AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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IS ALEX JONES REALLY A PERFORMANCE ARTIST? WHO CARES.

Performance art has always inhabited an ambiguous space between everyday behavior and marked-off ‘art’ behavior.

And now ultra-conservative Infowars’ Alex Jones says that his vitriolic on-air personality is performance art. He refers to a recent incident as “clearly tongue-in-cheek and basically art performance, as I do in my rants, which I admit I do, as a form of art.”

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screenshot from this video on Jones’ YouTube channel

Now everyone is talking about whether or not he’s a performance artist.

My first reaction is: Hell no. Performance art does not justify fake news or the awful stuff he says. (And really, “clearly tongue-in-cheek”? Is that the conspiracy theory stuff that’s tongue-in-cheek? Or is that the threat-laden, insult-ridden veneer that’s tongue-in-cheek? In either case it seems doubtful, given the clearly not tongue-in-cheek followers he’s amassed.)

But that’s actually not the direction of this inquiry. He’s engaged in a custody battle. He’s claiming that his aggressive Infowars persona doesn’t make him an unfit to parent his children.

So, wait, why does it matter if it’s performance art or not?

Attorney Randall Wilhite told state District Judge Orlinda Naranjo that using his client Alex Jones’ on-air Infowars persona to evaluate Alex Jones as a father would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in “Batman.” (link)

As far as I can tell the argument goes like this: If it’s performance art, then it’s all a show and deep down he doesn’t actually harbor these violent tendencies, so probably he doesn’t treat his kids the way he treats people on his show and stuff. But if it isn’t performance art, then he is awful and probably does threaten to break his kids’ necks and whatever.

Let’s all take a deep breath and do a little philosophy here.

Thesis: It doesn’t matter if it’s performance art.

Suppose it is performance art. That still doesn’t answer any of the questions one cares about. Maybe Marina Abramovic does stare in uncomfortable silence at people sitting across the table from her, even when she’s not in museums! So it’s still an open question whether, even if performance art, his behavior is any evidence of his personality outside his “art”.

But we can also raise the same questions even if the job in question isn’t some sort of performance art. Compare:

  • Someone who works at a slaughterhouse. Should we be concerned that they go home and slaughter their pets?
  • Someone who works as a social worker or therapist. Should we think they go home and constantly listen to their partner’s or children’s problems?

Does working at a slaughterhouse/being a therapist make these respective behaviors more likely? Maybe; maybe not. (I’m going to say not, at least in the former case…)

The point is: We don’t have to talk about performance art at all to think through those questions.

Is Jones’ Infowars persona evidence that he is a bad parent? This is where the real debate should be. And invoking performance art will simply not resolve that debate either way.

Conclusion: Maybe he is awful to his kids; maybe he isn’t. But the issue of performance art is neither here nor there, and is a ludicrous defense. But then again I’m no lawyer, just a philosopher. And maybe a performance artist, although I doubt it.

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GUEST POST: MARY-BETH WILLARD REVISITS FEARLESS GIRL STATUE

Mary-Beth Willard is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Weber State University. She works in metaphysics and aesthetics, and writes about street art, including an objectively absurd amount of time spent on the story of this little statue.

When I last wrote about Fearless Girl, I observed that the meaning of the little Bull-challenging statue will lie in its interaction with the public, who for the moment has claimed it as an icon of feminism, capturing the vivacity of little girls at that tender age where they still dare to dream.

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Fearless Girl reportedly now has a permit through 2018, and this has angered none other than the creator of Charging Bull, Arturo di Modica, who has asked for Fearless Girl to be relocated, because it’s making his Bull into a villain.

Here’s a quick version of an argument on behalf of di Modica. Fearless Girl might have been intended by the artist and firm who commissioned her (It? She. Has to be “she.”) as a stunt aimed at promoting the hiring and retention of women in the financial industry, but that’s not how people reacted. She opposes the bull – she’s not riding it, after all – and the public has decided that they’re on her side. If she represents the power of girls, then the bull is now a beast that tramples them.  This substantially changes the meaning of Charging Bull, and the artist, who supports gender equality, does not want that. Given that both pieces are works of public art, he cannot simply declare that Charging Bull is not anti-feminist, because his declaration will mean nothing to the swarms of visitors who see the tableau. Thus, to preserve the meaning of Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl must stand down.

