Australia and Brooklyn. He also played in the banjo-key-drum group Sugarbat and in Daphne Lee Martin’s band as guitarist and banjo player, and has recorded a number of other projects. Some of his music was recently featured in an ad for Joe’s Jeans.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: You just released a new album, Utena, recorded in a lo-fi style entirely on the iPhone. What inspired you to do this? And how, if at all, has this affected or constrained your normal performance and production choices?

MATT LINDAUER: First let me say thank you for inviting me to do this. Utena is a project that was motivated by my interest in exploring two artistic goals. The first was to try to make a record on the most widely available means of music production, which I believe the iPhone to be. This conceptual goal is tied to my values as an egalitarian and democratic socialist, and drew great inspiration from remarks that Arthur Danto has made on Andy Warhol’s work. In addition to any personal grievances that Warhol may have had with the abstract expressionists and others in the artworld, his work was motivated in part, Danto suggests, by a commitment to political equality. This is borne out in Warhol’s focus on the fact everyone in the U.S., rich or poor, drinks the same cans of Coca Cola, uses the same Brillo Pads that come in the same Brillo boxes, and eats the same Campbell’s soup (see The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 1975). I decided that I would, rather than making what I produced indistinguishable from other products commonly used, try to use a means of production indistinguishable from that which people use to call their parents, or pay their credit card bill. I want more and more people to be able to make their own music, and to fight against the classist tendencies that emerge from unequal access to the means of artistic production. So this was my concept album for exploring that theme.

I recorded nearly every part on the album on my iPhone. Most of the vocal lines were actually sung into the microphone on the earbuds that are included with it. As a philosopher and musician, I wanted to see what would happen if I tried recording music in a way that nearly anyone could. This DIY, lo-fi process is something that I hoped, with good results, could show more people that they already have the tools to record their own music. None of this, of course, is to deny that the iPhone’s supply chain is problematic. This is true of many digital devices capable of recording music, and something we have to acknowledge and grapple with as musicians. My goal in using it was to start a particular discussion, and the hope is that this will lead to further discussions among musicians about the means of production we use.

A second main goal of mine with this project was to put the music itself first, in the sense that hopefully strong songs can stand on their own, and be rendered in a variety of musical contexts and production methods. I hope this is an album more and more people enjoy, and I’ve been heartened by the response so far.

Listen to Utena on Spotify:

By the way, a quick story about Arthur Danto and his generosity might be nice to tell here. When I was an undergraduate, I once wrote to Danto with a song of mine. He listened to it, told me he enjoyed hearing it, and then asked me what I thought of the xx (a popular indie band). I suppose I have been lucky not to have the same fear many of my friends report in writing to people they admire greatly. I have always thought, if they were unwilling to write back, they would have proven themselves not to be who I hoped they were. In this case, Danto was more than who I could have thought he was. He not only had such interesting insights about what art is, but actually cared what I, as a young artist and budding philosopher, thought about something he had listened to. That brief exchange had a real impact on me and I will always be grateful for it.

AFB: Some of your philosophical work is concerned with immigration policies.Has the relationship between migration and art affected your perspective on these issues, or vice versa? And could you tell us a bit about your work in this area?

ML: I think there are some important ways in which my general delight in living in multicultural, diverse communities for my entire life has affected my views on immigration and culture. I’ll mention just one here. A prominent argument for restricting immigration that is due to David Miller holds that cultural self-determination is important and would be threatened by open immigration. In my view, understanding the history of art and culture can help to immunize us against the view that cultures are static and victimized by, as opposed to fluid and enhanced by, changes and contact with persons from other parts of the world. I’m not convinced that any culture worth saving would be harmed by allowing people in who bring their traditions and art, including music, and interact with the receiving traditions.

On your second question, I’m very much in favor of more open immigration for most societies, especially rich Western democracies, and I take most immigration restrictions to be unjustifiable. However, I’m genuinely unsure about whether arguments for open borders or a “human right to immigrate,” as Kieran Oberman puts it, are really the best routes to the moral desiderata that often motivate people on the political left to embrace them. (I’m not particularly interested in the libertarian arguments for open borders, and will put them to the side here.)

To help illustrate the point, consider the famous description of borders given by Joseph Carens as having guards with guns pointed at “ordinary, peaceful people, seeking only the opportunity to build decent, secure lives for themselves and their families.” Carens uses this way of describing border regimes to kick off his arguments for open borders. But notice that we can argue that people who need to migrate in order to find a decent, secure life are entitled to do so without embracing open borders more generally or a general human right to immigrate. What we should really want to do, on my view, is protect vulnerable people from harm. Some of this harm has been created by the actions, contemporary and past, of the rich nations that seek to exclude them, a highly relevant fact here. If there were a human right to immigrate, not only would these people be permitted to move to another country of their choice, but so would rich Westerners, say, who might want to move to postcolonial or disadvantaged societies. It is far from obvious to me that the latter have any claim to be let into whatever society they choose. (Alexander Betts and Paul Collier make a similar point in a recent book.) On my view, it is more important for people in favor of more open immigration to argue against the permissibility of immigration restrictions that are typically aimed at vulnerable people seeking to enter Western democracies than to establish a general human right to immigrate. What we need are a lot of very good arguments against the view that states have the discretion to exclude persons they generally seek to exclude. In a recent article, I attempt to provide one such argument against some of the more far reaching restrictionist views, which have been defended by Michael Walzer and Christopher Heath Wellman.

