AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Polite Conversations: Philosophers Discuss the Arts

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What follows is a guest post by Brandon Polite (Knox College).

In my YouTube series, Polite Conversations: Philosophers Discuss the Arts*, I interview philosophers about their work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. We typically discuss a particular journal article or public philosophy piece (including some pieces from Aesthetics for Birds), diving into their views and exploring their implications for anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes. The aims of this series are twofold. The first is that I want to show off the cool and innovative work that’s happening in the field of aesthetics right now, both to the wider philosophical community and to the general public. There is some really amazing work being done in our field, and more people should know about it!

The second aim is pedagogical. Getting to see philosophers doing philosophy together can be a really eye-opening experience for students. To that end, these videos can be used as a way to deepen your students’ insights into a text you’ve assigned them to read, which is how I use them. Alternatively, one or more could be used in place of readings if, say, they’re too advanced for an introductory-level course. I have painstakingly edited the captions—including sometimes highlighting key terms and phrases—to make them accessible to those who want or need them. As teaching tools, the videos are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Whatever your reasons for watching the series, I hope that the episodes will serve as springboards for further thought and discussion. And be on the lookout for a second series of episodes this summer!

Below, you’ll find each video accompanied by a brief description, key issues and themes discussed, and associated readings. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to see them all and keep up as more are released.

*Hat tip to Matt Strohl for helping me with the name.

Ep. 01: Old Town Road: Country or Hip Hop? | A Discussion with John Dyck

Description: In order to evaluate a work of art properly, you first need to know what genre it belongs to. In this episode, John Dyck (Auburn University) and I discuss whether Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is better classified as a country song or a hip hop song. Among the issues we consider are:

  • What role did race play in how “Old Town Road” was initially, and continues to be, received? 
  • In what ways does “Old Town Road” fit within country music’s history?
  • How much (or little) does “Old Town Road” sound like a country song? 
  • How should we define musical genres? 

Key themes: Evaluating Art, Genres, Country, Hip Hop, Race and Music, Appreciating Music

Associated reading: John Dyck, “The Aesthetics of Country Music” (Philosophy Compass, forthcoming)

Ep. 02: The Metaphysics of Bands: Round 1 | A Discussion with Ley Cray

Description: In the first part of this episode, Ley Cray (Texas Christian University) and I discuss the nature of bands, particularly their identity and individuation conditions. Among the issues we consider are:

  • Can two distinct bands share exactly the same members?
  • Can bands survive line-up changes?
  • Does changing the genre of music they play affect a band’s identity?
  • Can a single person be in multiple one-person bands at the same time, or would this simply be a case of a single band with multiple names?

Among the bands we consider are: GWAR and RAWG, Black Sabbath and Heaven & Hell, and Kiss.

Key themes: Bands, Metaphysics, Identity, Individualization, Genres, Musical Personas

Associated reading: Wesley D. Cray, “Fightin’ Words: Sabbath Doesn’t Need the Ozzman,” in William Irwin (ed.), Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality (Wiley, 2012), pp. 126–139.

Ep. 02: The Metaphysics of Bands: Round 2 | A Discussion with Ley Cray

Description: In the second part of this episode, Ley Cray (Texas Christian University) and I discuss the nature of bands, particularly their persistence conditions. Among the issues we consider are:

  • Can a band survive the replacement of all of its original members?
  • Are certain members in a band more essential to its identity than others?
  • Could a one-person band possibly survive a line-up change?

Among the bands we consider are: Napalm Death, Gorgoroth, Alice in Chains, The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and FLAG, and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Key themes: Bands, Metaphysics, Identity, Persistence, Musical Personas

Associated reading: Wesley D. Cray, “Fightin’ Words: Sabbath Doesn’t Need the Ozzman,” in William Irwin (ed.), Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality (Wiley, 2012), pp. 126–139.

Ep. 03: Disagreeing About Art on the Internet | A Discussion with Matt Strohl

Description: In this episode, Matt Strohl (University of Montana) and I discuss our first Aesthetics for Birds piece on disagreeing about art online. (Part 2 hadn’t yet been written.) Among the issues we consider are:

  • What is it that we’re disagreeing about when we disagree about art?
  • Why are disagreements about art so prone to hostility when they occur online? 
  • How might we disagree about art online in a more productive way?