The ethos of street art, according to one influential account, commits artists implicitly to accept its ephemerality; once in the street, the artist should expect to have no say over what happens to it, because historically many works of street art were illicit, and would be removed.  The relevant contrast is supposed to be with sanctioned public art, which by way of having sought official approval, is historically afforded a degree of civic protection. Charging Bull has permission, and in the past has been protected from the threat of physical damage by civic authorities, so one question raised by this case is whether the implicit expectation of civic protection extends to the meaning of the work.

There’s also an ethical discussion occurring between the artworks, which arguably affects how we should view di Modica’s request. Curiously, both Charging Bull and Fearless Girl were presented as if they were street art: installed at night, under the cover of darkness. Charging Bull was even hauled off by the authorities before being rehomed two blocks south; there’s a case for it to be properly considered as street art that owes its permanence to its unexpected welcome reception. (Fearless Girl, the result of an ad campaign, had a permit.) In both cases, the intended meaning of the works were overwritten by the reaction of the public. The street decided that Charging Bull was a symbol of the financial district, and that Fearless Girl symbolized everything opposed to it.

In asking for the city to remove Fearless Girl, however, di Modica is saying that in this case, the street does not get to decide the meaning of his artwork. But can he succeed?  There is a limit to what an artist’s intention can establish – there’s no way to preserve Charging Bull as long as Fearless Girl stares it down. He might sue.

(So far, the mayor is telling di Modica to pound salt.)

But if Fearless Girl is so threatening that she must be removed, might she already have won the battle over the meaning of Charging Bull? Imagine the stories: The Charging Bull is so thoroughly identified with capitalism that the power of the state is called in to save it from a tiny ponytailed girl. We were here first, little lady. It was fine when we did it. Don’t you go trying to change the way things are done around here. Don’t take up space.

Will the bull become a bully?


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THE METAPHYSICS AND LINGUISTICS OF EMOJI

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screenshot from the comic “Want A New Emoji?” by Andy Warner

Some Philosophical Questions about Emoji

First, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. “Emoji(s)” are things like this: [😀🤔], not emoticons like : ) or (T_T) or ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ or ㅇㅅㅇ. (Note: in this post, emoji will be flagged by square brackets so that if you can’t see them, you’ll at least know roughly what you’re missing.)

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Thank you, Wikipedia

A Brief History of Emoji:

  • introduced in 1995 by Japanese telecom company Docomo
  • first emoji: ❤
  • then, another 175 followed
  • 2011: Apple introduced them…
  • soon after, everyone else did too

See the awesome comic “Want a New Emoji?” by Andy Warner and this Vice video for more.

Now, some philosophical questions about emoji and my unsupported hot take on the answers.

Metaphysics

Are the different Apple-Google-Samsung emoji different emoji instances or genuinely different emoji? What is an emoji?

I guess the different emoji in the first image are probably just instances of one emoji, since emoji are individuated by their Unicode numbers and coarse-grained descriptions (like “Smiling Cat Face with Heart-Shaped Eyes” or [😻]). But then, the emoji isn’t itself just the number or just the description. Emoji are pictographs and Unicode numbers are not pictographs, nor are descriptions. So emoji need a particular pictographic manifestation.

Maybe it’s a type-token relationship or a determinable-determinate relationship. I bet it’s like whatever we call the relationship between a piece of music and its score. … Maybe. I have no idea; I don’t really do metaphysics.

Whatever we say, this seems pretty important:

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from “Investigating the Potential for Miscommunication Using Emoji“, a computer science and engineering study by Hannah Miller

Also, is : – ) the same as : ) ? Are these the same as (^_^)? And are these the same as ☺ and [😊]?

Yes, no, no. Or maybe: yes, yes, yes. But definitely not: no, yes, yes.

Language

Do emoji have semantic content? Can a string of (only) emoji be propositional? Are emoji words? Do they constitute a bona fide language?

Yep, I’m going to say they definitely have semantic content, although they are also used as a kind of prosody (e.g., to indicate sarcasm or other emotional punctuation). And sure, a string can be propositional. Here are two easy one-emoji string examples: [👍] or [🤝] = Sounds good, Okay, Deal. That said, it’s probably underdetermined in most cases, and most strings are, like all emoji, going to be highly subject to context, as well as idiolect or dialect variation.

