Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



Cultural Appropriation and La Japonaise

Nils-Hennes Stear (University of Michigan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

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

Joshua Spencer is an assistant professor of philosophy at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He studies, primarily, metaphysics and philosophy of language. But he likes most philosophical topics. Joshua is also a huge fan of cats. 
Chris Tillman is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba. His main interest is in metaphysics, but he considers practically everything to be an issue in metaphysics. He is originally from Missouri, where his first major was in painting and he spent his free time in bands, including a country/rap band (hick-hop, if you will). These days his free time is more likely to be consumed by curing meats, genre fiction, and making Korean farmer hooch (makgeolli).
Some works of art have multiple concrete manifestations. Musical works are concretely manifested at each of their various performances, photographs are concretely manifested in each of their prints, and cast sculptures are concretely manifested in each of their castings. Multi-Work Materialism is the thesis that any work of art that has multiple concrete manifestations is itself a concrete object that is co-located with and constituted by each of its concrete manifestations. So, Tame by The Pixies is located at each of its performances; Rodin’s The Thinkeris located at each of over 20 locations around the world; and Philippe Helmsman’s Dali Atomicus is located wherever its prints are located.[1]Multi-Work Materialism, along with plausible assumptions about which objects are concrete manifestations of particular works of art and which are not, implies the possibility of works of art with certain surprising features. It also implies that two popular metaphysical theses, Single Origin Necessity and The Necessity of Origins, are both false.
Before we present our counterexamples to Single Origin Necessity and the Necessity of Origins, we will first formulate these theses more carefully and show how they are related to one another. First, the Necessity of Origins can be more carefully formulated as follows:
(TNO) Necessarily, for any material object, x, and for any material, M1, if it is possible that x wholly originates from M1 (in accordance with a particular plan P), then it is not possible that there is some material M2, material that does not overlaps with M1, such that x wholly originates from M2 (in accordance with P).
Single Origin Necessity can be more carefully formulated as follows:
(SON) Necessarily, for any objects, x and y, and for any materials, M1 and M2, if x wholly originates from M1 (in accordance with a particular plan P) and y wholly originates from M2 (in accordance with P) and M1 and M2 do not overlap, then x and y are distinct.
In both of these principles, when we say that an object wholly originates from some particular material, we mean that that material is both involved in a proximal cause of that object’s existence and that at the first moment of its existence, the object is (in some sense) made of the material.
            Various philosophers, inspired by Kripke’s famous footnotes 56 and 57, have argued for (TNO) using variants of (SON) and of The Sufficiency of Origins as premises:[2]
(TSO) Necessarily, if it is possible for an object, x, to wholly originate from some matter M1 in accordance with plan P, then necessarily, any object originating from M1 in accordance with P is the very object x and no other.
It is fairly easy to derive (TNO) from (SON) and (TSO). Let x be an arbitrary possible object. Let M1 and M2 be arbitrary and non-overlapping materials. Let P be an arbitrary plan. Suppose, for conditional proof, that x could have originated from M1 in accordance with plan P. If x could have originated from M1, then x could have originated from M1 while a duplicate of x, namely y, originated from M2, both in accordance with P. But, given that M1 and M2 are discrete, it follows from (SON) that x and y would be distinct. By (TSO) it follows that if a particular object could have been formed from some material according to a plan, then any object that could have been formed from that material according to that same plan would have been that very object. It follows that any object that could have been formed from M2 according to P would have been y. Since x and y are possibly distinct and possible distinctness implies necessary distinctness, it follows that x could not have originated from M2 (at least not by way of that particular plan). Hence, (TNO)
