Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



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?

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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.



Cultural Appropriation and La Japonaise

Nils-Hennes Stear (University of Michigan)

Last July, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (BMFA) put on an exhibition featuring Claude Monet’s La Japonaise (1875), a painting of Camille, Monet’s wife, dressed in a resplendent red kimono. For some of that period, the museum also invited visitors to “dress up” in a replica of the depicted kimono beside the painting, to take selfies, and share them with the museum. Protestors accused the BMFA of Orientalism and cultural appropriation, after which the museum cancelled the dress-up activity in favour of one in which visitors could interact with the garment in other ways. More details about the case are here and here.

I am sympathetic to the protests, at least insofar as I think the museum should not have exhibited the pieces as they did. Nor should the museum have failed to engage properly with the criticisms of the protestors. It doesn’t follow from this, of course, that the issue is a simple one in which all reasons obviously favour one course of action. Nor need it follow that the museum ought to have cancelled any portion of the event. And plausibly, inviting participants to try on the kimono under different circumstances could be okay, on balance.

A central problem of the event seems to have been one that could have been quite easily remedied: the apparently cavalier way its curators invited visitors to engage with the work and the activity without any serious commentary about the ethically troubling aspects of Japonisme—the fascination with perceived aspects of Japanese culture that flourished in late nineteenth century Europe—and its entanglement with US and European imperial history. For instance, the exhibit might have foregrounded the fact that Japonisme was in large part a consequence of the Kanagawa Treaties of the 1850s, which Japan signed quite literally at gunpoint, and which opened Japan up to US and later European trade, among other stipulations. (The MFA website describes this aggression limply as “the opening of Japan’s ports to Western trade in 1854”.) And the way that works in the tradition often trade in stereotyped and exotified imagery (I invite readers to search for promotional images for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, for instance), coupled with the often appalling consequences of the US’s fraught relationship with both Japan and its own Asian American inhabitants, merit comment. I will shortly offer a reason for thinking that embellishing the exhibition in this way would have made it ethically better.

The accusation that the event condoned or exemplified cultural appropriation raises a difficult question: what exactly is cultural appropriation and when does it constitute a harm? This issue will be my focus here.

To appropriate something is, at its core, to take ownership of it. Cultural appropriation involves, at minimum, taking ownership (however partial) over some part of a culture (however concrete or abstract). Appropriation can be understood as an ethically neutral term by itself, albeit one that also picks out unethical instances. Ethical worries of the familiar sort invoked by social justice activists typically begin when the appropriating is by a culturally hegemonic group from a disadvantaged group’s culture (Rowell 1995).

James Young, in one of the few sustained discussions of cultural appropriation in analytic philosophy,1 identifies three kinds of ways acts of cultural appropriation can, though need not always, be morally offensive. The first concerns one kind of what Young calls “subject appropriation”, in which members of hegemonic cultures misrepresent members of non-hegemonic cultures. Many works of the Japonisme tradition, and the paintings and writings of 19th Century painter Paul Kane are examples. The second concerns consent, where members of hegemonic cultures adopt some part of a non-hegemonic culture without securing the permission (however exactly this is understood) they ought to have secured. Clothing multinational Urban Outfitter’s 2011 “Navajo” fashion line featuring imitation “native” patterns and other paraphernalia is one example. The third concerns an hegemonic culture’s misuse of parts of a non-hegemonic culture that are sacred or private. The satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of the Prophet Muhammad is one example.

Which of these kinds of appropriation applies to the BMFA event, if any? It’s not clear whether any of the types of offensiveness fit very neatly. There is some sense in which one might take the event to be offensive in the first way, as misrepresenting Japanese culture by making it seem, as many of Monet’s contemporaries did, exotic and other. Additionally, a significant part of the protestor’s concerns, one familiar from criticisms of other appropriative practices, seems to be the inappropriately playful or shallow engagement with parts of a non-hegemonic culture; some protestors’ equation of taking selfies in the robe with practicing “Yellowface” suggests something like this. This criticism might be understood as a friendly extension to Young’s third kind of offensiveness. The offending act in this case is not the misuse of a sacred part of a culture, but of a serious part.

I want to suggest a fourth source of offensiveness concerning the benefits and value of culturally appropriative acts—an issue Young touches on—and which arguably applies to the event. A number of factors make particular instances of cultural appropriation morally better or worse and the offense it causes more or less reasonable, Young thinks. Among the factors Young invokes is social value:

Sometimes, I expect, an artwork will have a degree of societal value that can counterbalance the offense felt by members of a culture whose has been appropriated. Perhaps the clearest instances of subject appropriation with a high degree of social value are provided by some of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare was clearly engaged in subject appropriation when he represented Jews, Moors, and others. Equally clearly, the works are profoundly offensive. Even today many Jews regard The Merchant of Venice and its treatment of Shylock as profoundly offensive. Nevertheless, the plays that resulted from Shakespeare’s cultural appropriation have a degree of social value that far outweighs their offensiveness. Shakespeare, I would say, did not act wrongly in penning The Merchant of Venice or Othello. […] There is no reason why someone who appropriates aboriginal content could not produce a work whose value more than outweighed any offense it caused. When this is the case, we have a reason to think that the act of cultural appropriation is not wrong. (Young, 139)

While Young identifies something important here, he neglects a consideration that any appeal to social value must recognize to be adequate, and which is happily consistent with everything Young says. The consideration concerns to whom the social benefits of appropriated work flows. The problem is not always that a privileged individual, say, recklessly uses parts of an underprivileged culture. Sometimes, the problem is the way the hegemonic culture profits from this reckless use.

At last year’s Race & Aesthetics conference in Leeds, Leona Nichole Black offered the germ of this idea during the Q&A session for James McGuiggan’s talk on Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. Bailey, a South African artist racialized as White, created an interactive artwork depicting a fictional human zoo populated by actors racialized as Black. On McGuiggan’s tentative and qualified defence of the work, Exhibit B’s aim was to invite a racially loaded objectifying gaze in the viewer in order to get her to realize her susceptibility to executing such a gaze. This was meant to be achieved in particular by meeting eyes with the otherwise objectified actors, thereby being jolted into recognizing their humanity. The work, much like the BMFA event, provoked protests about its ethical character. Black’s worry, with which I agree, was that part of what is troubling about Exhibit B was its use of Black bodies in the service of White edification. The idea is that persons racialized as Black were unlikely to benefit from Bailey’s first-personal lesson in the seductiveness of a racialized gaze, whether directly as appreciators, or as social beneficiaries causally further downstream. And while the actors performing the piece under Bailey’s direction were exclusively racialized as Black, the appreciators were predominantly racialized as White. The work thus assumed an exploitative dynamic, however unintentional.

The BMFA’s event might be thought to exhibit a similar dynamic in its using Japanese cultural objects to celebrate a morally fraught Western artistic tradition, while also catering to the tastes and preconceptions of a predominantly White, US audience. Moreover, it seems to have done so, not with the end of White (or, perhaps, US) edification, but with that of White (US) amusement. A more serious and careful effort to place Japonisme and Monet’s work in its ethical and political context could have helped remedy this potentially exploitative dimension to the exhibition by turning it into an opportunity to educate or remind everyone of imperialism’s impacts—including on cherished artists such as Monet—rather than merely flaunting its fruits.

