AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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THE INTRIGUE OF ANONYMITY

 

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Banksy arrested!  Unmasked!  Exposed!

Breaking fake news, as it turns out, created by a guy who has developed an Andy-Kaufmanesque approach to creating hoaxes, delighting in particular when his hoaxes get picked up by mainstream news sites.  The hoax article by Jimmy Rustling (how did the Internet not catch this? Come on, Internet.) mixes fiction with fact, and probably would make an excellent example for those interested in knowledge, the propagation of fake news, echo chambers and the like, (cough, cough), but I wondered:

Why does Banksy bother with anonymity?  Banksy’s identity isn’t public, but the rough consensus is that Banksy is probably male, probably British, probably white, probably from Bristol, and probably in his forties.  Banksy has claimed that they’re anonymous because their work is illegal, but this seems not to capture the entirety of it.  Someone that worried about arrest wouldn’t publicize their work on Instagram, or show up at exhibits in a mask.  More to the point, while Banksy’s art continues to include illicitly-placed stencils, Banksy also exhibits work in more traditional installations, and given the notoriety of his work, it’s hard to imagine any city seriously prosecuting a case for vandalism.

(Indeed, given that some of Banksy’s stencil fetch millions at auction, it would make  for an interesting case.  Your Honor, this man illicitly gave me an artwork of great value!  Shades of Pratchett’s anti-crime here.  But I digress.)

Quick take: Pragmatic reasons aside, street art paradigmatically is anonymous or pseudonymous, historically because of its illegality.  But as the art form has matured, arguably anonymity has become an artistic convention.   To make street art require anonymity; one must wear a disguise because some of the aesthetic delight of street art lies in contemplating its creation by the faceless crowd.

Photographed by Richard CocksOwn work, Banksy Graffiti (Park Street) Close shot, CC BY 2.0, Link


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WHAT’S SO WRONG WITH FREE EXPRESSION, ABUSIVE ART, AND UNDERSTANDING?

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What follows is a guest post by John Rapko about the recent Guggenheim Museum controversy.

The controversy

On Friday, September 22, a friend sent me an e-mail alerting me to an on-line petition. This time the issue was that the Guggenheim Museum in New York City had released a list of the names of the artists and their works to be included in the upcoming show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” Among the 150 works were three involving live animals, including a video of an installation by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu wherein dogs were strapped into opposing treadmills, where they ran in place, tugged, and snarled at each other to exhaustion. The two other pieces are by artists better-known outside China: a notorious piece by Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World”, which shows a large structure wherein many reptiles and insects have been placed, with the animals left to willy-nilly eat each other, fight for space, or make some kind of mutual accommodation; and a video by Xu Bing that shows a boar and a sow, each densely painted with nonsense–Chinese and –Roman characters, mating in a gallery. Thousands of people, including myself after a scanning, were signing the petition. The Guggenheim quickly released a statement urging people to consider the works as a document of their times, and to reflect upon the situation of the artists who were driven to make such works. The signing of the petition only quickened, and by Tuesday, September 26, when the Guggenheim announced that the works would not be shown, supposedly because of the threatening tone of many of the complaints about the show, the petition had garnered over half a million signatories. What had happened? Was it simply a matter of an internet mob hurling electronic threats of violence towards the museum’s employees that forced the otherwise unjustified withdrawal of the works, as the Guggenheim stated? Was the withdrawal further a cowardly capitulation to thugs with an impoverished understanding of animal rights and human rights, indeed “tragic for a modern society”, as the artist Ai Weiwei said? Is this an act of “censorship” violating the artists’ “right to free expression”, as Huang Yong Ping, the artist behind one of the allegedly objectionable works has urged? Or had an inexplicable category mistake been corrected, as implied by the countless objections that “animal torture is not art“?  Continue reading


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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.


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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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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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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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AFB Artworld Roundtable: 5Pointz Lawsuit

This is the first in a new series at Aesthetics for Birds called AFB Artworld Roundtable, where Philosophers of Art provide their take on a particular recent artworld event or news story.

Artists Sue 5Pointz Owner & Developers

Nine artists have filed a federal lawsuit against the owner and related developers of the famous graffiti shrine 5Pointz in Queens. The suit claims the Defendents:

“destroyed mutilated, modified and defaced each and every one of the works of art installed by Plaintiffs on 5Pointz… [without] notice in writing regarding their intent to destroy the artwork nor did they afford Plaintiffs…a period of 90 days after receiving such notice either to remove the work or pay for its removal.”

The full story can be found here.

The Roundtable

K.E. Gover, Mary Beth Willard, Darren Hick, Erin Thompson

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