            Others have argued for (TNO) using a variant of (SON) and of the following independence principle as premises:[3]
(Independence): Necessarily, given any object, x, and material, M1, if x wholly originates from M1 (according to plan P1) and it’s possible that there is an object, y, and material, M2, such that y wholly originates from M2 (according to plan P1) and M2 is discrete from M1, then it is also possible that x wholly originates from M1 (according to P1) while y wholly originates from M2 (according to P2).
It is fairly easy to derive (TNO) from (SON), and (Independence). Let x be an arbitrary possible object. Let M1 and M2 be some arbitrary and non-overlapping possible materials and let P be an arbitrary plan. Suppose, for reductio, that x could have originated from M1 according to P, and that x also could have originated from M2 according to P. Then, from the independence principle, it follows that x could have originated from M1 according to P while at the same time it also originated from M2 according to P. But, given (SON) and the fact that M1 and M2 are non-overlapping, it follows that x would have been distinct from itself if it had originated from both M1 according to P while also originating from M2 according to P. But, clearly it is impossible for any object to be distinct from itself. So, it is not possible that an object could have originated from some material and also could have originated from some other non-overlapping material. Hence, (TNO).
            Discussions of the first argument above have traditionally focused on the sufficiency principle (TSO) and discussions of the second argument have traditionally focused on the independence principle (Independence).[4]But we believe that the common premise, (SON), can be shown to be mistaken given Multi-Work Materialism. To see that this is so, we will present three possible cases.
            First, suppose that Robert Zemeckis decides to turn away from film and start a new career as a cast sculptor. His first work is inspired by his notable film franchise Back to the Future. He forms a mold for a cast sculpture of Marty McFly with his iconic vest and skateboard. On October 25th, 2015, Zemeckis finishes the mold and decides to pour an initial casting the next day. But, as he walks home, Zemeckis comes up with an outlandish plan. He decides that, two weeks from that very date, he will send his mold back in time two weeks and stow it away in his workshop. That way, when he arrives in his workshop on October 26th, he will find his mold sitting beside itself. Sure enough, when he arrives early the next morning, Zemeckis finds his mold and its future self sitting side by side; the mold is multi-located. At exactly 1:15 AM, Zemeckis simultaneously fills the mold and its time traveling duplicate with bronze to create two initial castings of his sculpture. After waiting five days, he opens the mold(s) and removes the initial castings of his first work, which he then dubs This is Heavy. If Multi-Work Materialism is true, then This is Heavy is co-located with and constituted by each of the bronze concrete manifestations. Moreover, if there are no previous concrete manifestations of the work (as seems plausible) then This is Heavysimultaneously originated from two distinct portions of bronze. Hence, Single Origin Necessity is false.
            The example above requires the possibility of time travel. However, we believe that time travel is inessential to our case against (SON). Suppose that Fowlerio is a sculptor who decides to create a cast sculpture that involves the negative space within a particular hunk of iron. He forms a mold that will produce a hollow casting, the interior of which is shaped like one of the ghosts from Pac-Man. He then pours two iron castings of the hollow sculpture and dubs it Shadow. If Multi-Work Materialism is true, then Shadow is a cast sculpture that is co-located with and constituted by two distinct hunks of iron. Shadow is a multi-located work of art. Now suppose that rival sculptor, Nicholi, decided to make a new work using Fowlerio’s Shadow as a mold. Nicholi borrows the two castings of Shadow and simultaneously pours copper into the holes formed by the two castings of Shadow. After the copper sets, he opens the iron castings of Shadow up to reveal two copper castings of a new work, which he dubs Clyde.[5] If Shadow is a multi-located work of art (as Multi-Work Materialism implies), then it seems that Clyde is also a multi-located work of art formed by using Shadow as a mold. Moreover, if there are no previous concrete manifestations of Clyde, then it seems that Clyde simultaneously originated from two distinct portions of copper. Hence Single Origin Necessity is false.
