AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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100 PHILOSOPHERS 100 ARTWORKS 100 WORDS #66

Philosopher: Aaron Meskin, University of Leeds

Artwork: Oishinbo (1983-2014). Japanese manga series written by Tetsu Kariya and drawn by Akira Hanasaki. Seven thematically-organized anthologies published in English by Viz Media as Oishinbo: A la Carte.

Words: What does the aesthetic appreciation of food consist in? How do various values interact in the domain of food? How can food sustain cultural identity? Some of the most interesting explorations of these issues I know of are found in this gurume (gourmet) manga. The comic is structured around father-son conflict and a long-running menu competition. It is insightful and funny, sentimental and wise. As the artist and gourmet Kaibara Yūzan says in the first volume, ‘The most important thing in raising food to the level of an art form is to touch the hearts of those who eat it.’


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EMERGENT POETRY AND GOOGLE TRANSLATE

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Google Translate’s Emergent Poetry

Some of you will be familiar with computer poetry, poetic compositions generated by computers using algorithms. Some of you may even be familiar with computer prose, as the book The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed (text here). There are lots of things to say about this. Who’s the author? Is it really poetry? And what does it say if computer poetry passes the Turing test?

Last week, I stumbled upon something new in this neighborhood, care of Google Translate. You might think this would be generated by inputting something funny (but promising if you think about it) like assembly instructions or political speeches–or even something translated into a different language, then translated back. Instead, this Google Translate poetry takes as input a single, repeated Japanese hiragana character. As you can see above, the returns are surreal and delightful. (For all of these, I’ve used ‘ke’, け.)

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See here and here for more examples.

For a little background, hiragana is a syllabary, so it’s not like Chinese characters where, roughly speaking, each character is a word, and these are subsequently built up into other words. An individual hiragana character can be a word, but this is also true in English with ‘a’ and ‘i’. And, like English, the meaning of the characters are not somehow built into the meaning of any word containing them. (The meaning of ‘a’ is not built into the meaning of all words that contain that letter.)

This fact about hiragana makes the results all the more interesting. In fact, you don’t need to limit yourself to hiragana to get these outputs. At his blog Riddled, Smut Clyde uses all sorts of different repeated syllables and repeated letters to generate such poetry.

You can also get different results by switching up spacing, returns, hyphens, and so on. Here’s an example using spaces.

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The Philosophy

Philosophically speaking, it’s a little different from traditional computer-generated poetry, which often takes a mass of text as an input in order to generate something new and sometimes in a similar style. Here, the program (Google Translate) is not intended to really generate anything. It’s meant to convert some existing meanings into roughly synonymous existing meanings. (It would actually be contrary to the goal if new meanings were created.) But what we see in the above examples is meaning that just sort of emerges out of language goo. It’s as if we’d shaken a tree and its twigs and leaves fell into a meaningful pattern, or if we discovered a poem floating on the top of a bowl of Alpha-Bits cereal. We might end up shaking a lot of trees to find something good, but there is a sense in which we didn’t create the thing that comes out.

I don’t have any position on this stuff. Maybe it’s a collaborative, co-authored work. Maybe we who dub the final thing ‘poetry’ are the real authors. Or maybe it’s just not poetry at all. Maybe there’s nothing philosophically controversial here. But even that would be kind of surprising, I think. In any case it’s a fun example to think about. And so much fun to play around with, too.

I’ll say one thing, after having messed around with it a little bit: As the one who enters the characters, you have some control over what comes out. You can exercise this control to varying degrees, being more hands-on (inserting spaces and punctuation, cutting and pasting, determining which lines are more or less interesting/poetic/provocative) or more hands-off (entering virtually random-length strings punctuated by occasional line returns). The more hands-on it gets, the more it feels like a collaboration, as you get inspired by what excellent random things pop out (“Welcome to the place where you can sit down with your birthday daughter”??). The more hands-off it gets, the more it feels like you’re just stumbling upon some surprisingly meaningful twigs.

