Aesthetics for Birds

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Five Strategies for Arguing About Art on the Internet

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Meme by Brandon Polite (via Den of Geek)

What follows is a co-authored post by Brandon Polite and Matt Strohl. It is a follow-up to an earlier post about online arguments about art here.

Disagreeing about art should be a positive experience. It has the potential to expand our perspective, prompt us to articulate our views more precisely, enrich friendships, and broadly enhance our engagement with works of art. The internet has massively expanded opportunities to engage in disagreement, but has done so in a way that often appears to work against these aims. Characteristically, disagreement about art on the internet is shallow and hostile.

In our previous post, we considered why disagreement about art on the internet is so horrible and unproductive. We argued that the root of the problem is that we are often personally invested in our views about art and that we therefore tend to take certain opposing views as personal attacks. If Jimmy is a passionate Taylor Swift fan and Cynthia tweets that Taylor Swift is a sham artist, Jimmy feels like Cynthia is insulting him. If he posts an angry response to her tweet, it’s not primarily because he believes so strongly that she’s wrong; it’s because he’s defending himself as a Swiftie and lashing out at a Swift Hater. The internet massively expands the scale of opportunities for this sort of interaction and puts us in touch with a huge number of people who we ordinarily wouldn’t discuss art with across a wide range of taste communities. Throw in the disinhibiting effects of online interaction, and it’s a powder keg ready to blow the instant someone posts something testy about The Mandalorian.

In this follow-up post, we suggest a range of strategies for better aesthetic disagreement—ways of avoiding hostile confrontations and instead promoting engaging, illuminating, mutually respectful discourse. 

Strategy 1: Cultivate aesthetic humility

By “aesthetic humility,” we mean an openness to the possibility of revising our aesthetic judgments. Aesthetic humility is a crucial precondition for productive aesthetic discourse, and is usually the most appropriate attitude to adopt towards our own aesthetic judgments regardless. 

Here’s a quick argument for that last claim: Suppose I become interested in Western Classical music and become a full-blown aficionado over the course of a decade of intensive exploration. It would be very disappointing and would reflect poorly on the quality of my project if most of my judgments didn’t change or evolve over the course of this decade. If I continued on for another decade, it would again be disappointing and would reflect poorly on my project if my judgments didn’t change or evolve further. Therefore, at any given point I should hope and expect that many of my judgments will eventually change or evolve, and so I should hold open the possibility of revising them. 

Of course, this does not mean that we should necessarily remain open to revising all of our aesthetic judgments. Some of our judgments are central to who we are. David Bowie isn’t going anywhere for Brandon, nor is Clint Eastwood for Matt. Conversely, in some aesthetic realms we are mere tourists and simply don’t care if our tastes ever evolve. Brandon likes My Little Pony well enough, but has no plans to become a full-on Brony; and Matt is perfectly fine if his views about Pixar stay frozen in 2009. But the bulk of the aesthetic judgments that we are likely to be discussing with others don’t fall squarely into either of these categories; thus, we should be open to revising them. When we get into inflexible territory, it’s easy enough to say so. “Clint Eastwood is at the core of my taste, you’re not going to convince me that Space Cowboys is bad—it’s not up for debate—but at least we can both agree that Unforgiven is a masterpiece.” Or, “I admire your very fine-grained views about how the My Little Pony episodes should be ranked, but I’m not interested enough to go there. I just like the ones where Pinkie Pie throws a party.”

Other things being equal, aesthetic disagreements will go better if interlocutors approach them with humility. Such disagreements tend to go awry when we approach them as though the ultimate goal is to win—to convince the other person to adopt our judgment of the matter under debate. When this is our attitude, we’ll be much more prone to view the disagreement as a matter of scoring points. This increases the likelihood that the disagreement will devolve into a flame war or slam-dunk contest, which may be entertaining on some level, but (at best) will contribute little of substance to our aesthetic lives. 

Disagreeing about art is one of the main ways we engage with it. Thi Nguyen and Servaas van der Berg have elaborated a picture of aesthetic appreciation as involving the inverted motivational structure of playing games. We often play games not for the sake of winning, but purely for the sake of playing them. Nguyen has coined the term striving play for this way of playing games, which contrasts with achievement play, where the primary aim is to win. In order to engage in striving play, however, we still have to try to win. Appreciating art has a similarly flipped motivational structure: we aim to make “correct” judgments about works of art (whatever that might mean to us) as a means of enabling valuable activities of aesthetic engagement. But the real point, on this view, is to engage with it.

We can distinguish between our proximate goal and our ultimate purpose in aesthetic disagreement. The proximate goal for each of us is to persuade the other to change their stance, but this is not our ultimate purpose. In productive aesthetic disagreement, we adopt the proximate aim of contesting each other’s views for the sake of the ultimate purpose of enhancing our shared engagement with works of art. We can achieve this ultimate purpose without succeeding in the proximate goal of convincing our interlocutor to change their mind, just like one can achieve the purpose of having fun matching wits with one’s friend over a game of chess even if the game is a draw.

