AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

ARGUING ABOUT ART ON THE INTERNET, PART 1: WHY WE DO IT, AND WHY IT OFTEN GOES BADLY

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What follows is a co-authored post by Brandon Polite and Matthew Strohl.

The ascendancy of the internet has generated a wide range of difficult new questions for philosophers of aesthetics. Our concern in this piece is the way the internet has reshaped aesthetic discourse and has made aesthetic disagreement far more immediate and pervasive. Social media allows users to broadcast their evaluations of artworks to hundreds or thousands of followers any time of day and, as a result, has ushered in the Golden Age of Everyone Having an Opinion. We are specifically concerned with the general tendency of the internet to promote hostility in aesthetic discourse. Rampant hostility has emerged in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from large-scale fan movements to remake a poorly received season of a widely loved television series or a controversial entry in a beloved film franchise, to casual Facebook threads about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women or HBO’s Watchmen series.

Consider a (fictional) example of typical internet hostility: Sam the Scorsese Fan is understandably excited to see The Irishman. When he finally gets a free afternoon to sit down and watch it, he’s blown away by its grim fatalism and larger-than-life acting performances. He eagerly opens his Facebook app as the credits roll and posts, “WOW! I just watched The Irishman and it is SO GOOD. Al Pacino deserves awards! Everybody should check it out!” Meanwhile, Mickey the Marvel Stan wasn’t even sure he wanted to see the movie, because he was so mad at Scorsese for disrespecting his beloved Avengers. He decides to take the plunge because he doesn’t want to be left out of the conversation everyone else was having. As he starts the movie, he has already decided that it’s just going to be an empty rehash of all the other Scorsese gangster movies. He immediately hates the de-aging effects and is totally unimpressed by all these old guys pretending to be badasses. He becomes increasingly bored over the film’s 210-minute running time, and by the end can’t imagine how anyone could possibly like the movie. 

Sam and Mickey normally get along. They aren’t close friends, but they sometimes interact on social media and usually talk for a bit when they run into each other at philosophy conferences. When Mickey sees Sam’s post, however, he recoils at the most dreaded of all internet occurrences: someone being WRONG. He starts hammering out a vitriolic rant about how repeating the same tired gangster cliches with lousy de-aging effects is not “cinema” and the movie is “boooooring” and anyone who likes it is stuck in the past. When this comment pops up, Sam is taken aback by how aggressive Mickey’s tone is and immediately posts an aggravated response: “Someone who likes Captain Marvel isn’t exactly an authority on what is and isn’t cinema.” Mickey has a retort ready: “Oh so a movie co-directed by a woman is bad but the 4 hour boring mess by the old white guy is a masterpiece? What are you going to say next, that Black Panther shouldn’t have been made?” 

And so on. 

Our aim in this post is to consider what the often hostile character of internet aesthetic disagreement can tell us about the nature and purpose of aesthetic disagreement in general. In a follow up post, we will look for a better way forward. 

Why do we bother to disagree about art?

In his 2015 book, De Gustibus: Arguing About Taste and Why We Do It, Peter Kivy poses a dilemma. He thinks there are only two possible explanations of why we disagree about matters of taste: (1) we want to influence someone’s actions, or (2) we suppose (correctly or not) that we are arguing about matters of fact. He argues that (1) is a nonstarter, because we often disagree in cases where we have no relevant interest in influencing someone’s actions, and concludes that when we disagree about matters of taste, it is because we suppose we are disagreeing about facts. There is much to say about Kivy’s argument, but for our present purposes, it suffices to point out that even if he is right that we suppose aesthetic disagreements to be about matters of fact, his account doesn’t explain why we are sometimes motivated to express our disagreement and other times not, nor does it explain why some disagreements are more prone to hostility than others. 

Consider Black Metal Stacy. Stacy is aghast that Nils, her Black Metal Buddy, doesn’t like the new Darkthrone album, which she LOVES. So, she invites Nils over to her house in order to force him to listen to her favorite tracks while she points out their merits. She doesn’t care if Nils goes home and listens to it on his own or not, she just wants him to admit that it’s good. Meanwhile, Stacy’s roommate Gwen the Baroque Violin Aficionado just wants them to shut off whatever that noise is. Stacy thinks Gwen is wrong to be so dismissive of Darkthrone, but she doesn’t care enough to actually argue with her. It’s no surprise at all that Gwen doesn’t like Darkthrone. Of course she doesn’t. But Nils is her Black Metal Buddy. He appreciates Black Metal and she usually finds his judgments about music compelling. It bothers her that he could fail to appreciate an album that she thinks is so obviously amazing. For a minute it leads her to question her own judgment: “Could Nils be right? Am I overrating the album?” But then she puts it on and starts rocking out and concludes, “Nope, it’s Nils who’s wrong.” She cares about his judgment because there is enough overlap between their sensibilities and—given their shared history of enjoying music together—she is confused and vexed that his judgments about the album diverge so sharply from hers. His judgment doesn’t fit with her sense of what she knows about herself, him, and their shared taste in Black Metal. 