Key themes: Aesthetic Disagreement, Evaluating Art, Productive Disagreements, Online Hostility, Aesthetic Communities, Personal Identity

Associated readings: 

Ep. 04: Enjoying Bad Art | A Discussion with John Dyck

Description: In this episode, John Dyck (Auburn University) and I consider what it is about some bad works of art that makes us enjoy them so much. Among the issues we consider are:

  • What makes some works of art “so bad they’re good”?
  • Is the enjoyment we get from viewing bad art ever caused (or constituted) by our delight in the fact that the artists have failed?
  • Is the enjoyment we get from viewing bad art ever caused (or constituted) by our desire for the artist to succeed? 

Among the examples we consider are: Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

Key themes: Evaluating Art, Aesthetic Enjoyment, High Culture v. Low Culture, Bad Art, So Bad It’s Good Art 

Associated reading: John Dyck and Matt Johnson, “Appreciating Bad Art” (Journal of Value Inquiry, 2017)

Ep. 05: Aesthetic Subtlety and Heavy-Handedness | A Discussion with Alex King

Description: In this episode, Alex King (Simon Fraser University) and I discuss whether subtlety is always an aesthetic virtue and whether simplicity, boldness, and other forms of heavy-handedness are always an aesthetic vice. Among the issues we consider are:

  • Can heavy-handedness ever be an aesthetic virtue?
  • What would be missing out on if we weren’t attuned to, or had no interest in, subtlety?
  • What’s wrong with liking “low” things ironically? 

Key themes: Aesthetic Appreciation, Evaluating Art, High Culture v. Low Culture, Hipsters, Taco Bell 

Associated reading: Alex King, “The Virtue of Subtlety and the Vice of a Heavy Hand” (British Journal of Aesthetics, 2017)

Ep. 06: The Metaphysics of Fictional Characters: Pt. 1 | A Discussion with David Friedell and Ley Cray

Description: In the first part of this episode, David Friedell (Union College), Ley Cray (Texas Christian University), and I discuss fictional characters that have accrued inconsistent properties over time and across stories, and whether this affects their identities. Among the issues we consider are:

  • What do fictional characters and actual persons have in common?
  • Could there ever be a story about, say, Batman in which he has none of his common attributes?
  • Could an author ever secretly make a story about a given character without anybody ever knowing it?
  • When, if ever, could an author fail to make a story about a given fictional character?

Key themes: Fiction, Fictional Characters, Identity, Authorial Intention, Batman

Associated readings: 

Ep. 06: The Metaphysics of Fictional Characters: Pt. 2 | A Discussion with David Friedell and Ley Cray

Description: In the second part of this episode, Davidel Friedell (Union College), Ley Cray (Texas Christian), and I discuss the relationship between authorial intentions and the identities of fictional characters. Among the issues we consider are:

  • Can an author ever unintentionally produce a new character?
  • Are certain properties essential to a character’s identity?
  • Are characters that appear in fanfiction genuinely the same as those that appear in the canonical source material?
  • Can fandoms reclaim characters and fictional worlds from their authors?
  • What is the nature of canon, and how susceptible is it to change?

Key themes: Fiction, Fictional Characters, Identity, Authorial Intention, Fanfiction, Canonicity

Associated readings: 

Ep. 07: When Is a Work of Art Finished? | A Discussion with Darren Hudson Hick

Description: In this episode, Darren Huson Hick (Furman University) and I discuss the ontology of art, particularly the question of when works of art are finished. Among the issues we consider are:

  • How many paintings can exist on the same canvas at the same time?
  • Can one and the same physical object ever be numerous, distinct works of art over time?
  • What is the ontological status of appropriation art and similar works of art?

Key themes: Ontology of Art, Work Completion, Appropriation Art, Evaluating Art, Indecisive Artists

Associated reading: Darren Hudson Hick, “When Is a Work of Art Finished?” (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2008)

Ep. 08: The Aesthetic Appreciation of Ruins | A Discussion with Elizabeth Scarbrough

Description: In this episode, Elizabeth Scarbrough (Florida International) and I discuss the aesthetics of ruins and related phenomena. Among the issues we consider are:

  • What is involved in appreciating ruins?
  • How should we decide whether to preserve certain ruins or allow them to become rubble?
  • How do ruins allow us to feel in touch with the past?
  • How should we appreciate old battle sites?

Key themes: Aesthetic Appreciation, Ruins, Battlefields, Monuments, Preservation

Associated readings: 

Ep. 09: Monuments, Music, and Art Addressed to Groups | A Discussion with C. Thi Nguyen

Description: In this episode, Thi Nguyen (University of Utah) and I discuss monuments, memorials, street art, and music, and how they can (or might) be addressed to groups and used by groups to address themselves. Among the issues we consider are:

  • How does art address group agents (such as neighborhoods, towns, and nations)?
  • How do group agents create art?
  • How do group agents use monuments, memorials, and street art to address themselves?
  • How might group agents similarly use music as a form of self-address?
  • Why might some groups not want “their music” to go mainstream?

