AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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"Diversity in Aesthetics Publishing" by Sherri Irvin

Photo by Keisha Register


Sherri Irvin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. She specializes in aesthetics and the philosophy of art with strong interests in ethics and philosophy of race. She has written extensively on matters related to contemporary art and on aesthetic experience in everyday life and is currently working on two books, both under contract with Oxford University Press: Immaterial: A Philosophy of Contemporary Art, which argues for a view of the ontology of contemporary artworks, and Body Aesthetics, a multi-authored collection that treats the aesthetics of the body in relation to art, evolutionary theory, ethical considerations, race, age, gender, disability, sexuality and sport. Sherri is also a member of the editorial boards of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and Philosophy Compass.

 
 
UPDATE
(12/10/2014)
**************************************************************************************
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism editors Ted Gracyk and Bob Stecker have announced some changes to the journal’s editorial policies:
“[B]eginning with issue 73.4, we will adopt a new citation policy. We will move from a system in which all citations are in endnotes to one with in text citations and a reference list. Like our recent addition of abstracts at the beginning of each published paper, this change generates greater transparency about the contents of articles. 
“However, it also supports the second change that we will introduce, which is that JAAC’s instruction to contributors we will include our support for the GCC 2 language (Gendered Citation Campaign). The new instruction reads:
We encourage authors to check whether there are significant but under-recognized papers or books by women philosophers, or philosophers from other under-represented groups, which you might have overlooked so far in producing your paper and/or assembling your bibliography.”

**************************************************************************************
 


In my work as a reviewer and editor, I’ve seen a number of aesthetics manuscripts that fail to acknowledge relevant prior work (both philosophical and artistic) by women and people of color. When I became the first female co-editor of the aesthetics section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy last year, I noticed that only 5 out of 37 (13.5%) articles that had been commissioned by the aesthetics section since the SEP’s inception were by women. (I am one of 5 co-editors of the section. All the others are male, and all of us are white.)
These and other experiences have led me to be curious about the state of publishing in aesthetics, which has the reputation of being a particularly collegial and woman-friendly sub-discipline of philosophy. I decided to do some research about the gender balance of publishing in 3 major aesthetics journals since 2010, and also to query the editors about their policies and practices.[1] I focused on the two most prominent print journals, the British Journal of Aesthetics (BJA) and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (JAAC), and the most prominent online journal, Contemporary Aesthetics (CA).
 
Data on Gender Balance for BJA, CA and JAAC
 
I collected information about the gender balance of the authors, referees, editorial boards and editorial consultants of BJA, CA and JAAC. I also collected information about the gender balance of membership in the ASA and BSA.[2]

 
Gender Balance of Published Articles
 
BJA and JAAC are quite similar regarding the gender balance of articles published since 2010, women have authored about 20% of the articles in each journal. The balance of CA is strikingly different, with 33.3% of articles authored by women.[3]
From the overall numbers, I broke out contributions to symposia and special issues, since these typically involve some pre-selected or invited contributors and thus may enable the editors of the journal or of the issue to have a greater influence on gender balance. I found that, as compared to the overall gender balance, women were somewhat more highly represented in symposia and special issues in BJA (at 25%) and CA (at 39.7%), with little difference from the overall ratio in JAAC (at 20.9%). Only 24 out of 139 (17%) total articles in BJA were in special issues or symposia, as compared to 29/93 (31%) for CA and 55/134 (41%) for JAAC.
At the suggestion of Ted Gracyk, co-editor of JAAC, I compared these numbers to the gender compositions of the professional organizations with which BJA and JAAC are affiliated. The British Society of Aesthetics (affiliated with BJA) has approximately 31.2% female membership, whereas the American Society for Aesthetics (affiliated with JAAC) has approximately 32.5% female membership (though I was unable to code for gender in about 1.8% of cases, so the actual number is probably a few tenths of a percent higher).
We thus have a situation where, in our two main print journals, women are very significantly underrepresented as compared to their membership in the affiliated professional organizations.
CA, on the other hand, is publishing work by women at a rate that closely mirrors their membership in these organizations (though it is not formally affiliated with either).
 
Gender Balance of Decision Makers
 
I also looked at the gender balance of the groups responsible for decisions about each journal or the articles to be published.
Both CA and JAAC publish lists of their referees. The referees for the last full publication year were 44.8% women for CA and 22.4% women for JAAC. BJA does not publish or maintain an annual list of referees and does not track the gender balance of its referees.
Women are currently well represented on the Editorial Boards of all three journals, relative to their membership in the ASA and BSA: 31.3% for BJA, 37.5% for CA, and 38.1% for JAAC. Both BJA and JAAC have made recent changes to their Editorial Boards that have increased the representation of women. (Full disclosure: I was recently added to the EB of JAAC.)
BJA and CA, but not JAAC, also employ a supplemental team of consultants to the editorial board. The BJAEditorial Consultants of BJA are 23.1% women[4] and the CAInternational Advisory Board is 50% women. (I omitted deceased members of the CA IAB, since I am interested in the gender balance of current decision makers.)
 
Editorial Policies and Practices
 
I asked the editors of all three journals to tell me about their review process and about specific efforts they are making in relation to diversity and inclusiveness.
According to the editors, all three journals employ double anonymity in their review process: the author and referees are mutually unaware of each other’s identity, but the action editor for the article typically knows the identities of both.
Elisabeth Schellekens, co-editor of BJA, reports recent efforts to improve the gender balance of the Editorial Board and Editorial Consultants. In addition, she and co-editor John Hyman have worked “to broaden the journal’s contents to include new or less mainstream topics or areas of research,” and they are now receiving more submissions in such areas. With regard to citation of work by women, Schellekens reports, “We have never made it conditional of acceptance that an article should contain references to female authors but, where possible, we have suggested them.” In addition, “It has always been a serious consideration in the choice of special issues and symposia that there should be at least a few possible contributors who are female.” She reports that, in her experience, women are significantly less likely to accept an invitation to participate in a symposium or special issue, but also significantly less likely to pull out once they have accepted such an invitation.
Arnold Berleant and Yuriko Saito report that CA does not have, in Saito’s words, “a specific policy or practice to encourage submissions from female writers and minority writers.” However, “our practice has been to support and encourage good works that address diversity of issues and approaches. We also specifically discourage those works in aesthetics that are relevant only to a narrow circle of professional philosophers/aestheticians – what Arnold refers to as ‘in-house debates.’ We make sure that the issues and discussion are accessible and relevant to general readers from different disciplines, including practicing artists. This also means that we consider submissions that do not use the typical philosophy/aesthetics vocabulary, methodologies, approaches, etc.”
In addition, CA has an editorial practice (though not formal policy) regarding authors whose first language is not English. Saito reports that Berleant “specifically tries very hard … to encourage works from non-English speaking authors whose language may need a lot of editorial work. As long as the content is there, we do not automatically reject submissions because of poor English. [Berleant] spends an inordinate amount of time and effort working with the authors to improve their writing. I think this adds to the cultural diversity of our collection.”
Berleant notes that CA’s only explicit policy related to diversity is this one, noted on the CA web site: “In order to ensure diversity of subject matter, approaches, and voices, papers by authors who have not published in Contemporary Aesthetics for at least a year prior to submission are normally given precedence.” He adds, “[O]ur commitment to diversity does not include explicit attention to gender, institution, or nationality.”
Ted Gracyk and Bob Stecker, co-editors of JAAC, have continued a practice initiated by previous editor Susan Feagin of collecting statistics on gender and geographic distribution of submissions and acceptances (see next section). They report, “JAAC’s mission as an interdisciplinary journal generates a duty to editors to be as inclusive as possible.” For acceptances, they rely primarily on peer reviewers, whom they select “according to two criteria: we do not ask anyone to review a manuscript if they’ve done a report for us within the last six months, and we prioritize peer reviewers who have themselves published peer-reviewed work on the topic of the manuscript.”
 
 
Gender & Geographic Balance of Submission & Acceptances in JAAC
Since July 2011, JAAC has been keeping figures on the gender balance and geographic distribution of authors who submit articles and whose articles are accepted. BJA and CA do not collect this information.

These figures reflect authors, not manuscripts. If an accepted manuscript had a man and a woman as co-authors, its acceptance is reflected in both the “women” and “men” columns.  
It is notable that over the past three years, women authors have submitted to JAAC at a rate substantially higher than the rate at which they are published in JAAC from 2010-2014, and closer to the proportion of women members in the ASA. During 2 of the last 3 years, the acceptance rate for women has been lower than for men. Though the differences seem small (only 2-3 percentage points), another way of putting them is that in 2012-3, men were 21.4% more likely than women to have their manuscripts accepted, while in 2013-4, they were 11.6% more likely.
US submissions tend to be accepted at a rate slightly over 20%, while submissions from non-English-speaking countries tend to be accepted at far lower rates. There has been a steep upward trend over the past three years in the acceptance rate of submissions from English-speaking countries other than the US (which may, of course, be a statistical anomaly).
 
Conclusions
 
It is, of course, impossible to draw any conclusions about causation from these data. But a few things are notable. In the two most prominent print journals in aesthetics, the representation of women is significantly lower than the rate at which women belong to the relevant professional organizations. In JAAC, the rate at which women have been published since 2010 is lower than the rate at which they have submitted articles from 2011-2014.
A much higher proportion of the articles in CA are authored by women, as compared to both BJA and JAAC. It also has twice as many women among its referees (as compared to JAAC) and editorial consultants (as compared to BJA).
JAAC is tracking gender and geographic balance of submissions, acceptances and referees, while BJA and CAare not. BJA is actively trying to broaden the range of topics that the journal is understood to embrace. CA has since its inception embraced (and, in my judgment, effectively signaled that it embraces) diversity of topics, and has an editorial practice of fostering publication by authors whose first language is not English.
 
Further Research Directions
 
There are many questions that would be worthy of further study, including these:
 
1.  How do the publication rates of women in these journals compare to the rates at which women belong to philosophy department faculties? Since some, and perhaps many, members of the ASA and BSA are not professional philosophers, it is difficult to be sure that the gender balance of the ASA and BSA is reflective of the gender balance of the profession (though I am aware of no special reason to doubt that it is).
2. How do other aesthetics journals, such as the Journal of Aesthetic Education and Evental Aesthetics, compare to BJA, CA and JAAC?
3. How does the gender balance of submissions and published articles vary from country to country?
4. Are there identifiable differences in the topics that women and men tend to write about?
5. How do the citation rates for work by women compare to those for work by men? This would be a very important next line of inquiry, given the evidence that women’s scholarly work is systematically under-cited (see here and here). Especially notable is Kieran Healy’s finding that in top philosophy journals, David Lewis is cited almost twice as many times as all women combined.
6. All of these questions need to be studied in relation to racial and ethnic minorities as well. Such research might require surveying people about their race and ethnicity.
 
Proposals
 
1. Publish bibliographies.
 
Given the evidence that women are systematically undercited, and the likelihood that scholars of color are as well, it would be valuable to take steps to improve the situation. Data about citation would be easier to collect if journals published bibliographies at the end of each article rather than just footnotes with embedded citation information. Bibliographies would also be easier for scholars and referees to scan if they are checking to make sure that relevant research by members of underrepresented groups has been cited.
2. Check for citations by women and scholars of color.
 
Authors, referees and editors should make a habit of checking to make sure relevant work by women and scholars of color has been cited. Editors could expressly instruct referees that this is among their tasks.
3. Work toward inclusion of women and scholars of color in symposia and special issues.
 
Editors and editorial boards should work to ensure that symposia and special issues are likely to have women and members of racial and ethnic minorities among their contributors. Those submitting proposals should address this, and editors and EBs can take this into account in deciding which proposals to accept. Those of us deciding which projects to undertake – what kind of books to edit, what special issues and symposia to propose, etc. – can consider topics that women and scholars of color are writing about, so that there will be a supply of people to collaborate on these projects with us.
4. Reach out to encourage scholars to submit their work and to propose symposia and special issues.
 
If editors become aware of a session that includes high-quality work by women or scholars of color, they can express interest in having particular papers or a symposium submitted for consideration. Cultivating relationships with scholars conveys to them that their work is more likely to be welcomed.
5. Look beyond non-standard English.
 
If we value diversity of topics, approaches and methods (as, I would argue, we should), and if we value the availability of excellent work from scholars around the world, we may need to make a special effort not to reject work based largely on linguistic infelicities.  
6. Collect data about gender balance of submissions, acceptances, and referees.
 
I applaud JAAC for collecting and publicly sharing the data they have collected. Given that CA has a gender balance that seems to more closely reflect the gender balance of participation in the profession, this seems less urgent for them (though such information would still be useful, if only to allow us to gain more insight into what they are doing right). I hope that BJA will consider tracking these data as well. Given that editors can be subject to implicit bias regarding who comes to mind as a referee for a given paper, it would be useful to know how the gender balance of referees shakes out.
7. Use the double-anonymous evaluation system with care.
 
