Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



What follows is a guest post by Elijah Millgram.

You can be effective but ridiculous, or effective but a very special sort of unbelievable. And that tells us that some of the most basic distinctions in the domain of practical rationality—that is, of the reasons we invoke when we decide what to do—are matters of aesthetic judgment.

Most of us have seen various of Rube Goldberg’s once very popular drawings; here’s one of a “self-operating napkin” that involves a soup ladle, a parrot, a rocket, and a pendulum, among other components.

Self-operating napkin (Rube Goldberg cartoon with caption)

Rube Goldberg, illustration for self-operating napkin machine, Collier’s Magazine (1931)

And if you look around on the web, you’ll find one after another video homage to his work; this tribute, a construction that turns a page of your newspaper for you, deploys lit fuses, billiard balls, a vase, a smashed laptop, and an animal that I’m guessing is a hamster.

Now, it was naturally the comics page on which, a couple of generations back, Goldberg’s drawings of elaborately roundabout ways of performing simple tasks used to appear, because the public of the time found them spit-take funny. They were funny because they were crazy, and the craziness was all in their very visible instrumental irrationality—which is actually a bit of a puzzle. Continue reading



What follows is a guest post by Shannon M. Mussett (Utah Valley University).

I am an academic philosopher. This means that my contact with my peers consists mainly in electronic communication, or, a few times a year (if I am lucky) a conference—varying in length from a day to a week. If I am very lucky, there may be an occasional workshop peppered here and there throughout the course of a decade.

Academic philosophy conferences consist largely of sitting in ill-lit rooms, on uncomfortable chairs, listening to someone either read a paper at you, or click through power point slides where the gist of the paper is presented to you. (Christy Wampole’s Conference Manifesto pretty much nails it). Afterwards, questions and dialogue follow—which can be more or less lively—depending on many factors, most of which boil down to how much coffee is available and whether or not people are in the pre-or post-lunch coma.

Not all conferences are the same.

Artists, however, do these amazing things called “residencies.” And let me tell you, they have the right idea. Instead of arriving with a finished (or mostly finished) product, they use the residency to develop something entirely new, or to work on something in its burgeoning phases. No one, that is, shows up with something polished. The thought of arriving at a conference with unfinished work is the stuff of nightmares to most academics. Continue reading

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One of the things I collect is people’s odd little invented aesthetic categories. They’re usually personal, often work-related, and usually arise from a human soul being endlessly confronted with the same set of relationships and experiences, in the work-grind, and trying to cope. I, for example, have a very private list of the most tragicomically overreaching introductory sentences from student papers. (“Since the time of the dinosaurs, man has yearned to define the Quest for Truth.” Etc.)

Here’s a particularly satisfying one I just collected, from a therapist friend who asked to remain anonymous.

6637485987_2e44d66545_z(Photo credit: Peter Barker)

Top ten facial tissue handling patterns by patients engaging in psychotherapy:

1. The relieved post-sobbing messy scrunch ball.
2. The careful triangle; unused.
3. The careful triangle, folded before crying; used for gentle dabbing at gentle tears.
4. The careful triangle, folded after crying to hide the snot.
5. Messy, self-conscious, post-sobbing squares.
6. The anxious rending.
7. The anxious and methodical balling-up into equally-sized tissue balls.
8. The careful pyramid of many tissue scrunch balls.
10. The anxious refraining from using any tissues at all; tears and snot akimbo.


11. The twisting into elegant, anxious tissue rods.”


I think I delight in these lists because they’re a place where people get to mess around with their own made-up aesthetic categories. They’re where we get to actually invent our categories for ourself.

They’re in this odd in-between space, for aesthetics. On the one hand, with Official Art Stuff, we tend to appreciate things in terms of historically established and very public categories, like “Grecian architecture” and “Impressionist art”. As Kendall Walton ultra-famously argued, aesthetic appreciation of an artwork crucially depends on which category you perceive it in. The category tells you which features to pay attention to, and which to ignore; it also tells you which features are standard for that category, and which stick out. Total flatness is unremarkable for a painting, but quite bold for a sculpture. On the other hand, for Totally Not Official Art Stuff, we can just ignore any standard and established categories. This is Yuriko Saito’s line, in Everyday Aesthetics – nobody tells us how to aesthetically appreciate housework, we just pay attention to whatever we please, and notice whatever we like.