Here’s a final challenge (or concession?), in the form of a one-line poem, very poetically using ‘i’ (い):

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– Alex

(via Language Log)


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100 PHILOSOPHERS 100 ARTWORKS 100 WORDS #65

Philosopher: Erin Beeghly, University of Utah

Artwork: Las Hermanas Iglesias, Nude Suits, 2011 – present.  Salvaged acrylic/wool yarn, pre-purposed zippers and buttons, digital prints. In collaboration with the artists’ mother—Bohild Iglesias— who hand knit the nude suits, complete with armpit and pubic hair. The artists—Lisa and Janelle Iglesias—have added embroidered details including birthmarks, scars, and tattoos.

(This project is documented in an on-going series of photographs in different landscapes. The first installment in the series (selected photos included below) was made while on a residency in Tasmania in 2011. Here is an interview with the artists about their work.)

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Words: When I met the Iglesias sisters, they told me: “our mother irons her bed sheets.” It struck me as old-fashioned, charming. As Nude Suits attests, their mother also knits anatomically correct bodysuits for performance art. Look at these photos, and one sees only the daughters. They exude wit; they are off on adventures. Where is their mother? I imagine her creating those second skins—an armor that renders her daughters invincible yet vulnerable. Absent though present, she is complicit in these absurd Eden-esque visions, complicit too in making her daughters’ bodies the site of joyous feminist resistance.


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A BRIEF HISTORY OF BEAUTY

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“Beauty has become a taboo topic among many practitioners of art and design,” writes Michael Spicher (Boston University) in an article for Architecture Boston. “Yet it’s clear we still need beauty in our lives. … People may disagree about which objects are beautiful (or their degree of beauty), but no one seems to disagree that beautiful, pleasurable things exist. We should strive for beauty, so that we may create or experience it.”

Spicher traces the history of thinking about beauty in the West, from its more objective beginnings in Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, to its current status as subjective (at best). Pop on over for a primer!

Image credit: Met Museum, detail from “Maria Louisa of Parma” by Laurent Pécheux (1765)


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ART RULES: CONFERENCE RECAP, DAY 2

Mary-Beth Willard (Weber State) offers pseudo-live-blogging/recap/latergram of
the Art Rules Conference, Day 2

I’ve found (n = a few) that aesthetics conferences have some of the best philosophical audiences and discussions. I am not sure why this has been the case – the small size of the subfield? The somewhat more interdisciplinary nature of aesthetics? Whatever the reason, the participants at Art Rules were no exception. Discussion has been great.
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ART RULES: CONFERENCE RECAP, DAY 1

Mary-Beth Willard (Weber State) offers pseudo-live-blogging/recap/latergram of
the Art Rules Conference, Day 1

Most people know Salt Lake City as “weren’t the Olympics there in 2002?” and some people after mine own heart know it as “Isn’t that the city where Scully was going to be banished in the first X-Files movie?”, but what they don’t know is that the art community in Salt Lake is so generous that the Art Rules: Aesthetic Reasons, Norms, and Standards (May 19-20) conference was held inside of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art for free.

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An aesthetics conference in an art museum! No one tell them this isn’t a thing.
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INDIAN AESTHETICS: RASA THEORY

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There is a familiar puzzle in philosophy of art: How do fictions provoke real feelings in us?

This raises other questions: Are those real feelings? Do we feel real fear, or some fear-like thing when we watch a scary movie? How do actors or written words get us to feel those things, whatever they are?

Over at the podcast The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Peter Adamson (LMU Munich, King’s College London) talks about the rasa tradition that starts with Bharata’s Nāṭya-Śāstra (Treatise on Drama) and its distinctive approach to answering these questions. The text dates back to 200 BCE – 200 CE, so it’s roughly as old as Aristotle’s Poetics.

What is rasa? An aesthetic response elicited by the drama. It’s not the emotion itself, but it derives from the emotion.

There are eight kinds of rasa, corresponding to eight basic emotional dispositions:

  • the erotic
  • the comic
  • the pathetic
  • the furious
  • the heroic
  • the terrible
  • the odious
  • the marvelous
  • (and perhaps a ninth: tranquility)

There is lots of interesting stuff here. Rasa theory not only tries to present an adequate answer to the puzzle above, but has implications for lots of different issues across philosophy of art – including theories of acting and theater, the audience and taste, and the aim of art. It also has implications for fictionalism, theories of emotion, mind and representation, and language and metaphor.

