AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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UPCOMING JAAC x AFB DISCUSSION: TAVINOR ON VIDEO GAMES

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The third JAAC x AFB Discussion will be appearing next Thursday, March 2.

We will be looking at “What’s My Motivation? Video Games and Interpretive Performance” (abstract below the fold) by Grant Tavinor, available in JAAC’s Winter 2017 volume, 75 (1), online here. Grant is Senior Lecturer of Philosophy at Lincoln University, NZ and author of the book The Art of Videogames.

And big thanks to C. Thi Nguyen (Assistant Professor, Utah Valley University) for providing the critical précis. Grant will provide a response, and they will both be available to discuss your questions and thoughts in the comments.

Mark it in your calendars, and look forward to seeing you then!
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CAN #SELFIES BE ART? SAATCHI SAYS YES

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I’m going to go ahead and say Saatchi isn’t really that cutting edge on this one. People have been doing self-portraits for a long-ass time. Maybe those don’t count as “selfies” though?

In any event, the famous Saatchi Gallery will host a show this spring called “From Selfie to Self-Expression”. This is funded together with the enormous Chinese telecom company Huawei. (Hm, I wonder why they’d be interested in selfies.)

Maybe most exciting is for those artistic sorts who read the blog: You can enter your own selfie for a chance to be shown at Saatchi!

They’re currently holding a selfie competition (entry rules here), open until March 12, 2017. You have to submit images via their website interface. For whatever reason, you can’t just post an Instagram with the #SaatchiSelfie hashtag and be entered. Although they do want you to use that hashtag on Twitter, Instagram, etc.

Or you can just scope out the current entries.

From the website: “Winners will receive Huawei’s latest smartphone and have their selfies showcased at the Saatchi Gallery as part of Selfie to Self-Expression.” Even if you weren’t jonesing for the newest line of Huawei phones, being part of a Saatchi show would be pretty cool.

The show will run from March 31, 2017 – May 30, 2017.

Image: Rembrandt, Self-Portrait (1660), courtesy of The Met Collection


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WHISPERS OF POWER #15 *FINAL INSTALLMENT!*

Announcement: This is the final entry in the Whispers of Power series. Thanks to all of you who have gotten involved so far! You’ve made it a great series.

Remember: if your caption wins, it will be drawn into the partially finished artwork you see below, and your caption + the below image will become the final artwork, on which you will be listed as an official collaborator! You will also receive, by mail, a print of the final version.

Good luck!

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House of Cards, Season 4, Episode 13, 55:33

Title: Terror

Description: “We do not fear terror. We are the terror.” The house of Claire and Frank Underwood appears to collapse, and then they utter these words. This climactic scene that ends the show’s fourth season, and we are left afraid and uncertain. A timely message given that, in today’s political climate, we are also left wondering whether there is anything past fear and uncertainty.

Readers, please help us by supplying a caption for this image! As a reminder, the winning caption will be hand-drawn into the blank space below the image. The reader who supplies the winning caption will receive a signed print and be named an official collaborator for this piece. Submit captions below in the comments!

Contest closes next Saturday (3/4) at noon (US, EST). Winner announced that Sunday. Keep tabs on the project and contest at the project website here, review the details of it at the previous post here, or see previous posts in this series here.


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WHISPERS OF POWER #13 WINNER

Congratulations this week to Jennifer M for her Shakespeare quote!

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.”
– Shakespeare, As You Like It

(Jennifer: Email us at aestheticsforbirds@gmail.com with your contact information to collect your prize!)

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House of Cards, Season 4, Episode 2, 11:38

Title: Show and Tell

Description: Innocent waves to the crowd turn into something more ominous in this week’s drawing. After more fierce fighting, the Underwoods are back on stage again. They have vowed to fight for the presidency with Frank as President and Claire as VP, a teaming previously unthinkable. Have the rules changed? Have their cards?

Next and final piece up tomorrow! Keep tabs on the project and contest at the project website here, or review the project over at the previous post here.


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YouGov SURVEY ANSWERS PERENNIAL QUESTION: CAN VIDEO GAMES BE ART?

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Survey says… No. 😥

But tattoos can be, and many other things.

Internet-based market research company YouGov asked over 1500 Brits whether they thought various mediums could be art.

Their results:

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Unsurprisingly, results varied a lot across age groups, and some across class. Take a look at YouGov’s write-up of these surveys, and their detailed survey results. This updates some older results they got in 2014.