            Finally, suppose a photographer puts two pieces of photosensitive paper on the baseboard of an enlargement machine. Then she places a developed negative that has never been printed before into the film carrier and, instead of placing a single lens below the negative, decides to put two lenses side-by-side and angled slightly away from each other. Then the photographer turns the light on, projecting from the negative and through both lenses so that two images of the negative appear, one on each piece of photosensitive paper. Two prints of the photograph will be produced simultaneously. If Multi-Work Materialism is true, then the photograph is co-located with and constituted by each of the photographic prints. Moreover, if these prints are the first concrete manifestations of the photograph, as seems plausible, then it seems that the photograph simultaneously originates from two distinct pieces of photosensitive paper. Hence, Single Origin Necessity is false.
            Each of the cases above supports a compelling argument against Single Origin Necessity. However, each has its own weaknesses. The first, of course, requires the possibility of time travel and the assumption that the initial castings of This is Heavy are the first concrete manifestations of the work. One might reject the possibility of time travel or one might claim that there is a concrete manifestation of This is Heavy that predates the initial casting. In support of the second objection, one might point out that many molds for castings are made with an initial model, sometimes carved from stone or made of plaster, and that that model might be the first concrete manifestation of the work.
We believe that both of these worries are sidestepped in the second example. The second example does not involve time travel. Moreover, even if a model was used in the formation of Shadow, that model certainly wasn’t a concrete manifestation of Clyde. After all, Clyde is the work of Nicholi and not Fowlerio whereas the model for Shadow is a work of Fowlerio and not Nicholi. One might think that the hole in Shadow is a concrete manifestation of Clyde. But, again, the hole in Shadow was created by Fowlerio and it is an essential aspect of Shadowwhereas Clyde was not created by Fowlerio and is not an essential aspect of Shadow.We believe that there are two serious objections to this example. According to the first objection, the initial idea of Clyde in the mind of Nicholi is a concrete manifestation of Clyde that predates the initial castings. If that is the case, then Clyde does not, contrary to our argument, originate from two distinct portions of copper.[6]According to the second objection, the multi-located Shadow is not a mold for any work of art created by Nicholi, though the hunks of iron that constitute Shadow are. If that’s the case, then the two hunks of copper that seem to constitute a single work, Clyde, in fact constitute two works that are nearly indiscernible from one another.[7]
            Whatever one thinks of these two objections, both are sidestepped by our third example. A photographer might have nothing in particular in mind as she takes various pictures. The photographer might even allow a certain amount of randomness to be involved in the exposure of some portion of film. The ideas that lay behind these randomly exposed bits of film seem too inchoate to be concrete manifestations of the photograph. Moreover, whereas it may be unclear whether the castings made by Nicholi were cast from a single mold (the multi-located Shadow) or two molds (the hunks of iron that constitute Shadow), the prints are clearly made from a single negative in the photography case. So it seems that the photography case sidesteps the strongest objections to either of the cast sculpture cases. Admittedly, one might worry that the exposed and developed negative is a concrete manifestation of a photograph.[8]But we do not agree. The concrete manifestation of a photograph might essentially involve sharp contrasts that are created by a skilled photographer using light blocking methods during the printing process. These sharp contrasts will not appear in the negative. So, the negative cannot be a concrete manifestation of the photograph.