I should close with a few important caveats to my discussion. First, as a German-Brit racialized as White, I am in some respects ill-placed to delineate exactly the moral and political contours of this or similar cases. This is just an obvious point that follows from a minimal commitment to some form of standpoint epistemology. Second, I have not interacted with the exhibition in person; my information about it is second-hand. Third, there are a number of important details that I can’t possibly do justice to here; the BMFA’s impressive and educative collection of Asian art, the extent to which the exhibition is best understood as an affront to Asian-Americans rather than Japanese nationals per se, and whether appropriation is the best concept through which to understand what might be wrong with the event, are just three such important issues. Finally, accusations of cultural appropriation and its potential harms are subject to so many intersecting considerations, that they are difficult to navigate with confidence. This goes for the BMFA event discussed here. I encourage readers to read more about the exhibition to inform their own conclusions.

Rowell, John. “The Politics of Cultural Appropriation.” The Journal of Value Inquiry, 1995: 137-142.
Young, James O. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010.
Young, James O. “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2005: 135-146.

1. At least, that I can find; Young’s arguments have since been elaborated and supplemented in Young (2010).

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"Multi-Origin Art" by Joshua Spencer and Chris Tillman

Joshua Spencer is an assistant professor of philosophy at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He studies, primarily, metaphysics and philosophy of language. But he likes most philosophical topics. Joshua is also a huge fan of cats. 
Chris Tillman is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba. His main interest is in metaphysics, but he considers practically everything to be an issue in metaphysics. He is originally from Missouri, where his first major was in painting and he spent his free time in bands, including a country/rap band (hick-hop, if you will). These days his free time is more likely to be consumed by curing meats, genre fiction, and making Korean farmer hooch (makgeolli).
Some works of art have multiple concrete manifestations. Musical works are concretely manifested at each of their various performances, photographs are concretely manifested in each of their prints, and cast sculptures are concretely manifested in each of their castings. Multi-Work Materialism is the thesis that any work of art that has multiple concrete manifestations is itself a concrete object that is co-located with and constituted by each of its concrete manifestations. So, Tame by The Pixies is located at each of its performances; Rodin’s The Thinkeris located at each of over 20 locations around the world; and Philippe Helmsman’s Dali Atomicus is located wherever its prints are located.[1]Multi-Work Materialism, along with plausible assumptions about which objects are concrete manifestations of particular works of art and which are not, implies the possibility of works of art with certain surprising features. It also implies that two popular metaphysical theses, Single Origin Necessity and The Necessity of Origins, are both false.
Before we present our counterexamples to Single Origin Necessity and the Necessity of Origins, we will first formulate these theses more carefully and show how they are related to one another. First, the Necessity of Origins can be more carefully formulated as follows:
(TNO) Necessarily, for any material object, x, and for any material, M1, if it is possible that x wholly originates from M1 (in accordance with a particular plan P), then it is not possible that there is some material M2, material that does not overlaps with M1, such that x wholly originates from M2 (in accordance with P).
Single Origin Necessity can be more carefully formulated as follows:
(SON) Necessarily, for any objects, x and y, and for any materials, M1 and M2, if x wholly originates from M1 (in accordance with a particular plan P) and y wholly originates from M2 (in accordance with P) and M1 and M2 do not overlap, then x and y are distinct.
In both of these principles, when we say that an object wholly originates from some particular material, we mean that that material is both involved in a proximal cause of that object’s existence and that at the first moment of its existence, the object is (in some sense) made of the material.
            Various philosophers, inspired by Kripke’s famous footnotes 56 and 57, have argued for (TNO) using variants of (SON) and of The Sufficiency of Origins as premises:[2]
(TSO) Necessarily, if it is possible for an object, x, to wholly originate from some matter M1 in accordance with plan P, then necessarily, any object originating from M1 in accordance with P is the very object x and no other.
It is fairly easy to derive (TNO) from (SON) and (TSO). Let x be an arbitrary possible object. Let M1 and M2 be arbitrary and non-overlapping materials. Let P be an arbitrary plan. Suppose, for conditional proof, that x could have originated from M1 in accordance with plan P. If x could have originated from M1, then x could have originated from M1 while a duplicate of x, namely y, originated from M2, both in accordance with P. But, given that M1 and M2 are discrete, it follows from (SON) that x and y would be distinct. By (TSO) it follows that if a particular object could have been formed from some material according to a plan, then any object that could have been formed from that material according to that same plan would have been that very object. It follows that any object that could have been formed from M2 according to P would have been y. Since x and y are possibly distinct and possible distinctness implies necessary distinctness, it follows that x could not have originated from M2 (at least not by way of that particular plan). Hence, (TNO)
            Others have argued for (TNO) using a variant of (SON) and of the following independence principle as premises:[3]
(Independence): Necessarily, given any object, x, and material, M1, if x wholly originates from M1 (according to plan P1) and it’s possible that there is an object, y, and material, M2, such that y wholly originates from M2 (according to plan P1) and M2 is discrete from M1, then it is also possible that x wholly originates from M1 (according to P1) while y wholly originates from M2 (according to P2).
It is fairly easy to derive (TNO) from (SON), and (Independence). Let x be an arbitrary possible object. Let M1 and M2 be some arbitrary and non-overlapping possible materials and let P be an arbitrary plan. Suppose, for reductio, that x could have originated from M1 according to P, and that x also could have originated from M2 according to P. Then, from the independence principle, it follows that x could have originated from M1 according to P while at the same time it also originated from M2 according to P. But, given (SON) and the fact that M1 and M2 are non-overlapping, it follows that x would have been distinct from itself if it had originated from both M1 according to P while also originating from M2 according to P. But, clearly it is impossible for any object to be distinct from itself. So, it is not possible that an object could have originated from some material and also could have originated from some other non-overlapping material. Hence, (TNO).
            Discussions of the first argument above have traditionally focused on the sufficiency principle (TSO) and discussions of the second argument have traditionally focused on the independence principle (Independence).[4]But we believe that the common premise, (SON), can be shown to be mistaken given Multi-Work Materialism. To see that this is so, we will present three possible cases.
            First, suppose that Robert Zemeckis decides to turn away from film and start a new career as a cast sculptor. His first work is inspired by his notable film franchise Back to the Future. He forms a mold for a cast sculpture of Marty McFly with his iconic vest and skateboard. On October 25th, 2015, Zemeckis finishes the mold and decides to pour an initial casting the next day. But, as he walks home, Zemeckis comes up with an outlandish plan. He decides that, two weeks from that very date, he will send his mold back in time two weeks and stow it away in his workshop. That way, when he arrives in his workshop on October 26th, he will find his mold sitting beside itself. Sure enough, when he arrives early the next morning, Zemeckis finds his mold and its future self sitting side by side; the mold is multi-located. At exactly 1:15 AM, Zemeckis simultaneously fills the mold and its time traveling duplicate with bronze to create two initial castings of his sculpture. After waiting five days, he opens the mold(s) and removes the initial castings of his first work, which he then dubs This is Heavy. If Multi-Work Materialism is true, then This is Heavy is co-located with and constituted by each of the bronze concrete manifestations. Moreover, if there are no previous concrete manifestations of the work (as seems plausible) then This is Heavysimultaneously originated from two distinct portions of bronze. Hence, Single Origin Necessity is false.