Well, I guess we can shut things down around here. Thanks to everyone for playing!

p.s. But seriously, stay tuned for the next JAAC x AFB Discussion on this beloved non-art-form. We’ll be discussing Grant Tavinor’s JAAC paper “What’s My Motivation? Video Games and Interpretive Performance”.

Photo credit: Ryan Quick, The Art of Video Games via Flickr


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WHISPERS OF POWER #14

Announcement: This is the penultimate entry in the Whispers of Power series. Thanks to all of you who have gotten involved so far! You’ve made it a great series. And just a reminder for those of you who have wanted to contribute, but haven’t yet, we will be leaving the remaining contests open for two weeks rather than one.

Remember: if your caption wins, it will be drawn into the partially finished artwork you see below, and your caption + the below image will become the final artwork, on which you will be listed as an official collaborator! You will also receive, by mail, a print of the final version.

Good luck!

wop_14_blank

House of Cards, Season 4, Episode 2, 11:38

Title: Show and Tell

Description: Innocent waves to the crowd turn into something more ominous in this week’s drawing. After more fierce fighting, the Underwoods are back on stage again. They have vowed to fight for the presidency with Frank as President and Claire as VP, a teaming previously unthinkable. Have the rules changed? Have their cards?

Readers, please help us by supplying a caption for this image! As a reminder, the winning caption will be hand-drawn into the blank space below the image. The reader who supplies the winning caption will receive a signed print and be named an official collaborator for this piece. Submit captions below in the comments!

Contest closes next Saturday (2/18) at noon (US, EST). Winner announced that Sunday. Next piece up in two weeks! Keep tabs on the project and contest at the project website here, review the details of it at the previous post here, or see previous posts in this series here.


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WHISPERS OF POWER #13 WINNER

Congratulations this week to Maxine for her George Orwell quote!

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House of Cards, Season 3, Episode 10, 20:19

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
– George Orwell, Animal Farm

Title: Opponent

Description: Every hero needs a villain. Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) is the gray, cold, Russian counterpart to Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). The confrontation shown here, with Viktor’s face on the big screen, triggers an instinctive fear and impulse to overcome. In this moment we identify with Frank. The moral line that usually separates us from him evaporates, and we only want to see Viktor fail.

Next piece up later today! Keep tabs on the project and contest at the project website here, or review the project over at the previous post here.


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AESTHETIC NAIVETE – GUEST POST BY BENCE NANAY

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young Bence Nanay

What follows is a guest post by Bence Nanay. Bence is Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp and Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Between Perception and Action (Oxford University Press, 2013) and editor of Perceiving the World (Oxford University Press, 2010) and he just published a book on aesthetics, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford University Press, 2016). His current project in aesthetics is about the role of mental imagery in our engagement with art, supported by a 2-million Euro ERC grant. You can follow him on twitter @BenceNanay.

Aesthetic Naïveté

Let’s start with some touchy-feely and somewhat embarrassing confessions about my youth.

Exhibit A: I was 16, standing in the old Tate Gallery (there was no Tate Modern yet), mesmerized by this picture:

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1953 by Clyfford Still (1953, Tate Modern)

I must have spent two hours in front of the picture there and then. It’s a Clyfford Still. I didn’t know much about him at that time. I knew he was an abstract expressionist, but that’s about it. I loved the picture so much that the next day, when I was supposed to visit the Tower of London and the Parliament with my high school class, I just left them, going back to Pimlico to have another look.

Exhibit B: rewind a year. I was so much into Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-up that I went to the cinema to see it two or three times a week (those were quite some cinemas). I knew the dialogues of the entire film by heart. Each time, I left the cinema in a state of rapture, of having understand something really important about life… Here is a still from the film:

still from Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni

still from Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966)

Exhibit C: rewind yet another year. I read a book for the first time that shook me to my core: Boris Vian’s L’Écume des Jours. I felt nothing like that ever before: I felt like laughing and like crying at the same time.

Here is the thing: I now take Blow-up to be Antonioni’s single worst film. L’Écume des Jours is full of references I had no chance of understanding at age 14 and it’s way more mediocre than some of Vian’s other novels (let alone some other works of art he created, see a masterpiece at the end of is blog entry as a reward for reading through it). I still think that Clyfford Still is great, but there are also many other great works of art in that collection where, for some reason, I fell in love with this painting.

I went to Tate Modern just yesterday, in preparation for writing this blog entry to see how I reacted. Well, not very strongly. I also watched Blow-up again (on my laptop, cinemas don’t seem to show Antonioni films any more), but I had to switch it off after 20 minutes or so, I just couldn’t be bothered. And I put down the English translation of L’Écume des Jours after a couple of pages (to be fair, it was because of the translation).