Key themes: Monuments, Memorials, Street Art, Public Art, Music, Group Agency, Collective Identity, Aesthetic Communities, Aesthetic Appreciation, Evaluating Art

Associated readings: 

Ep. 10: Art on the Street: Graffiti, Busking, and Flash Mobs | A Discussion with Sondra Bacharach

Description: In this episode, Sondra Bacharach (Victoria University of Wellington) and I discuss her account of street art. Among the issues we consider are:

  • Can mere graffiti ever count as street art?
  • Are buskers producing street art, public art, or some other kind of art?
  • What social and political roles can street artists and buskers perform, especially in commercial spaces?
  • Are flash mobs ever transgressive enough to count as street art? 

Key themes: Street Art, Public Art, Graffiti, Busking, Flash Mobs, Anti-Commercial Art, Aesthetic Appreciation, Evaluating Art

Associated reading: Sondra Bacharach, “Street Art and Consent” (British Journal of Aesthetics, 2015)

Ep. 11: Disagreeing About Art | A Discussion with Elizabeth Cantalamessa

Description: In this episode, Elizabeth Cantalamessa (University of Miami) and I discuss aesthetic agreement and disagreement, and the various forms they can take. Among the issues we consider are:

  • What are we doing when we disagree about (a) whether something is art, (b) what genre an artwork belongs to, and (c) how we should evaluate given works of art?
  • How do we account for widespread agreement within certain communities about which artists and artworks are good, bad, etc.?
  • What is “cheesiness,” and is Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” cheesy? 

Key themes: Evaluating Art, Aesthetic Disagreement, Conceptual Negotiation, Aesthetic Communities, Genres, Cheesiness, Bon Jovi 

Associated readings: 

Ep. 12: Food, Music, and Nostalgia | A Discussion with Shen-yi Liao

Description: In this episode, Shen-yi Liao (University of Puget Sound) and I discuss his account of food nostalgia, and how it can be extended to account for music nostalgia. Among the issues we consider are:

  • How should we understand the distinction between foods that are nostalgic for an individual and foods that are nostalgic for a culture or group?
  • What role does the imagination play in our experience of nostalgia?
  • How do food and music connect us to our pasts, both individually and collectively?
  • What role does nostalgia for food, music, and other kinds of aesthetic objects play in the construction of both personal identity and cultural identity? 

Key themes: Food, Music, Nostalgia, Imagination, Memory, Personal Identity, Collective Identity, Aesthetic Communities, Roller Rinks

Associated reading: Shen-yi Liao, “Bittersweet Food” (Critica, forthcoming)

Ep. 13: Restoration, Architectural Identity, and Notre-Dame | A Discussion with Saul Fisher

Description: In this episode, Saul Fisher (Mercy College) and I discuss his Aesthetics for Birds piece on the 2019 fire that damaged Notre-Dame Cathedral and his abstractist account of the nature of architecture. Among the issues we consider are:

  • How are architectural objects similar to works of music?
  • How should we understand unbuilt structures, “paper architecture,” and “architectural ghosts”? 
  • Can architectural structures remain the same while undergoing substantive changes over time, including by means of restoration and conservation?
  • Why should we be sad when a building is damaged or destroyed if, as Fisher believes, it will continue to exist (eternally) as an abstract entity?

Key themes: Architecture, Music, Identity, Persistence, Abstract Entities

Associated readings: 

Ep. 14: Fiction and the Limits of Imagination | A Discussion with Michel Xhignesse

Description: In this episode, Michel Xhignesse (Capilano University) and I discuss contradictions and other impossible things that we might encounter in works of fiction and whether we can truly imagine them. Among the issues we consider are:

  • Why do most philosophers of literature think we can imagine fictional contradictions?
  • Are there limits to what we can imagine?
  • How do we deal with contradictions and other intra-work impossibilities when we recognize them in works of fiction? 
  • How is reading fiction similar to listening to music?

Among the examples of fictional contradictions and inconsistencies we consider are those found in: the Harry Potter series, the Ant-Man movies, and Time Machine 2: Search for Dinosaurs.

Key themes: Fiction, Imagination, Aesthetic Appreciation, Evaluating Art, Music

Associated readings:


Brandon Polite is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Knox College. His research focuses mainly on the philosophy of music and on aesthetic experience and appreciation as collective endeavors. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonPolite2.

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