The editors of BJA and CAexpressed their opposition to triple-anonymous evaluation, and the editors of JAAC simply noted that they do not use this system. I understand the editors’ reasons for wishing to know the identities of authors and referees, and if I were an editor I, too, would want this information. But editors should be cautious about the possibility that, despite their best intentions, they may themselves be subject to implicit bias that affects the review process. They should also be alert to the possibility that implicit bias has affected a referee’s report: referees sometimes know the identity of the author of a work they have been asked to review (especially in a small discipline like aesthetics), and may infer or assume some aspects of the author’s social identity based on the content of the paper even if they don’t know the author’s name.
8. Reflect directly on these issues and formulate policies and practices.
 
The editors and editorial boards of journals that seem to be publishing work by women and scholars of color at a rate lower than that of their participation in the profession should reflect directly on how they might more effectively attract top quality work by members of underrepresented groups, so as to close the gap. I hope the above suggestions, and others that commentators will add below, will assist in this effort.
I am grateful to BJA editors John Hyman and Elisabeth Schellekens, CA editors Arnold Berleant and Yuriko Saito, and JAAC editors Ted Gracyk and Bob Stecker for answering my questions about their editorial practices and providing information to assist in my analyses. I would also like to thank Dabney Townsend of the American Society for Aesthetics (ASA) and Caroline Auty and Berys Gaut of the British Society of Aesthetics (BSA) for supplying information about membership in the ASA and BSA, respectively.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] I asked the editors of the journals to answer the following questions:
 
1. Does [your journal] have a formal policy or a set of informal practices that relate to diversity and inclusiveness in its content / authors / referees / editorial board / the works cited by its authors / the topics or authorship of symposia and special issues?
 
2. Do you keep figures on the gender breakdown of authors who submit papers and whose papers are accepted? If so, would you be willing to share them?
 
3. Does your review process employ triple anonymity?
 
4. Is there anything else you’d like me to know?
 
[2] All gender coding of items for this post was done by me, except in the case of BSA membership. My method of coding people as women and men was as follows. I relied on my knowledge of the gender presentation of people with whom I am personally acquainted. As a next step, I relied on first names where those names are used almost exclusively by people of one gender. For names not very strongly associated with a particular gender, I did internet searches for pictures indicating gender presentation and/or reliable references indicating gender. Where all of these methods failed, I did not code the person for gender. Non-coding occurred only for some of the ASA membership listings I received. I assume that this hybrid method of coding is associated with a small but non-zero error rate. I am not aware of anyone I coded having a gender identity other than ‘man’ or ‘woman,’ but if any recent authors, referees, editorial board members or editorial consultants who are represented in my data identify in this way, I hope they will inform me so that I can correct the data. I do not mean to erase other gender identities.
 
[3] I used a “fractional authorship” model: where articles have multiple authors, I gave each author credit for an equal fraction of the article. If an article was co-authored by a man and a woman, it was counted as .5 woman-authored. If we were to place articles with at least one woman author wholly in the woman-authored category, the numbers would be slightly higher:
BJA: 22.3%
CA: 34.4%
JAAC: 21.6%
 
[4] This includes Anne Eaton, who has been mistakenly left off the masthead of the last two issues of the journal and whose membership in the EC is not yet reflected on the BJA web site.


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"Highs & Lows" by Alex King

Alex King is an assistant professor at SUNY at Buffalo. She works primarily on issues in ethics and metaethics, but is interested in normativity generally and the ways in which different normative domains resemble or differ from each other.
 
It’s a sad truth that aesthetics isn’t taken particularly seriously in the contemporary philosophical scene (see here and here). And I think Bence Nanay is right to suggest that this is in part due to the perceived elitism of aesthetics. In this post, I’ll argue that we can make progress on this front by discussing an issue of independent philosophical interest: the distinction between high and low art and between so-called “highbrow” and “lowbrow” audiences. The moral, basically, will be this: Quit being so judgy.
 
The high art/low art distinction can sort very broad things or very narrow things:
  • categories of media (fine arts vs. applied arts)
  • media (opera vs. fashion)
  • cross-medium movements (Romanticism vs. pop art)
  • genres (drama vs. horror movies)
  • sub-genres (Bauhaus vs. de Stijl architecture)
  • particular intra-sub-genre works (Lady Gaga vs. Britney Spears)

Similarly, in every aesthetic arena people sort themselves into highbrows and lowbrows – the insiders and the outsiders; those able to appreciate less easy, less accessible things and those who aren’t. Film highbrows crave difficult but rewarding works by art house directors like Godard and Tarkovsky. Film lowbrows are captivated by the shiny production values of Spielberg or Michael Bay. Culinary highbrows prefer the bitter but subtler flavor of dark chocolate to the cloying sweetness of milk chocolate. Literary highbrows would rather die than read (or be caught reading?) a Harlequin romance novel. Even automotive highbrows have their preferences: the deep roar of a naturally aspirated engine to the cheap whirr of a turbo; the manual to the automatic transmission.
 
But there’s reason to doubt that there’s an inherent difference in quality between high art/highbrow and low art/lowbrow things. The following two arguments can help us see why:
 
(1) A historical argument: Many things that are now high art or highbrow, like jazz or movies film or beer, used to be lowbrow. In fact, food and drink are reaching a fever pitch of highbrow status. Following wine’s lead, coffee and beer are the subject of erudite discussions, and gourmet food stores are exploding all over. (Did you know that you can be a coffee or a beer sommelier now (called stewards and Cicerones, respectively)?) Conversely, many things that are now low used to be high (though more often, ex-high art becomes solidly “middlebrow”). Think of fashion trends and technological changes like flared jeans, Motorola Razrs, and “futuristic” Googie architecture; as well as hyper-popularized art, like Robert Frost poetry, melting Dali clocks, and Raphael’s cherubs. (If you’re interested in more, check out the amazing chart from a 1949 issue of Life Magazine). Such mobility suggests that our current distinctions don’t track anything about the objects themselves.
 
(2) A Bourdieu-inspired argument: We sort aesthetic objects – and ourselves – into such categories to communicate social and cultural features of our identities. This provides a much better explanation of high/low phenomena (and diversity of opinion, cycles of trends, patterns of high/low development, etc.) than actual quality differences.
 
You might object that the distinctions I gave above are, really, an outdated way of thinking about the high/low distinction. You would be right. Sophisticated contemporary audiences defy these traditional categorizations, maybe partly in response to considerations like (1) and (2). A preference profile with cachet need not restrain itself to opera, Romanticism, and Godard. It might now contain, alongside things like this, Jay-Z, Friends, and black velvet Elvis posters.
 
Some argue that this means we’re moving into a post-brow era, called by some the “No-Brow” (see here and here). But I think that we’ve actually just moved to a more complex sorting system.
 
My suspicion is that high art/highbrow things are now distinguished by a special mode of appreciation or engagement. You can like Kmart or Gap clothes because looking normal is a conscientious reaction to the extravagance and ultimate silliness of fashion trends (see “normcore”). You can like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for its commentary on feminism, coming-of-age stories, and superhero tropes. In other words, you can like anything – from fashion and turbos to Britney and Bay – as long as you’ve got some articulate and intelligent reasons to justify your doing so.
 
If that’s right, then there must be a lowbrow way of appreciating things, too. If high art appreciation is characterized by the presence of smart reasons, lowbrow appreciation must be characterized by their lack. Such art appreciation ends up looking straightforward and uncritical. To appreciate something this way is just to follow your nose and not ask why. Someone just really likes Kmart or Gap clothes; someone just has fun watching Buffy. No arguments, just enjoyment.
 
On this picture, highbrow appreciation is hard-fought and hard-won, and its rewards lie below the surface. Lowbrow appreciation, on the other hand, is relatively comfortable and easy. By this, I don’t mean that lowbrow appreciation is all feel-good unicorns and rainbows. I just mean that the only thing you have to do to experience art this way is experience things and feel feelings. This distinction resonates with the Bourdieu-inspired point: perhaps we’re just trying to communicate how smart, insightful, and unlike the rest we are. And of course, the more complex we make the explanation, the smarter and better we end up looking.
 
This new way of characterizing the distinction can sound, when read one way, as simply saying that – forget high/low – there are reasons that good art is good, and being able to articulate those reasons makes you a good experiencer of art. But that’s not what I mean. Surely both of the above reactions are important to the fullest aesthetic appreciation and assessment of things – both the instantaneous, uncritical enjoyment or aversion, and the considered analysis of value. Where would aesthetic experience be without our emotional responses and gut reactions? And where would it be if we couldn’t articulate any reasons for finding some works good and others bad?
 
It’s possible to take a step further, too. Not only are these immediate responses indispensable for a full aesthetic experience, but I suspect that they’re compatible with a robust, reason-responsive experience. Lowbrow audiences can still respond to the reasons that make the art good (or count in its favor), even if they can’t articulate those reasons. Maybe a teenage girl watching Buffy is responding to the humor that spoofs superhero stories; she may very well respond to the vampires and demons as a metaphor for the trials we face in becoming adults (and adult women in particular). She can do all this, I suspect, while being completely unable to make explicit why she so enjoys the show. What would she gain in being able to articulate those reasons?
 
Thus, it’s at least important to recognize that both ways of experiencing art are important to full aesthetic appreciation. But furthermore, how we frame the thoroughly reflective way (where we have properly explicit and spelled-out reasons for our preferences) simply may not capture what’s valuable about it. Maybe what’s good about the reflective way of experiencing art relies solely on the reason-responsiveness, and not at all on the articulation of those reasons. And if what I’ve said above is right, then many unreflective aesthetic experiences are reason-responsive.
 
So I worry that, even in the brave new post-brow world we’re heading toward, there’s still a pernicious distinction implicit in what we find it acceptable for people to enjoy. That distinction, in particular, isn’t merely one of good versus bad art, but of smarter versus dumber ways of engaging with art. But that’s a bad distinction. It’s bad because both ways of engaging are important, and because the inarticulate way of engaging need not be seen as dumb, unsubtle, or invalid because of it.
 
Hence, the moral: we, as aestheticians, as critics, and as audiences, shouldn’t be so quick to judge even those whose engagement with art seems superficial or unreflective. We shouldn’t make people feel bad if they can’t articulate the reasons for which they like things. It’s not justified by theory, and it’s practically damaging. Such behavior alienates people. It’s elitist and judgy, and we should knock it off.
 
Caveat: Of course, what I’ve said only gestures in the direction of a fully worked-out view, and I’ve ignored plenty of subtleties (I didn’t even discuss the middlebrow!), potential objections (what about immoral stuff?), and all that. But the issues are worth thinking about, and I hope it will generate some interesting thoughts and discussion!


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"Street Photography & Dehumanization" by Meena Krishnamurthy

Meena Krishnamurthy is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manitoba. She works in political philosophy. Her current work focuses on exploitation, coercion, oppression, and gossip. Issues that lie at the intersection of philosophy of language and political philosophy have recently come to fascinate her. 