Rasa can even help us understand ourselves and our place in the world:

“This enjoyment of rasa is like this bliss that comes from realizing one’s identity with the highest Brahman, for it consists of repose in the bliss which is the true nature of one’s own self.” – Abhinavagupta

It’s only 20 minutes long — go have a listen!

Image: Detail from Shiva and Parvati Playing Chaupar: Folio from a Rasamanjari Series, by Devidasa of Nurpur (Met Collection)


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PSYCH STUDY PROVES KANT RIGHT (AND WRONG) ABOUT BEAUTY

There’s a discussion over at Daily Nous about a psychology study in which the authors:

confirm Kant’s claim that only the pleasure associated with feeling beauty requires thought and disprove his claim that sensuous pleasures cannot be beautiful.

So, they try to prove Kant right about beauty involving cognitive functions, but prove him wrong about sensuous pleasures. They also found in general that beautiful things yielded higher pleasure than purely sensual stimuli.

Pleasure amplitude increases linearly with the feeling of beauty.

(Well, it still reads better than Kant.)

So here’s the basic methodology.

Neither wishing to encumber our participants with philosophical baggage nor wishing to spoil the test by revealing our hypothesis, we left “beauty” undefined and simply asked the participant at the end of each trial: “During this trial, did you get the feeling of beauty from the object?” We used various stimuli: seeing a plain or beautiful image, sucking a candy, or a touching a teddy bear.

Some of the interesting results:

Roughly one-third of participants “definitely” experienced beauty from non-visual stimuli in trials without added task [designed to deplete executive functions], i.e., from sucking a candy or touching a teddy bear.

Turns out, sucking on a Jolly Rancher can be beautiful. They discuss these results in the section “The Beauty of Sucking Candy: Kant Disproved”. (I just wanted to call attention to that delightful section header.)

Reports of beauty for IKEA furniture were very rare.

😥

The final words of the study:

We thus demonstrate that psychological experiments can test philosophical theories and that mathematical models can describe aesthetic experiences.

If only Kant had been the type to enjoy a good hard candy now and then, or squeeze a teddy bear.

In all seriousness, though, what do you think? For most people working in art and aesthetics, it isn’t surprising that sensuous experiences can be beautiful. Lots of people work on this stuff now and lots of artists are exploring non-standard media and sense modalities.

But should we believe it to be true on the basis of this sort of research? What should we think about empirical aesthetics and neuroaesthetics? Does it trivialize the richness of aesthetic experience? Does it poorly operationalize our concepts? Or does it liberate us from our ivory tower? (If you’re curious about others’ thoughts, pop over to the discussion at Daily Nous.)


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AARON MESKIN REMEMBERS PETER KIVY


Peter Kivy, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University and an incredibly influential contemporary philosopher of art, passed away last week. See other announcements here, along with a statement from the Rutgers Philosophy Department. What follows is a guest post by Aaron Meskin, a former student of Peter Kivy’s.

Please feel free to share any stories, comments, or reflections below.

Differences: Remembering Peter Kivy

I met Peter in the early 1990s when I started my PhD at Rutgers. I didn’t really know about philosophical aesthetics before I moved to New Brunswick, and I certainly didn’t see it as a live career option. Peter’s seminars, and those wonderful aesthetics reading groups in the basement of Davidson Hall, introduced me to a field that would come to be the focus of my intellectual life. (Peter’s tutorial-style method of teaching, which required us to regularly read out short writing assignments, was incredibly helpful. He told us that when we were in the profession we would occasionally find that we had to produce a decent piece of writing at very short notice and that his class would be good practice. He was right, and it was.)  If it hadn’t been for Peter’s generosity, and the example he provided, I would have likely left the profession after an ill-fated attempt to work in another area. He was always supportive.