Each of the cases above can easily be extended to show that The Necessity of Origins itself is false. Consider our first case and suppose that This is Heavy is a multi-located work of art that simultaneously originated from two distinct portions of bronze. Although This is Heavy was simultaneously cast in two portions of bronze, it could have been cast in only one portion of bronze. Let B1 be the portion of bronze that Zemeckis in fact poured into the younger instance of the time traveling mold and let B2 be the portion of bronze that he in fact poured into the older instance of the time traveling mold. Although Zemeckis in fact poured B1 into the younger instance of the time traveling mold while simultaneously pouring B2 into the older instance of the mold, he could have just poured B1 into the younger instance of the mold while leaving B2 unpoured and the older instance of the mold empty. Moreover, he could have poured B2 into the older instance of the mold while leaving B2 unpoured and the younger instance of the mold empty. If Zemeckis had done the former, then he would have produced a casting of This is Heavy that originated from B1 and not B2. Moreover, if Zemeckis had done the latter, then he would have produced a casting of This is Heavy that originated from B2 and not B1. It follows that This is Heavy could have originated from B1 and not B2 and it could have originated from B2 and not B1. But, if it could have originated from B1 and not B2 and it could have originated from B2 and not B1, then it could have been that it originated from B1 and not B2, but also could have originated from B2 and not B1.[9]Since B1 and B2 are non-overlapping, it follows that The Necessity of Origins is false.
            Although (TNO) is false, there may be a replacement principle. Works of art are very different from natural objects like people and trees. Whether or not a natural object is concretely manifested has nothing to do with the mental states of any people. However, whether or not a multi-work is concretely manifested does have to do with the mental states of the artist or the members of the artist’s community. So, maybe we can replace (TNO) with The Natural Necessity of Origins:
(NNO) Necessarily, for any natural object, x, and for any material, M1, if it is possible that x wholly originates from M1 (in accordance with a particular plan P), then it is not possible that there is some material M2, material that does not overlap with M1, such that x wholly originates from M2 (in accordance with P).
Ballarin, Roberta (2013) ‘The Necessity of Origin: A Long and Winding Route’. Erkenntnis 78: 353-370.
Cameron, Ross P. (2005) ‘A Note on Kripke’s Footnote 56 Argument for the Essentiality of Origin’. Ratio 18: 262-275.
Cameron, Ross P. and S. Roca (2006) ‘Rohrbaugh and deRosset on the Necessity of Origin’. Mind, 115: 361–366.
Caplan, Ben and Carl Matheson (2006) ‘Defending musical perdurantism’. British Journal of Aesthetics 46: 59–69.
—– (2008) ‘Defending ‘Defending Musical Perdurantism’’. British Journal of Aesthetics 48: 80-85.
Damnjanovic, Nic (2010) ‘No Route to Material Origin Essentialism?’ Erkenntnis, 72: 93-110.
Forbes, Graeme (1981) ‘On the philosophical basis of essentialist theories’. Journal of Philosophical Logic 10: 73-99.
—– (1985) The Metaphysics of Modality. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Hawthorne, John and Tamar Szabo Gendler (2000) ‘Origin essentialism: The arguments reconsidered’. Mind, 109: 285-98.
Johnston, Patricia (1977) ‘Origin and necessity’. Philosophical Studies, 32: 412-18.
Kripke, Saul (1980) Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
MacKay, Thomas (1986) ‘Against constitutional sufficiency principles’. In Peter French, Theodore Uehling, Jr., and Howard Wettstein, eds, Midwest Studies in Philosophy: Studies in Essentialism, XI: 295-304. University of Minnesota Press.
Mackie, J. L. (1974) ‘De what re is de re modality?’ Journal of Philosophy, 80: 551-61.
Mackie, Penelope (1987) ‘Essence, Origin, and Bare Identity’. Mind 96: 173-201
—– (1998) ‘Identity, time, and necessity’.Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 98: 59-78.
McGinn, Colin (1976) ‘On the necessity of origin’. Journal of Philosophy, 71: 127-35.
Noonan, Harold (1983) ‘The necessity of origin’. Mind, 92: 1-20.
Robertson, Teresa (1998) ‘Possibilities and the arguments for origin essentialism’. Mind, 107: 716-25.
—– (2000) ‘Essentialism: Origin and Order’. Mind109: 299-307.
Robertson, Teresa and Graeme Forbes (2006) ‘Does the New Route Reach its Destination?’ Mind, 115: 367–373.
Rohrbaugh, Guy and Louis deRosset (2004) ‘A New Route to the Necessity of Origin’. Mind, 113: 705–25.
—– (2006) ‘Prevention, Independence, and Origin’. Mind 115: 375-386.
Salmon, Nathan (1979) ‘How not to derive essentialism from the theory of reference’. Journal of Philosophy 76: 703-25.
Tillman, Chris (2011) ‘Musical Materialism’. British Journal of Aesthetics 51: 13–29.
Tillman, Chris and Joshua Spencer (2012) ‘Musical materialism and the inheritance problem’. Analysis, 72: 252-9.
Yablo, Stephan (1988) ‘Review of The Metaphysics of Modality by Graeme Forbes’. The Journal of Philosophy, 85: 329-337.