These little personal categories are something halfway in-between, where we get to play around with the categories themselves, and try on for different ones for size. They’re aesthetic categories that we can tune to our own private interests, cut free from the requirements of art history. And a good one can be weirdly effective for interrogating other people’s aesthetic souls. For example: asking people to list the “best restaurants in the world” tends to yield dullness. But “favorite places to eat when depressed” yields, not only a deep insight into other people’s particular emotional relationship with food, but, when deployed regularly, the beginnings of an understanding of the differences between fine dining, and, say, comfort eating. And the list of “favorite things and places to eat alone” yields something even more interesting: an awareness of how place, eating habits, and socializing interact; an awareness of what kinds of food are convivial and which ones are deeply private pleasures, and what about them makes it so.





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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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.



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.


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?



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.


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.


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:


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.


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?


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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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:


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 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.


“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:


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.


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


“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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The following is the first in a Guest Series by Byron Davies (Harvard), who will present one column each month. This column is on the 18th century Swiss Francophone philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the contemporary Spanish director Víctor Erice, especially the latter’s films The Spirit of the Beehive and El Sur.

It is tempting to think that cinema somehow has a prehistory in philosophy. That is, among those philosophers who pre-date the invention of cinema, there are some whose very spirits seem to inform the medium itself, making their connections to particular films, even if only implicit, seem especially fated or necessary. Strikingly, these are often philosophers somehow opposed to theater and “theatricality,” and known for harshly depicting the effects of sitting isolated in the dark. (The well-worn comparisons between cinema and Plato’s Myth of the Cave come to mind.)

Among such philosophers is surely Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an eighteenth-century philosopher who asked what it is to be spectator of, as well as a spectacle for, other persons. For Rousseau, among the characteristic features of our social lives is our caring to be noticed, which in turn involves our acknowledging others as capable of noticing us: as creatures that, unlike mere things, can subject us to their evaluative gaze. That is, for Rousseau, we cannot make spectacles of ourselves without acknowledging or, in a sense, also making spectacles of others.

At least, this is one way of understanding the role of “spectacles” in Rousseau’s various accounts of the origins of sociality in humans: either phylogenetic (as in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality and the Essay on the Origin of Languages) or ontogenetic (as in his educational treatise and novel Emile). But “spectacles” come up even more directly and literally in his criticisms of the theater (especially in his Letter to d’Alembert on “spectacles”), and especially in his insistence that, if there is anything good in the acknowledgment of one another as spectacles, it is perverted in the institution of the theater, where spectacles are entirely bought and the expressions of persons (the actors) are sold.

On Rousseau’s understanding of the theater, the actor, under force of his dependence on the spectator for his livelihood, must “counterfeit” himself, or put his person “publicly on sale” [1]. That is, the actor must falsify himself, not just in the sense that he must play a character, but also in the sense that he must be false to the spectator: he flatters the latter’s capacity for identification or pity. For example, Rousseau refers to the Greek despot Alexander of Pherae:

who dared not attend the performance of a single tragedy for fear that he might be seen to moan with Andromache and Priam, but who listened without emotion to the cries of so many citizens daily being murdered on his orders. [2]

In a reversal of Aristotle’s views on the theater (according to which the catharsis of tragedy has beneficial effects), Rousseau thinks that among the theater’s pathological effects is its exhausting one’s capacities for being a sympathetic spectator:

[Has] he [the spectator] not acquitted himself of all that he owes to virtue by the homage which he has just rendered it [in watching a play]? What more could one want of him? That he practice it himself? He has no role to play; he is no actor. [3]

Thus, insofar as the theater is a locus of buying and selling, the spectator becomes an unsympathetic master and the actor an alienated laborer. (In Rousseau’s vision of popular sovereignty, and the entertainments permitted in an egalitarian republic, there will be no distinction between spectator and actor, any more than between between master and servant: “let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors themselves; do it so that each sees and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united.” [4]).

It goes without saying that the theater and the cinema are not the same thing. But it is interesting that whereas for Rousseau the theater (at least outside republican entertainments) is a site for the failure of mutual acknowledgment, for the Spanish director Víctor Erice, the cinema is where some of the most important identifications take place.