I also hold that a morally defensible and feasible immigration policy regime should allow for some prioritization among persons who are admitted to a particular society. It is more morally important that asylum seekers and parents of non-adult citizens, for instance, be admitted than cousins or friends of citizens, in general. In another recent article, I defend such a category-based system for unification admissions against the critique made by Luara Ferracioli that any such prioritization will violate the principle of liberal neutrality, implying that certain relationships are intrinsically more valuable than others. By relying on empirical generalizations and constraints of feasibility, I take my argument to show that such prioritizations can avoid expressing unequal regard for such relationships, and also avoid “making the best the enemy of the good,” by giving the most morally urgent admissions priority rather than treating all admissions, more and less important, on a par.

AFB: You’ve played music across different genres, including classical (guitar), folk, bluegrass, rock, and jazz. Do you see these genre distinctions as important? Or as largely uninteresting?

ML: I guess I tend to look at genre questions pragmatically. What purpose do these distinctions serve? One suitable purpose is to help coordinate the actions of musicians. If I’m playing with someone I’ve never met before and we are going to choose something to play together, it is good to know something about the kinds of music they like to play and listen to, so as not to make moves and play parts that tread on theirs. In this way, genres can be helpful as coordination mechanisms. They are like languages or moods that we can interact with one another in.

That said, while the lighthearted over-proliferation of genres is fine, it strikes me (and many other musicians and artists that I have spoken to) as different from how we tend to see what we do. I don’t know many serious musicians or artists who are obsessed with distinguishing the genre they work in from others. Part of this is because most good artists and musicians borrow heavily from other people and have wide exposure and knowledge – there are multiple genres, nearly always, running through their work that it would be odd to fully exclude, even if that work conforms largely to the norms and expectations of a particular genre. The musicians and artists I admire most, I guess, see the seeds of others’ work in their own, even when these influences are very different from one another.

AFB: In addition to playing across different genres, you play different instruments. You began with classical guitar, and moved on to banjo. And you don’t always play these in their traditional contexts (a banjo, for instance, in sort of neo-soul group). How does the instrumentation and context affect how you choose to play?

ML: A lot of people imagine that classical music is a highly restricted, “notes on the page only” pursuit. (This is, historically false, as the famous jazz pianist Bill Evans has noted. The documentary The Universal Mind of Bill Evans has a great discussion on this point.) But actually, I think that a big part of why I’ve chosen to play instruments like the banjo in non-traditional contexts has to do with my background in classical music. Classical guitar, in particular, often involves bringing music from instruments like the harpsichord or lute to the guitar. Further, many great instrumentalists, including the banjo player Belá Fleck, have played classical pieces from composers like Bach and Paganini on their own primary instruments.

In terms of choosing the instrumentation for a given musical context, then, I tend to be directed by my sense and experience of which instrument would serve the music best. Sometimes this is just about what instrument I think the piece or song would sound best on. But serving the music best can also involve reinterpreting it in exciting new ways, such as by playing it on an instrument one wouldn’t expect to hear it on and following through on that commitment. For instance, a song like “Automatic” by the Pointer Sisters is just delicious on the banjo, but that is the sort of thing that might never be acknowledged unless some oddball tries it.

I also find that different instruments have different strengths and limitations. Many pieces written for the piano, for instance, are notoriously difficult to play on guitar, where fewer notes can be layered on top of one another. But sometimes attempting to do so has wonderful effects.

Using the limitations of both instruments and recording devices as features rather than bugs is something I’m very interested in. To point to one example with a recording device, my recent recording “Coast Weekend” on the Utena album aims to use the ambient noise of the iPhone input recording a heavily effect-textured electric guitar as a feature, mimicking the sound of the waves I was hearing as I wrote the piece “down the coast” (in Australia, naturally).

Listen to Myrna on Spotify:

AFB: Very interesting! Genre categorizations and instrumentation conventions seem to me to get at something important, but ultimately the borders between different genres and the conventions they’re associated with often seem somewhat arbitrary. Something similar seems true of national borders. As someone who has thought about both of these, how does this analogy strike you?

ML: I think this analogy is insightful and worth exploring further. Genres and national cultures, as sorting categories, can capture important facts, for instance about what is valued at a given point in time or space, what has been influential, and so on. But when one becomes too rigid in their understanding of either a genre or national culture, giving them “closed borders” so to speak, the genre or culture will generally suffer in terms of artistic quality and we will also, typically, have a very incomplete picture of what is needed to make them last. Neither musical genres nor national cultures have historically been closed to outside influences, nor do they benefit from attempts to keep them closed off.

AFB: On a related note, to what extent do you think that being part of a certain nation (or perhaps just a certain culture?) comes with different views about the playing and production of music, and conceptions of artist-hood and artistry?