            The example above requires the possibility of time travel. However, we believe that time travel is inessential to our case against (SON). Suppose that Fowlerio is a sculptor who decides to create a cast sculpture that involves the negative space within a particular hunk of iron. He forms a mold that will produce a hollow casting, the interior of which is shaped like one of the ghosts from Pac-Man. He then pours two iron castings of the hollow sculpture and dubs it Shadow. If Multi-Work Materialism is true, then Shadow is a cast sculpture that is co-located with and constituted by two distinct hunks of iron. Shadow is a multi-located work of art. Now suppose that rival sculptor, Nicholi, decided to make a new work using Fowlerio’s Shadow as a mold. Nicholi borrows the two castings of Shadow and simultaneously pours copper into the holes formed by the two castings of Shadow. After the copper sets, he opens the iron castings of Shadow up to reveal two copper castings of a new work, which he dubs Clyde.[5] If Shadow is a multi-located work of art (as Multi-Work Materialism implies), then it seems that Clyde is also a multi-located work of art formed by using Shadow as a mold. Moreover, if there are no previous concrete manifestations of Clyde, then it seems that Clyde simultaneously originated from two distinct portions of copper. Hence Single Origin Necessity is false.
            Finally, suppose a photographer puts two pieces of photosensitive paper on the baseboard of an enlargement machine. Then she places a developed negative that has never been printed before into the film carrier and, instead of placing a single lens below the negative, decides to put two lenses side-by-side and angled slightly away from each other. Then the photographer turns the light on, projecting from the negative and through both lenses so that two images of the negative appear, one on each piece of photosensitive paper. Two prints of the photograph will be produced simultaneously. If Multi-Work Materialism is true, then the photograph is co-located with and constituted by each of the photographic prints. Moreover, if these prints are the first concrete manifestations of the photograph, as seems plausible, then it seems that the photograph simultaneously originates from two distinct pieces of photosensitive paper. Hence, Single Origin Necessity is false.
            Each of the cases above supports a compelling argument against Single Origin Necessity. However, each has its own weaknesses. The first, of course, requires the possibility of time travel and the assumption that the initial castings of This is Heavy are the first concrete manifestations of the work. One might reject the possibility of time travel or one might claim that there is a concrete manifestation of This is Heavy that predates the initial casting. In support of the second objection, one might point out that many molds for castings are made with an initial model, sometimes carved from stone or made of plaster, and that that model might be the first concrete manifestation of the work.
We believe that both of these worries are sidestepped in the second example. The second example does not involve time travel. Moreover, even if a model was used in the formation of Shadow, that model certainly wasn’t a concrete manifestation of Clyde. After all, Clyde is the work of Nicholi and not Fowlerio whereas the model for Shadow is a work of Fowlerio and not Nicholi. One might think that the hole in Shadow is a concrete manifestation of Clyde. But, again, the hole in Shadow was created by Fowlerio and it is an essential aspect of Shadowwhereas Clyde was not created by Fowlerio and is not an essential aspect of Shadow.We believe that there are two serious objections to this example. According to the first objection, the initial idea of Clyde in the mind of Nicholi is a concrete manifestation of Clyde that predates the initial castings. If that is the case, then Clyde does not, contrary to our argument, originate from two distinct portions of copper.[6]According to the second objection, the multi-located Shadow is not a mold for any work of art created by Nicholi, though the hunks of iron that constitute Shadow are. If that’s the case, then the two hunks of copper that seem to constitute a single work, Clyde, in fact constitute two works that are nearly indiscernible from one another.[7]
            Whatever one thinks of these two objections, both are sidestepped by our third example. A photographer might have nothing in particular in mind as she takes various pictures. The photographer might even allow a certain amount of randomness to be involved in the exposure of some portion of film. The ideas that lay behind these randomly exposed bits of film seem too inchoate to be concrete manifestations of the photograph. Moreover, whereas it may be unclear whether the castings made by Nicholi were cast from a single mold (the multi-located Shadow) or two molds (the hunks of iron that constitute Shadow), the prints are clearly made from a single negative in the photography case. So it seems that the photography case sidesteps the strongest objections to either of the cast sculpture cases. Admittedly, one might worry that the exposed and developed negative is a concrete manifestation of a photograph.[8]But we do not agree. The concrete manifestation of a photograph might essentially involve sharp contrasts that are created by a skilled photographer using light blocking methods during the printing process. These sharp contrasts will not appear in the negative. So, the negative cannot be a concrete manifestation of the photograph.
Each of the cases above can easily be extended to show that The Necessity of Origins itself is false. Consider our first case and suppose that This is Heavy is a multi-located work of art that simultaneously originated from two distinct portions of bronze. Although This is Heavy was simultaneously cast in two portions of bronze, it could have been cast in only one portion of bronze. Let B1 be the portion of bronze that Zemeckis in fact poured into the younger instance of the time traveling mold and let B2 be the portion of bronze that he in fact poured into the older instance of the time traveling mold. Although Zemeckis in fact poured B1 into the younger instance of the time traveling mold while simultaneously pouring B2 into the older instance of the mold, he could have just poured B1 into the younger instance of the mold while leaving B2 unpoured and the older instance of the mold empty. Moreover, he could have poured B2 into the older instance of the mold while leaving B2 unpoured and the younger instance of the mold empty. If Zemeckis had done the former, then he would have produced a casting of This is Heavy that originated from B1 and not B2. Moreover, if Zemeckis had done the latter, then he would have produced a casting of This is Heavy that originated from B2 and not B1. It follows that This is Heavy could have originated from B1 and not B2 and it could have originated from B2 and not B1. But, if it could have originated from B1 and not B2 and it could have originated from B2 and not B1, then it could have been that it originated from B1 and not B2, but also could have originated from B2 and not B1.[9]Since B1 and B2 are non-overlapping, it follows that The Necessity of Origins is false.
            Although (TNO) is false, there may be a replacement principle. Works of art are very different from natural objects like people and trees. Whether or not a natural object is concretely manifested has nothing to do with the mental states of any people. However, whether or not a multi-work is concretely manifested does have to do with the mental states of the artist or the members of the artist’s community. So, maybe we can replace (TNO) with The Natural Necessity of Origins:
(NNO) Necessarily, for any natural object, x, and for any material, M1, if it is possible that x wholly originates from M1 (in accordance with a particular plan P), then it is not possible that there is some material M2, material that does not overlap with M1, such that x wholly originates from M2 (in accordance with P).
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Cameron, Ross P. (2005) ‘A Note on Kripke’s Footnote 56 Argument for the Essentiality of Origin’. Ratio 18: 262-275.
Cameron, Ross P. and S. Roca (2006) ‘Rohrbaugh and deRosset on the Necessity of Origin’. Mind, 115: 361–366.
Caplan, Ben and Carl Matheson (2006) ‘Defending musical perdurantism’. British Journal of Aesthetics 46: 59–69.
—– (2008) ‘Defending ‘Defending Musical Perdurantism’’. British Journal of Aesthetics 48: 80-85.
Damnjanovic, Nic (2010) ‘No Route to Material Origin Essentialism?’ Erkenntnis, 72: 93-110.
Forbes, Graeme (1981) ‘On the philosophical basis of essentialist theories’. Journal of Philosophical Logic 10: 73-99.
—– (1985) The Metaphysics of Modality. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Hawthorne, John and Tamar Szabo Gendler (2000) ‘Origin essentialism: The arguments reconsidered’. Mind, 109: 285-98.
Johnston, Patricia (1977) ‘Origin and necessity’. Philosophical Studies, 32: 412-18.
Kripke, Saul (1980) Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
MacKay, Thomas (1986) ‘Against constitutional sufficiency principles’. In Peter French, Theodore Uehling, Jr., and Howard Wettstein, eds, Midwest Studies in Philosophy: Studies in Essentialism, XI: 295-304. University of Minnesota Press.
Mackie, J. L. (1974) ‘De what re is de re modality?’ Journal of Philosophy, 80: 551-61.
Mackie, Penelope (1987) ‘Essence, Origin, and Bare Identity’. Mind 96: 173-201
—– (1998) ‘Identity, time, and necessity’.Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 98: 59-78.
McGinn, Colin (1976) ‘On the necessity of origin’. Journal of Philosophy, 71: 127-35.
Noonan, Harold (1983) ‘The necessity of origin’. Mind, 92: 1-20.
Robertson, Teresa (1998) ‘Possibilities and the arguments for origin essentialism’. Mind, 107: 716-25.
—– (2000) ‘Essentialism: Origin and Order’. Mind109: 299-307.
Robertson, Teresa and Graeme Forbes (2006) ‘Does the New Route Reach its Destination?’ Mind, 115: 367–373.
Rohrbaugh, Guy and Louis deRosset (2004) ‘A New Route to the Necessity of Origin’. Mind, 113: 705–25.
—– (2006) ‘Prevention, Independence, and Origin’. Mind 115: 375-386.
Salmon, Nathan (1979) ‘How not to derive essentialism from the theory of reference’. Journal of Philosophy 76: 703-25.
Tillman, Chris (2011) ‘Musical Materialism’. British Journal of Aesthetics 51: 13–29.
Tillman, Chris and Joshua Spencer (2012) ‘Musical materialism and the inheritance problem’. Analysis, 72: 252-9.
Yablo, Stephan (1988) ‘Review of The Metaphysics of Modality by Graeme Forbes’. The Journal of Philosophy, 85: 329-337.

