AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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Music, Theology, and Philosophy: A Conversation with Artist-Theologian Julian Reid

Image courtesy of Julian Reid

Artist-Theologian Julian Reid interviewed by Alex King

Julian is an artist-theologian who plays, speaks, and writes at the intersection of music, faith, and story. He is a founding member of the jazz-fusion group The JuJu Exchange and has two personal projects, including his solo show Inherited and his devotional series Notes of Rest. He also works with the grassroots organization Fearless Dialogues. He studied theology and the arts at Candler School of Theology and, before that, philosophy at Yale. He and his wife Carmen are based in his beloved hometown of Chicago. You can learn more about Julian on his website and keep up with him at @julianreid17 on Twitter/Instagram.

During or after you read this interview, please enjoy the sounds of the JuJu Exchange.

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ARTIST INTERVIEW: RABKAR WANGCHUK

Painter Rabkar Wangchuk interviewed by Alex King, with help from Nic Bommarito

Rabkar Wangchuk is a Tibetan artist, thangka painter, and sculptor. Born and raised in the Tibetan exile community in India, he is currently based in Queens, New York. At the age of seven, he was admitted to the Gyudme Tantric Monastery in south India where he began twenty years of training in various types of Tibetan art. During those twenty years, he mastered and pursued perfection in woodcarving, butter sculptures and, sand mandala (for which he was awarded an appreciation certificate from the Gyudme Tantric University). He also served as the head of the art section of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Art (TIPA) in Dharamsala, India. His work has been exhibited in various venues throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States. Recently, he exhibited his unique arts at the Trace Foundation and Queens Museum in New York City. He will have work on display at Transcending Tibet, opening in New York, March 12–April 12, 2015 organized by the Trace Foundation.

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Why Can’t Painting Just Be Painting

What follows is a guest post by Rebecca Victoria Millsop. Rebecca is 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 anyone’s 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 original in 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 different from 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 artist’s 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 World and 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 ‘originality’ and ‘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 as painting 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.

[2]http://www.icaboston.org/exhibitions/exhibit/ICA-Collection-Expanding-the-Field-of-Painting/

[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.


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Socrates and the Pig

What follows is a guest post by Saam Trivedi. Saam 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!