These works of art gave me way more aesthetic pleasure when I first encountered them, knowing very little about art history, film history or the history of 20th Century French literature than they give me now, when I know a little more. I want to think that I am in a better position now to assess the aesthetic value of these works than I was at age 14-16. And the assessment goes more or less like this: Meh.

With my 20/20 hindsight, I should condemn the aesthetic judgment of the 14-16 year old Bence, shouldn’t I? But if I hadn’t felt so strongly about these artworks, I would probably not have taken an interest in the arts that allowed me to pick up all that knowledge that now allows me to condemn the teenage Bence.

Aesthetics is obsessed with mature, art historically well-informed aesthetic judgment – like the judgment I just made about the Antonioni film. The kind of liking I took in Blow-up as a 15 year-old is not what aesthetics is about. We are told that what aestheticians should focus on is not the mere preference, but the considered aesthetic judgment.

When you step into a room with many paintings in a museum and take a quick look around, maybe you like some of the pictures on display, but not others. The orthodoxy in aesthetics is that this initial liking is completely irrelevant for aesthetic judgment and for the attribution of aesthetic value. You should sit down in front of one of these pictures, read up on it and then you may eventually be in the position to make a well-informed aesthetic judgment.

So we get a complete detachment between ‘mere preference’ and ‘all things considered well-informed aesthetic judgment’. And this distinction is widely used for various purposes. Experimental aesthetics often asks subjects about their preferences and aestheticians can quickly dismiss this entire approach as irrelevant given that these experiments are about ‘mere preference’ and not ‘all things considered well-informed aesthetic judgment’.

The point I’m trying to make is that there should be no complete disconnect between ‘mere preference’ and ‘all things considered well-informed aesthetic judgment’. The only reason we are in the position to make all things considered well-informed aesthetic judgments is because we took a liking of some artworks earlier – maybe just seconds ago and that’s why we’re engaging with this artwork and not some other one or maybe decades ago as teenagers.

So teenage Bence was a pretentious little snob with not much taste, but who I am now and the kind of art I’m interested in now and the kind of art I have spent time to try to understand in the last decades is a direct consequence of the ‘mere preferences’ of that pretentions little snob.

Talking about snobs, click here to listen to Boris Vian’s brilliant Je suis snob as a reward for reading this far.


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THE CURIOUS CASE OF PEPE THE FROG, BY ANTHONY CROSS

The following is a guest post by Anthony Cross. Anthony is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Texas State University. His research in the philosophy of art focuses on the ethical significance of our relationships with artworks and other cultural objects. He has further research interests in ethics and the history of philosophy, and he also spends way too much time on the internet.

The Curious Case of Pepe the Frog: On the Ontology and Value of Internet Memes

In the waning days of last fall’s presidential election a frog took center stage. In early September, Donald Trump Jr. posted an image on Instagram featuring his father leading “The Deplorables”:

 

The image is intended to be a response to Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark. However, what catches one’s eye is a curious depiction of a green frog wearing a Trump wig. The Clinton campaign quickly pointed out that the frog is an instance of an internet meme known as Pepe the Frog and denounced Trump for his campaign’s usage of the meme due to its associations with white supremacy and the alt-right. Not long after, the Anti-Defamation League added Pepe to its online database of hate symbols.

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“Feels Good Man”

Thanks to countless subsequent explainers—like this one from NPR—the history of Pepe may already be familiar to you. The meme has its origins in a comic strip by the artist Matt Furie. In around 2008 users of online message boards like 4chan began adapting one of the comic’s characters, an anthropomorphic frog, into a series of reaction images—most notably, Pepe saying “feels good man.”

Over time, users adapted the Pepe character into a number of different contexts, and the meme attained some measure of mainstream popularity. (See, for example, Katy Perry tweeting a Pepe in 2014.) Members of the original communities out of which Pepe emerged took umbrage with the meme’s new popularity and—likely out of a desire to troll mainstream internet users—began to associate Pepe with racist themes. Over time, their campaign worked. Pepe was taken up by white supremacists and those on the so-called “alt-right” on Twitter, Reddit, and other social networks. This led directly to Trump Jr.’s sharing of the photo and the subsequent controversy.

The moment was remarkable in that it was, to my knowledge, one of the first instances where the creation and dissemination of internet memes—formerly the province of rather harmless lolcats, advice animals, and photoshops—became a central topic of national political discourse.  Yet despite the growing influence and significance of meme culture, there has been very little philosophical reflection on the topic. This is especially remarkable given that recent philosophy of art has given us powerful tools for theorizing these cultural objects—for thinking about both their nature and their value to the communities that perpetuate them.

