AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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AGAINST ROTTEN TOMATOES

Rotten Tomatoes was in the news this summer, as reports were made that the teams behind the Baywatch reboot and most recent Pirates of the Caribbean installment blame the critical aggregator for the films’ poor performance at the box office.  Both films had tested well, and the studios believe that audiences skipping the films in light of their poor Rotten Tomatoes scores otherwise would have attended and enjoyed them.  There is some evidence that the impact of Rotten Tomeatoes on box office earnings has in fact been minimal, but it’s hard to deny that the website has seen an increase in influence in recent years.  There’s no longer any need to actively search for RT scores.  If one simply Googles the title of the movie one is hoping to see, the RT score has pride of place at the top of the search results, along with the IMDB user score.  When one logs onto the Fandango website or app to buy movie tickets, the scores are already listed along with the showtimes (Fandango owns Rotten Tomatoes).  The same is true for Flixster, also owned by Fandango, and the home streaming app VUDU.  There are smartphone apps available that let users quickly consult RT scores for a movie recommendation or even cross-reference the movies that are available on Netflix streaming with their RT scores.  Rotten Tomatoes scores are now inscribed all over the technological landscape that mediates our access to film.  It is very hard to avoid becoming aware of a movie’s RT score before seeing it.

One reasonable reaction is, “Well, good!  The blockbuster used to be a beautiful thing, but now it’s all lazy, uninspired sequels and reboots.   It’s a good thing that Rotten Tomatoes has created a mechanism that helps us avoid bad movies.  Perhaps studios will up their game if they become convinced that that they can’t get away with this crap anymore.”

I think this reaction is short-sighted, and the growing influence of the Tomatometer is mostly a bad thing. There are many reasons, but the one I want to focus on is this: the aggregator doesn’t just punish bad movies, it also punishes bold and distinct movies. How would 2001: A Space Odyssey have fared if Rotten Tomatoes existed in 1968? Not well. Continue reading


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PHILOSOPHICAL FICTION

Frances Howard-Snyder (Western Washington University) answers a few short questions about her philosophical fiction posed by Skye Cleary (City College New York) for the APA Blog.

She recounts her experiences at a recent workshop on fiction writing for philosophers.

I particularly liked the idea that fiction writers often deal with quasi-philosophical topics and when they do their treatment could benefit from the skills of philosophers.

And, regarding how professional philosophers’ fiction writing should be treated by universities:

If you [write fiction] well and your work has philosophical content, your department and university ought to treat it as part of your scholarship.

See the whole interview here.

This raises lots of interesting questions. Are there some philosophical topics that are better, or even best, approached through fiction? Can philosophical fiction advance philosophical research? And if so, are philosophers sometimes better positioned to do that than non-philosophers?

What do you think?

 


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WE ALL HAVE OUR REASONS

Comic artist Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal talks about art:

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And the aftercomic, for those of you interested in questions about representation and depiction:

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And the referenced work, for your viewing pleasure, which has hilariously become Cesena’s profile pic on his Wikipedia page:

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According to Wikipedia: “It was widely said that when Cesena complained to the Pope, the pontiff joked that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell and the portrait would have to remain.”


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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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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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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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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.