Emoji can function as nouns (I want [🍕]) or verbs (I [❤] you) or interjections ([😲])… etc. Are they words? Well, I don’t know really what a word is, but Oxford Dictionaries* seems to think so, so let’s say yes.

The poverty of dedicated – or even roughly standardized syntax (e.g., I bet word order emoji order varies between SVO and SOV languages) is going to make calling it a language – at least a standalone one – pretty difficult, though. And can a system be a language if it has to be parasitic on another, standalone language? I would have thought no, but I don’t know. Maybe this is a counterexample?

*[😂], “Face with Tears of Joy”, was named Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2015.

Now what?

Philosophers: really, NO results??

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We need to get on this. I guess that, for now, I will have to content myself with Language Log archives and other random amusing things online. [😂😂😂]

– Alex


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ARTISTIC REPRESENTATIONS OF PHILOSOPHICAL THOUGHT

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There’s a post over at the general interest philosophy blog Daily Nous that might be of interest to our readers. Susanna Berger, assistant professor of art history at the University of Southern California, has posted an excerpt adapted from her book, The Art of Philosophy: Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment (Princeton University Press, 2017).

From Berger:

I show how their inventive iconography inspired new visualizations of thought in a range of drawn and printed sources, including student lecture notebooks, printed books, and alba amicorum (friendship albums). The book culminates with a new study of the celebrated frontispiece to Hobbes’s Leviathan. I argue that previous accounts of the print have failed to capture the full complexity of this etching and offer a new, if complex, account of this famous image—one which emphasizes the process of the state’s generation. Artists and philosophers invested significant amounts of time and money in the creation of philosophical visual representations and we must take these contributions to their thought seriously if we wish to understand their ideas in all their complexity and richness.

Check it out!

Image credit: 15th c. Italian engraving “Geometria XXIIII” from MET Collection


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VAPORWAVE AND MUSIC THEORY

Are music recordings their own type of musical instrument?

How does timbre (vs. pitch, harmony, etc.) affect musical experience?

What, really, is the point of music theory?

And is vaporwave really dead? (Do you, Dear Reader, not yet know what vaporwave is – or was?)

All these questions and more are addressed in this excellent video (from 2016 that I just discovered…) by YouTuber and musician Adam Neely.

 


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GUEST POST: MARY-BETH WILLARD ON “FEARLESS GIRL” STATUE

Mary-Beth Willard is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Weber State University. She works in metaphysics, aesthetics, and early modern philosophy, and has particular interests in street art.

On a cold December night in 1989, artist Arturo di Modica installed Charging Bull, a three-and-a-half ton bronze bull, in New York’s Financial District. Di Modica had no official permission to install the statue, which he said symbolized the “strength and power of the American people” following the disastrous 1987 stock market crash.

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These days Charging Bull is a well-beloved tourist attraction, so you probably don’t remember, if you ever knew, that the immediate reaction to this guerilla Christmas gift was mixed. Crowds loved it, but the police were called by the securities exchanges, who then hired a contractor to remove the bull. Five days later, the city announced that it would have a temporary home two-and-a-half blocks south on Bowling Green, where it stands today.

Charging Bull is a work of public art, so while the artist may have intended it as a testament to the strength of the American people, its meaning is created in part by its interaction with the surrounding public space, and it has become identified with New York and the very securities exchanges that called for its removal in 1989. It is an icon of capitalism, as recognizable as the Statue of Liberty. Tourists travel to see it and pose with it. Rubbing various parts of the statue are thought to bring good luck; this tourist is not an anomaly.

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The bull’s identification with capitalism and Wall Street is so complete that during the Occupy Wall Street protests, the city erected barricades around it, fearing that it would be damaged by anti-capitalist protestors. It still has only a temporary permit, but the bull isn’t going anywhere.