There are many aspiring photographers who take photographs of vulnerable people, people who are down on their luck, often poor and homeless, and label their images as “street photography.” There are many things that might be morally suspect about street photography that involves vulnerable people. One idea that I would that like to develop here, using Robin Jeshion’s recent discussion of slurs, is that these types of pictures are dehumanizing of their subjects.
Jeshion argues that, among other things, slurs are identifying. When someone says, “X is S”, where S is a slur such as “faggot”, Jeshion argues that it
“does not simply ascribe a property to the target, here, that of being gay. It classifies the target in a way that aims to be identifying. In calling someone “faggot”, the homophobe takes a property that he believes someone to possess and semantically encodes that it is the, or a, defining feature of the target’s identity. As such, it is used to shape the target’s social identity, and so to dictate how others ought to treat, regard, think of, and respond to its target.”
I would like to argue that something similar holds true in the case of street photography of the poor. Typically, what we see is a single shot of a poor person in a destitute situation, lacking proper shelter or appropriate clothing, for example. This is often all that we see of that person. As a result, the picture typically works not just to ascribe the property of being poor to the individual in the photograph but to define her in terms of her poverty. “Being poor” is represented as her most important or defining feature. In this way, street photographs of the poor are identifying much in the way that Jeshion purports slurs to be. And, because the picture is identifying, in Jeshion’s sense, it encourages us to treat and regard the subject of the photo merely as “poor”.
Jeshion argues that slurs are morally objectionable because they are dehumanizing. Part of her view is that, outside of being identifying, slurs are group designating and expressive of contempt. Slurs identify the target as being part of a particular social group such as Gay People. They are also essentializing: slurs represent the target’s group membership as defining what the target is, as a person. They also express that the target, because of her group membership, is worthy of contempt and ought to be considered inferior. It follows then, on her view, that using a slur says that what the person is, in her essence, is worthy of contempt and of being regarded as inferior. This is dehumanizing, on Jeshion’s view. I agree. This is dehumanizing. However, I don’t think we need to point to contempt or group designation to understand why slurs or photographs might be dehumanizing.
To regard and treat someone as having full humanity is to regard and treat her in ways that recognize her as a full or whole person, that is, as a person with a complex history and life and a variety of feelings and experiences. Street photography that involves the poor is dehumanizing because it fails to take into account the full or whole person. It fails to take into account the subject’s complexity and reduces her to a particular feature – namely, “being poor”. In representing the subject in this way, we are entreated to regard and treat her as “poor,” not as a whole person. This is dehumanizing. To summarize, if a photograph reduces its subject to just one feature or property, and fails to treat her as a complex person, that is dehumanizing, even if the photograph does not represent that feature as being worthy of contempt[1] or as designating membership in a particular group.[2]
Street photography does differ from slurs in at least one respect. Slurs are by their nature dehumanizing, in the sense that I have described. They always identify, in Jeshion’s words, the person that they are applied to. They always work to reduce a person’s identity to a mere property such as “gay”, precluding a more complex understanding of the individual. For this reason, slurs will always be dehumanizing, on my view. Street photography, however, can avoid being dehumanizing by capturing the deeper and more complex facets of its subject. Photo essays, for example, which strive to depict and capture the subject’s broader narrative, her deeper experiences and feelings, and who she is as a person, can be viewed as an attempt to get at or communicate something about the whole person. Street photography is not doomed to being dehumanizing.
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Thanks go to Esa Diaz-Leon for the invaluable discussion that led to my writing this piece and for commenting on an earlier draft. Thanks also to Christy Mag Uidhir for inviting me to participate in this wonderful blog.
 
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[1]Indeed, street photography of the poor might represent its subjects as being worthy of compassion rather than contempt.
[2] Street photography may also be essentializing, in a sense close to Jeshion’s, by suggesting that “poor” is just what that person is as a person (though note that group designation isn’t important here).  This may also contribute to the dehumanizing effect.


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"The Socio-Aesthetics of Pink" by Elisabeth Camp

Elisabeth Camp teaches at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.  Her research focuses on thoughts and utterances that don’t fit standard propositional models, including metaphor and sarcasm, slurs and insinuation.  She also works on the varieties of imagination, the theory of concepts, non-human animal cognition, and maps. 
 
I’ve been spending a disproportionate amount of time in the past year musing about pink.  I have a daughter who just turned 2 and is quite vocal in her opinions. High among these is the general gloriousness of pink and the intrinsic goodness of things that happen to be colored pink: for instance, that strawberry ice cream is maximally delicious, in virtue of its color.  Her passion for pink is, most obviously, a form of comuppance being visited upon me by an irony-loving universe; but it also raises some puzzles at the intersection of aesthetics, semiotics, and the politics of gender.  How can she be so inexorably drawn to pink, even before having any peers to mimic?  Why am I so irked by pink?  Why do I even care what she wears?  What should I do about it?

The daily ritual of dressing is a prime locus for negotiation and reflection. Most of her clothes are hand-me-downs, and pink is heavily represented; but the various donation streams present different families of pink reflecting their different socioeconomic origins, ranging from Carter’s all-American hot pink to DailyTea’s dusty rose: 

My daughter seems not to differentiate among these pinks, generally adopting a policy of “the more the merrier”; but I find myself repelled by some, and not merely reconciled to but attracted by others. While some pinks strike me as tacky, flat and one-dimensional, others look delicate, or resonant. Some go nicely with blue or grey leggings, while others demand white, or maybe stripes. Some make her look cute and spunky, others washed-out and dumpy.
These are aesthetic judgments with a vengeance: situational, perspective-dependent, richly evaluative. I’ve tried bracketing them, telling myself that none of it matters – a thought that was especially plausible when she was too small to care or even notice – and that it most definitely isn’t worth spending money on. Pink is fine, I mutter. She’ll just cover it in paint and applesauce anyway. 
But those aesthetic evaluations are maddeningly persistent.  It turns out that the ‘pure’ phenomenal property is anything but: pink – or rather, various pinks, otherwise close neighbors in hue and/or saturation – are imbued with thick, sticky, if largely intuitive, cultural significance.  They are allied to, and in tension with, other colors in ways that make them suitable components of some overall styles and not others: hot pink fits with zebras and metallic silver stars; ballerina pink with tulle and hearts; dusty rose with gingham or Art Nouveau flowers.  And those styles in turn fit with different personalities: sassy; sweet; elegant. 
Pink matters, then, because it is embedded in aesthetic structures that are themselves bound up with ways of being in the world that are partially aesthetic, but also personal and political.  Colors encode aesthetic norms that run straight through to style, personality, and culture. These norms are difficult to articulate; but like everybody else, my daughter and I are sensitive to them, and (already) dispute about them.  As Arthur Danto says,
 
The structure of a style is like the structure of a personality…This concept of consistency has little to do with formal consistency. It is the consistency rather of the sort we invoke when we say that a rug does not fit with the other furnishings of the room, or a dish does not fit with the structure of a meal, or a man does not fit with his own crowd. It is the fit of taste which is involved, and this cannot be reduced to formula. It is an activity governed by reasons, no doubt, but reasons that will be persuasive only to someone who has judgment or taste already.
Moreover, my daughter cares about pink because, even in the absence of obviously gendered toys, without anyone urging her to be “a good girl,” with her only peers encountered fleetingly on the playground, she’s figured out that pink is for girls, which is something she wants to be.  Her first forays in the world of aesthetics are also explorations in self-identity. And this is also why I care about pink: my aesthetic judgments about color, direct and immediate as they are, are now charged with my hopes and fears for her and her place in the world.  I want her to be beautiful and kind and smart; I hope she grows up to be strong and self-determining; I fear she will be drowned in a sea of girlitude, as in JeongMee Yoon’s 2006 portrait of her daughter, See Woo and Her Pink Things.
JeongMee Yoon/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Jenkins Johnson Gallery
Construction, Reality and Meaning
Of course, it wasn’t always so. Maybe pink was always freighted, but it wasn’t always for girls. According to Jo B. Paoletti, white clothing was common for children of both sexes well into the 19th century, because color dyes couldn’t sustain the rigors of repeated washing.  When colors did become more common, the gender affiliation went in other direction, in virtue of aesthetic color judgments that might have seemed just as obvious but differed starkly from our own. Thus, a 1918 article in a trade publication intoned that “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”  The contemporary gender association emerged in the 40’s but retreated from the 70’s – when feminism helped popularize a more uni-sex style – until the mid-80’s, when marketers began promoting strongly gender-differentiated clothes, diapers, cribs and toys. Our contemporary palette of pinks is also of fairly recent vintage. The instability of dyes made pale pink the only viable option until chemical advances enabled Elsa Schiaparellito launch Shocking Pink in 1937, which she featured in her avant garde designs, often in collaboration with Surrealists like Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, and Man Ray.
Evidence for constructedness can demonstrate lack of inevitability, and hence the possibility of change. But it doesn’t show that what is constructed isn’t real, for us, now. My aesthetic responses to pink, like my daughter’s, are direct and immediate, something I can’t easily alter or put aside. Moreover, my taste for some pinks over others, and for other combinations of colors, textures and patterns, is part and parcel of a more encompassing set of tastes extending to food, furniture, turns of phrase, music, and ‘high’ art.  These visceral, unreflective judgments hang together in a complex habitus, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, which is itself the product of my own meandering navigation through the socioeconomic environment.  As a result, every time I dress myself – and my daughter – I signal to the world, and to myself, who I am, where and how I fit in.  These signals matter, affecting what people expect from and how they respond to me.  Conforming to and flouting these expectations has real, concrete consequences about how others treat me; and I ignore them at my peril. 
If pink – or pinks – are systematically embedded in complex, intersubjectively robust semiotic structures, do they mean those structures?  The parallel with names is instructive.  Piles of empirical evidence show that names embody and transmit complex socioeconomic signals, with significant real-world consequences for factors like employment and promotion.  Beyond the relatively coarse-grained categories of gender, ethnicity, and class, names can evoke more specific schemas, as the psychologist Tania Lombrozo discovered when she deployed Mechanical Turk to help name her second child: “Katia” sounds like a supermodel; “Austen” like a rich white tomboy.  But none of this pushes me as a philosopher away from direct reference orthodoxy for names.  This is not because I reject the possibility that something as messy and amorphous as a schema or habitus could belong to semantics; I’ve arguedthat slurs are conventionally associated with perspectives or schemas.  But in the case of slurs, unlike (most) names and colors, the connection is tight enough to engender an indefeasible commitment: using a slur commits the speaker to endorsing a certain way of thinking about the targeted group.  If we call to account someone who uses a slur in ignorance of its associated perspective, they need to retract their statement on pain of remaining on record as a bigot.  By contrast, someone who names or dresses their child in ignorance of their associated schemas may end up regretting her choice, but doesn’t normally stand liable for endorsing that schema.  More generally, associations and schemas are pervasive, powerful aspects of our cognitive and social lives, to which philosophers would do well to pay more attention; but we shouldn’t just lump them in with concepts or ignore important differences among varieties of meaning. 
Heteronormativity, Heteronymy, and the Revaluation of Values
Still, even if pinks don’t mean sassy or sweet or sexy – or surreal – in any sense recognizable to analytic philosophers, pink is clearly freighted with sociocultural significance.  And much of it isn’t pretty. 
On the one hand, my gut reaction against my daughter’s wearing hot pink and zebra stripes is clearly an expression of snobbery.  But like it or not, one of my tasks as a parent is to transmit the ‘cultural capital’ I have accrued, so that my children can locate themselves in the world – so that the most doors can be open to them, by knowing what signals they’re sending.  Further, part of my aversion to hot pink derives from my (justified, I believe) aversion to its associated schema: to girlhood as heavily featuring cupcakes and poodles, and manicures and shopping as intrinsically entertaining, self-actualizing activities.  By contrast, I can embrace more of the connotations surrounding dusty rose: gardens, tea and crumpets, woodland fairies.
On the other hand, both hot pink and dusty rose are bound up with gender codes that are at least stifling and plausibly repressive.  Many of the boys at my son’s preschool liked pink, at least up through age 4.  Maybe it struck them as a “decided and strong color,” or maybe they just liked it, though part of their attraction often seemed to be precisely to its associated schema.  (As a child, my husband seems to have deemed it his favorite largely out of sheer cussedness.)  By the time they reached kindergarten, though, these proclivities had been largely extinguished or at least repressed, except in those few who have doubled down with nail polish and ruffles.  (Just before our daughter’s birth, our son announced that he was “allergic” to pink. Now, he exhorts his friends “We don’t like princesses and pink, do we?”  Which, on the one hand, Right. But on the other, No.) 
The exclusion of boys from a wide range of perfectly viable, even important forms of dress and play because of their association with femininity is bad enough. But in a patriarchial society, the confinement of girls to a limited set of permissible ways of being is considerably worse.  In particular, empirical evidence suggests that highly gendered clothing can serve as a trigger for stereotype threat, leading girls and women perform worse on tests of stereotypically male abilities, like math and engineering.  
These seem like decent reasons for my daughter not to go around constantly swathed in pink. At the same time, she just does really like it. And it’s not as if she’s engaged in a form of false consciousness, glomming on to something she doesn’t genuinely enjoy because other people tell her she should. She’s too hard at work constructing who she is in the first instance. And a crucial form of self-construction is feeling one’s way in to a style, finding what’s fitting for your own particular personality. She likes pink because it helps her to actualize her self; if anything, it would be heteronymous for me to banish pink from her wardrobe. 
So what are we, as right-thinking, over-educated, squarely upper-middle-class parents, to do? One option is to actively appropriate pink, much as targeted groups have done with slurs like ‘queer’, by “revaluing the values” of schema-associated properties. We do attempt this with the princess mania that besets pre-K girls, giving Xena the warrior princess figurinesfor birthdays instead of the flouncy Disney royalty they would clearly prefer (not that Xena is entirely unproblematic in her own right). But reappropriation can’t be achieved in isolation; in the absence of a coordinated counter-cultural movement it just perpetuates established stereotypes. Besides, “pink pride” is easily coopted, so that apparent re-valuation becomes a more insidious form of accomodation.  (I’ve decided this is why I hate Frozen.)  I’d prefer my daughter to play with regular construction tools and LEGO, not cutesy heart-embossed pink ones; and Victoria’s Secret’s PINK Nation seems like a thinly disguised attempt to sexualize tweenhood by marketing thongs alongside sweatpants and bedding.