Nils:

Image source: The Score Magazine

Gwen:

Image source: Vivaldi Music Academy

Kivy’s account doesn’t rule out Stacy’s different attitudes towards Nils and Gwen, but it doesn’t help to explain them. It also does not explain the sometimes hostile character of aesthetic disagreements. Hostility does sometimes arise in debates about matters of fact when these disagreements are morally loaded (e.g., do vaccines cause autism?) or when we become frustrated with an interlocutor’s faulty inferences or recalcitrant dismissal of evidence. But disagreements like the one described above between Sam and Mickey are hostile from the outset. The hostility the interlocutors bear towards each other is grounded at least partly in disdain towards the content of each others’ judgments. But why such intense disdain? Clearly we don’t feel such disdain every time we disagree. Black Metal Stacy doesn’t feel disdain towards Gwen the Baroque Violin Aficionado. She appreciates that Gwen belongs to a different taste community than she does and doesn’t mind if their judgments about music diverge. So, where does Mickey and Sam’s mutual hostility come from?

Our proposal is that such hostility is typically grounded in the personal investment that individuals sometimes have in judgments of taste. We enter into disagreements relating to these judgments at least in part in order to express and defend our personal stake in the matter. Some of our aesthetic judgments are merely preferences, but others are judgments are bound up with serious long-term relationships with certain artforms, artworks, and artists. These relationships can become integral to our self-conception. For example, while one of us (Brandon) may prefer Dorothea Tanning’s surrealist paintings to René Magritte’s, or Death Wish 3 to Police Academy 6, he absolutely loves Paul Simon’s Graceland, grunge, and David Bowie—the last of these so much so that it came to matter deeply to him, as the date drew nearer, that his younger son would be born on Bowie’s birthday (and in fact he was!). This sort of personal investment in art, which goes beyond mere preference, sometimes leads us to affiliate with others who are similarly invested and enter into communities with them: fan clubs, online discussion groups, strings of casual gatherings, etc. We also sometimes become invested in hating certain art. Hating an artwork, artform, or artist can be a significant part of our aesthetic lives, and can sometimes lead us to forge bonds with our fellow haters—such as the community that formed online around hating The Last Jedi. When others criticize works and artists we love (or laud those we hate), the potential is there for us to take it personally. If someone says that all grunge music is stupid, then it can feel like they are also saying that Brandon is stupid for loving it, for making it an integral part of his life, and for affiliating with other people who also love it. And when we feel that we are being implicitly insulted in this way, we can become defensive and are more prone to hostility ourselves, as exemplified by the interchange between Mickey and Sam.

Without social media, we mostly come into contact with the aesthetic judgments of people whose views we actively seek out: critics we enjoy reading, friends we like to have discussions with, other members of taste communities we belong to. Social media puts us into contact with the aesthetic judgments of a whole lot of randos and people we are affiliated with in non-aesthetic contexts. Without social media we would have no idea that Kunal from high school thought the Game of Thrones finale sucked and some Canadian guy we met at the Eastern APA in 2014 is really into the new Grimes album. Social media puts people who don’t have much in common in their aesthetic tastes in a position to discuss art, which seems like an amazing development in principle. But the internet also has the well-known effect of lowering our inhibitions and emboldening us to be more aggressive than we would be in person. Moreover, it incentivizes the sorts of posts that elicit the greatest response rate—“likes,” “upvotes,” “retweets,” and comments. As a result, subtlety and nuance tend to be drowned out by point-scoring one-liners and attention-grabbing hyperbole. Taken together, these features of internet discourse help to explain why discussions about art online are so often fraught with hostility.

What’s the value of aesthetic disagreement?

In addition to being unpleasant, hostility works directly against the positive aesthetic and social values that can be realized in aesthetic disagreement. 