And as of last week, the bull has a tiny adversary:

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Fearless Girl, by artist Kristen Visbal, faces down the bull, her dress and hair windswept as if by the breath of the beast, her chin raised in defiance. Fearless Girl is already a sensation, taken a symbol of the strength of women, and clearly opposed to the capitalistic forces the bull symbolizes. She gets humped by a (presumed) finance bro, who is met with viral outrage. Here she wears a pink knitted pussyhat, a symbol of the recent Women’s March; the fearless girl is being claimed by the left. She resists. She surely persists.

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But wait. The plaque at her feet reads “Know the power of women in leadership.  She makes a difference.” Launched ahead of International Women’s Day, it’s a well-timed piece of corporate art, sponsored by State Street Global Advisors, an investment group promoting the leadership of women in finanical institutions. They have a permit for one week, already extended to thirty days.

The girl is an ad. You might as well be moved by a commercial for Folgers.

If you’re like many people who initially saw the statue, you might feel as if your reaction is cheapened by the knowledge that it’s corporate art. You were played by a latter-day Don Draper. For how can the statue embody the nebulous anti-Wall Street spirit of the times if it’s been planted there by the very corporate and financial interests she appears to be fighting?

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Yet perhaps that’s too quick. Her story isn’t finished. Suppose the installation is removed after a week, purchased by a collector, and placed in a museum. You’ll read about her creation on the small placard in the cool white gallery. Fearless Girl (2017) is a curiosity, a brief triumph of exceedingly clever marketing in an Instagrammed age where the best publicity is viral astroturf.

But for now, she remains public art, and the street is her gallery. The passersby are the docents and patrons, and they will decide what she ultimately means. Suppose she stands in the park for years, so that her placement in the park was a corporate stunt fades from memory. We don’t remember that Wall Street hated the bull at first, that they towed it away. It’s hard to remember when it wasn’t there.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors snap photos of their daughters next to her, arms akimbo; they give her hats and scarves; they take selfies; they link their arms with hers. They face down the bull with her. Tourists ruffle her hair for good luck and her crown shines gold.

She’s always been there in New York, hasn’t she?


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JERRY SALTZ: BAD ART CANNOT BECOME GOOD IN NEW CONTEXTS

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photo of Longo’s sculpture on Whitney’s Tumblr account

Another entry in philosophy-meets-the-artworld:
Famous art critic Jerry Saltz weighs in on Vulture about Robert Longo’s All You Zombies: Truth Before God, which was recently installed at the Whitney.

Saltz writes of ‘badness’ as a “metaphysical constant”:

Can older bad art be made good by changing political times? The short answer, I think, is “No.” Really bad art may be a metaphysical constant, and in the case of rediscovered, long overlooked masterpieces I tend to believe the work was always good and we just weren’t capable of seeing it yet.

But says that, really, it might not be that important:

But when thinking about how times change works of art, we probably need to get away from using words like good and bad. Let’s focus instead on values that make art useful: surprise, energy, redefinitions of skill, a willingness to fail flamboyantly, originality in pursuit of different ideas of beauty, ugliness, urgency, the shedding of biography, or 1,000 other things. Look through these lenses and older art will often look very different in newer times. Any image of black face or lynching reverberates horribly today, as it should.

So what exactly does Saltz think of Longo’s sculpture? Check out the full article at Vulture.


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WHISPERS OF POWER #15 WINNER

Congratulations this week to Jennifer for her Rainer Maria Rilke quote!

“Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
[German: ” Vielleicht ist alles Schreckliche im tiefsten Grunde das Hilflose, das von uns Hilfe will.”]
– Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

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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.

Thanks again to all who contributed to make this a great series! We’ve had a lot of fun putting it out, and it’s been interesting to think through during this especially tumultuous political time. We will have a concluding post recapping our thoughts on the series, so stay tuned. You’re not quite rid of us yet. 😉

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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JAAC x AFB DISCUSSIONS #3: TAVINOR ON VIDEO GAMES

Welcome to the third AFB x JAAC Discussion!

Today, we will be looking at “What’s My Motivation? Video Games and Interpretive Performance” 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 (Utah Valley University) for providing the critical précis. Grant’s response follows that, and they will both be available to discuss your questions and thoughts in the comments! Check it all out below the fold.

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*THIS THURSDAY* JAAC x AFB DISCUSSION: TAVINOR ON VIDEO GAMES

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Just another reminder that the next JAAC x AFB Discussion will be appearing this 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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