[1]Multi-Work Materialism is a generalization of Musical Materialism. A version of Musical Materialism is formulated and defended by Ben Caplan and Carl Matheson (2006 and 2008). However, we prefer the version formulated and defended by Chris Tillman (2011) and further developed by Chris Tillman and Joshua Spencer (2012).
[2]See Colin McGinn (1976), Patricia Johnston (1977), Nathan Salmon (1979), Saul Kripke (1981), Harold Noonan (1983), and Graeme Forbes (1981 and 1985), and John Hawthorne and Tamar Szabo Gendler (2000).
[3]A version of this argument is primarily advanced and defended by Rohrbaugh and deRosset (2004 and 2006), though Ross Cameron (2005) also constructs and criticizes a variant of this argument.
[4]Critiques of sufficiency style arguments are advanced by Tom McKay (1986), Stephan Yablo (1988), Penelope Mackie (1987), and Teresa Robertson (1998 and 2000). Critiques of independence style argument are advanced by Ross Cameron (2005), Teresa Robertson and Graeme Forbes (2006), and Ross P. Cameron and Sonia Roca (2006). Critiques of both arguments have been advanced by Roberta Ballarin (2013) and Nic Damnjanovic (2010).
[5]It is important that Clyde is cast in a metal that has a lower melting temperature than the metal in which Shadow is cast.
[6]We disagrees with the claim that some idea in Nicholi’s mind is a concrete manifestation of Clyde. One cannot create a cast sculpture by simply having an idea, one must do something. Nicholi has not yet done anything when he gets the idea to create a work using Shadow as a mold. Hence, Clyde has not yet been created when Nicholi gets his idea and so cannot yet have any concrete manifestations.
[7]We do not actually find this objection persuasive since whether or not two hunks of copper are concrete manifestations of a particular work of art is grounded in the mental and social activities of the artist and the community from which the artists originates. We see no reason why Nicholi couldn’t insist, and his community appropriately accept that he used the multi-located Shadow as a mold to create a single, multi-located work of art.  
[8]Thanks to Damian Melamedoff for this objection.
[9]The formula (◊φ & ◊ψ) → ◊(φ & ◊ψ) is provable in any system that includes the characteristic axiom (5): ◊φ→□◊φ. However, we put forward the proposition in the text as an independently plausible premise and not as a logical truth.

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"Neuroscience & Appreciation: Very Funny Indeed…" by Bill Seeley

William P. Seeley is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. He will be teaching seminar in Aesthetic & Cognitive Science at Yale University in the fall of 2015 and a seminar in autonomous robotics and embodied cognition at Bates College in the spring of 2016. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from CUNY-The Graduate Center, an M.F.A. in sculpture from Columbia University, and a B.A. in philosophy from Columbia University. His research interests lie at the intersection of philosophy of art, cognitive science, and embodied cognition. His welded steel constructions have been exhibited in New York City and at a number of colleges and university galleries.

Big Wheel, Small Spring, Slightly Bent (2002) by William Seeley

Philosophers often say that the dimensions of art that matter will remain forever opaque to cognitive science. Neuroscience and psychology may help us understand how we perceptually engage with artworks, how we parse some aspects of their formal-compositional structure, recover their expressive properties, etc. They may provide some traction in understanding how we recover the melodic structure of musical works, the depictive content of images, or the mental and emotional lives of characters in narrative fictions. But, and here the philosophical folk tend to be emphatic, this explanatory strategy won’t help us with a range of questions associated with the normative dimension of appreciation. It won’t help us recognize or understand the artistically salient features of a work. It won’t help us understand why they are artistically valuable. And it won’t give us any traction in understanding the evaluative judgments that surround them. This latter point is really the crux of the matter. Buried in this rhetoric is an intuition that there is an evaluative dimension that is inseparable from our judgments about art and forever beyond the reach of psychology and neuroscience. 

The short version of this concern is that cognitive science traffics in causal-psychological explanations that are ill fit to the explanatory goals of philosophy of art. Appreciative judgments in art are judgments of fit between works and the range of evaluative conventions appropriate for their particular category of art. But the same neuropsychological mechanisms support our perception and understanding of both exemplary and atrocious artworks. These kinds of explanations don’t enable us to discriminate between works that are done well and works that are done poorly. As a result, they fail to reveal anything interesting about the appreciative conventions that define our concept of art in different contexts. They are equal opportunity explanations that exhibit a degree of generality good for psychology, but bad for philosophical aesthetics. 

Road Runner Basking in the Sun (2002)


The contemporary grounds for this view can be traced back to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s posthumously published lectures on aesthetics (1967) and George Dickie’s (1962) paper, “Is Psychology Relevant to Aesthetics?” (see Carroll, Moore, & Seeley, 2102). Dickie asks us to imagine adjective matching and preference ordering experiments common in empirical aesthetics. In these cases, psychologists poll large samples of average (non-expert) consumers in order to tease out important facts about the nature of art. For instance, one might ask participants to match paintings to the kinds of descriptive adjectives experts use to describe them in art critical contexts. Or one might ask participants to sort a set of musical passages relative to their subjective preferences. We might find a significant correlation between the experts and average consumers in each of these cases. But, the interesting case is where we don’t. What do we do then? Dickie points out that deferring to the average consumer would be like polling toddlers about grammar rules. What matters in either case isn’t the agreement among the sample of participants. Rather, it is the prior reflective judgments of the experts used to set the scale —  the judgments of individuals familiar with the conventions governing practice in those contexts. No investigation of the psychological mechanisms underwriting the grammatical judgments of toddlers (or the appreciative judgments of average viewers) will reveal the appropriate conventions.
The following, often quoted, passages from Wittgenstein’s lectures on aesthetics are likewise explicit in their criticism of empirical aesthetics:
7. People still have the idea that psychology is one day going to explain all of our aesthetic judgments, and they mean experimental psychology. This is very funny – very funny indeed. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between what psychologists do and any judgment about a work of art… (Wittgenstein, 1967, p. 19).
8. Suppose it was found that all of our judgments proceeded from our brains. We discovered particular kinds of mechanisms in the brain, formulated general laws, etc…The question is whether this is the sort of explanation we would like to have when we are puzzled by aesthetic impressions… (Wittgenstein, 1967, p. 20).
Wittgenstein’s point is that we aren’t so much interested in the appreciative responses of consumers, in the immediate judgments they make, but in the reasons they give, the way they choose, the standards they use to make these judgments. For instance, the naïve viewer and the expert might equally appraise the gesture of a brushstroke. But one might see in it the exuberant energy of finger painting and an illustration of the inexhaustible hope of childhood. The other might see in it a trace of the history of expressive drawing, a thread to sort and organize a critical history, a way of understanding the salience of that noteworthy expressive gesture against a history of artistic practice. There are, as Wittgenstein asserts, “an extraordinary number of different cases of appreciation.” Both appreciate the work. But only one appreciates it as an artwork, only one associates the artifact with the set of conventions associated with artistic practices, with the language games of art. Think analogously of someone who says that they’ve seen Robert Morriss’ Rope Piece (1964) in the school gym.
Of course Wittgenstein takes things even a step further. He argues that “what belongs to a language game is a whole culture.” This suggests that the reasons given, that the the standards by which one chooses, the norms that constrain our evaluative judgments about art, cannot be explicitly given in isolation, cannot be given as atomistic causes, as individual cogs in an internalist, causal-psychological explanation. Rather, they can only be understood as emergent in the totality of the shared practices of a community. Likewise Dickie borrows a metaphor from Philosophical Investigations to describe the standards governing practice of artistic appreciations, “Appreciating works of art is an ancient and encrusted activity of men: it is…part of the old city in which the streets are narrow and crooked but nevertheless we know them well, although we often get confused if asked to describe them for someone or draw a map (Dickie, 1962, p. 300).