To relate an anecdotal example, Matt and his brother Josh both just watched the new movie Black Bear and then discussed it over the phone. They both thought of the same comparison with Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, and they both enjoyed the film’s black humor and histrionic acting. Matt, however, thought the ending detracted a bit, while Josh liked it just fine. This led them into a detailed discussion of the way the ending relates to the rest of the film and a comparison of Black Bear to several other films Matt thought made his point clearer. Although both Matt and Josh offered arguments to persuade the other of their view, there was no need for either of them to come around to the other’s judgment for the disagreement to accomplish its goal. Rather, the goal was to cooperatively enhance their engagement with the film and in doing so to appreciate each other’s point of view. At the end of the conversation, they still didn’t quite agree about the ending, but both saw where the other was coming from, and both had a clearer understanding of their own stance than they started out with. 

Cooperative aesthetic engagement requires that all participants be open to the possibility of revising their views. Otherwise the activity starts to look more like competition than cooperative play, and competition—where one has the ultimate aim of “winning” the argument—is far less conducive to realizing the goals of aesthetic disagreement than cooperative play is. As we discussed in our previous post, part of what makes disagreement so valuable is that it gives us a chance to try on and test out perspectives that are not our own, which can lead us to broaden our perspective and further develop our sensibility. This isn’t possible unless we accept the limits of our own perspective. 

Strategy 2: Be aware of who you’re talking to and how they might be personally invested in the matter at hand

As we just outlined, treating our disagreements about art as shared activities of engagement requires us to jointly adopt the proximate goal of contesting each other’s interpretations or assessments of the work of art. But we can adopt this proximate goal while still viewing one another as collaborators in a shared activity. Those engaged in hostile flame wars online (e.g., Taylor Swift Haters v. Swifties, Marvel Stans v. Scorsese Fans), in contrast, view each other as opponents. The struggle for victory supplants focus on the art itself. Swifties engaged in mortal combat with Swift Haters aren’t going to seriously entertain criticisms of Swift’s songs, nor are Swift Haters going to be persuaded to put on Folklore and carefully attend to the merits of her songwriting. Both sides stop trying to get it right. They want to win, and they probably want to humiliate each other in the process.

To disagree with someone in a way that centers the work is to do so in the spirit of collaboration rather than competition. To be effective collaborators, we need to be mindful of what others have at stake in the conversation and how they might react to our claims. We should therefore default to a generous and open attitude and roll harsh criticisms out delicately as we try to get a read on our interlocutor’s personal investment in the matter under consideration. This strategy is often especially important in online contexts where we find ourselves suddenly at odds with people who we are connected to only in the most absurdly indirect ways—our dental hygienist’s former bandmate or our yoga instructor’s mom. There’s little to be lost in letting the fact that someone likes Coldplay slide without judgmental insinuation. Especially when we are jumping into someone else’s thread, we should play it cool. 

Strategy 3: Make your stake in the matter clear

Imagine Shareen, a long-time Swiftie who isn’t thrilled about the direction of her recent work. Shareen eagerly listens to the new Swift album Evermore and is sadly disappointed. She drafts a tweet: “Ugh… The new Taylor Swift is sooooo boring. #Letdown.” But if she were to tweet this out, she would make herself a target for the wrath of more militant Swift loyalists. This outcome can be avoided, however, if she takes a second to think about the dynamics of the Swiftie community and instead tweets something like: “I’ve been a Swift fan since the early days. She’s gone through a lot of transitions in her style but the one constant has always been the core of girl pop. This new stuff feels like it’s more for 35 year old hipster dudes and ASMR junkies. Still, #Swiftie4Life.”

Badge created at Bighugelabs

If Shareen had posted her initial tweet, it wouldn’t have led anywhere good. She would have looked like a Swift-hating troll just trying to provoke a reaction by panning something that most others are really excited about. Shareen’s second attempt both offers a more nuanced assessment and frames this assessment in a way that makes clear her investment in the matter. It’s because she loves Taylor Swift, not because she hates her, that the album falls short for her. By identifying herself as a member of the Swift fan community and casting her disappointment in terms of her personal relationship with the existing Swiftian corpus, Shareen has created an opening for other Swifties to engage with her tweet in a productive, cooperative way. Perhaps someone suggests, “Hey maybe compare the first bonus track on the deluxe edition of Evermore with ‘Love Story’? That really brings out the way the girl pop element is still there in her new stuff.” Maybe Shareen takes this suggestion and finds herself beginning to like Evermore forever more. 

Strategy 4: When in doubt, hedge

A little hedging can go a long way. Suppose a white philosophy professor in his 50’s is a big fan of contemporary rappers 21 Savage and YoungBoy Never Broke Again, and he strikes up a conversation about hip hop with a Black undergrad in her early 20’s. Compare two ways he could respond to her question, “What do you think of Noname?”