Meme Ontology

Let’s begin with a basic question: what is Pepe the Frog? Put more generally, how should we understand the ontology of internet memes like Pepe? (I am going to use the term “meme” in a somewhat narrower sense than it is often used, to refer specifically to adaptable image-based memes like Pepe. Viral videos, hashtags, and reaction GIFs are also plausibly memes, but their ontological structure may differ from image-based memes in important ways that I won’t discuss here.)

We can first distinguish between specific instances of the meme—say, a specific image of Pepe posted to social media—and the meme itself. There is a difference between an individual “rare Pepe” image and the broader phenomenon of sharing images of Pepe online. I don’t think it would make sense to identify the meme with any set of individual shared instances. Instead, we should think of memes as abstract structures of a particular kind: Memes themselves are thematic templates or sets of instructions for generating particular instances—similar to the way a musical score indicates a structure governing the generation of individual performances. (To put it in terms borrowed from the ontology of music: memes are indicated structural types that govern the form and content of particular instances of the meme.) Consider the Advice Dog meme, an image-based meme consisting of a dog giving comically bad advice:

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Advice Dog

The instructions that constitute the meme are rather simple:

  1.      Image of dog at center of rainbow color wheel.
  2.      First line of advice above dog.
  3.      Second line of advice—usually a punchline—below dog.

Users of the meme then iterate this set of instructions, yielding a particular image which can be reproduced and disseminated.

Some memes are ontologically thick: that is, the set of rules strictly governs the form and/or content of what will count as a particular instance of the meme. Advice Dog and other advice animals are thick, in that the rules are fairly strict in specifying the structure and content of the particular instances. However, other memes—like Pepe the Frog—are ontologically thinner: they leave open a great deal of space for interpretation and revision on the part of the user in generating an instance of the meme.

There is one key difference between memes and musical works: the structure of musical works is usually fixed, whereas the structure of a meme is open-ended.  Consider Terry Riley’s In C: the structure of the work, while ontologically thin, is nevertheless fixed by Riley’s original composition. Riley’s score provides correctness conditions for all further attempts to generate instances of the work in performance. Performances that diverge too radically from the structure will simply fail to be instances of the work.

Memes, on the other hand, are the product of collective authorship, and are furthermore open to collective revision over time. Consider how most memes get started: initially, a user “seeds” the meme by posting some image or images online. Other users, in viewing these initial images, abstract a structure which they can continue in much the same way that one can continue a sequence of numbers once one has discerned a pattern in the initial sequence. In the case of Pepe, the meme likely began when a user on 4chan posted an image of Pepe saying “feels good man” as response to a request for justification of their behavior. Other users began using the image in similar ways. It was at this point that the meme emerged as a pattern implicit in the activities of this community of users; competent users familiar with instances of the meme would be able to generate new instances consistent with the practices of the community.

Memes are open-ended in that there is no authoritative source beyond a community’s practice in generating and disseminating instances to fix the structure of the meme. Even in cases where an originator of the meme can be identified, there is little sense of ownership, authority, or responsibility for the meme attached to the originator themselves. This means that there is generally vagueness in what counts as an instance of the meme—as this largely depends on what a community will accept and recognize as such.

Furthermore, memes can evolve when users push the boundaries of the structures established in practice or intentionally deviate from them. Consider Pepe: variants such as smug frog, sad frog, and angry frog quickly emerged. Broadly consistent with the initial practice of posting Pepe’s image as a reaction image, these instances were recognizable as instances of the larger Pepe meme. The community of users began to circulate these new classes of instances; this had the result of expanding and changing the Pepe meme itself, perhaps making way for even more radical diversions from the initial structure of the meme.

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Pepe variations (l to r): Sad Frog, Angry Frog, Smug Frog, Trump Pepe

Beyond a certain point this process of evolution might yield an entirely different meme, with different rules or conventions. It’s a difficult question to determine exactly when this occurs—and one that I don’t have a definite answer to. I suspect that the matter is likely vague and depends on the ontological thickness or thinness of the initial meme. For a meme as thin as Pepe—bound together perhaps only by the presence of the Pepe character—it seems likely both that there is an extraordinary range in what will count as an instance of the meme as well as a set of sub-memes of Pepe associated with more restricted structures and practices. On the other hand, for ontologically thicker memes like viral videos, there will be must stricter conditions for instancing the meme: if one has shared a video different than the original, one has instanced a different meme.