There were some limitations to our academic relationship, of course. I remember sometime during my time at Rutgers seeing an advertisement for a conference focused on faculty/student collaboration. Jokingly, I asked Peter whether we might collaborate. He was not keen. “I’ve never collaborated with anyone on anything up until this point, and I’m not going to start now.” Strictly speaking that wasn’t true. His first published article, “Stimulus Context and Satiation,” in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, was co-authored with two others. But that was published while Peter was still an undergraduate at Michigan. And as far as I know he never again co-authored a paper in 60 years. I suppose the world is not really worse for lacking a paper on absolute music and wordless comics.

“Peter was loyal to his students,
and he inspired loyalty in us.”

In any case, our relationship continued after I defended my PhD. Peter was loyal to his students, and he inspired loyalty in us. We met pretty regularly—he’d come and give another great talk in Lubbock or Leeds, or we’d see each other at an ASA meeting where he regularly arranged dinners with his former students. Or we’d get together, with his wife Joan of course, in New York or Santa Fe or London. He always had new work and a bit of advice.

I know that it’s tempting to focus on Peter’s contribution to the philosophy of music. His research shaped the field. (I found Music Alone especially memorable, but I know that Peter was particularly proud of his book on opera, Osmin’s Rage.)  His scholarly work on the history of aesthetics was also groundbreaking. Where would our understanding of the development of aesthetics be without The Seventh Sense and the rest of Peter’s work on Hutcheson, Hume, Reid and others? Not very far along, I venture. And his recent publications in the philosophy of literature have reinvigorated debates about literature’s cognitive value, reading, and form/content unity. I love teaching that work—and the responses to it—in my philosophy of literature courses. If you haven’t taught Peter’s work, I strongly recommend doing so. The clarity of his arguments and his lucid style make it ideal for introductory classes in aesthetics.

But it was Peter’s emphasis on the importance of paying philosophical attention to the differences between various art forms, as he discussed in his 50th Anniversary Presidential Address to the American Society of Aesthetics, and his 1997 CUP monograph, Philosophies of Arts, that made the biggest impact on me. As he put it in his address:

But I do urge, and indeed predict that progress in the philosophy of art in the immediate future is to be made not by theorizing in the grand manner, but by careful and imaginative philosophical scrutiny of the individual arts and their individual problems, seen as somewhat unique, individual problems and not necessarily as instances of common problems of some monolithic thing called “ART.”

Of course this sort of approach was just how Peter had worked throughout his career. He did do some work that might be characterized as ‘theorizing in the grand manner’, especially early on in his career. His first monograph was about aesthetic concepts, and there are two great articles on aesthetic emotivism. There is the award-winning 2015 monograph, De Gustibus: Arguing about Taste and Why We Do It? But most of his non-historical work involved careful and imaginative scrutiny of the individual arts of music and literature and the distinctive problems they raise. And he made a hell of a lot of progress over the course of a couple dozen books and many dozen articles. The work was original and, for many of us, exemplary.

“The work was original
and, for many of us, exemplary.”

I think Peter’s prediction has largely been proven to be correct. Significant progress in the philosophy of art has in recent years been made by careful scrutiny of the individual problems raised by film, poetry, dance, music, street art, comics, and videogames (among other things). Yes, even comics and videogames. Peter didn’t entirely approve, but he didn’t entirely disapprove either.

In fact, I’d go a bit further than Peter.  The differences between the arts are not the only differences to which philosophical aesthetics should attend. Thankfully, we are beginning to attend to those differences. But, of course, Peter did not think that philosophers of art should only pursue differences. He warns, in the epilogue to Philosophies of Arts, that it would be a serious mistake if the pursuit of differences ‘should become the monolith that the pursuit of sameness has been since the Enlightenment’. He’s right, and thankfully it hasn’t.  Work on sameness—most notably the definition of art—has been reinvigorated over the last few years.

We were very different. The oboe is not really my thing, and I don’t care so much for Manhattans. I prefer rap music to the western classical tradition. (Thankfully, he never heard me say that.)  I’ll probably never be able to tell a joke like him, and I’m certain that I’ll never write that many great books. Who will? But despite our differences, there were important areas of sameness. We shared a love of the philosophy of art, of the community of philosophical aesthetics and of the arts. I’ll miss being able to talk about those things with him. I’ll miss finding out about his new work.  I’ll miss his advice and his sense of humor. I’ll miss him.