Indeed, both of Erice’s two fiction features (The Spirit of the Beehive [El espíritu de la colmena], from 1973, and El Sur, from 1983) boast scenes in movie theaters, and both involve their protagonists’ finding their capacities for identification awakened in the cinema, or around the cinema. For example, in El Sur eight-year-old Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) follows her father (a disillusioned republican teacher persecuted under Franco) to the cinema, where he is watching a film featuring an actress whose name (‘Irene Rios’) Estrella has found written over and over again in his papers. Estrella later finds him in a cafe composing a letter to that same actress, or at least that is what she imagines: the voiceover narration of older Estrella gives way to the voice of her father’s letter, leaving it ambiguous whether we are hearing its real or its imagined contents. When her father notices Estrella observing him, the voiceover of her later self again takes over: “Now I understand that he reacted as if I’d caught him doing something wrong.” Estrella’s following her father to the movies serves as a kind of primal scene, a mysterious suggestion of something about her prehistory, one that at least allows her (even if only in recalling the moment years later) to give context to his emotional unavailability.

The cinema as site of identification: El Sur.

The cinema as site of identification: El Sur.

El Sur: “Now I understand that he reacted as if I’d caught him doing something wrong.”

El Sur: “Now I understand that he reacted as if I’d caught him doing something wrong.”

Themes of identification in the cinema organize The Spirit of the Beehive even more explicitly. Set on the Castilian Plain in 1940, just after the defeat of republicanism in the Spanish Civil War, The Spirit of the Beehive opens with six-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent, in her very first role) joining her older sister in a rustic, makeshift cinema for a screening of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein. Throughout the twenty minutes or so in which scenes from Frankenstein appear, Erice particularly focuses on the monster’s encounter with a young girl, whom he kills by throwing into a pond (naively thinking she will float like the flower petals he had just seen her tossing in). Here Ana is invited to identify with at least two others, both, like her, still very innocent in the ways of the world: a child and a monster (or a child-like monster).

Screenshot 2016-09-26 21.36.23.png

The Spirit of the Beehive: Ana identifies with both the child and the monster.

The Spirit of the Beehive: Ana identifies with both the child and the monster.

Thinking through the importance of Ana’s identifying with a monster, as I’d like to do, will require understanding how Rousseau’s writing on spectatorship and The Spirit of the Beehive do seem to speak with one another, and even more deeply than by way of contrast. And among the film’s particular connections to Rousseau is a shared association between feeling a spectacle and feeling confronted by a Giant. (I should note that at least part of this connection is by way of Mary Shelley: the literary scholar David Marshall has argued convincingly that Rousseau’s writing was a profound influence on the author of Frankenstein, informing the notions of savagery, exile, and indeed spectatorship rife in that novel. [5]) For example, in a passage in the Essay on the Origin of Languages, Rousseau imagines the early human’s (the sauvage’s) first confrontation with others of his kind:

A [sauvage] meeting others will at first have been frightened. His fright will have made him see these men as larger and stronger than himself; he will have called them Giants. After much experience he will have recognized that since these supposed Giants are neither bigger nor stronger than he, their stature did not fit the idea he had initially attached to the word Giant. He will therefore invent another name common to them and to himself, for example the name man,and he will restrict the name Giant to the false object that had struck him during his illusion. [6]

The sauvage is frightened by others of his kind not just because they threaten his physical integrity, or serve as competitive threats, but also because they render him a spectacle, the object of their gaze. Rousseau is describing the birth of sociality, and thesauvage sees others as Giants because they are significant to him: he cares about how he is taken in by them. (When he identifies with them, and comes to see them as fellow creatures, it is because he comes to see them as thinking the same of him. [7])

Similarly, The Spirit of the Beehive is throughout informed by a child’s confrontation by a Giant. Ana’s fascination with Frankenstein’s Monster, the way the movie stays with her (as movies do), typifies her relationship with anything else large, adult, and masculine: a republican fugitive she discovers in hiding, her own (like Estrella’s) emotionally unavailable father. It also typifies her relationship with anything else that can look back at her, or confront her with an independent point of view. This is most obvious when, in a schoolroom exercise, she must guess what is missing from a mannequin called “Don José.” Only when provoked by her older sister can she see that Don José is missing his eyes. And only when restoring his eyes to him does she feel the significance of being looked upon: that, unlike the lungs or the stomach (which Don José had also had missing), the eyes evaluate, they judge, they take a point of view. As Dr. Frankenstein knew, building a Giant can be scary, because it can look back at you. (Later in the film we see a portrait of Franco hanging on the same schoolroom’s wall.)