Spring Loaded (2006)


The crux of the matter, to return to the present, is that evaluative judgments about artworks are modeled as post-perceptual judgments about the fit between what has already been seen or heard in a work on the one hand, and the normative conventions that define the appropriate category of art on the other. What differentiates the novice from the art expert is that art critical knowledge of these conventions enables the latter to differentially focus his or her attention, to select features of a prior, common perceptual experience of a work that match to the productive and evaluative conventions that determine its artistic value. The skeptics claim here is twofold. First, these cognitive processes are not appropriately modeled by the causal-psychological mechanisms that support our our perceptual engagement with the work. Second, what matters is the conventions, the prior standards against which we evaluate what we perceive in a work, not how we perceive it per se.

These are quite reasonable worries. However, I think a short discussion of current research in affective perception may forestall these concerns. Affective perception has traditionally been modelled as a direct affair, an unmediated psychological response to a special class of stimuli that naturally broadcast their behavioral significance or biological value (LeDoux, 1996; Pessoa & Adolphs, 2010). This model has been challenged in recent years. Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues (2011) report a broad range of contextual effects in affective perception. Descriptions of a scene or social situation influence how perceivers identify, or categorize, emotional expressions, e.g. a scowl can be categorized as an angry or disgusted facial expression, how information is sampled from facial expressions in eye tracking studies , and even how we perceive expressive faces, e.g. situation descriptions can be shown to influence the way dynamic facial expressions are encoded in the early visual cortex. These effects generalize to individual differences in knowledge about perceived emotions, and extend to cultural differences in the general conception of the nature and significance of emotions and related behaviors. 
Luiz Pessoa and his colleagues (2002) have shown further that affective responses to emotionally charged stimuli depend on the availability of attentional resources. The amygdala is ordinarily used as an indicator of affective responsiveness to stimuli.  Covertly attending to the orientation of rectangular bars in a same/different orientation task eliminated amygdala responses to fearful and happy facial expressions, even though the participants in their study were fixating on the center of the faces.  
These data suggest that affective perception is not only influenced by, but may even be dependent on the availability of cognitive resources.
What explains cognitive effects in affective perception? Barrett and Moshe Bar (2009) suggest that the outputs of an affective processing system are integrated into unimodal perceptual processes via top-down projections form orbito-frontal cortex. The net result is a crossmodally integrated multisensory perceptual network. Their claim, consistent with a biased competition theory of attention (Desimone and Duncan, 1996; Kastner, 2004), is that a fast forward sweep of perceptual processing, at or about 180 milliseconds, is sufficient for a gist level categorization of a scene, object, event, action, or other agent (Greene and Oliva, 2009). This, in turn, drives a quick categorically appropriate affective response to stimuli that primes the body for action – approach or withdrawal. Top-down projections from prefrontal areas and orbitofrontal cortex then collect this bodily encoded  affective information and feed it back to sensory cortices, biasing perceptual processing, enhancing the perception of expected, behaviorally relevant targets and inhibiting the perception of potential distractors. These processes can be used to model attentional, contextual, semantic, and cultural effects in affective perception, and in perception more generally. 
The integration of an affective dimension into perceptually processing is a cognitive shortcut, a way of quickly encoding the biological value of a perceived object, event, agent, or action. How might this work? There is no such thing as a disembodied experience. Consequently, our knowledge of the world comes naturally paired with an affective dimension that encodes the biological significance, the affective value, of objects, events, agents, and actions. Barrett and Bar argue that affect is integrated into perceptual processing as a means to unpack and utilize this knowledge in object recognition and action selection. 
How would these processes contribute to our engagement with artworks? We can easily imagine how the integration of perceptual and affective processes might explain how we recognize and experience the expressive properties of artworks. One would expect, for instance, that depictions of figures and natural scenes would call on the same range of cognitive-affective processes as the stimuli employed in the experiments referred to above. Some gerrymandering might be needed to show how abstract works call on these same concepts and categories. But we can imagine that the expressionist qualities of abstract art ride piggyback on the same sets of categories and image features that drive perception in natural contexts, e.g. research in the psychology of music demonstrates a perceived relationship between the expressive qualities of biological movements and the expressive qualities of pure music that is underwritten by a shared set of psychological resources (Krumhansl, 1995; Chapados and Levitin, 2008; Vines et al, 2006). In other cases, following Barrett and Wittgenstein, we can imagine that our affective responses to artworks are artifacts of cultural context, of culturally bound standards, conventions, or associations governing behavior…just as is the case in garden variety affective perception.

Abstract Forms in Motion (falling off the wall #7) (1990)