ML: I’m glad you asked this question, because it is something that I think is very important for Americans, in particular, to consider. In America, one is frequently expected to earn an income, or a very small income, as it may be, as an artist, in order to be taken seriously. Of course, once people hear your music or see your paintings, they might revise their view that you aren’t doing the real thing, but there is an unfortunate tendency in the States to assume a kind of capitalist view of who counts as an artist. By contrast, it seems to me that, for example, French people have a very different view of what makes someone count as an artist. Indeed, my general interaction with French people has involved talking about music and art without the subjects of money or consumption ever coming up. I mention this contrast because I think it is important to see that the way we look at who counts as an artist can be deeply influenced by the dominant ideologies of the places we live in. These ideologies can also be harmful to people. I think Americans would be better off, in general, if more of us permitted ourselves to engage in committed artmaking practices without assuming that the choice to make this one’s primary career is the determinant of whether this art is good or real.

Not only does this lead to many outstanding artists’ and musicians’ work being trivialized – it is also has deeply classist implications for real people. If one person has a great deal of material security due to family wealth, they will be privileged with respect to persons with less material security in being taken seriously as an artist under the American model. Under the alternative, more French way of thinking, this influence of economic inequality is partly mitigated. As philosophers and artists, it would be a good thing if we did more to criticize the implicit assumptions underlying our cultures’ views of art and artmaking. I hope this is one area where critical analysis could make some artists and musicians both receive more recognition and be more confident in their work.

AFB: A fun little puzzle that we like on this blog is the ontology of covers. Your solo album Still Life and MonkMode’s An Outerbridge Brocade share the song “Nature Boy”. The first is your solo work, and the latter is a nearly solo “band” where you play everything but drums, so the artists are nearly identical. Do you think that you’ve covered your own song? Do you think that’s even possible? Or do you think it’s merely a different version of the same song?

ML: I share your interest in this question. Here I think it is also important to think about the implicit assumptions of the notion of a “cover.” First, notice that the term “cover” is almost never used in reference to jazz music or classical music, where people are just expected to play and record a whole lot of music that other people have written (you aren’t a jazz or classical musician, arguably, if you haven’t done this!).

Second, in these others genres, it is more common for artists to record multiple versions of not only others’ music, but their own. Reinterpretation and experimentation is the norm. Motown artists also often recorded more than one version of a song. And similar points on playing and re-recording music that was already recorded by others or oneself could be made about folk and bluegrass music. So why not rock music, with its aspirations to boundary breaking and cross pollination?

As it happens, some of my favorite rock musicians have released more than one version of some of their songs. Cocteau Twins and the Smiths stand out as important examples. There is nothing problematic in the idea of a cover song itself, and I like how “covering someone else” can serve as a sign of respect and admiration for that person.

It’s the emphasis on there being only one released version of a song that strikes me as an area where rock music’s tie to consumerism has been less than ideal, and should be overridden. In addition to being less common in other genres, it is a relatively recent idea to have only one version of a song, and that idea is plausibly tied to the goal of unifying a product and selling it (“all new songs!”), which is not really a very artistic reason at all. I would prefer that rock musicians took a lesson from Andy Warhol again, who made many versions of each of his works. We don’t need thirty versions of each song, necessarily, but maybe more than one would capture different aspects of what makes a song great or good, and we should respond to this possibility rather than whatever it is (I’ve given my speculations) motivating the idea that each rock song, unlike any other type of song or piece of music, should have just one recorded version.

AFB: Are there any other ways we haven’t discussed in which you see your philosophical and musical work fitting together?

ML: I think the best answer that I can give here draws a contrast between the tendencies of philosophy and, in particular, poetry involved in lyric writing (I’m not sure that as broad a characterization could hold for the tendencies of music in general, and it is only partially right, to be sure, in this case). The way I think of this is: philosophy makes less of things than they are, poetry more of them. That is to say, philosophy, at least as it is practiced in the broadly analytic tradition, has a tendency to be reductive. We are carefully examining the use of concepts, social practices, and, of course, arguments, and seeing what survives the most exacting standards that we can apply. Poetry, on the other hand, has a tendency to be ampliative, focusing more on all that might be there in a given experience or interaction with the world and others and running with that. The values that go into poetic choices tend to have much less to do with what we are as certain as possible about, and uncertainty may even be valued or encouraged.

Of course, this is a rough and ready characterization, but as someone who has sought to live a life involving both of these pursuits, I think it speaks to something important about each of them, and also why one might want to work on both of them. Their tendencies speak to different needs that we have in navigating the world, the external and the internal, and finding an approach to our lives that neither accepts falsehoods without question nor searches in every instance, primarily, for rigor, allowing the richness of experience and our interactions with others to wash over us.

AFB: Thanks! Last question: Please fill in the blanks as you see fit: “Aesthetics is for the artist as ________ is for the ______.” (For newcomers, the original quote is what inspires our blog name: “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” -Barnett Newman)

ML: I would have to say, in disagreement with what Newman seems to have meant by the original phrase, “as oxygen is for the flame.” Often an overlooked necessary condition, but not sufficient on its own. Thanks!


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