Community and Value

Why spend so much time thinking about the nature of internet memes? Plenty of critics remain unimpressed with the content of most memes, thinking of them—not without justification—as sophomoric and overly simplistic. While this is often true, I think that taking this perspective misses out on the distinctive value of the memetic form.

The real value of internet memes lies in their distinctive ability to generate a community: in creating or disseminating instances of memes, users take on a role in the community responsible for the collective authorship of the meme itself. Through their activity, they indicate that they are part of the group that understands and appreciates the meme; we share memes for the same reason that we tell inside jokes—we desire intimacy with other members of a community. We establish this intimacy by expressing our shared knowledge and common values through the meme-instances that we generate and propagate.

At the same time, in creating and disseminating instances of the meme users play a role in determining the nature of the meme through their activity. By creating new instances of a meme we can have an effect on community practice—and thereby on the structure of the meme itself. If the community accepts our variations on a meme’s structure as legitimate instances of that meme, then we’ve contributed to expanding the meme. On the other hand, we might reinforce the existing structure of the meme by generating and sharing instances consistent with established community practice. Sharing memes therefore provides us with a direct means of contributing to an artistic object that can have a meaningful and lasting cultural impact. (There is, furthermore, a kind of purity to this creative activity: Individual users are generally never credited for creating or disseminating instances of a meme.)

It’s worth underlining the curious and likely circular structure of this arrangement: memes are both a tool for constructing community, and are at the same time constructed and determined by the very community that they help to generate.

It’s notable that this community is a purely logical one; one can enter it simply by understanding and propagating a particular meme. It consists of all of the individual users involved in instancing, replicating, and disseminating the meme. This logical community may or may not overlap with existing real-world communities. Initially, the logical community is generally identical to the actual community in which a meme originates. However, given the speed and ease of replicating and disseminating instances of memes, memes can rapidly extend beyond the boundaries of an initial real-world community in which they originate. Pepe, for example, originated within the community of the image-posting message board 4chan. However, the community of users familiar with and participating in the Pepe meme spread virally, until Pepe became—like the ubiquitous lolcat—a meme familiar to many mainstream internet users.

This may go some way towards explaining the anger of 4channers as well as their attempts to generate instances that due to their offensive content would be largely unpalatable to mainstream users. In doing so, the 4channers’ aim was to reestablish the former boundaries of the abstract community—thereby recapturing a kind of intimacy within their actual community that had been lost once the meme went mainstream.

Saving Pepe

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“Save Pepe” by Jim Tozzi

Where does this leave us with respect to Pepe? Has the meme been lost to the trolls for good? Perhaps not. Recently, Matt Furie—with the help of the Anti-Defamation League—has started a movement to rehabilitate Pepe. The movement has its own hashtag, #savepepe, and its aim is to “share positive images of the frog in an attempt to rehabilitate him and move his image out of the realm of hate speech.”

What’s especially interesting about the movement is that it essentially concedes that Furie himself—the author of Pepe’s source material—has no ultimate authority over the meme that he contributed to creating. Success in shifting the structure of the meme can’t be accomplished through authorial pronouncement; instead, it can only take place practically, by shifting the dominant practice of generating and disseminating instances of the meme. It’s only by re-entering the community and shifting its norms through our own activity that we can have an effect on the structure of the meme itself. Which, as it turns out, is an especially poignant metaphor for those hoping to reclaim other aspects of our culture from the alt-right. A cartoon frog providing lessons for the future of democratic culture—feels good man.


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WHISPERS OF POWER #13

Reminder: The remaining contests will be open for two weeks to allow more time for submissions. Good luck!

This week, the US President faces off against the Russian President. One wonders how current US-Russia relations compare…

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House of Cards, Season 3, Episode 10, 20:19

Title: Opponent

Description: Every hero needs a villain. Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) is the gray, cold, Russian counterpart to Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). The confrontation shown here, with Viktor’s face on the big screen, triggers an instinctive fear and impulse to overcome. In this moment we identify with Frank. The moral line that usually separates us from him evaporates, and we only want to see Viktor fail.

Readers, please help us by supplying a caption for this image! As a reminder, the winning caption will be hand-drawn into the blank space below the image. The reader who supplies the winning caption will receive a signed print and be named an official collaborator for this piece. Submit captions below in the comments!

Contest closes next Saturday at noon (US, EST). Winner announced Sunday. Next piece up in two weeks! Keep tabs on the project and contest at the project website here, review the details of it at the previous post here, or see previous posts in this series here.