"Now Don José can see."

“Now Don José can see.”

The men in Ana’s life (her father, the republican fugitive) are Giants because they could not remain mere spectacles (just as, in her later hallucinatory visions of Frankenstein’s monster, the latter could not just stay up on the screen): they also make a spectacle of Ana. In fact, it seems less apt to characterize Ana’s response to these Giants as horror than as fascination or identification: she can feel their fear, including their fear of her, as when she startles the republican fugitive in his hideout. She goes to sleep, and her image fades into his, underscoring her identification with him. Having once seen him as a Giant (he’s hiding in the hut where her sister told her she could find Frankenstein’s monster), she now sees him as a fellow creature. (What she doesn’t know is that the Francoists will soon exterminate him like a rat.)

Ana blends into the republican.

Ana blends into the republican.

These identifications reach an apex when (startled by her father’s learning of her encounter with the fugitive) she runs away from home, and, finding a pool of water, her reflection in it becomes the very image of Frankenstein’s monster. Like Rousseau’ssauvage, she no longer feels small before a Giant, but understands him to be just as significant, or insignificant, as she is. In watching her image transform into his, she indeed transforms into a Giant; but she also, by virtue of that, renders the Giant a child. That is again the poignancy of the Monster’s encounter with the young girl (in the 1931 film, the scene that Ana is, in these hallucinations, replaying): again, the monster and the child are both innocents, both are receiving their early education in things; if one is more dangerous, that’s only because he’s fated to be bigger. (Since Ana’s older sister typically bullies and provokes her, her fantasy of meeting the monster might also be her fantasy of equality, of having a true peer.)

Ana blends into the monster.

Ana blends into the monster.

Of course, so long as Ana can only see herself through the Giants that surround her, she also lacks much a sense of who she is. (Rousseau, who later in life was accused of being a monster, begins his last work, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, asking, in desperate retort to these accusations, “What am I?” [8]) But that just underscores the importance of Ana’s return home from her exile (from her own solitary walks), and how that return constitutes an achievement of sovereignty: after waking up from a deep sleep (she’s had a “very powerful experience,” a doctor says, ambiguously) she declares out of her window (and to the world) “I am Ana” (“Soy Ana”). Until then those words had been the province of others: her older sister had instructed her to use them to invoke Frankenstein’s monster (Beetlejuice-like or Candyman-like, but using Ana’s own name, and thus emphasizing her identification with him). Only now can she hear herself in those words.

Thus, a film made in the waning years of the Franco regime ends with a child’s declaration of sovereignty after a period of exile. Having only seen herself through others, or through her identification with Giants, she finally becomes a spectacle for herself. Or rather: in contrast with Rousseau’s spectator, Ana does have a “role to play.” For Ana, finally coming to say ‘I’ means, as with the participants in republican “spectacles,” being actor and spectator at once.

"Soy Ana": Ana declares her sovereignty.

“Soy Ana”: Ana declares her sovereignty.

  1. Rousseau, the Letter to d’Alembert p. 79, published asPolitics and the Arts, trans. Allan Bloom (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).
  2. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality pp. 152-53, trans. Victor Gourevitch, in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  3. Rousseau, the Letter to d’Alembert p. 25
  4. Ibid. p. 126
  5. David Marshall, “Frankenstein, or Rousseau’s Monster: Sympathy and Speculative Eyes,” in his The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley (The University of Chicago Press, 1988). Marshall is especially helpful in his developing the idea of Mary Shelley’s reading of Rousseau as a kind of primal scene: as her attempt to understand her pre-history through understanding her Rousseau-influenced parents, Mary Wollstonecraft (who died after giving birth to her daughter) and William Godwin.
  6. Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages p. 254, trans. Victor Gourevitch, in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  7. In his reading of this passage, Stanley Cavell writes, “A natural reading of Rousseau’s scene is to take the savage man to be frightened by one who is frightened upon meetinghim. (It is of the essence of this passage of initial human confrontation to see that everything said about either the one or the other is true of both.)” From Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy p. 467 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
  8. Rousseau, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker p. 1, trans. Charles E. Butterworth (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992).
This column is cross-posted from Byron Davies’ blog.