 

 

 

 

 

Mostly, I think, we just grit our teeth, indulge a wide multiplicity of pinks, and wait for first grade and the advent of the school uniform.  We can play some of P!nk’s “big-voiced, tough chick music.”  We can extol the beauties of blue and yellow.  I can be less of a snob, accepting hand-me-downs of every color with much-merited gratitude.  We can watch our daughter become herself, embracing and rejecting the various expectations that surround her.  I’m confident she will have navigated the Five Stages of Gender Acceptance by the end of high school (ok, college??), moving from the shockingly short-lived phase of blissful ignorance to her current rather full-throated embrace, and on to more nuanced forms of negotiation.  Hopefully, she’ll be comfortable wearing the pinks that I’ve often eschewed as too girly, including them as one strand in a multi-hued wardrobe.  Ideally, she’ll convince her brother to spring for some snazzy pink high topsall his own.


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"Keeping Our Place" by Jennifer Judkins

Jennifer Judkins is an Adjunct Professor at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, where she teaches music bibliography for performers and guides graduate research. She spent many years standing in the back of orchestras counting rests, and her musings between timpani rolls have nursed many years of interest and writing in aesthetics, especially in regard to musical performance. Recently, she was a contributor to the Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music (2011)
(St. Burchardi church, Halberstadt, Germany)
 
John Cage (who else?) wrote a piece in 1987 titled As Slow As Possible. A performance of one version (ORGAN2/ASLSP) for organ began at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, in 2001. A group of philosophers (who else?) and musicians had decided that this particular performance should last 639 years, since the first organ with a modern keyboard was built there 639 years prior. The piece, written for piano or organ, begins with a long rest, so the first note didn’t actually sound until two years after the piece began.
(Score snippet: ORGAN2/ASLSP)
This piece is still ongoing in that Halberstadt church, on a small, specially built, programmed organ encased in an acrylic cube to protect it and reduce the sound volume. The New York Times covered the chord change that occurred in 2006. For those of you at home, you missed the last chord sounded, in 2013. The next chord will be played on September 5, 2020. (Yes, actually “played,” in that individuals adjust the pedals or pipes to sound the next chordal tones.)
(Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles)
Lengthy musical works in Western music start appearing as early as the seventeenth century, with some early operas running close to two hours. Bach’s 1729 St. Matthew Passion is nearly three hours long. Wagner’s Die Walküre, premiered in 1870, is four and a half to five hours long — bested in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Longest Opera” only by his own Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Die Walküre, of course, is only part of Wagner’s Ring, which encompasses four operas heard over four days. Even the Ring, however, is no match for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht, a cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week. This nearly thirty-hour work is usually performed in a huge spaces, and it features countless truly stupefying effects, including a string quartet playing from helicopters above the concert hall, and a camel that presides over the galaxy, dances to a trombone, and defecates planets.
 
(Birmingham Opera performance of Licht, 2012)
Musical works can certainly seem longer than they actually are. The gorgeous slow movement in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is only eight minutes long. Bruckner’s seemingly never-ending Eighth Symphony is (only) about an hour and twenty-two minutes long. And, of course, a bad performance can make almost anything feel interminable.
 
More typical lengthy musical works that only go hours and not years, like cantatas, operas, and symphonies, require that the workload be spread out in a humane manner, and therefore they usually require large numbers of musicians. The more frail vehicles are rested as needed: the solo singers alternate with the chorus in the cantatas, and the brass players are often tacet in the slow movements. The audience may actually be more physically challenged than those on stage, at least in terms of total elapsed time. When the L.A. Opera performed Das Rheingold in 2009, the Los Angeles Times made much of the fact that there is a lot of water imagery in the opera, and that this made the running time of almost three hours without intermission especially concerning. (“Applause isn’t the only thing you’ll have to hold until the end” — Diane Haithman’s review.)* 
 
Most musicians performing lengthy works do so with music, with the score or parts in front of them on a music stand, for obvious reasons. Concert pianists, however, are infamous for performing gigantic works from memory. This is particularly staggering when one considers that their repertoire contains the lengthiest works — by far — in the solo classical repertoire (Brahms’ Piano Sonata no. 3 can run almost forty minutes, and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier almost 50 minutes). The relative “thickness” of piano works, which have both melodic and harmonic content, only adds to the feat.
 
We can imagine that arduous memorization process, at least the mechanics of it, one phrase leading to the next, perhaps a type of entrainment joins it all, lots of muscle memory… yet what about the conception of the work as a whole? The difficulty of producing a musical interpretation in both large and very fine scale? Consistency of style? How is it that these piano soloists keep their place artistically?
 
Pianists have a peculiar ownership of this skill, where they have to play “in the moment,” and also produce a cohesive interpretation of a lengthy work, from memory, all by themselves. Conductors have the option of using a full score in leading a performance, and therefore “see” the architecture to come, to some degree. They may conduct without a score; however, one might argue that symphony players with written parts do all the heavy lifting for conductors who have “memorized” scores. Instrumentalists have parts on the music stands in front of them: the sheet music, even orchestral parts with many rests, are a strong visual outline of the musical form. 
 
(Chicago Symphony Orchestra)
For any performer, a memorized solo performance is always considered to be more musical and aesthetically superior to one played using a score (which is an interesting assumption). Most concertos, no matter what the instrument, are performed without music. Concert pianists, however, are the only musicians who attempt this with such extremely lengthy works, and often without orchestral accompaniment.
 
This insistence on memorization in piano culture is actually a fairly recent tradition, and came out of the rage for virtuosity in the nineteenth century. Clara Schumann was one of the early few playing from memory, although Liszt is often credited. These days pianists rarely play use music when they play the standard repertoire, even at a young age. Granted, contemporary or avant-garde works are often exempted from the tradition, and the sheet music and/or a page-turner comes out for those pieces, seemingly in acknowledgement that the less tonal a work is, the more difficult it is to memorize. (There may also be a complicit yet unfortunate agreement that expression can hardly suffer when tonality is not present.) 
 
Pace some long-standing music theoretical concepts, musicians are actually not able to hold large musical architecture in their immediate consciousness as they perform. (Jerrold Levinson, in Music and the Moment, posits that a similar foreground-centric experience is also true for listeners.) In fact, I would venture that in terms of performing in the moment, and at the same time having the musical form — in detail — before us in our mind (without a score or a part), we’re in trouble with anything much longer than the “Star Spangled Banner” or perhaps a minuet. 
 
However, the fact is that a good performance, done by memory, can often result in a detailed, keenly evolved, large-structure interpretation, even with very lengthy works. How does this happen if performers feel that they can’t keep the larger structure in mind moment-to-moment? My first suspicions are that this larger interpretation and deeper architectural understanding is first pieced together in the practice room, where performers refer back and forth both to the score and their parts stylistically as well as theoretically. Moments are developed and connected in deference to a carefully developed larger vision. The work as a whole is then crafted into a unified stylistic statement, phrase by phrase, movement by movement, and that sound structure and the motion-memory of playing it stays in the performer’s mind — providing the template against which the specific interpretation of a particular performance is overlaid. This subtle “troping” requires that the nuances of expression that differentiate performances of the same work by the same artist be foregrounded against that earlier, detailed, structural background evolved in the practice room.
 
What stays with the performer after this theoretical dissection in rehearsal is an overall conception of how it should sound, based on choices she has made in regard to the larger musical issues, such as tempo, historical style, tone color, articulation, bowings/stickings, dynamics, and phrasing. The specific, individual interpretation for this hall, this night, this performance is laid closely over this rich blueprint.
 
Musicians themselves may have somewhat less explicit formal or structural knowledge of works, and even those operating with more of a musical “outline” than a dissected analysis can often produce thoughtful, appropriate interpretations. Only the most general of structural outlines, though, can remain entirely before any of them in their mind as they perform, without risk to the dynamic nature of creating a performance, without risking the ability to shape an interpretation moment to moment. Like Levinson’s listener, successful performers rely on connecting local movement with that immediately preceding and succeeding, always within a larger vision of the musical style. 
 
(Berlin Konzerhaus)
For any musician, even those playing with music, embarking on that first phrase of a very lengthy work gives the feeling of both beginning a well-mapped, inexorable journey forward, and free fall. When this engagement takes place via reading a part or a score, we can see the landmarks, which help us keep our place logistically and feelingfully. When solo pianists perform these monstrously difficult works from memory, they embark on this musical path with only a subconscious map (albeit well-prepared), and their musical instincts. From their mental images of the work’s soundscape, they must construct everything from the smallest detail to the grandest architecture, fully inhabiting and deeply living each moment.
I spoke to one of my colleagues, contemporary pianist Gloria Cheng, about the performer’s journey, by memory, through these long solos. She struggled to articulate how the ongoingness keeps, well, ongoing. Interestingly though, she said that even in the most difficult works, pianists look for “pit stops,” places in the score where they can rest mentally even as they continue to play: “It’s like a long road trip. You’re always considering the next pee break.”  
 
*A percussionist in the LA Opera was once quoted in regard to Die Meistersinger:
“You play the overture and I think the first scene and then it says an hour and 29 minutes rest. We left the pit, went next door to the Curtain Call restaurant, had dinner, and came back. And while you were there, since Die Meistersinger is four and a half to five hours long, so are half the singers.”


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"Defense of Hume’s Sentimentalist Theory of Taste" by Tom Leddy

 

 

 

 

Thomas Leddy, PhD Boston University 1981, is Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University.  He specializes in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, but also loves teaching Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and Dewey.  He regularly teaches a lower-division, general education, course (meeting an Arts requirement) titled “Introduction to Aesthetics.” The course serves about 240 students a year.  Tom has been a member of the American Society for Aesthetics (of which he has also served on the Board) since 1974.  His book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, was published by Broadview Press in 2012 and is currently being translated into Chinese.  He has also published numerous articles in the JAAC, the British Journal of Aesthetics, the Journal of Aesthetic Education, and Contemporary Aesthetics, as well as several chapters in books including most recently, on Dewey, in The Aesthetics of Key Thinkers. He also writes and edits the entry on Dewey’s Aesthetics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Finally, he maintains an extensive and popular blog titled Aesthetics Today at http://aestheticstoday.blogspot.com/ that deals with issues surrounding the aesthetics of everyday life, art and nature.  He is always looking for ideas that establish the importance of aesthetics both in philosophy and, more generally, in human culture.


One of the best pieces out there on Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” is Nick Zangwill’s “Hume Taste and Teleology,” which appears in his 2001 book The Metaphysics of Beauty  (Cornell University Press), and originally appeared in the Philosophical Papers in 1994.  Zangwill represents Hume, I think accurately, as taking a sentimentalist, as opposed to a cognitivist, view of taste (Zangwill himself taking the cognitivist side.)  I continue to think that Hume’s piece is the most sensible thing ever written about taste, so, for now, call me a sentimentalist on the side of Hume. Hume’s great accomplishment was in being able to insist that “beauty is no quality in things themselves” and also that, in many cases, one person’s taste is better than another, so much so that the good critic has the right to condemn the taste of the other, or, better, to feel confident in trying to convince the other that he/she fails to understand that the very principles that makes him/her enjoy certain relatively simple works of art can also be applied to more complex and subtle pieces. Hume, of course, was famous for holding that there is a standard of taste, which is to say that in taste there is a kind of quasi-objectivity (as in the quasi objective truth that the apple I see is red, even though the color “red” is only the result of interaction between the light-waves coming off the apple and my ocular system). The standard of taste is, in his final analysis, the “good judge,” who has “delicacy of sentiment,” which, although it could be partly genetic, is mainly based on practice and comparison in a particular art form (e.g. dance in general, or perhaps even…and I think Hume would agree… something more specific like break-dancing). Delicacy of sentiment must also be supplemented by “good sense” which involves various applications of reason to the art works being analyzed (Hume, here is basically mirroring Aristotle’s Poetics), and this is never going to work unless there is a lack of prejudice. But the key idea (and the original one for Hume) is that of delicacy of sentiment, which involves being able to mark those elements of a complex or subtle work which are good, and those which are bad, thus leading to an overall judgment which could be called correct.  I am more of a relativist than Hume on these matters, but I won’t go into that here.  