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

1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

Road Runner Basking in the Sun (2002)


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

Spring Loaded (2006)


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

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

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


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

Leave a comment

Race & Aesthetics 2015: A Retrospective

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



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


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

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


Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng

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


Ron Mallon / Charles W. Mills


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


Paul C. Taylor


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


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


The Audience!


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


"A Matter of Taste" by Iskra Fileva

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


"Why Can’t Painting Just Be Painting" Rebecca Victoria Millsop

Rebeccais a fifth year PhD student at MIT writing her dissertation in the philosophy of art. In the not-so-distant past she worked on issues in philosophy of logic and mathematics and, while she found this incredibly fun, she believes that working on issues in the philosophy of art will make more of an impact on the world. She also lives on a sailboat in Boston Harbor, paints, and volunteers for a non-profit art organization in Boston, HarborArts.
It’s been a while since painting was first proclaimed dead (apparently it was French painter Paul Delaroche in 1835), and ever since then there’s been a lot of ink spilled (and words typed) about whether or not it is dead, is dying, or never died in the first place. The consensus has shifted throughout the years, and, at least recently, the jury seems to be out (okay, the jury, at this time, thinks that painting is dead, but just by a little!):
Regardless of what the critics and headlines say, paintings are still created, put on display in museums and galleries, bought and sold… so there are folks that still care about painting. When asked about the supposed problem of painting, painter Amy Sillman responded “What’s the problem? Painters don’t see any problem!”[1] Painters are still painting and people are still buying paintings, so painting isn’t dead, but a lot of folks certainly think that they need to justify painting regardless of its capacity to breathe. This need-to-justify really caught my attention when I went to visit a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art here in Boston called Expanding the Field of Painting last year. The show consisted of 25 works by contemporary artists who, according to the assistant curator Anna Stothart, “through their varied investigations into the history, present, and future of painting, acknowledge and often exaggerate its contradictions to proclaim that painting still is, and will likely remain, very much alive.”[2] Not dead!screams the show, SO not dead! The idea behind the show, from what I gather, was a demonstration of how contemporary painting is important, relevant, and valuable because it goes beyond painting. I, perturbed by this message, warily went around the gallery rooms and pointed at different works “This is a work of video art,” I said pointing at Alex Hubbard’s 2011 The Border, The Ship,
and then again when pointing at Marylin Minter’s 2009 Green Pink Caviar,
and “This is just plain old sculpture,” I said pointing at Nicole Cherubini’s 2003 Gempot #3 with Fur,
“This is photography,” I said pointing at prints from Pipilotti Rist’s 1998 Remake of the Weekend,  
… and so on.
The problem with the show stems from the fact that a considerable amount of the work just isn’t painting. The works might be playing with or touching on aesthetic properties that are central to the nature of painting… but that doesn’t make them paintings! If I am getting the right message from the show, the conclusion I draw is that for a painting to have value, it has to be more than just painting.
Shortly after my visit to the ICA, a friend of mine posted an article to facebook written by the oh-so-lovely Jerry Saltz titled “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” The main gist is that the market is saturated with unoriginal canvases that are pleasurable while being devoid of meaning. “Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just ‘new’ or ‘dangerous’-looking enough not to violate anyones sense of what “new” or “dangerous” really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences.” Check out the slideshow for some examples.
Although I get his point and the examples given certainly make a viewer think geez I can’t believe people get paid to make these!, the emotions I felt after reading the article were interestingly connected to those I felt at the ICA show. The ICA show implies that everything has been done and in order to be an interesting painting, it has to go beyond what has already been done. The paintings discussed in the Saltz article aren’t originalin any way, they are simply pleasurable to their audience. And that’s not okay, says Saltz. In order to have real value, a painting must be new and differentfrom other paintings out there. Hence, the ICA show. But, why can’t these canvases, although similar, have value because they are bringing aesthetic pleasure to the individuals buying and enjoying them? What about the pleasure brought to the artists who paint them, as well as helping them earn a living?
Alright, so before I continue with my rant I should put all my cards on the table. I am a painter, so I have a stake in this whole ordeal and, beyond that, I’m a non-representationalist, abstract painter, so I’m potentially guilty of creating a few of those meaningless zombie paintings…
Despite these important biases, I think that what bothers me comes from a less personal place: the art world has fetishized originality as an aesthetic/artistic value, and, further, this is problematic because other aesthetic and artistic values are placed on the back burner, resulting, often, in obscure work that is less accessible to many viewers. Originality as an important aesthetic value has been discussed and debated in the literature over the years; some rank it among the highest of aesthetic values (Wollheim, for example), while Beardsley claims that “originality has no bearing upon worth: a work might be original and fine, or original and terrible.”[3]
From all the different conclusions drawn on the subject, I find that Sherri Irvin comes to a helpful one in her 2005 paper “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art”: “there is nothing in the nature of art or of the artists role that obligates the artist to produce innovative works. The demand for originality is an extrinsic pressure directed at the artist by society, rather than a constraint that is internal to the very concept of art.”[4] To a certain extent, this pressure for originality is understandable; the audience hopes that a work of art will take them to new levels of understanding and, often, this occurs through new experiences caused by things the audience has never seen/heard before. But this begins to become a problem when individuals with incredibly buffed up art history backgrounds complain that works lack meaning because they are similar to works made in the past. A lot of people may not know about those other works, and they may have an incredible experience with that “unoriginal” work that means a lot to them. The demand for originality can force artists to move above and beyond what has been made in the past simply for the sake of moving above and beyond what has been made in the past. This can lead to really brilliant works of art but, often times, it can lead to obscure works of art that require a lot of art historical knowledge to even approach, let alone understand or appreciate. People have been painting for a really long time and there are a bunch of folks that know a lot about its history; these folks are often the ones writing the reviews, critics, and articles that demand painting to justify itself by being something more than painting.
To my surprise, I found that the contemporary painting show that just opened up at MoMA (the first painting-focused show in 30 years!) doesn’t give into the need to justify painting by making it something more than painting. (Granted, I haven’t seen the show in person yet, but I do have the show’s monograph!) The show is titled—yes, it’s a bit silly—The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal Worldand it consists, completely, of objects that are obviously paintings.
Pictured above, descending: Richard Aldrich. Angie Adams/Franz Kline. 2010–11, and Amy Sillman. Untitled (Head). 2014.
The curator, Laura Hoptman, discusses the atemporal artist as one who creates works “of art that refute the possibility of chronological classification, [this] offers a dramatic challenge to the structure that disciplines like art history enforce—the great ladder-like narrative of cultural progress that is so depend upon this idea.”[5] Thus, the atemporal artists in the show are embracing their place as painters in the art historical narrative by giving up on the importance of making something completely original—i.e., a painting that is a video or a photograph, like those shown in the ICA show–that makes them stand apart from that narrative. They are working within it or, perhaps better said, with it. The artists in the show make beautiful, engaging, meaningful works that are obviously based on the work of past artists, and they aren’t making any apologies for this.


