Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



The following is a guest post by Charles Peterson (Oberlin College).
This is one of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the first, by A.W. Eaton, and the second, by Paul C. Taylor. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.


The age of 75 can signify multiple indicators. At 75 years old, an ant would be ancient. At 75 years old a mountain would be considered infantile in its span and at 75 years old a human being, has lived to a ripe and healthy age. For an academic organization, 75 years is a perfect time to celebrate its longevity and take stock of its future. The American Society for Aesthetics is at this point in regards to the inclusion of diverse scholars and discourses in its proceedings.  The ASA stands at the threshold where its present efforts to open up, encourage and support the presence of women and members from previously underrepresented backgrounds can either move forward, grow and expand or retreat  into exclusivity and marginality.

As has been mentioned by Anne Eaton and Paul Taylor, the steps taken by the ASA at the organizational level, to increase and encourage diversity must be commended. I will not reiterate the efforts described by Eaton and Taylor but will focus on the need for the self-awareness necessary for these efforts to reap real reward.  Too often in these efforts there lay a gap between the programmatic endeavors designed to invite and support diverse populations scholars into mainstream institutions and the response of members of these institutions. These programmatic and organizational efforts are aimed to provide support and access to new members. They show an agency on the part of the organization to be clear about its goals regarding diversity. These efforts also are focused on the recipients of the programming but do not attend to the majority population of the organization. The presence of diverse members and perspectives does not reveal its full import if there is not a true relationship between all members on these issues. The failure for the entirety of the organization to undertake this effort, to in good faith, take up the responsibility of opening up the ASA as a space for true inclusion and intellectual expansion. This failure could lead to the exact opposite of the aforementioned efforts, as members from underrepresented groups make the principled choice to not participate in ASA. This choice is one based on the need to preserve ones health, dignity and integrity. To open up the ASA as a space of inclusivity, a real struggle must be waged. This struggle cannot be thrust exclusively on the shoulders of marginalized members and their allies and must be waged by all members of the organization. This is a programmatic struggle, a discursive struggle and it is an internal struggle that necessarily must be waged by the majority members. To paraphrase Claudia Jones, a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival in London, UK, it means that a struggle for inclusion must be boldly fought in every sphere of organizational interactions so that the open door of institutional membership doesn’t become a revolving door because of the failure to conduct this struggle.

This work, this struggle, must be of the most transformative type, wherein old organizational assumptions, behaviours and privileges must be examined and interrogated. At heart what academic organizations provide are community; for scholars of same or differing minds, for scholars that work in similar or contrasting areas, and for scholars that understand or are ignorant of each other’s, literal or metaphoric, languages. Despite these inconsistencies and divergences, these communities must be steeped in respect for all participants and what they contribute.  This respect, the foundation of community, can only be maintained when all members become self critical of the limits of their experience, understanding and knowledge. To function in the full privilege of the unexamined life, thought and action will only maintain walls between members that seal off the ASA from the rich complexity of difference. If these walls remain unbroken, they become the walls of a self -imposed prison.

It has been my belief that philosophy is a living thing, proactive and reactive, active and mindful, at heart an experience that is fully engaged with the world from which it rises and that it informs. Aesthetics among the sub fields of philosophy may be the most reflective of this belief. Art has long been a reflection of social change, a signifier for the world as it is, could, can and will be. The consideration of art, its forms and practices can do no less than open up to the ways of life. The world we live in, the world in which the ASA finds itself, is one where the old hierarchies, orders and practices are going the way of the mad man. The ASA as organization and its majority members must decide in what direction it will go. Will it embrace the realities of inclusion and diversity, wherein its members embrace and understand the importance of scholars that bring new and different ways of seeing, speaking and being and extend to them the respect they deserve? Or will it become like an object of contemplation, hanging on the walls of a long closed museum, decaying in its chosen irrelevance, atrophying in its unacknowledged limits.

This then is the tipping point, at 75 years the ASA and its membership can engage in an intense self reflection and consciously decide what will the organization be going forward, who will be welcomed and embraced in that future and how room can be made for those fellow travelers. The organization can take seriously the work necessary amongst the membership to craft a real and true community, wherein all feel and are truly welcomed. Or not. Conversely the ASA can look askance at those practices, which offend and insult women and persons of color. The ASA can remain silent on various forms of diversity, as Anne Eaton has noted, disability and class.  It can continue to work at the organizational level and not consider the community itself. These are not small questions, and there are no simple solutions but if the ASA is to take the first steps of the next 75 years as an inclusive and supportive body, its growth and expansion depend on its real ability to create and embody the community it hopes to be.

This is one of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the first, by A.W. Eaton, and the second, by Paul C. Taylor. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.

Notes on the Contributor
Charles Peterson is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Oberlin College and writes on film, political theory and fronts a cover band for spiritual nourishment. He is a co-editor of De-Colonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies (Africa World Press, 2003) and author of DuBois, Fanon, Cabral: The Margins of Elite Anti-Colonial Leadership (Lexington Books, 2007).

Image credit: Untitled Arch at Benbrack summit by Andy Goldsworthy, original photo by summonedbyfells via Flickr.



What follows is a guest post by Paul C. Taylor (Penn State).
[Updated:] This is the first of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the first, by A.W. Eaton, and the third, by Charles Peterson. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.

By the time my father turned 75, he was freely exercising the wide-ranging license to offend that family elders often enjoy. He could say or do pretty much anything, and we would chalk it up to him being set in his ways. We would weigh the costs and benefits of contesting his frequently insensitive and sometimes just rude behavior, or of reminding him of all the considerations that militate against talking about women or Jews or whatever like that anymore. And we would usually decide that discretion was the better part of valour, and we would let him alone.

So on he lumbered, cluelessly, sometimes willfully, out of step with evolving social mores. The good news is that he was mostly harmless, having tucked himself away into a quiet retirement where he neither had nor wanted influence or authority over anyone other than himself.

The American Society for Aesthetics (ASA), 75 years old this year, reminds me of my father. It has an at best uneven relationship to shifting social mores, especially as these bear on behaviours that should be as distant and grating to us as the world of Mad Men. And much as my father assumed he could say whatever he wanted and continue to enjoy the respect and love of his children, some members of the ASA seem to think the organization can both live in the 1950s and win the loyalty of people today. Continue reading



The following is a guest post by A.W. Eaton (University of Illinois-Chicago).
[Updated:] This is the first of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the second, by Paul C. Taylor, and the third, by Charles Peterson. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.


The 75th anniversary of the American Society of Aesthetics is an opportunity to reflect upon both our progress regarding inclusion and diversity and also upon the remaining work to be done. I discuss them here in turn. Continue reading



What follows is a guest post by Elijah Millgram.

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

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

Self-operating napkin (Rube Goldberg cartoon with caption)

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

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

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



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

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

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

Not all conferences are the same.

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

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

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

6637485987_2e44d66545_z(Photo credit: Peter Barker)

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

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


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


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

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

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





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

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

Differences: Remembering Peter Kivy

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

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



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. Continue reading