Zangwill begins his essay by giving an excellent account of Hume’s overall argument, and then makes the brilliant claim that, when Hume writes, “There are certain qualities in objects which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings” [i.e. feelings of pleasure based on the perception that the object is beautiful]  he is saying that “some objects are apt by nature for pleasurable contemplation” (156), and is offering a “teleological account of aesthetics,” which would be naturally supported by evolutionary theory (even though such a theory did not exist at the time.)  At this point in his article Zangwill places somewhat more emphasis on what Hume calls the “test of time” than I would.  The test of time, viz. that the same Homer is appreciated today as in ancient Greek times, is merely, in my view, set up by Hume as a way to determine what he calls “the principles of art.”  Unfortunately, Hume only gives examples of such principles when he discusses Ariosto, who, he says, charms us not by his irregularities (on which point I think he is deeply wrong…. we like William Burroughs, for example, to a large extent, becauseof his irregularities) but because of “the force and clearness of his expression, by the readiness and variety of his inventions, and by his natural pictures of the passions” (Hume in Ross Art and its Significance, 2nd. ed., 81).  In short, he is good because he is clear, inventive and adept at realistic representation.  It is these principles that cause us to gain pleasure, Hume thinks, from Ariosto.  Moreover, Hume is willing to grant that, if the things he called faults in Ariosto, like his “monstrous and improbable fictions,” do generally give pleasure, we should just modify our “rules of criticism”:  “if they are found to please, they cannot be faults.”  It is not whether Ariosto has passed the test of time that is important; it is that the principles, or rather our list of principles, has stood the test of time, which is also the test of experience, hence allowing us to say that, yes, some of these so-called “irregularities” are in fact also principles.
 
Zangwill has some problem with the possibility of providing evolutionary underpinnings for the natural fit that Hume describes between our organs (eyes, brains) and aesthetic objects.  In doing this, Zangwill wants to make a big distinction between the beauty of a work of art and the pleasure we get from something like smoked salmon, only the latter really getting evolutionary sanction.  This is where, I think, Zangwill blunders, but not in an obvious way.  He says, “an explanation of the limited normativity that constrains judgments of the niceness and nastiness of food and drink seems easier to come by than an explanation of the more substantial normativity of judgments of beauty and ugliness,” (Z 159-60), and thinks it difficult to “even begin to give an evolutionary explanation of why Milton” is more naturally apt for pleasure than Ogilby.  The reason is mainly because what makes Milton better is not obviously “adaptive.” 
 
Part of our disagreement may have to do with the issue of the aesthetic status of such terms as “niceness” and “nastiness.”  (My contribution to this debate can be found in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, Broadview, 2012a and in my 2012b article, “Defending Everyday Aesthetics and the Concept of ‘Pretty’  Contemporary Aesthetics here) Zangwill writes:
 
“Like judgments of beauty and ugliness, judgments of niceness and nastiness are based on sentiments of pleasure and displeasure.  But they lack the normative aspirations of judgments of beauty and ugliness.  If you do not like smoked salmon, you are not lacking in the way that you are if you do not appreciate the beauty of the Alhambra” (135).
 
It is true that we do not debate over niceness quite as much as over beauty, but debates there are. And yet there are as many debates in the realm of food as in the realm of architecture. Our feelings of beauty at the Alhambra may well be more profound than our delight in excellently prepared food items, but there are interesting exceptions, for example, that Parisian restaurant meal that, to crib from Dewey, was “an experience.” Of course, such an experience is not seen as just “nice.” But Zangwill wants to exclude this whole domain from beauty and relegate it to the realm of the nice and nasty.  On my view,  “nice” plays an important role in the aesthetic continuum that goes from the pretty and nice to the beautiful and the sublime.  (More criticisms of Zangwill on this and related points can be seen in my 2012a, 147-8, 168 and 191-2.)
 
Zangwill is basically arguing that the parallel Hume is drawing between taste in wine and taste in literature is irrelevant.  But it is not.  This line of thinking leads him to the following, in my view, outrageous statement:  “As far as food and drink go, we can be more or less finely discriminating, more or less well practiced [etc.]….So it seems dubious whether any of these virtues [listed by Hume as the virtues of a good judge] …can do the job of earning normativity in the case of the sensibility whose products are judgments of beauty and ugliness.”  That’s just wrong.  The point is not dubious at all.  The contrast between niceness and beauty is just not as deep at Zangwill wants it to be.
 
Back to evolution: I suppose whether Zangwill is right all depends on what one means by “evolutionary explanation” and “adaptive.”  Obviously, if you are a philosopher committed to naturalism (for example, a pragmatist like myself), some sort of natural explanation, perhaps enhanced by a cultural/historical explanation (which ultimately is based on biology anyway), is needed, since no other kind of explanation is rationally conceivable.  Now if Milton is to be preferred to Ogilby it is because his writing better fits the “principles” (and, one should add, more amenable to the special pleasures of perception available to those who have delicacy of taste….consider this “the principle of enhanced value through subtlety” or “the principle of subtlety” for short….something I will build on later) and that these principles, viz. invention, unity, realist portrayal (and the pleasure we take in response to these), and subtlety must have some sort of adaptive value.  Actually, contra Zangwill, it is pretty obviously adaptive, even though evolutionary theory hasn’t yet gone far enough to fill in the details.  (How long would a hominid species last if it got no pleasure from invention, reality or perception of unity?)   Zangwill says, “it is difficult to say where the evolutionary story would begin” although he admits that it is possible that such a story could be told.  But beginning is not difficult at all:  it is the actual evolutionary account that is difficult.
 
Zangwill also observes:  “It might be objected that, given a teleological account, it is quite contingent that certain things are apt for pleasurable contemplation.  Hume thinks that normativity is in the last resort merely statistical, since it is just a question of what most human beings find beautiful over the long term.” (161)  Zangwill solves the problem simply by saying that sentimentalism (which Hume and I advocate) implies a “statistical conception of normativity.”  This seems to put Zangwill in the catbird’s seat since he rejects sentimentalism and a statistical conception seems implausible.  What he neglects (and perhaps Hume does too) is that the “principle of subtlety” which I set forth above is the most important principle of all, since, after all, it is the central idea in Hume’s final definition of the standard of taste (corresponding as it does to delicacy of taste), and the principle of subtlety is going to trump any statistical or majoritarian view of why things have stood the test of time.  Great works pass the test of time because they are appreciated by the “good judges” all of whom have, most notably, delicacy of taste.  The majority of readers may have long ago rejected the value of Homer (as is probably the case today) but the value of the work remains and can easily be seen by a “good judge” with delicacy of taste in literature, or more specifically, ancient Western literature. 
 
By the way, I just realized that I am strongly influenced in my rejection of Zangwill by a wonderful article by James R. Shelley, “Hume and the Nature of Taste,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56:1 (1998) in which he finds a clear distinction in Hume’s essay between what he calls the “perceptual stage” of taste and the “affective stage.” Zangwill, basically, is not aware of the distinction and talks as though there were only a perceptual stage.  Shelley argues (and I will quote here at length, since this argument needs to be widely disseminated in order to avoid the kind of mistake Zangwill makes to the benefit of a cognitivism): that there are two principles of taste in the parable of the wine:  “one stating that the perception of iron in wine naturally causes displeasure in the human mind, and another stating the same thing with regard to the perception of leather.  The fact that the discovery of the key and thong silences the ridicule of the townspeople reveals the naturalness or universality of these principles, since were it not true that the tastes of iron and leather in wine naturally causes feelings of ‘deformity’ in the human mind (and not true that the townspeople realized this), the discovery of the key and thong would impute nothing about the merit of the wine.”  He goes on: “What separates the taste of the kinsmen from that of the townspeople, then, has nothing to do with its relative naturalness.  Each person’s taste is equally natural: each feels the appropriate pleasure or displeasure in accordance with the qualities in the wine perceived by each.  What separates the taste of the kinsmen is their perceptual acuity, their ability to detect qualities of the wine which are undetectable by the rest… According to Hume, there are, as it were, two separate stages involved in every judgment of taste:  a perceptual stage, in which we perceive qualities in objects, and an affective stage, in which we feel the sentiments of pleasure or displeasure that arise from our perceptions of qualities….he is claiming, in effect, that there are no failures at the affective stage…that although people do fail to perceive aesthetically relevant qualities in objects, once a quality is perceived an inappropriate sentiment never arises.  Thus, while everyone’s taste is not equal, given the dependence of taste on the perceptual faculty, everyone’s taste is equally natural, in the sense that no one ever feels an inappropriate sentiment base on the qualities perceived….it follows that none of the “defects”…of which Hume speaks…occur at [the affective] stage.”  (33)  and finally “if you perceive all the same qualities in an object that I do, but in addition perceive qualities I do not, you and I do not merely perceive the object differently:  you perceive better than I do.  And it is this, ultimately, which is the (chief) source of the normativity of Hume’s standard.”  (34)  Better perception is obviously an evolutionary advantage too.  (For example, sightedness is more adaptive than blindness.) 
 
Zangwill’s main problem with Hume, however, just comes down to the old debate between metaphysical realists and pragmatists.  He asks rhetorically, “If being better or worse does not consist in producing or being disposed to produce better or worse judgments or sentiments as the output of the sensibility, then what does it consist in?” (163)  He thinks that the goodness of a good judge can only be confirmed by whether or not he/she makes the right choice as to whether the object is in fact beautiful (that’s the realist position) and so, an appeal to the ideal of the “good judge” as having certain qualities, and as providing quasi-objectivity, is without merit.  For him, principles like simplicity and comprehensiveness are only valuable if they “hit on the truth.”  My James/Dewey pragmatism makes me wonder why Zangwill has this religious-like faith in this human activity-independent notion of “truth,” especially in thisrealm of human activity, i.e. the realm of art.  I think he thinks that if it works well in science then it should work well in art.  But that is not enough of a reason.  His second rhetorical question, “What can the virtues or vices of a sensibility consist in if it is not a disposition to produce correct or incorrect judgments or appropriate or inappropriate pleasures?” therefore holds no water with pragmatists like myself.  The really good reason why Hume came up with a quasi-objective theory of taste is that there is no conceivable epistemological ground for the metaphysical realist claim.  My own rhetorical question in reply would be, “How can we guarantee that a work of art is good independent of the work of the good judge?”  I recognize, however, that this debate, which is really deep and, in Zangwill’s case, would involve a thorough analysis of his claims for realism as developed throughout The Metaphysics of Beauty and elsewhere, cannot be resolved here.  A short point to make in that direction, however, is that from the pragmatist perspective, realism is probably true, but only in the James/Dewey pragmatist sense of “true,” not in the realist sense, and only to the extent that (and in the places in which) it works.  Again, that debate cannot be resolved here.  I hope, however, that I have sufficiently shown that Hume, and sentimentalists in general, have more to stand on than Zangwill is willing to admit.  
 
Problems remain, of course, for supporters of Hume — in particular, one that Zangwill points out, that people who seem eminently qualified as good judges in a particular art-form often disagree in a way that Hume’s standard of taste has no way to resolve (beyond just assuming that one of the pair has some hidden prejudice).  Zangwill calls this “Hume’s optimism.” (162)  I agree that Hume is too optimistic on the ultimate agreement of good judges.  But I think the problem is with Hume’s residual objectivism, which he shares with Zangwill, i.e. in thinking that there is a final or absolutely correct judgment, and thus final agreement amongst good judges at the end of inquiry.  Hume should have been a more consistent quasi-objectivist on this point. That is, in conclusion:  Hume has it basically right as long as his optimism is corrected from a James/Deweyan pragmatist perspective (Peirce, who was perhaps equally an optimist, at least about the “end of inquiry” in science, is deliberately left out here.)   