Pictured above, descending: Dianna Molzan. Untitled. 2009, & Oscar Murillo. 7+. 2013–14.
Hopman is using the word “atemporal” as it was introduced by William Gibson in 2003 to described “a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once,”[6] and I think it’s worth noting Gibson’s own views on the value of originality in a tweet a while back: “less creative people believe in ‘originalityand ‘innovation,two basically misleading but culturally very powerful concepts.” For all of the heady, jargon-y language that Hoptman uses in the essay accompanying the show, I think there is a simple, important message once can draw from the show—one that is neatly tied to Gibson’s tweet: a work of contemporary art necessarily sits within a vast art historical web, but we don’t need to judge the art against that web by seeing if the work is more or less similar to it, rather we should consider how the artist works with that historical web to make a moving, meaningful, engaging work of art. I love this message because it does challenge the fetishization of originality that plays an important role in the “great, ladder-like narrative of cultural progress” that Hopman discusses in her essay; focusing less on the never done before and more on the aesthetic or experiential value of the work will lead, I believe, to artists focusing more on making solid works, rather than trying to do something that’s never been done before simply for the sake of being original. A painting doesn’t have to actually be a video to be engaging, just as a painting that takes on the qualities of many past paintings can be meaningful and engaging.
These conclusions, I believe, could open the door for more accessible works of art or, perhaps, the acceptability of accessing a work of art without a degree in art history. Those super-original works of art are often those that push the boundaries of what is considered to be art for the sake of being original, and most of the time the only folks that can appreciate these works are those with an extensive art educational background. With the focus on originality many individuals without said educational background don’t even want to try and experience those works. The fetishization of originality has not only lead to painting needing to be more than painting, but also to the disengagement of a broader audience with contemporary works of art. Pushing the boundaries for the sake of originality often results in pushing away a potentially interested and engaged public. In the end, I don’t know if atemporal art is the savior, but I do think that the show at MoMA isn’t trying to justify painting, instead it celebrates the ability of painting aspainting to remain impactful and engaging in the contemporary now.