The normative dimension of appreciation is not far behind. Artworks are communicative devices, artifacts designed to elicit a response in viewers or  to convey some content. The trick is that there are no ideal target procedures for artistic expression in a medium. Rather, artists develop a myriad of productive strategies, formal vocabularies, and style through trial and error. What are the constraints on this process? Communicative success. The communicative expectations of the artist and ever-evolving, shared aesthetic conventions of his or her artistic community. These expectations and conventions , in turn, function as normative constraints on artistic appreciation. But more importantly, they determine the sets of productive practices, formal-compositional conventions, and evaluative conventions that define different categories of art. Categories of art emerge from the shared practices of artists and consumers. Knowledge of these sets of conventions, art critical knowledge of the normative conventions governing artistic appreciation for the relevant category of art, plays just the same role in object recognition as does knowledge of the structure and function of objects or events in any ordinary perceptual context – they drive our attention into, perception, and understanding of artworks.
What’s the rub for philosophy of art? Art critical knowledge shapes our perception of artworks just as knowledge of the structure and function of objects and events shapes perception in ordinary contexts. Likewise, the normative dimension of artistic appreciation is integrated into our perceptual engagement with art just as the affective value of any object or event is integrated into ordinary perception. Of course there is more to say…and even more to do. This is an empirical hypothesis. What I have sketched here is a schematic model whose detail and scope remains to be fleshed out. 
I close with a caveat. I can imagine someone might argue that this all misses the point. What I have detailed is the how, but not the why of the story. I have provided a mechanism for how the work of normative conventions might be implemented in our engagement with artworks. But I haven’t provided even a glimmer of a story for why these conventions bear their normative force. I think this criticism would be a mistake. Appreciative conventions in the arts bear normative force because they emerge from the shared practices within which they are embedded. They are part and parcel of the implicit negotiations of social behavior within a community. But I don’t have much more of a story to tell about that here. What I will say is that the how of all of this is far from trivial. Empirical models are concrete tools used in the natural and social sciences to generate predictions and test theories, a means to generate normative constraints on the acceptability of theories. They can likewise be used to generate normative constraints governing practice within philosophy of art. Here my suggestion that, if the model I have proposed is sound, we will have to reconsider yet another of the boundaries that have separated the practice of philosophy of art and psychology.
Barrett, Lisa F. and Bar, Moshe (2009). See It with Feeling: Affective Predictions during Object Perception. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B 364: 1325-1334.
Barrett, Lisa F., Mesquita, Batja, and Gendron, Maria (2011). Context in Emotion Perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5): 286-290.
Carroll, Noël, Moore, Margaret, and Seeley, W. P. (2012). The Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics, Psychology, and Neuroscience: Studies in Literature, Music, and Visual Arts. In eds. A. P. Shimamura and S. E. Palmer, Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 31-62.
Chapados, Catherine, and Levitin, Daniel J. (2008). Crossmodal Interactions in the Experience of Musical Performances. Cognition 108: 639-651.
Desimone, Robert and Duncan, John (1995). Neural mechanisms of Selective Visual Attention. Annual Review of Neuroscience 18: 193-222. 
Dickey, George(1962). Is Psychology Relevant to Aesthetics? The Philosophical Review, 71(3): 285-302.
Green, Michelle R. and Oliva, Aude (2009). Recognition of Natural Scenes from Global properties: Seeing the Forest Without Representing the Trees. Cognitive Psychology 58: 137-176.
Kastner, Sabine (2004). Attentional response modulation in the human visual system. In Michael I. Posner, Cognitive neuroscience of attention (pp. 144-156). New York: Guilford Press.
Krumhansl, Carol L. 2002). Music: A Link between Cognition and Emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 11(2): 45-50.
LeDoux, Joseph (1996). The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Pessoa, Luiz and Adolphs, Ralph (2010). Emotion processing and the amygdala: from a ‘low road’ to ‘many roads’ of evaluating biological significance. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11: 773-782.
Pessoa, Luiz, Kastner, Sabine, and Ungerleider, Leslie G. (2002). Attentional control of the processing of neutral and emotional stimuli. Cognitive Brain Research 15: 31-45.
Vines, Bradley, Krumhansl, Carol L., Wanderly, Marcelo M., and Levitin, Daniel J. (2006). Crossmodal Interactions in the Perception of Musical Performance. Cognition 101: 80-113.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958). Philosophical Investigations. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1967). Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief. Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press.

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Race & Aesthetics 2015: A Retrospective

This blog post is primarily written by Daniel Abrahams, a PhD student specializing in aesthetics at University of Leeds, and supplemented by Shen-yi Liao (in brackets), a Marie Curie fellow at University of Leeds. Liao was a co-organizer of the conference and Abrahams was a conference assistant. However, we would like to stress that these are just our own perspectives rather than any “official” account. Photos are by Shen-yi Liao and Sara Protasi.



Race & Aesthetics: A British Society of Aesthetics Connections Conference ran the 19th and 20th of May, at the Leeds Art Gallery. Fourteen speakers and several dozen more participants gathered to share thoughts on any of the points of intersection between the philosophies of race and aesthetics. Topics ranged from sexual attraction to humour to Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. In what follows, I’ll try to present short but effective summaries of each of the conference talks.
While the talks could be chunked into five or six thematic topics, constant throughout was pushing the limits of the aesthetic well beyond art and into as many spheres of experience as possible. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman and A.W. Eaton focus on sexuality – beauty, desire, and the bodily aesthetic. Sherri Irvin, Alia Al-Saji, and Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng discuss how context shapes racialized images and archetypes. Ron Mallon and Charles Mills examine the functioning and functions of humour. Kristie Dotson and James Camien McGuiggan focus the most heavily on their first-personal experiences of specific art works and artists, and on how art may both articulate and confront, with special attention to the different responses by audiences who are differently racialized.
There are two talks that do not easily fit in to the above categories. The conference’s final talk, by Katharine Jenkins and Jennifer Saul, provides a practical capstone to the previous discussion, starting to answer the question that Coleman opened the conference with: how to start decolonializing the curriculum. The other talk, by Paul Taylor, does not readily fit any categories because it effectively covers them all. He asks the broad question, “what is the Black aesthetic?”


Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman / A.W. Eaton / Sherri Irvin

Day 1 Talk 1: Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, “‘I Am a Sexual Racist'”
The talk followed two main tracks. The first was to look at whiteness, whiteliness, and shame. Quoting Samantha Vice, whiteness is a global hegemonic norm that merits shame in persons racialized as white. This is because shame is morally appropriate in the case where there is a gap between what a person is and what a person wants to be. Global white supremacy means that persons racialized as white are benefited in such a way that their welfare derives from harm done unto others. Since this harm is unjust, shame is appropriate.
This analysis of shame is drawn into an analysis of shamelessness, specifically on the part of Jesse Matheson who argued that he was a “sexual racist” and that there was nothing wrong with that. Coleman then followed this into an analysis of racialized sexual desire, and how to desire against the pressures of white supremacy. The conclusion he advocates is “metonymic sexual desire:” mutually arousing objectification.
Day 1 Talk 2: A.W. Eaton, “What Makes you Beautiful: On the Racialization of Bodily Taste”
As the title of the talk suggests, Eaton’s focus is racialized ideals of beauty. Her central point is that standards of beauty are not simply symptoms of white power, as commonly argued, but are rather important constituents. Beauty standards’ buttressing effects on white power are twofold. The first is that it prescribes a way for people to shape themselves, what features they ought to display. The second, deriving from the first, is that it provides a hierarchized standard of beauty. Accordingly, it is not just that considered-standardly-white features are beautiful, but that they are more beautiful than other features. As a case study of both these points, Eaton takes up how “white hair” is a largely artificial construction.
To work against the white supremacist bodily aesthetic, Eaton argues that we have to not just change the principles we recognize, but work to shape our affective character. This is because there is necessarily a sentimental dimension to bodily taste. Accordingly, it is not enough to simply recognize that the way one feels is shaped by white supremacy, but one must work to undo the way one’s affect has been so determined. An immediate way this can be done is by working against stereotypes, refusing to shape one’s one image in the mold of white supremacy.
[Readers can also read more about Eaton’s thoughts on this topic at Philosop-her.]
Day 1 Talk 3: Sherri Irvin, “Icons of False Hope? The Role of Images in Thinking About Racial Justice”
The main focus of Irvin’s talk was the recent idea that making police officers wear video cameras would work to reduce police violence. Her argument was that the videos alone would not be enough without changing how people approach these videos. To make her case, she drew upon several existing videos of such violence, and showed how they worked to provide justification for police action: the videos are examined with the attitude that the viewer is looking for any even slightly plausible justification for police violence, and any justification, no matter how small, is taken as justification for anything and everything the officer does. In one particular poignant example, Irvin shows a video of Ursula Orr being thrown to the ground by the police. Because of how Orr landed, her one leg being up and visible above the hood of the car, she was charged with aggravated assault.
This analysis is tied with an analysis of the titular “icons of false hope.” Using the example of 12-year-old Devonte Hart hugging officer Bret Barnum, Irvin argues that the image is taken as an “icon of hope” because it shows black passivity. Both still and moving images reaffirm that “there is a standard of compliant non-violence that is applied there [to people of colour] and not elsewhere.” Accordingly, images that are held up as hopeful icons are done so because they promise to a white audience that people of colour will return to their place within white supremacy.


Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng

Day 1 Talk 4: Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng, “Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, or, What’s Wrong with Blacking Up?”
Stear and Zheng start their talk by way of discussion of the “value interaction debate” – how and in what way do ethical qualities come to bear on aesthetic evaluations? Some works of art may invite participants to adopt or export pernicious views. These arguments may be applied so that mere imaginings, separate from works of art, may also be so evaluated.
Playing upon J.L. Austin’s speech act theory, Stear and Zheng argue that imaginings may be analogously understood: not only is there the content (locution) of the imagining and the causal upshot (perlocution) of the imagining, but there is the act of imagining itself (illocution). This allows them to say that immoral imaginings may be substantively disrespectful acts, even if they are without consequence. The way this works is that the imagination-illocution itself is something that may be shaped by social-political context.


Ron Mallon / Charles W. Mills


Day 1 Talk 5: Ron Mallon, “Humour, Automaticity, and Automata”
The goal of Mallon’s talk was to look at how different dominant theories of humour deal with humour that takes race as its subject. The first half of the talk was picking through the existing theories of humour to move towards a more biological theory of mirth experienced as an epistemic emotion. The goal of humour, then, is to trigger this mirth reaction. Mallon uses Hurley, Dennett, and Adams’ model where the primary mechanism for which mirth is used, and the mechanism that gave rise to humour, is the sorting out of incompatible committed beliefs.
Moving away from broad theories of humour (and mirth), Mallon looks at particular sorts of jokes. First considered are category jokes, where the humour lies in some characteristic of the category defied. With respect to racial jokes, these trade on some person displaying some feature that is considered contrary to their racial category. Implicit in racial category humour, importantly, is some considered-essential feature that the mirth-triggering feature is defying. Similarly, mechanical humour also trades upon the assumption of essential racialized characteristics in the butt of the joke.
Day 1 Talk 6: Charles W. Mills, “White Lies / Black Humour”
Capping off day 1, there was Mills on humour within the philosophy of race. Looking at the three canon theories of humour – superiority, relief, and incongruity – he showed how Black humour used elements of all three to carve out space within white supremacy. Against the supremacy of white supremacy, Black humour can carve out space simply by asserting equality and upending the white supremacist hierarchy. The relief theory of humour is shown in how humour was used to create an escape from the tensions of colonialism. And the incongruity theory was put to use in showing the moral and intellectual hollowness of white supremacy.


Paul C. Taylor


Day 2 Talk 1: Paul C. Taylor, “Turning Aside at the Beginning”
Taylor started the second day by sharing some of the foundational work for his upcoming book. The title of the talk comes from W.E.B. Du Bois – “in the struggle to be human, how can we turn aside to talk about art?”
The aesthetic is that which is engaged immediately, that is felt directly. Aesthetic experience, following Dewey, begins with every day experience. Race, in turn, is about the material advantages and ideas that shape everyday life. Accordingly, the aesthetic is one way in which the effects of race are felt and engaged daily.
Taylor said that his Black aesthetic is “a conjunction, a network of cultural spaces… attended in the context of Black life.” He then laid out six themes that run throughout Black aesthetics: invisibility; authenticity; appropriation; existence and affect; art-ethics relation; and somatic aesthetics.
Alia Al-Saji / James Camien McGuiggan / Kristie Dotson


Day 2 Talk 2: Alia Al-Saji, “Waiting in Racialized Time: A Phenomenology of Racialization through Image and Film”
The focus of Al-Saji’s talk is the experience of racialization in art, with a specific focus on art that seeks to criticize images by reproducing them. She picks up from Fanon in Black Skin/White Masks, where he writes about waiting for himself while watching a film. Examples of “waiting for oneself” would be something like waiting for the Black bellhop or the Muslim terrorist – the tokened stereotypical image.
Racism importantly functions by protecting the power of the in group. Even when particular borders of power may shift, the othering mechanism that defends the in group persists. This makes it difficult to subvert images by tokening them – despite context they nevertheless present the white supremacist dichotomy. A better strategy is focusing on presenting counter-stereotypes, such that those that speak to the diversity of experience.
Day 2 Talk 3: James Camien McGuiggan, “Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B: A Case Study in Ethics and Art”
[McGuiggan focused his talk on Brett Bailey’s controversial work, Exhibit B, which puts on display men and women racialized as black as they would have been in 19th Century European human zoos. McGuiggan made a conscious decision to not show any photographs from the work. Instead, he gave an elaborate description of the work as a whole, which in his view includes the gazes of the typical racialized-as-white spectator, such as his own.
McGuiggan argues that Exhibit B forces an immoral response from the typical racialized-as-white spectator – the racist gaze – in order to, ideally, produce a moral outcome – by making them confront their own current racist attitudes. It is thus an especially interesting case for philosophers who are interested in ethical dimensions of art, and where ethics and aesthetics intersect. In the end, McGuiggan argues that it does not make sense to answer the question “Is Exhibit B good or bad?” because its goodness and badness are inextricably bound together.]
Day 2 Talk 4: Kristie Dotson, “Negative Space: Black Feminist Thought and Racialized Aestheticization”
Dotson spoke on the unknowability problem, which is the difficulty people have in centering the lives and experiences of Black women. She began her talk by noting that over seven hours of question and answer periods following talks she had given, she had been given exactly one question specifically on Black women. Normally, despite her speaking about Black women, she is instead only asked about Black men.
The unknowability problem has Black women being forced to occupy “negative epistemic space.” To talk about this, Doston used Kara Walker’s silhouettes. Here, silhouettes of men and women are projected onto a white canvas. This creates the effect where “the people who live in negative space start taking up space.”
Day 2 Talk 5: Katharine Jenkins and Jennifer Saul, “The Pragmatics of Inclusivity: Visual and Linguistic Cues to Group Membership”
The last talk of the conference was practically oriented: what is the best way to create an inclusive syllabus. Philosophy has more than a bit of a problem of both the current faculty and acknowledged canon being overwhelmingly white and male. The first two possibilities surveyed focused on just drawing attention to the race or gender of the philosopher being read or considered. These options were considered inadequate because they leave the implication of that person’s identity open, and in a racist/sexist society the way most people unpack the implication will be in part directed by racist/sexist implicit biases. What Saul and Jenkins put forward as the superior option is to confront the issue of discrimination and bias head-on, and to open class with a direct discussion on the subject.


The Audience!


[One thing we were especially pleased about is the diversity of the conference participants. In addition to aestheticians and other philosophers, the conference attracted academics from Sociology, English, and Education. Moreover, the conference also attracted museum professionals, artists and curators, and other members of the public.
We were also grateful to Jude Woods of Leeds Art Gallery, who took some philosophers on an impromptu tour of the museum’s more racially-tinged artworks, which has generated much reflection, including this blog post on Edward Armitage’s Retribution (1858) by Nils-Hennes Stear. Finally, we are most grateful to British Society of Aesthetics for providing the majority of the financial support for this conference.
Readers can get other perspectives on the conference by looking over tweets with the hashtag #RaceAesthetics2015.]


