Aesthetics for Birds

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Aesthetics for Distant Birds, Workshop#2: “High, Middle, and Low” [FULL VIDEO]

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Aesthetics for Distant Birds:
An Online Workshop Series
Second Meeting – “High, Middle, and Low”

Co-organizers: Aaron Meskin, Jonathan Neufeld, Thi Nguyen, and Alex King (that’s me)

If you missed the previous workshop (schedule here), you’re in luck! We recorded it! You can watch the whole thing below or on YouTube. The order of presentations is included below with timestamps. (Also, if you missed the first workshop, the video of that is available here.)


00:00 – “The Middlebrow: An Articulation and Defense”
Jonathan Weinberg (University of Arizona)

Abstract: I articulate a notion of the middlebrow in art, and defend both the utility of the category as a term of criticism, as well as the legitimacy of much of the art that will fall under it. The core idea is that middlebrow art lies at the troubled intersection of accessibility and aspiration. It is designed to be consumable by at least a moderately broad swath of the public, and thus includes many instances of what Carroll has theorized as “mass art”. Yet a middlebrow work will also be designed to aim for higher terms of success than popular art on the whole.

21:05 – Show and Tell Session: “Problems for a Philosophy of Curating”
Klaus Speidel (Lab for Cognitive Research in Art History, Vienna University/University of Applied Arts Vienna)

Abstract: What constitutes an exhibition? In this illustrated talk, I will argue that an exhibition is not constituted solely of objects in a space, but of objects in a space associated to a curatorial narrative. This has important consequences, namely that the same exact ensemble of objects in the same spatial disposition can be a multiplicity of exhibitions. As a philosopher and curator I experimented with the consequences of this idea in three instances, curating a second exhibition within an existing one, simultaneously curating three exhibitions myself and curating three exhibitions with multiple authors. Each work was contextualized differently three times on each occasion.

41:53 – “Clowning and Satire: What’s the Difference?”
Allie Richards (Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy)

Abstract: There is a close connection between clowning and satire. According to Declercq (2018), critique and entertainment are jointly necessary and sufficient conditions for satire. I argue that while many instances of clowning rely on critique and entertainment, these are not sufficient for clowning. There is an additional property that clowns must share that is not required for the satirist, namely the notion of ‘flopping’. In order to highlight this, I compare John Oliver to Sacha Baron Cohen as a test case. I aim to show that while both are satirist, only Cohen is a clown.

1:02:05 – “For Voyeur Gaming: Why It’s OK to Just Watch, Rather Than Play”
Nathan Wildman (Tilburg University)

Abstract: The phenomenon of voyeur gaming, in the form of watching Let’s Plays and Twitch streams, is often dismissed as silly. Why, say objectors, do you want to just watch somebody else play video games, instead of simply playing yourself? My aim here is to sketch a response to this objection. Specifically, I argue that different forms of LPs have different aesthetic focal points, which support distinct explanations for wanting to watch them. The upshot is that voyeur gaming is (or can be) as aesthetically valuable as watching sport, listening to stand-up, going to a museum, or engaging with a new work of art.

1:23:19 – “Crossover Culture: The End of Middlebrow”
Bence Nanay (University of Antwerp)

Abstract: What do the following works have in common? The musical Hamilton, Christopher Nolan’s Batman flicks, Lady Gaga’s music, Cirque du Soleil, the novel Gone Girl, Quentin Tarantino’s films, and sitcoms like Seinfeld, Arrested Development or Community. This is a very diverse list, but they all share one important feature: They are trying to appeal to both the most discerning highbrow audiences and the broadest possible lowbrow audiences. This is what I call crossover culture and I argue that it is the most important cultural trend of our times. It is a very different way of combining highbrow and lowbrow than the widely analysed and universally disdained middlebrow. And we can understand a lot about our culture (and society) if we understand crossover culture.

If you’d like to attend future workshops: go here and give us your name and email. Please join us – the more the better!

One Comment

  1. Thank you for this insightful discussion, lots to reflect on from each presenter. It’s interesting how theories of middlebrow culture seem to be a trend in academia…My entry into my current career in fine art and education was via what taste makers coined ‘lowbrow’ or ‘pop surrealism’ c. late 90s early aughts…It would seem that these artists who were being called ‘lowbrow’ would actually constitute as middlebrow as Jonathan describes…I am more inclined to agree with the theory of crossover culture a la Bence’s thesis…In my experience many of these isms and browness seem to be at odds with the actual intent of the work itself. When I was researching the group of artists previously lumped into the ‘lowbrow’ category, more often than not they’d meet that term with disdain. I don’t think their intent was remotely inline with the standard definition of lowbrow, nor the academic one. I’m specifically thinking about seminal artists like Robert Williams, Joe Coleman, and Anthony Ausgang. What differentiates their work from say Piero Manzoni or Jeff Koons? The art market is the first and most profound reason I can think of… Economic accessibility accounts for the great divide between these artistic/cultural tiers. And now that artists like Williams and Coleman are represented by blue-chip galleries and written about by art historians, are they even considered lowbrow? I don’t know any working artists today that consider these things prior to or after making their work…Perhaps as a ‘Deweyian’ educator whose philosophy is that ‘everything and everyday experiences can be artful and transformed into tangible works of art,’ makes these theories and terms hard to accept at face value. Nonetheless, they’re essential dialogues to have and I am grateful for the scholars for presenting and inspiring such deep reflection from myself and others! I’m sorry I missed the live event…Thank you to all the presenters and moderators!

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