  1. “Noname is bad. More like slam poetry than rap.”
  1. “I haven’t been able to get into Noname, but I know that a lot of people think she’s great. What do you think?”

Noname is a young, politically conscious female rapper whose work is very meaningful to a lot of people. Leading with (1), even if it’s a forthcoming expression of the professor’s sincere opinion, is very aggressive, especially given the power dynamics and overall optics of the interaction. If this young woman is asking about Noname, it’s probably not because she thinks Noname is bad. In any case, this guy should hedge. He doesn’t know yet where she’s going with this, and answer (1) risks killing the conversation and making the student feel bad and/or angry. There is nothing to lose by going with (2), and much to gain. She might reply, “Oh, I think Noname is terrible. It’s basically slam poetry. But I wanted to see what you think.” In that case, they slap five and move on to another topic. But she might instead reply, “Noname is my favorite. I was actually thinking about writing my paper about her music and the way that she blurs the line between slam poetry and rap and what this can show us about the way the two art forms are related.” The professor can now respond, “That’s really interesting. Do you have any particular tracks to recommend for me to listen to?” This interaction may not lead to the professor coming to like Noname’s music, but it still stands to be far more productive and amiable. No one is walking away from this interaction angry or hurt. And the professor is likely to gain a better understanding of why many other people like Noname, not to mention foster a stronger relationship with his student. These are valuable gains. 

It’s even more important to hedge in online interactions, because there is no non-verbal communication to guide us. We can’t tell if the other person is hurt or angry as readily as we can when we talk in person. It’s also easier to hedge, because no one is standing in front of us waiting for us to respond. We can and should take a minute to think about how the other person might experience the interaction before blazing forward in online arguments. 

Strategy 5: Avoid claims that derail productive disagreement 

When we enter into a conversation or join an online discussion about art, we ought to do so in a way that promotes the goals of aesthetic discourse. For whatever reason, people very often do just the opposite. If one of us posts “The Queen’s Gambit was amazing!” on Facebook, someone will probably respond, “I thought it was crap.” What do you do with that? The crap-proclaimer hasn’t brought up any considerations worth discussing, and their flatly negative tone doesn’t suggest that further engagement with their point of view would be rewarding. It’s a response with no apparent purpose other than perhaps to make people who like The Queen’s Gambit feel bad. The problem is not simply that someone spoiled the enthusiasm of the thread with their negative take on the show; the problem is that this particular (vacuous) negative take and the way it’s presented push the conversation in an unhelpful direction. It works directly against the goals of aesthetic discourse. 

When we enter into an aesthetic discussion, we should take care to avoid derailing it and be sure that our claims are framed in a way that promotes the aims of aesthetic discourse. One obvious way to derail discussion is to come in hot with an unexplained hostile take. “That’s just a ridiculous view, no one could possibly make this claim unless they’re trolling.” But what if they’re not trolling? What if it’s really their view? How do they respond to that? How many productive discussions have started this way?

More polite ways of derailing discussion are no better, such as calling an artwork that someone else is praising “pretentious.” It’s a common charge that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s almost never helpful. If someone has said something positive about, say, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder and your response is “Malick is pretentious twaddle,” how can they respond? The accusation of pretentiousness threatens to ensnare the Malick defender: if Malick is pretentious, then so is loving Malick. Pretentiousness is an amorphous concept that can swallow up whatever defense the Malick lover poses. 

Calling a work “pretentious” implies that it aims at artistic seriousness but fails to achieve it. It’s applied to movies like To the Wonder by people who think that the film is just a lot of aestheticized nonsense without the right kind of narrative or thematic coherence. These people don’t get the film, and assume on this basis that there’s nothing there. It’s difficult to make this charge in the mode of humility. It’s a self-assured accusation that, in essence, holds: “If I don’t get it, then it can’t be artistically serious!” Why not instead open with a statement of some particular first-order criticism of Malick’s film? If you find To the Wonder pretentious for some reason, state that reason and skip the P-word. Give the Malick lover who has already indicated that they don’t find To the Wonder pretentious a chance to respond on even footing. Dropping an antagonistic P-bomb right out of the gate will never make an aesthetic discussion more productive. We should either remove the word from our critical vocabulary or save it for when we’re beating up on something with like-minded people. 

The same is true for dismissive class condescension. “BattleBots season finale: who’s watching???? Tombstone vs. Hydra!” “We don’t own a television. We limit our kids’ screen time. I went to Yale.” If what you have to add to a conversation is that you take yourself to be above it, probably sit that one out. 

Conclusion

What all of these strategies have in common is that they promote conscientious disagreement rather than shooting from the hip. They encourage us to slow down and think about the underlying dynamics of a disagreement and how we might calibrate our style of interaction so as to promote the aims of aesthetic disagreement. These strategies are only a starting point, but we hope that we have convinced you in this two-part post that it’s worth taking this sort of self-conscious approach to aesthetic disagreement.

See the earlier part of this discussion about online arguments about art here.

Edited by Alex King

4 Comments

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