"A Matter of Taste" by Iskra Fileva

Iskra Fileva is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado, Boulder.
A pianist I know said once that she enjoys listening to various types of non-classical music but would not tell this to other classical musicians for fear of embarrassment. Gourmet chefs, similarly, sometimes confess to eating fast and other plain, non-gourmet food (Google “What do chefs really eat after work?”). According to my – admittedly cursory – investigation, pizza, ramen noodles, mashed avocado on toast, and Wendy’s fast food top many chefs’ after-work favorites. Again, many of the chefs in question appear to have opted to remain anonymous, and in any event, they would not put such confessions on the restaurant page. Finally, people with exquisite literary sensitivity have probably, at some point or other, gobbled up a crime story or a fantasy novel, or else taken pleasure in watching well-done B-movies. The question that interests me here is what this type of hedonic eclecticism and the pressure some apparently feel to keep eclecticism secret (nay, to treat it as a “dirty” little secret) tells us about taste.  
It may help to begin by asking why a classical pianist may be sheepish about enjoying non-classical music or a gourmet chef apologetic about eating comfort food. There are, of course, many possible answers. Perhaps, the high-end cook is afraid that confessing to liking low-brow cuisine would be bad PR. After all, many people are suspicious of the value of connoisseur-approved entrées (the merits of expensive wines tend to give rise to even higher doses of skepticism) and one may, not unreasonably, expect that cynics who hear a Ritz-Carleton restaurant chef admit to relishing plain food will become even more cynical. And of course, the chef’s job and livelihood crucially depend on curbing this type of skepticism. 
There is probably some truth to this suggestion, but it’s hardly the whole story. No parallel explanations are available in the case of the classical pianist or the reader with wide-ranging tastes. I have never heard anyone express skepticism about classical music (opera may be an exception here) and claim that, really, Beethoven is no big deal. As for literature, people do, occasionally, say disparaging things about some greats of the literary canon – Shakespeare and Joyce come to mind –  but it is not clear why any reader would care much. For in contrast with the chef, a reader’s job and livelihood do not depend on what others think of the books she reads. But if fear of inviting skepticism regarding the worth of some high-brow endeavor is not the answer, what is? 
One option is the following: people may be concerned that if they get caught seeking lower quality pleasures, others will conclude they don’t really have a refined taste after all, even if they consume quality art or food, etc. much of the time. One may be wary of arousing the suspicion that one is just pretending to like high-end cuisine or Brahms or Joyce or what have you – but that what one really likes is rock, comfort food, and the writing of Steven King. (It is interesting that this type of suspicion always tends to run in the same direction: a person known to enjoy mainstream novels but caught listening to a Virginia Woolf book on his mp3, say, is unlikely to be seen as pretending to enjoy the popular literature he normally consumes). Suppose this type of fear is the explanation. What explains the fear itself? I wish to suggest that at the root of it must be the belief that others assume it to be impossible to genuinely enjoy a variety of things, that they believe that if you truly appreciate the highest quality, you wouldn’t have anything less. 
This assumption is not altogether unreasonable. Eclecticism lacks internal unity. Much like an outfit that consists of a variety of mismatched elements, liking multiple different kinds of thing may seem to cut against the grain of style and good taste all on its own. For style is, to a large extent, a kind of harmony – a way in which all the different elements fit together in a unified whole. Lack of style has much to do with the absence of this type of harmony. Moreover, it is probably true that if one deeply appreciates something, one is unlikely to revel in certain other things. Thus, I would be surprised if many classical musicians voluntarily choose to listen to simplistic and repetitive pop songs, for instance. I would conjecture that classical musicians will tend to find such songs, well, tedious: once a person has learned to expect from music a certain level of complexity and sophistication, she is almost bound to have those expectations frustrated while listening to the typical, familiar 3-cord song. But it would not be astonishing in the least bit if it turns out that a significant number of classical musicians are keen on jazz, alternative rock, tango, or a number of other styles. When it comes to taste, things stand much the way they do with character: character has some unity, but it is also complex and partly fragmented. Thus, while a kind person will not kill for profit, she may well refuse to help someone in need because she has too much on her own mind, say, or is too exhausted. That’s all the unity we can hope for in the realm of character. As with character, so with taste. This is my first point.   
My second point is this: a person’s tastes are more like a collection of objects than they are like an outfit, and this largely obviates the need for unity. The reason a person’s shirt, scarf, and coat must match if she is to be seen as elegant is that the different parts of the outfit are worn and perceived simultaneously, and there is pressure to make them look like a coherent whole, each complementing the rest. But one’s aesthetic preferences are not, similarly, meant to be satisfied all at once, and there is no reason to try and make the set perfectly coherent and unified. Different preferences are satisfied at different points in time. Sometimes, a classical music lover may want to listen to music that’s energizing and, perhaps, allows one to dance to it. A temperamental Latin piece would be perfect for such an occasion, and no classical music piece will be good unless, perhaps, the type of dance one craves is ballet. Or she may be too tired to appreciate the complexity of a Mendelssohn piece or be in the middle of an intimate conversation with a significant other and think that the perfect music for the occasion is soulful singer-songwriter music. Something similar is true of overworked chefs: they admit to just being too tired to appreciate gourmet food after a long day of work and so crave simple meals in the evening.   
Note that the question is not only why many feel pressure to hide taking guilty pleasure in simple things. I am sure not all feel such pressure, and some famous musicians, chefs, etc. have publicly acknowledged indulging in such guilty pleasures. The question is why the multi-faceted nature of taste tends to surprise us. Our default assumption is that classical musicians will simply not take non-classical music seriously and that haute cuisine chefs will scoff at fast food.  
Why would anyone suppose that a person’s taste is either a set of unified preferences or else a set of preferences firmly anchored in the lowest common denominator, i.e., in the plainest and most ordinary among one’s tastes? Perhaps, we think that humans are simpler than they, in fact, are – that there are just a few things they really like. Maybe, we want our images of others to have an internal harmony so we can “make sense” of those others and know how to interact with them – what music to put on when they come over to visit, what gift to buy for their birthdays. Or maybe the higher pleasures are somehow more elusive and thereby easier to deny than the lower ones, sort of the way mental anguish is easier to deny than physical pain is.  
Whatever the truth here, the assumption of unity must be rejected on both theoretical and practical grounds. A person may have a taste for more than one kind of thing. Taste is like Walt Whitman – large and it contains multitudes. Moreover, it is good for a person to have a wide and diverse set of aesthetic preferences. In fact, it is necessary if she is to find just what she needs on a variety of occasions. 
Note that while I have been assuming here that some pleasures are of a higher order than others and also, perhaps, implying that there is such a thing as good taste (controversial views, I know, but permit me not to go into this), nothing important in my argument hinges on these assumptions. The presumption of unity in a person’s taste and the corollary expectation that someone who enjoys this and that kind of thing cannot and should not enjoy this or that other kind of thing are pervasive and held independently of one’s view of the hierarchy of taste.  A propos, I recall an occasion in high-school when some of my friends and I were in a music record store, while on a trip in a different city. There were two young men working in the store, and everything about their appearance screamed “heavy metal.” One of my friends was a Beatles fan (many years after the Beatles heyday), and she wore the Beatles sign as a necklace around her neck. One of the young men looked at her and said, “Excuse me, are you listening to Beatles?” “Yes,” she muttered. “Get out of here,” he said, half-joking, no doubt, but only half. He was thereby showing just the type of purism and snobbism my classical pianist friend feared her colleagues would show, but more militant. More importantly, he appeared to be working on the assumption that someone who listens to the Beatles can’t possibly enjoy Metallica or Iron Maiden and bands of their ilk. But that’s quite possible, actually. I don’t remember if it was true of the friend I just described – if yes, the store may have lost a customer – but I am quite certain it is true in general.   
Some people do have a very narrow taste, surely, and appear unable to enjoy a variety of things. I once knew somebody like that – a person with a narrow taste, that is. He had an officemate who was just the opposite of him: always finding something new to enjoy. This acquaintance of mine liked making fun of his co-worker and of the wide range of the other’s tastes but actually, I suspect he was just jealous. The human emotional and psychological  needs are much wider than any one style of art or other product can satisfy, and it seems to me that we all know, at some level, that it is good (healthier?) to cultivate taste for a wider variety of things. And the friend in question must have known it too.
If you are reading this, T, apologies for bringing up the story of you and your co-worker. I either did not have the guts or did not have the insight to say this back then, but perhaps, I will say it now: there is no reason to be disparaging while desirous. Better go find some new things to enjoy. I know you doubt there are such things, but really, I knew you well enough to know you are a large man and contain multitudes. You may doubt there are such things, but I would be astonished if there aren’t.