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"The Problem of Elitism in Aesthetics" by Bence Nanay

Bence Nanay 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 finished his book on aesthetics, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford University Press, under contract), all very elitist, really. This picture shows him pretending to be down with the kids, but the truth is that he has no idea how to play drums (as you can probably tell from the picture)… Also, he looks about as dumb on this picture as Kelso from That 70s Show(to throw in a really elitist reference)…
Let’s begin with a little quiz:
Who are the characters depicted in these following three pictures:

 

My conjecture is that even the sophisticated aesthetics-y audience of this blog can name the characters in the third, but not the first and the second picture (correct me if I’m wrong). (solutions below)
But we, aestheticians, like to use examples like the first and the second picture – and rightly so, they are amazing images. This raises the question about our audience: who are we talking to? To the connoisseurs of Domenico Veneziano and Antonioni? Or to what university administrators like to call the wider public? Aesthetics has an elitism problem and we all know this, but prefer not to talk about it.
I recently said in an interviewthat aesthetics as a discipline is considered to be marginal in the eyes of other philosophers (and got some heat for this from all kinds of directions). One of the reasons for this is exactly the perceived elitism of aestheticians – we go on about extremely highbrow examples like Proust, Bartok and Godard and most of our colleagues find it difficult to relate to this. And our students also find it difficult to relate to this.
But if aesthetics has an elitism problem, what can we do about this? I myself have tried all the strategies I could think of at some point or another in my life, and I’m really unhappy with each of them:
  1. Ignore the problem. Just assume that your audience has as much background in atonal music and modernist cinema as you do. If they don’t, it’s their problem, maybe they’ll feel ashamed and go home to educate themselves.  
  1. Throw a bone to the crowd sometimes. When I served as a TA in Richard Wollheim’s 200-strong intro to philosophy of art class, one day he came to me enthusiastically, saying he will talk about an artwork the students can surely relate to – and then he talked about the Watts Towers in LA. The idea was that the student from Southern California are bound to love it. To Wollheim’s greatest amazement, the students were not particularly thrilled.
  1. Try to educate the audience. I have to confess that I have done this quite a bit. Especially when teaching, which may be excusable. But this can be pretty heavy-handed. Once when I needed to use examples of the representation of dance in film (why? I’m not sure. Maybe something about the relation between the visual and the auditory?), I eased them in with the scene from Pulp Fiction, but then went on to do some Godard, Pasolini  and even Bela Tarr. As I said, heavy-handed.
  1. Go completely anti-elitist. Stop talking about high art altogether and focus on artforms and examples the audience can be expected to know and like – sitcoms, comics, punk-rock, street art, porn, horror, late-night talk-shows, whatever.
I would be genuinely curious to know who opts for which strategy – or if there are other strategies the readers of this blog can recommend. I don’t want to pretend that I have a solution to this issue of elitism – I don’t. But I really think this is something we, as a profession should talk about and take seriously.
The real issue is that I suspect that the problem of elitism goes much deeper. I have been mainly talking about choosing what examples one uses to demonstrate an aesthetic phenomenon. But there is an even more important sense in which we should address the issue of elitism within aesthetics – if we remain too elitist, we may miss out on genuinely important aesthetic phenomena that have become extremely widespread around us, but we failed to notice in our ivory tower.
And here comes the bombshell. I believe that no work in aesthetics addressed what is now the most dominant way of engaging with narratives and it’s called shipping. I talked to two or three dozens of aestheticians about shipping in the last year or so and not one of them knew what shipping was, so I can safely assume that you don’t either.
You are shipping a couple if you really really want two fictional characters of a serialized narrative fiction, mostly a TV show, to have a romantic relationship. The term itself was coined when the world was fascinated with the sexual tension between the two main characters of the TV show, The X-Files, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. But it became a really global phenomenon with two extremely popular serialized narratives, Harry Potter and Friends (thus the illustration above)
Arguably, it were the writers of Friends who discovered that you can double, triple or quadruple the number of viewers if you manage to get them to ship a couple on your show – in the case of Friends, Ross and Rachel. Sitcoms before Friends didn’t use this trick. But after Friends it was not possible to ignore the shipping aspect of the genre. All the big sitcoms have been using it systematically – the more intelligent ones, like Community or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia use it ironically or comment on the phenomenon on a meta level. (By the way, see what I’m doing here, in a blog post on elitism???)
But shipping is not only for TV show junkies. Probably the most visible shipper community is the Harry Potter fandom. What makes shipping in this context even more a question of life and death is that there are two (well, at least two) couples to ship: Ron and Hermione or Harry and Hermione. Here is J. K. Rowling’s account of her encounter with the phenomenon of shipping:
Well, you see, I’m a relative newcomer to the world of shipping, because for a long time, I didn’t go on the net and look up Harry Potter. A long time. Occasionally I had to, because there were weird news stories or something that I would have to go and check, because I was supposed to have said something I hadn’t said. I had never gone and looked at fan sites, and then one day I did and oh – my – god. Five hours later or something, I get up from the computer shaking slightly [all laugh]. ‘What is going on?’ And it was during that first mammoth session that I met the shippers, and it was a most extraordinary thing. I had no idea there was this huge underworld seething beneath me.
I’m not sure ‘seething underworld’ is the best way of thinking about this phenomenon. Harry Potter is somewhat atypical inasmuch as shipping had no visible effect on the books themselves (at least according to the author). But most serial narratives are radically transformed by the phenomenon of shipping. This is especially clear with TV shows. There are two characters in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson and Robin Scherbatsky, who seem to have good on-screen chemistry and this got the shippers going. The writers noticed this and turned the narrative in a way that lead the shippers along with the usual will they, won’t they play. The shippers became more and more vocal and more and more desperate. But finally Barney proposed to Robin and all was well – in the last season they got married and the shippers were extremely happy. But then the showrunners pulled a nasty trick in the finale – they had Barney and Robin divorced and got Robin together with the shippers’ grand enemy, Ted Mosby. The shippers were outraged, but, from a cynical financial point of view, this outrage came too late – the show was over, the ratings soaring throughout the last seasons. If the shippers burned their DVDs and merchandise, this did not really influence the show’s revenue…
This is a clear example for how shipping influences the actual work. But what is even more shocking (to me at least) is the way shippers engage with the work. To stick with the Barney/Robin example, you can have some taste of this from this shipping site, where you can find all kinds of delicacies, from the analysis of the symbolism of the trench-coats of the two characters to the hidden visual messageabout the love of Barney and Robin in a blue and yellow trashcan (not joking). Clearly, a lot of mental and emotional energy is spent on this.
How new is shipping? When you read the Flaubert book and want Frederic Moreau and Madame Arnoux to end up together, is that shipping? I don’t think so. What I take the main characteristic of shipping (and the most scary thing about it) is that all other considerations are deemed irrelevant compared to the interest in getting the shipped couple together. How I Met Your Mother has a certain amount of narrative complexity, at least for a work in its genre. But the shippers have no patience for that – whatever does not move the two characters towards each other is time and energy wasted. And once they are together, happily engaged, any narrative complexity is seen as a distraction from showing the two of them holding hands being happy.
The conclusion? There is no conclusion. While I am somewhat shocked at the effect of shipping on both our engagement with fiction and on the fictional works themselves, my aim here was not to make fun of it. Nor was my aim to urge all aestheticians to devote all their time to the systematic theoretical analysis of shipping. But I’m really puzzled by how our profession should approach phenomena like shipping. So this is not a ‘telling you how things are’ kind of post, it’s post I’m hoping to generate some discussion about elitism in aesthetics and ways of dealing with it and the phenomena it may restrict us from engaging with.
Solution to the quiz at the beginning: Saint Zenobius and the widow in Domenico Veneziano’s predella; Claudia and Sandro in Antonioni’s L’Avventura; Chandler Bing and Joey Tribbiani in Friends.


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"The Matter of Serial Fictions" by Chris Tillman

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).
 
Serial fictions pose special problems for accounts of truth in fiction. What is true according to a fiction at one time can appear to change as a story develops. Sometimes these changes are dramatic. According to A New Hope, and even according to early drafts of The Empire Strikes Back, it seems it was not true in the Star Wars fiction that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. So in 1977 it seems wrong to say that Vader was Luke’s father, according to the relevant fiction. But in 1980, it seems right to say that Vader was Luke’s father, according to the relevant fiction.
 
Roy T. Cook mentions another famous example of this phenomenon in his post from July 24. Doyle intended to kill off Holmes in “The Final Problem” in 1893, but succumbed to external pressures and brought Holmes back in “The Adventure of the Empty House” in 1903.
Now the claim that Holmes is alive according to the relevant fiction seems defective in 1895 in a way that the same claim does not seem defective in 1905. The standard way of accounting for the defectiveness of the first claim is to say that it is false according to the relevant fiction. And the standard way of accounting for the non-defectiveness of the second claim is to say that it is true according to the relevant fiction. But this seems to lead to a problem.
 
There are a number of ways of bringing out the problem. One way would involve exploring subtleties or challenging assumptions glossed over in the set-up above. But I propose to ignore the subtleties and grant the assumptions for now.
 
Another way to bring out the problem is via what Ben Caplan (2014) calls “The Contradiction Problem”: 
 
Each of the following seems true:
 
1. “The Final Problem” is part of the Holmes canon.
2. The Holmes canon does not contradict itself.
3. “The Final Problem” contradicts the Holmes canon.
 
But that seems strange. It would be nice to have an account of truth in fiction in which (1-3) are not all true.
 
So why think (1-3) are true? 
 
The first claim seems true since it seems the Holmes canon is an extended fiction that begins with A Study in Scarlet and includes “The Final Problem” and “The Adventure of the Empty House”. 
 
The second claim seems true since, ignoring the issue of the location of Watson’s wound, it does not appear that any proposition and its negation is true according to the Holmes canon. The claim that Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls is false in the canon, given that “The Adventure of the Empty House” is part of the canon and it is false according to that story that Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls. So it is false according to the Holmes canon that Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls. So it is true according to the Holmes canon that Holmes did not die at Reichenbach Falls. So, it seems—a few hiccups aside—that the Holmes canon does not contradict itself.
 
The third claim seems true since the claim that Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls is true according to “The Final Problem”. But its negation is true according to the Holmes canon.
 
In “Serial Fiction, Continued” Ben Caplan criticizes linguistic solutions to the Contradiction problem due to Ross Cameron (2012) and Andrew McGonigal (2013). Cameron’s view is a version of contextualism: to grossly oversimplify, there is no proposition that Holmes died at Reichenbach falls; rather, there is the proposition that Holmes* died at Reichenbach falls, which is what is expressed in 1895, and the proposition that Holmes** died at Reichenbach Falls, which is what is expressed in 1905. ‘Holmes’ refers to different characters in different contexts. As a result, “The Final Problem” does not contradict the Holmes canon (and isn’t really part of the canon since it’s about a different character—one that dies at Reichenbach Falls!)
 
McGonigal’s view is a version of relativism: to grossly oversimplify, there is one proposition expressed by ‘Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls’. And that proposition is true relative to a body of work that includes “The Final Problem” but excludes subsequent Holmes stories, and is false relative to a body of work that includes all of the Holmes stories. As a result, “The Final Problem” does not contradict the Holmes canon. 
 
Caplan (2014) lodges a number of objections to Cameron’s contextualism and McGonigal’s relativism that I won’t rehearse here. Caplan himself prefers a different solution to the Contradiction problem—one that is more “metaphysical”. Caplan endorses what he calls “Work Contextualism”. Serial fictions have contents, in much the same way sentences do. That is, they express contents relative to contexts. To grossly oversimplify, just as a context-sensitive sentence expresses different contents relative to different contexts, serial fictions express different contents relative to different contexts. In 1895, the Holmes canon expressed some propositions that included the proposition that Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls. But in 1905, the Holmes canon expressed some propositions that included the proposition that Holmes did not die at Reichenbach Falls. As a result, “The Final Problem” does not contradict the Holmes canon. 
 
I agree with Caplan that the problems arising from serial fiction are best addressed by a more “metaphysical” solution than by a more “linguistic” solution. But I doubt Caplan goes far enough in this regard. As Caplan notes, there seems to be an important disanalogy between context-sensitive expressions and serial fictions. Context-sensitive expressions are associated with Kaplanian characters. These can be thought of as functions from contexts to contents, and are associated with a sort of rule that “tells” us which content gets associated in which context. For example, in a context in which I am the speaker, the content of ‘I’ is me, whereas in a context in which you are the speaker, the content of ‘I’ is you. The associated rule for ‘I’ tells us to assign the speaker of a given context as the content of ‘I’ in that context. But there does not seem to be a correspondingly simple character that assigns propositions to the Holmes canon relative to contexts. This problem becomes especially difficult if we try to factor in retconning. Given sufficient artistic license, almost any serial fiction could have practically any propositions as its content at any given time.
 
One explanation of this apparent fact may be that serial fictions aren’t really analogous to context-sensitive expressions. But if that’s so, it seems we’re left with no solution to the Contradiction problem.
 
I propose that, when considering the nature of serial fiction, we should move even farther away from linguistic solutions. Let’s start by considering a case that has nothing to do with serial fiction: the Height problem. In 1977, I was less than 6 feet tall. In 2014, I am over 6 feet tall. Call ‘My Life’ the collection of facts about me. Call ‘1977-me’ the collection of facts about me that are restricted to what’s going on in 1977. Now we can present a problem that parallels the Contradiction problem:
 
4. 1977-me is a part of My Life.
5. My Life doesn’t contradict itself.
6. 1977-me contradicts My Life.
 
The first claim seems true since My Life is a collection of facts that begins with 1976-me and includes 2014-me. 
 
The second claim seems true since it does not appear that any proposition and its negation is true according to My Life. The claim that I am less than 6 feet tall is false in My Life, given that 2014-me is part of My Life and it is false according to 2014-me that I am less than 6 feet tall. So it is false according to My Life that I am less than 6 feet tall. So it is true according to My Life that I am not less than 6 feet tall. So, it seems that My Life does not contradict itself.
 
The third claim seems true since the claim that I am less than 6 feet tall is true according to 1977-me. But its negation is true according to My Life.
 