[1] “Painting Beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-Medium Condition.” Participants who cited “the problem of painting” included art historians Benjamin H.D. Buchlqh and the critic Isabelle Grew.
[3] Beardsley, Monroe. Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 460.
[4] Irvin, Sherri. “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art.” British Journal of Aesthetics 45 (2005), 137.
[5] Hoptman, Laura. The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2014. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same title.
[6] Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addition to Its Own Past. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011.


"Socrates and the Pig" by Saam Trivedi

Saam Trivedi was educated at universities in the US, England, and India, and is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He has published articles on such topics in Aesthetics as interpretation, musical expressiveness, ontology, Tolstoy’s aesthetics, and Indian aesthetics in such journals as Metaphilosophy, Revue Internationale de Philosophie, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, British Journal of Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetic Education, and also in edited anthologies.  
Not being an avid follower of all the exciting things going on in the blogosphere, I honestly do not know who regularly reads this blog (and my ancient laptop’s spell-checker actually suggests “bog” and “blot” in lieu of “blog”).  Still, as this blog is run by Christy Mag Uidhir, I assume that at least some regular visitors to it are his students. Accordingly, I offer below three minimal conditions for doing philosophical aesthetics, absent fulfillment of which, while you may well end up earning more than some people on Wall Street some day or even become a Distinguished Professor at some footling place, nevertheless it is quite unlikely you will uncover insights (not to mention “the truth”) about the arts and beauty.
Note that these three conditions or requirements do not form an exhaustive list of desiderata for doing Aesthetics, and readers should feel free to come up with other conditions in addition to these.  And note that I am far from being the first to stress the first two of these requirements and I suspect I will not be the last; among many others, they have also been stressed before, if I remember correctly, by Clive Bell and Roman Ingarden (a philosopher by the way whose writings on such things as literature, music, ontology and the like we would do well to read more today, carefully and with an open mind, and getting past such quick and convenient labels as “Continental philosopher”, “phenomenologist”, “Polish” etc.). It is, however, the third of these desiderata that has not been stressed until now as much as it should be. So here goes.
1. Know the Arts
Of the many philosophers writing about the arts and beauty, there are some who are very good philosophers and who know a lot about other things in Philosophy outside Aesthetics, which they in fact bring to Aesthetics.  This is very welcome, as should be evident from my discussion of the second condition below.  However, when one reads and figures out their work, making one’s way through complex and often very clever arguments (not to mention jargon), one ends up ultimately learning very little about the arts and beauty.  This is because their work is very far removed from the arts and beauty, something that is to be avoided.  If memory serves right, writers such as Bell and Ingarden in fact urge that one know at least two different arts very well, and that is good advice we should all take to heart. 
2. Know Philosophy
Let me begin my discussion of the second condition by narrating a true story.  Some years ago, I attended a talk at an institution not too far from where I am based.  A very well established philosopher (who does not do Aesthetics) prefaced a question by saying that in 50 years of doing Philosophy, he had not read even 50 pages of Aesthetics.
Indeed, even though Aesthetics (along with Ethics, Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Logic) is one of the five traditional areas of our discipline recognized by the American Philosophical Association (APA), most philosophers who work in other areas of Philosophy know and care very little about the arts and aesthetics, as exemplified by the story above. All that being said, however, I have actually heard many philosophers who work in branches of Philosophy outside Aesthetics sneer at the philosophical abilities of several aestheticians. Whether this disdain is justified is not something I will go into here, though I will mention that one very distinguished past President of the American Society for Aesthetics (ASA) once advised me at an ASA meeting some years back to talk more to metaphysicians and philosophers of mind, advice we would all do well to ponder.  Indeed, if the kind of philosophers I mentioned in the previous section are one extreme, at the other extreme are some aestheticians whose writings are chock-full of wonderful examples from across the arts even though they are not the greatest of philosophers. It is, I would venture, necessary even if not sufficient for there to be more jobs in Aesthetics both (and these two things are not unrelated) that philosophers who work outside Aesthetics learn more about and respect the arts and Aesthetics, and also that aestheticians become better philosophers.
3. Explore Other Cultures
As you read what follows, ask yourself if this describes you or someone a lot like you or someone you know. You know all about music from Metallica to Miley Cyrus to Miles Davis, and the different kinds of music they exemplify. That is awesome! You might even know something about Monteverdi, Mozart, Milton Babbitt, and minimalism, and Western classical music more broadly (even though the audience for this kind of music is dwindling so much that if one sits in the last row at live concerts of Western classical music, one will see a sea of heads of gray hair or no hair, as someone I know once put it).  But, you have never heard (or even heard of) Mongolian throat singing, or Mali’s great kora players, or Mexican mariachi music. And you are not even curious about such things; in fact, you could not care less.