Note on the contributor:

Aaron Meskin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Leeds. He works on many issues in aesthetics, including experimental aesthetics, food, comics, as well as on the psychology and epistemology of aesthetics.


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PEPE IS DEAD! LONG LIVE PEPE? (BY ANTHONY CROSS)

What follows is a guest post by Anthony Cross, following new developments in the Pepe meme story: Pepe’s death!

Faithful readers of AFB will be familiar with the saga of the internet meme Pepe the Frog. (For those of you who missed it, my guest post on Pepe and the nature and value of internet memes is here.) The latest update: Pepe’s death! But first, a bit of background:

The meme started with a character created in a comic strip by the artist Matt Furie; the cartoon frog was then appropriated by users in online communities, where it developed over time into an enormously rich internet meme. In the last year or two, the meme has come to be associated with the alt-right and white supremacy; last fall, the Anti-Defamation League added it to their catalog of hate speech.

Until pretty recently, Furie had largely stayed out of making public pronouncements about Pepe’s racist associations. In a September 2016 interview, he told The Atlantic:

My feelings are pretty neutral, this isn’t the first time that Pepe has been used in a negative, weird context. I think it’s just a reflection of the world at large. The internet is basically encompassing some kind of mass consciousness, and Pepe, with his face, he’s got these large, expressive eyes with puffy eyelids and big rounded lips, I just think that people reinvent him in all these different ways, it’s kind of a blank slate. It’s just out of my control, what people are doing with it, and my thoughts on it, are more of amusement.

However, as the meme began drawing greater public attention, Furie decided to get involved. He began a “Save Pepe” campaign, the goal of which was to create and share “nice” images of Pepe. I suggested that Furie’s move implicitly recognized his lack of control over the meme. The only way to save Pepe, I argued, was not through authorial pronouncement, but rather practically; users would have to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the business of making and sharing Pepes.  By creating and propagating nice Pepes, they could gradually shift the standards of what counts as a Pepe, and move the meme’s meaning away from its current association with the alt-right.

So how successful was this campaign? Not very. Pepe remains the symbol of the alt-right, and the effort to save Pepe never really caught on. It’s hard to know exactly why. Perhaps it wasn’t well-publicized. Alternatively, the top-down nature of the campaign might have rubbed users the wrong way.

Regardless of its cause, this failure frustrated Furie. As a result, the artist recently “killed” Pepe; he released a comic strip featuring Pepe, dead in a casket, surrounded by his friends:

What should we make of this? Furie’s killing of Pepe doesn’t mean much for the future of the meme itself. As I argued previously, Furie doesn’t own the meme or have authorial control over it — even if he is responsible for the cartoon character who initiated it. The meme itself is a set of norms implicit in community practice, and the meme is therefore the property of the community responsible for its instances.

I think that, instead, we should view Furie’s act as expressive of his giving up on the meme; he is symbolically removing himself from the community of individuals creating and propagating instances of the meme. Pepe isn’t truly dead as a meme — but the meme is, for now, dead to Furie.

Furie’s action raises larger questions about the value of participation in particular internet memes: When is it worth it to stick with a meme and to try to save it from trolls who’ve taken it over? With most memes, the natural response would be to give up and shift one’s attention to new memes; generally, memes are evanescent things, with a half-life of weeks if not days. Pepe strikes me as different: given Pepe’s rich history and broad impact, it might seem worth fighting to reclaim the meme as part of our internet culture. (I suspect that similar questions arise in determining which artworks and cultural objects to preserve or restore against the ravages of time.)

Furie seems to recognize this, and even goes so far as to claim that the fight for Pepe may not be over for him. In a recent interview with the CBC, Furie pleaded for Pepe’s future and held out the possibility of his returning to the meme:

If you’re listening to this and you’re interested in the story — and especially if you have some kind of political sway or anything like that — like, step in and, you now, just tell your friends, neighbours, teachers, whoever else that Pepe is a chill, loving frog. Every moment is an opportunity to change people’s opinion, so I’m not gonna give up yet, but I’m gonna take a break, because it is some heavy stuff.

Notes on the contributor:

Anthony Cross 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.