The Height problem parallels the Contradiction problem. But it also parallels a familiar problem of change over time. My proposal is to treat the parallel problems in a parallel fashion.
 
According to the solution to the Height problem I prefer, I am distinct from my “matter”. Plausibly, I am the sort of thing that has cells as matter. And I change over time in part by having different matter at different times. My having considerably less matter in 1977 explains why it was true then that I was less than 6 feet tall. My having considerably more matter in 2014 partly explains why I am now over 6 feet tall. So (6) is false—that 1977-me was less than 6 feet tall does not contradict My Life since the former fact concerns the matter I had in 1977, which, as it happens, is not the matter I have today. 
 
Note that this does not mean in any sense that I myself am a sort of context-sensitive being expressing different matter at different time. What’s going on here is just a matter of an ordinary object enduring ordinary change.
 
In the case of serial fictions, we can tell a parallel story. Serial fictions have “matter” as well, though they’re not the sorts of things that have cells as their matter. Rather, they have propositions as their matter. And what matter they have can change over time. In 1977, my matter determined that I was less than 6 feet tall. In 1895, the Holmes canon’s matter included the proposition that Holmes died at Reichenbach Falls. In 2014, my matter determined that I was not less than 6 feet tall. In 1905, the Holmes canon’s matter included the proposition that Holmes did not die at Reichenbach Falls. Thus (3) is false, but not because of the linguistic properties of utterances concerning the Holmes canon. Nor because the canon itself is a context-sensitive entity. Rather, (3) is false because the problem, at bottom, is the familiar problem of change over time. And the Holmes canon changed over time in such a way as to make (3) false.
 
This is, of course, just a sketch of my preferred solution to the problems posed by serial fictions. But I hope I have said enough to make clear what the problem is supposed to be and why it might be preferable to view the case as merely a case of change over time. 
 
If successful, I think the account could be extended to deal in a fairly straightforward fashion with other works that are intended to change over time, such as Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater sculptures or songs by Shellac. The matter for sculptures and songs is plausibly different from the matter for me or the Holmes canon. But I think the basic idea could be applied in the same way to these other cases.
 
Finally, I think the proposed solution has an advantage over Roy T. Cook’s probabilistic proposal. My proposal preserves flat-out truth and falsity with respect to fictions. I consider this an advantage because I think we have robust intuitions that some claims are flat-out true in certain fictions (Holmes is a consulting detective) while other claims are flat-out false in certain fictions (Holmes is a porcupine). And I think these intuitions are worth preserving if we can do so in a reasonable way. And I think we can.
 
(Thanks to Christy Mag Uidhir for the invitation to guest post and to Ben Caplan for comments.)


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"Animal Abuses in Art" by John Rapko

 
John Rapko is a Bay Area-based philosopher of art and art critic. Currently he teaches art history at the College of Marin and ethics and the philosophy of art at the California College of the Arts. He previously taught the philosophy of art and the theory of contemporary art at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the San Francisco Art Institute. He has published academic writing in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, British Journal of Aesthetics, and Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, and art criticism in Artweek and artcritical.com. A volume of his lectures on the philosophy of contemporary art, Achievement, Failure, Aspiration: Three Attempts to Understand Contemporary Art was recently published by the Universidad de los Andes Press.
 
 
In late March of 2008 the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter McBean Gallery mounted a show of the artist Adel Abdessemed’s work, entitled “Don’t Trust Me.” Within days the show became the object of a storm of protests, the particular target of which were six videos, each just seconds in length, that depicted animals seemingly being bludgeoned to death with single blows of a sledgehammer to the head. The protests, in the form of emails to various administrators and staff at SFAI and of on-line comments, were of such vehemence as to induce SFAI to close the show within a week of its opening, and some two months before its scheduled end.
 
Or so it is said. Yet little about the work, and nothing of its significance, has been settled through discussion, and not only because of the brevity of the exhibition. The SFAI administration at that time put out numerous claims about the circumstances of the making of the work that were incredible on the face of it, and have since been explicitly contradicted by Abdessemed himself. Nor has anyone ever produced evidence of a single credible threat of violence towards anyone associated with the exhibition. The show seems more a rumor than an actual exhibition, with half a chorus objecting to show on the grounds of the evident depravity of the killing animals for, or perhaps as, art; the other half considers the objectors to be a herd of yahoos, part naifs, part terrorists.
 
The issues clustering around the use of animals as materials in contemporary art have been raised again in the recent show at SFAI, “Wrong’s What I Do Best.” The show, co-curated by Hesse McGraw and Aaron Spangler, allegedly presents the work of artists who bear some sort of resemblance to the country music ‘outlaws’ whose work is inseparable from their hard-livin’ lives, and yet whose work, in its very waywardness, somehow simultaneously obscures those very artistic lives from which it emerges. One wishes that the works shown were merely as murky as the concept. Aside from a characteristically challenging video from Kara Walker, almost hidden away under the stairs, most of the works are dispiriting, with a new kind of low reached by the ‘paintings’ from Club Paint, whose sole aim seems to be to catch and hold the viewer’s attention precisely so long as it takes to induce a mood of boredom tinged with disgust. The show’s announcement attempts to catch the eye with a photograph of a taxidermied pig, its back marked with a skein of tattoos. It’s a work, if that’s the word, by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who began tattooing live pigs in the 1990’s and who, allegedly in evasion of Belgium’s animal-protection statutes, in 2004 set up an ‘art farm’ of tattooed pigs in China. After begin tattooed, the pigs, so Delvoye claims, are allowed to live some of their ‘natural’ lives. At some point, determined by who knows what criteria, the animals are killed, then either taxidermied or skinned; in the latter case, the skins are then stretched and displayed. These works, along with Abdessemed’s films of animals being slaughtered, and yet others of his showing animals confined in a tiny space and set to fight each other, and a recent one showing chickens afire, their legs bound and hanging from a wall, have been grouped together in discussions of the use and abuse of animals in art.
The discussion of such works as Abdessemed’s and Delvoye’s can hardly be said to have advanced much in the past six years, but the general defense of such works characteristically involves one or both of two claims: (1) It is said that the works are ‘about’ something of evident social, political, or cultural importance (‘post-colonialism’ or ‘industrialisation of food’ in the case of “Don’t Trust Me”, ‘Arab Spring’ with regard to the video of the burning chickens). In most cases it is further claimed that the works are ‘critical’ of what is being depicted and/or of the practice of which the action depicted is an aspect; (2) The defenders of these works charge those who object with a lack of self-awareness and self–reflection. If those who object eat animals or animal products, they are said to fail to grasp how these works indict them for their complicity in larger practices of exploiting animals. If the objectors are moral vegans, they are said to lack the acuity to see that and how these works actually expose the very practices they oppose. So those who object to the works are said to be intellectually blinkered in their failure to grasp the work’s subject, and artistically obtuse in not sensing the work’s ‘criticality’. The claims in (2) diagnose the character traits that block those who object from grasping the claims made in (1).
Both these defenses are located at a very general level, and fail to consider, in a manner typical of contemporary theorizing in the visual arts, some basic questions  of meaning and value in art, and how these come to be attached to artworks: How and under what conditions, one wonders, does being ‘about’ some important issue relieve an artwork of the charge of immorality? What criteria govern ascriptions of ‘criticality’? If I show an episode of “My Mother the Car,” dub it an artwork, and declare it to be a critical examination of ‘the imbrication of industrialization and domesticity’, does it thereby possess that very meaning and significance? With regard to these particular problematic works, little has been published. A seemingly sophisticated attempt by Pamela M. Lee to interpret Abdessemed’s films as ‘about’ transhumanism (don’t ask) goes awry from the beginning when she misdescribes the films as showing human hands—there are none.
 
But it seems to me that neither these two lines of attempted defense of these works, nor my testy counter-questions, really approach what unsettles people so. For the unease here, I would suggest, is not alleviated by the assurances (false in these cases, but conceivably true in other works involving animals) that the animals were humanely treated (Delvoye’s pigs), or that the practice of slaughter is merely being documented (Abdessemed). How might we approach the issues? Is there anything in the widespread response that the very idea of using animals in art is problematic, even for those who eat meat and wear leather?
 
One line of reflection that suggests itself asks us to reflect on what an artist does in making a work, and what the significance is, in the mind of the viewer, of the very fact that the work is made to be viewed. In the opening chapter of his great book Painting as an Art, the philosopher Richard Wollheim describes how what the painter does in the course of practicing painting as an art; the account might well be thought valid, with some qualifications, for the visual arts generally. The painter paints and monitors with her eyes the results of her activity. So in the act of painting, the painter actually plays two conceptually distinct roles: the agent/maker, and the viewer. The painter qua maker marks something for the painter qua spectator. The painter, Wollheim stresses, is the first viewer of the painter, though of course not typically the last. And so the viewer of a painting, whether the painter herself in the act of painting, or a later viewer of the completed work, has a particular intimacy with the painter qua maker; the maker has made it for the viewer, and the viewer takes up what the painter has done, gazes upon it, explores it, imaginatively enters it, reflects on it, with each of these affecting and being affected by the others. In a different context of considering the use of animals as food, the philosopher Tzachi Zamir has noted that something made to be perceived has a what he calls an ethical depth-structure, that of a temporally extended action: the action inaugurated by the making of something is only completed in the appreciative viewing of the thing. So in the arts, the appreciative viewer necessarily experiences a kind of complicity, or again an intimacy, with the action of the artist to a greater degree and a greater intensity than in a wide range of other uses of artifacts. The viewer consummates what the artist begins: this is the very action, the making of something to be seen, put to such an astounding range of good uses in the millennia of human life, that is at the core of the idea of the visual arts. And when the inauguration of the work is morally problematic, the viewer shares in the maker’s fault; the making and the viewing are two parts of the same wrong. Zamir adds that this has an additional dimension of wrongness: not only completing the morally problematic act, but participating in, and so sustaining, a wrong practice.
 
If something along the lines of Wollheim’s and Zamir’s suggestion is right, we can see at least what would be so intensely objectionable about these works for the moral vegan: they ask not merely that one use the animal, and not just one enjoy the product of the use, but that one complete the use.  For the moral vegan, for whom all use of animals is abuse or exploitation, this multiplies the original harm. But does the moral vegetarian, and moreover the meat eater, have any special cause for complaint, beyond whatever artistic badness, narrowly construed as a work’s possessing the everyday artistic faults of being incompetent, boring, or trivial?
 
The philosophy Christy Mag Uidhir has investigated our responses to racial matching and mismatching of actor and character in films. Why, he asks, might we think that there is something artistically flawed in John Wayne playing Genghis Khan, but something artistically valuable in Linda Hunt playing a male dwarf in The Year of Living Dangerously? Mag Uidhir argues with great care for the conclusion that racial mismatching is a flaw when it encourages false beliefs about the character and/or the character’s perceived ethnicity. He briefly discusses the case of animal abuse in saying that we find Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthasar “less beautiful” when we learn that the donkey Balthasar was actually beaten as part of the making of the film. This seems off the mark to me, but the more general claim Mag Uidhir makes is helpful: as with racial mismatching, the use of animals is artistically objectionable (that is, aside from concerns whether the animal was in fact harmed in the making of the work) when it blocks the viewer’s ‘up-take’, one’s ability to engage with the work appreciatively, entering the open-ended process of play among cognitive, moral, imaginative, and participatory perspectives. In malign instances of uses of animals in art, we are constantly interrupted in such play by the awareness of the very thing, the animal, that was used in the process. We may be blocked not by the thought that the animal was harmed, but by the sheer thought that the animal was used. For such use is in an important sense unnecessary: there is no existing practice of, say, tattooing pigs in which Delvoye was participating, and so in the very viewing of the work we are asked to enjoy, and then to develop a taste for, works that involve an unnecessary use of animals. Artistic as well as moral creativity would be better channeled to other ways of artistic making, ways that could be reflectively affirmed.
 
Even if something along the line of thinking suggested here is right, this could only be the beginning of engaging with these complex issues. But there’s an irony in the show “Wrong’s What I Do Best” that escapes the curators. One wonders whether the curators did after all sense something of this depth-structure, and seek to exploit it for a further problematic effect. There are two of Delvoye’s pigs in the show, placed a few feet from each other in the gallery’s mezzanine. One cannot see them until one arrives near the top of the stairs. Both pigs’s heads are slightly cocked, the further one more so, so that one sees without preparation the pigs as if turning towards you as you arrive. The effect is of the briefest sort, as a kind of dullness and lack of focus afflicts the pigs’ eyes, and one is struck rather by their alienness and peculiar lifelessness, more dead than the dead. The cheapness and half-heartedness of the effect seem like nothing so much as the emblem of the show, as the show’s announcement suggests, but not in a way that does credit to the curators.
 