Lest it be thought that my point above applies only to music, let me turn to film as another example, music and film being the two arts that most everyone experiences and enjoys at some point. Lately, I have followed some recent discussions of film and ethics.While the philosophical arguments of many writers on the topic are admirable, what is striking is the very small range of examples of Anglophone films and filmmakers that one typically comes across. All the usual suspects show up: Chaplin, Griffiths, Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Kubrick, Malick, Scorsese, Spielberg, and others in the pantheon of Anglophone filmmakers.  Don’t get me wrong here–I’d be the first to say these are all great filmmakers!  But, really, is there nothing in the collective output of non-Anglophone and especially non-Western filmmakers to merit discussion when talking about film and ethics? 
What about, to mention just a few examples, the great Japanese directors Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, or the Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, or the Indian director Satyajit Ray, or the Chinese Zhang Yimou and King Hu, or the Senegalese Ousmane Sembene, or the Brazilian Glauber Rocha, or the Turkish Yilmaz Guney? You could easily add to this list, less neglected non-Anglophone European filmmakers such as Melies, Renoir, Godard, Truffaut, Bunuel, Almodovar, Rohmer, Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Fellini, de Sica, Rossellini, Bergman, Lang, Riefenstahl, Fassbinder, and countless others. Some of these filmmakers make films that are indeed often set in cultures older than recorded Anglophone history, cultures that once flourished and then declined (and may rise again), cultures where ordinary folk these days often struggle with poverty, hunger, violence, corruption, political oppression, pollution, and disease, among many other things. Is there really nothing here for film and ethics, or are we collectively guilty of not being able to look very far beyond Anglophone culture?  
I urge readers to conduct a similar exercise across the other arts (literature, painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, theater, dance, and so on), and also to notice something else.  At the time of writing this, our little planet is estimated to have about 7.2 billion people.  Of that, the total population of (majority) white or Caucasian Anglophone countries (the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) comes to something like 460 million people, and in fact less than 7% of the world’s population. Viewed in purely numerical terms and in numerical terms alone, those numbers are even lower than the numbers associated with apartheid, when a small minority (I seem to think the number was almost up to 20% in 1936) of South Africa’s population dominated the rest.     
To conclude, we all know John Stuart Mill’s famous comparison (in the second chapter of Utilitarianism) between Socrates and the pig: unlike the pig who only knows his side of the question, Socrates knows both sides of things and so is able to compare intellectual and bodily pleasures. The true aesthete is like Socrates in that she knows both sides of these dichotomies: Anglophone art and aesthetics, and non-Anglophone art and aesthetics; Western art and aesthetics, and non-Western art and aesthetics. I leave it to your imagination to figure out what we should say about the pig. And if you disagree, think about this. Very often at conferences, you see middle-aged and older philosophers of my gender. Perhaps changing testosterone levels with the passage of time has something to do with this, but many of them are grouchy philosophers, the ones who misunderstand you first and then yell at you. Exploring the art and aesthetics of other cultures may well enrich your life, preventing you from becoming grumpy as you grow older, and getting you closer to attaining that elusive thing called work-life balance which philosophers, lovers of wisdom, probably need more than anyone else. Maybe this can even become part of our new year’s resolutions!    


"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.

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).
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.
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.


"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!


"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.
* * *
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.
* * *






[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.