Disagreement about art is a part of how we engage with it, and the aims of aesthetic engagement are sometimes better served by disagreement than by agreement. Engagement with an artwork includes various processing activities that may continue long after we have ceased directly experiencing it. After seeing a movie, for instance, we might have a conversation with a friend where we debate competing interpretations, compare our impressions of the acting performances, discuss the fittingness of the score, and argue about whether or not the ending works. Finding that we agree with our friend can be gratifying. Agreement fosters a feeling of connection with others and a sense of validation. But don’t we stand to learn more, about art and about each other, from disagreement? Doesn’t disagreement have a greater potential to promote the evolution of our taste, the refinement of our judgments, and a deepening understanding of alternative perspectives? Engaging with those who we disagree with presents a special opportunity to expand our point of view.

Gaining insight into others’ sensibilities allows us to try them on and test them out for ourselves, and entertaining divergent points of view in this way can be invaluable when trying to come to terms with a work of art. The authors of this post regularly go out of our way to read critics with whom we disagree. Matt, for instance, loves the films of Terrence Malick, but often finds it helpful to read scathing negative reviews from critics who don’t share his stance. Of course, not every conflicting take will be helpful to consider. Some pronouncements tend to preempt and stifle aesthetic discourse, and these are generally not worth engaging with. There’s not much to be gained from a shallow screed declaring Malick to be pretentious and vapid. But thinking through a thoughtful and informed critique can be a fruitful path to positive engagement. Matt found, for instance, that taking seriously a detailed argument that Malick’s editing choices tend to manifest hollow aestheticism without thematic purpose helped to develop and clarify his own—different—understanding of the way that Malick’s editing style relates to the themes of his work. It is important in our engagement with art not to trap ourselves in a self-affirming bubble where conflicting points of view are blocked out, lest we become too complacent about questioning and examining our own judgments and habitual ways of attending to works of art. 

Meme by Matt Strohl

In addition to promoting the aesthetic values just described, by testing out each other’s sensibilities we can gain a valuable form of mutual understanding and appreciation. (Compare Nick Riggle’s theory of what it is to be awesome.) Disagreement about art can be an important element of some of our most valuable social relationships. Anyone seriously interested in any artform is likely to have a number of friendships that centrally involve discussing it. When we see an opera performance or a film, it is likely that one of our very first impulses afterwards is to check in with our closest friends who share our interest in the relevant artform to recommend or disrecommend it or to compare impressions. A relationship like this that was entirely free of disagreement—if such a thing is even possible—would be dull at best. Although Stacy is annoyed that Nils initially dislikes the Darkthrone album, their friendship benefits from their occasional disagreements. If Nils had agreed with Stacy straightaway, they wouldn’t learn much about the album or about one another from discussing their responses to it. Of course they both like it, it rocks! The fact that Nils disagrees with Stacy opens them up to discussing not just the album itself but also the particularities of their responses to it—particularities that they probably wouldn’t even have articulated if they weren’t pressed to do so by their disagreement. By disagreeing they refine their respective judgments about the album.

Further, would we really want to live in a world in which everyone’s judgments always converged? In his 2007 book, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, Alexander Nehamas presents this possibility as harrowing:

Imagine, if you can, a world where everyone likes, or loves, the same things, where every disagreement about beauty can be resolved. That would be a desolate, desperate world. […] What is truly frightful is not what everyone likes but simply the fact that everyone likes it. Even the idea that everyone might share one of my judgments sends shivers down my spine, although it is no less repulsive than the possibility that one other person might accept all of them. (p. 83)

In the actual world, art gives us something to talk about. It’s a wellspring of deep and rich topics to have lively discussions about and build friendships and communities around. In a world where we all liked the same things, aesthetic discourse would quickly degenerate from back-patting and high fives to shrugs of boredom. It’s not very exciting to agree about something that is universally agreed upon, and the arms race to formulate increasingly elaborate articulations of our universally shared judgments would quickly price almost everyone out of the market. 

How should we navigate disagreement online?

Of course, the actual world is one where our aesthetic judgments regularly diverge. This is a good thing in principle, but the risk is there for aesthetic discourse to be spoiled by undue aggression, especially now that the internet has put vast swathes of humanity in touch with each other, irrespective of social or cultural boundaries. Individuals and groups who wouldn’t normally consider art together are able to do so online. The next step is to figure out how to navigate this landscape so as to promote the aims of aesthetic disagreement while avoiding both the Scylla of hostility and the Charybdis of self-congratulatory excess.

What is that better way forward? Keep a look out for our Part 2, coming soon, where we search for just that…

Edited by Alex King

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