 
References
 
Pamela M. Lee, “Animal Feeling” (2012) in Adel Abdessemed je suis innocent.
 
Christy Mag Uidhir, “Aesthetics of Actor-Character Race Matching in Film Fictions” (2012). Philosophers’ Imprint 12/3
 
— “What’s So Bad About Blackface?” (2013) in Race, Film, & Philosophy, eds. Dan Flory & Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo
 
Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (1987)
 
Tzachi Zamir, Ethics and the Beast (2007)


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"Damn the Consequences" by James Harold

 

 

 

 






James Harold is a Professor of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College. He works primarily in aesthetics and meta-ethics, and is particularly interested in the intersection of those two fields. He has also written about the role of principles in critical evaluation, philosophical psychopathology, empirical ethics and aesthetics, and ancient Greek and Classical Chinese philosophy. In a universe not terribly distant from this one, however, he’s still working in scene design and carpentry, probably at some small regional theater.

When a contemporary philosopher condemns a work of art for being morally flawed, you can bet good money that she does not mean that the artwork has pernicious effects on its audiences.[i]More likely she means that the work sympathizes with a vicious protagonist, that it endorses a morally odious viewpoint, or something along these lines. In the twenty years or so since the revival of “ethical criticism” in Anglophone philosophy of art, an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the ethical evaluation of art, but almost nothing has been said about whether or not works of art might have real ethical consequences on audiences.[ii]Instead, champions of ethical criticism take pains to distance themselves from such thinking. To cite a pair of well-known examples: Noël Carroll writes that “a moral defect can count as an aesthetic defect even if it does not undermine appreciation by actual audiences so long as it has the counterfactual capacity to undermine the intended response of morally sensitive audiences”[iii]; Berys Gaut claims that his view “does not entail the causal thesis that good art ethically improves people”[iv].
I have two aims here: first, to try to understand why so many philosophers thinking about morality in art have been so unwilling to talk about art’s potential consequences. And second, to argue that philosophers of art should, after all, pay greater attention to those consequences.
There are, I think, two main reasons why philosophers have been reluctant to talk about the ethical consequences of art on audiences. The first reason has to do with Plato. Plato, of course, thought that there was a perfectly good and intelligible causal link between listening to certain poems and vicious behavior. (Many philosophers think that his argument was a bad one.[v]) And, as a result, Plato banned the poets from his ideal city. The worry is that if we agree with Plato that art might have bad consequences, we might end up agreeing with him about censorship.[vi] Berys Gaut, immediately after putting aside talk of art’s consequences, insists that his own view “has nothing to say about the issue of censorship.”[vii] But thinking that art can cause vicious behavior does not obligate one to favor censorship. The causal view has no more to say about censorship than Gaut’s view does. The question of whether to censor art is formally separate from the question of whether it is morally wrong, no matter what one’s reasons are for judging it wrong.
But I suspect that the most important reason why philosophers have tended to avoid discussion of how artworks affect audiences is that they doubt that art does in fact affect audiences. In fact, it’s commonly held that any causal claim involving the media we consume and moral behavior is dubious at best. However, this turns out to be one of those cases, like climate change, where non-experts think that the question is highly unsettled but experts do not. In her comprehensive discussion of the topic, Susan Hurley writes: “Surprisingly, there is a strong disconnect between even educated public opinion on this subject and the increasingly convergent majority opinion of experts. The strong and growing consensus among researchers has not been accurately reported in the media, and has not got across to the public.”[viii] Hurley goes on to cite major textbooks and comprehensive meta-studies that show that the expert consensus is strong and clear: viewing violent media causes aggression.
In particular, there is evidence for long-term as well as short-term effects, and the causal mechanism at work is largely automatic and unconscious. From studies of the causal links between media violence and aggressive behavior, psychologists have hypothesized a number of underlying mechanisms: for short term effects, priming, excitation, and specific imitation; and for long term effects, the acquisition of new social-cognitive schemas and scripts (that is, narratives) for problem solving, and the adoption of new beliefs.[ix]
Now most of the research in psychology and related disciplines has focused on the causal connection between consuming violent media and aggressive behavior. That is not, of course, what philosophers always have in mind when thinking about ethics and art. Philosophers will often want to distinguish between artworks and other kinds of media (such as news reports) as well as between different kinds of representation in those media. Furthermore, aggressive behavior is not the only kind of moral change that we would want to look for. There is lots of fruitful research that could and should still be done – I return to this below. But the well-established causal link between viewing violence in media and aggressive behavior suggests that philosophers should take the possible causal claims involving art and vicious behavior very seriously.
A.W. Eaton makes this case in connection with pornography in some detail – and elsewhere, she makes a similar claim for art. [x]The best model for testing causal claims like these, she argues, is an epidemiological one. The claim “art improves character” is roughly parallel to the claim that “smoking causes lung cancer.” It is probabilistic, not deterministic. Not every person who smokes gets lung cancer, and not every person who watches Birth of a Nationbecomes more antipathetic towards African-Americans. And while a single experience, like a single cigarette, might have little causal power, repeated experiences could have much greater collective power, and make for a greater probability that the individual will be affected. But the aim here is not to prove any particular causal claim about the moral consequences of artworks, but to show that such causal claims have prima facie plausibility. So there is good reason to think that there might be significant ethical consequences to art.
Let’s turn, then, to the question of why we should, after all, think about the possible ethical consequences of art on audiences when thinking about the ethical values of art.
The first is that the alternative modes of ethical evaluation face a serious difficulty: they end up treating artworks as though they had mental states. I will focus here on Berys Gaut’s view because his ethical reasoning is worked out in much greater detail than that of others, but I think that the problem is quite general. Gaut’s argument has three steps. First, he asserts that artworks prescribe responses in audiences: they ask us to feel certain ways about the events or characters in the work, though we might or might not actually feel as the work asks (perhaps we resist feeling this way). Second, he argues that certain feelings are in themselves morally wrong. Third, he argues that because it would be wrong to for audiences to have certain responses, it is wrong for works to prescribe those responses.
The first step of the argument is relatively uncontroversial.[xi]Gaut defends the second step by appeal to the idea that a person’s inner character matters as much as her actions: “Much of our ethical assessment is directed at what people feel, even though these feelings do not motivate our actions. Suppose that Joe is praised for some deserved achievement by his friends, but he later discovers that they are secretly deeply jealous and resentful of him. Their feelings have not motivated their actions, yet we would properly regard these people as less ethically good were we to discover this about them.”[xii]The argument for the second step is rooted in the virtue ethics tradition: a person’s virtuous or vicious character is morally important independently of how she acts.
The last step of the argument, however, gets into trouble. While virtue ethics does give a clear and detailed account of how it is that an agent’s feelings – never manifested in action – nonetheless matter morally, it’s not clear at all how this ethical framework can be applied to an artworkinstead of a person. If an artwork prescribes that audiences respond in a particular way that would be morally deficient, but no audience member ever actually responds in that way, where exactly is the failing in the artwork? Clearly, no one wants to say that artworks themselves really have intentions or feelings or habits or any other of the components of character traits that are the necessary constituents of a virtue ethic. Artworks don’t maliciously attempt to corrupt their audiences. When we speak of artworks manifesting “attitudes,” we speak metaphorically. Artworks don’t have mental states like attitudes or intentions, and so they don’t seem to be candidates for criticism on the basis of a virtue or character-based ethical theory.
This is not to say that one could not attempt to extend virtue ethics to cover artworks and other complex artifacts that we sometimes think of as expressive or quasi-intentional. But we should recognize that this work has not yet been done, and developing the theory in this way would not be a trivial task. Any attempt to ground one’s moral judgments in non-consequentialist considerations will depend on thinking of artworks as being person-like, but we are in need of arguments establishing why an artifact like a painting, novel, or film should be treated as if it had the psychological and emotional states characteristic of persons.
Furthermore, much of the intuitive sense that works of art are really morally wrong vanishes once we really put aside all thinking about consequences. If a work of art asked its viewers to admire torturing children, but we also knew for a certainty that no person viewing that work could ever be persuaded to so respond, how strong would our intuition that the artwork is nonetheless morally flawed be?
In putting aside all consequentialist considerations when thinking about the ethical criticism of art, aestheticians also deprive themselves of a powerful moral theory. After all, if some version of consequentialism, or even pluralism, is true, as many philosophers believe, then we will need to take account of the consequences of actions in order to get a proper evaluation of the moral virtues or vices of artworks. In fact, even if all versions of consequentialism and pluralism including consequentialism turn out to be false, looking at the consequences could still give us indirect evidence of moral value. Even the strictest Kantian, while maintaining that a good will might never manifest itself in action, will nonetheless concede that such cases will be rare. So knowing what ethically salient consequences viewing art has on its audiences is still valuable information to have. [xiii] 

There are other possibilities, of course. One could dispense with ethical criticism of artworks altogether, and make ethical judgments about the actions and character of the artist. However, there are independent reasons why one might not want to do that.[xiv]
One final reason why it would be good for philosophers of art to bend their ethical criticism in the direction of art’s consequences is that it suggests potentially fruitful new lines of research. For example, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castono published a paper in Scienceentitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.”[xv]In it, they argue that reading influences readers’ performance on different theory of mind tasks, and that literary fiction has a greater affect than nonfiction or popular fiction. This seems to offer some indirect empirical support for claims like Martha Nussbaum’s – while these effects are not strictly speaking improvements in moral character, they might count as the kinds of cognitive effects that could be put to moral use. But this research raises many questions needing further investigation that philosophers could help to formulate. Does increased ability to understand the minds of others make people act more compassionately? How much do modes of presentation have to do with how people are affected, and how much is “mere content”? More generally, what qualities of artworks produce these effects? Do some art forms affect us more deeply than others, and why? How are different populations affected differently? If philosophers of art were start to get involved more deeply in empirical research, as they have recently with respect to other kinds of questions[xvi], who knows what we might learn? Greater attention to the consequences suggests new and potentially exciting lines of research for the ethical criticism of art.[xvii]


[i] Unless you had the bad luck to bet on A.W. Eaton, in which case you will lose your money. See, for example, her “Rough Heroes of the New Hollywood,” Review Internationale de Philosophie 64 (2010), pp. 511-524, where she makes some of the same points I make here. I’ll return to her view below.
[ii]Some philosophers, most notably Martha Nussbaum, have been willing to argue that good art can have ethically praiseworthy effects on their audiences. Recently, Gregory Currie has expressed skepticism about this particular causal claim. See his “Does Fiction Civilize Us?” The New York Times (June 2, 2013), p. SR13.  But almost nobody has been willing to say that art can make us worse. A.W. Eaton is the main exception; Gregory Currie has hinted at this in print, as have I, but only briefly: see “The Moral Psychology of Fiction,” in Stephen Davies (ed.), Art and Its Messages: Meaning, Morality, and Society (Penn State Press, 1995), pp. 49-58; and my “Infected by Evil,” Philosophical Explorations 8 (2005), pp. 173-187.
[iii]Carroll, “Moderate Moralism,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (1996), pp. 223-38.
[iv]Gaut, “The Ethical Criticism of Art,” in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 184.
[v] I do not agree with this assessment. See my op. cit.
 
[vi] Perhaps relatedly, contemporary advocates of the view that art can cause evil behavior, and ought to be banned, tend to be politically conservative: one thinks of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre blaming video games for mass killings. Few philosophers wish to be associated with such figures.
 
[vii]Gaut, op. cit., p. 184.
[viii]Susan Hurley, “Imitation, Media Violence, and Freedom of Speech,” Philosophical Studies 17 (2004), p. 177.
[ix]L. Rowell Huesmann, “Imitation and the Effects of Observing Media Violence on Behavior,” in Susan Hurley and Nick Chater (eds.), Perspectives on Imitation, Volume II: Imitation, Human Development, and Culture (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2005), pp. 257-66.
[x]A.W. Eaton, “A Sensible Antiporn Feminism,” Ethics 117 (2007): 674-715, and “Rough Heroes,” op. cit.
[xi]Though see Katherine Thomson-Jones, “Art, Ethics, and Critical Pluralism,” Metaphilosophy 43 (2012), pp. 275-293.
[xii]Gaut, op. cit., p. 186.
[xiii]In his Doctrine of Right, actions serve as an imperfect proxy for motives in the making of laws.
[xiv]Principally worries about artists’ intentions, but also concerns about the artwork as a bearer of meaning independent of its creator.
[xv] Science 342 (18 October 2013), pp. 377-380.
[xvi]For example, Aaron Meskin, Mark Phelan, Margaret Moore, and Matthew Kieran, “Mere Exposure to Bad Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics 53 (2013), pp. 139-164.
[xvii]I’m grateful to A.W. Eaton for comments on a draft of this blog post.