Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

utah monolith

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Photo by Patrick A. Mackie via Wikimedia Commons

So. When one lives in Utah and writes about aesthetics and someone drops a metal monolith into the middle of nowhere somewhere near Bears’ Ears, one is going to hear about it.

Dubbed the “monolith” (props to the Salt Lake Tribune for fussily but correctly insisting that it’s an obelisk), the triangular metal prism stood about ten feet tall. According to Google Earth images searched after Reddit found the location, the monolith was installed by someone in the late summer of 2016. Forty-eight hours later, of course people had hiked to see it and of course they’d put it on Instagram.

But what should we make of it as art? The reaction to the monolith reminded many philosophers of art of Tilted Arc, Serra’s metal sculpture similarly located in a place where it didn’t seem welcome. The reaction of the public to Tilted Arc, however, was recorded as mostly negative (see Gregg Horowitz on the sociopolitical controversy). Another alternative: the monolith is as some kind of guerilla street art, breaking the boundaries of galleries and museums. Not a bad proposal: the monolith is both illicit and audacious. Don’t go dropping obelisks in national parks! But it doesn’t seem like its location is intrinsic to its meaning, and not to put too fine a point on it, it’s not in the street.

Here’s my proposal: think of the monolith as a monument, an artwork addressed to a group. Monuments typically embody commitments to principles, ideals, or a group memory; they are, as Thi Nguyen observes, vessels for group expression, art as a way that groups can talk to themselves.

But what could the Utah monolith embody?

Let’s start with its shape. Obelisks in ancient Egypt stood at the entrances of temples, likely symbolizing the power of the sun (or, more cynically, the power and wealth of whoever could get other people to put up a giant stone pointy thing). They’ve been characterized as mysterious and opaque, in part due to Western cultural practices exoticizing ‘lost’ Egypt, but also in part because the shape itself is something of a blank slate. Obelisks are comparatively opaque, revealing nothing of the artist or their intentions. As a result, their meaning is flexible, which is why the same shape that graced Egyptian temples could plausibly memorialize George Washington, thousands of years and half a planet away, and why Arthur C. Clarke could choose an obelisk as the alien artifact which spurred human evolution in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Let’s suppose then that obelisks derive their meaning from whatever the society that maintains and celebrates them decides they mean. Now have a mini obelisk of unknown provenance dropped the middle of a forgotten spot in Bears’ Ears.

When it was revealed to the world, we determined its meaning. And we responded with memes.

Memes are open-ended and owned by no one in particular. Because of that, by creating or sharing a meme, according to Anthony Cross, users join in the collective authorship of the meme. Like inside jokes, memes establish and define intimacy. In a year where virtual and online spaces have become central in the creation and maintenance of communities, memes help us connect not just with others far away online, but even close friends with whom one must be physically distant.

There is an artwork here, but it’s not in the steel. It’s in what the community online made of it, four years after it was planted. The Utah monolith, opaque and mysterious, shows up in the wild, and the online world, tired of COVID and abundances of caution and lockdowns and masks and online school and unprecedented times and hand sanitizer and (if you’re in Utah) earthquakes, treats it as a chance to reflect on the absurdity of 2020.

Absurdity dictates, that, of course an obelisk would be discovered this year, and not a hundred years ago in 2019. Of course we’d make jokes about aliens in a year that also featured murder hornets. Of course when locals removed the obelisk, fearing that tourists would damage the petroglyphs that surrounded it, they left behind a cheeky little pyramid.

Mini Pyramid, Alex Cabrero (via)

And of course, there’s now another monolith in Romania. One must imagine Sisyphus laughing.

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What follows is a co-authored post by Brandon Polite and Matthew Strohl.

The ascendancy of the internet has generated a wide range of difficult new questions for philosophers of aesthetics. Our concern in this piece is the way the internet has reshaped aesthetic discourse and has made aesthetic disagreement far more immediate and pervasive. Social media allows users to broadcast their evaluations of artworks to hundreds or thousands of followers any time of day and, as a result, has ushered in the Golden Age of Everyone Having an Opinion. We are specifically concerned with the general tendency of the internet to promote hostility in aesthetic discourse. Rampant hostility has emerged in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from large-scale fan movements to remake a poorly received season of a widely loved television series or a controversial entry in a beloved film franchise, to casual Facebook threads about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women or HBO’s Watchmen series.

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Astute observers of life online may already be familiar with “Dark Academia”—a stylistic trend currently blowing up on TikTok that draws liberally from Donna Tartt novels, T. Hayashida’s Take Ivy, goth culture, and Dead Poets Society. One practitioner of the style sums up Dark Academia as “young people trying to dress like old people” and encourages initiates to immerse themselves in ancient Greek tragedies and stock up on tweed blazers. Others have compiled lists of guidelines and tips on adopting Dark Academia and visual guidelines for Dark Academia apparel.

If you’re scratching your head in puzzlement at this point, here’s a brief explainer: Dark Academia is just the latest of a number of different online styles or “aesthetics” that have spread largely through social media. Some of these—such as cottagecore, VSCO, and e-girls and e-boys—have attracted a decent amount of mainstream attention. But what’s notable is that these styles barely scratch the surface of a bewildering array of online aesthetics that includes goblincore, pastel goth, and yes, even Karencore.

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Thanks to our readers for another great year at Aesthetics for Birds! Here were our most-viewed posts this year. Scroll through to make sure you haven’t missed something big! (You can also check out our Top 5 of 2017 and Top 5 of 2018.)

Note: Our actual Top 5 by the numbers included a few from previous years (including last year’s #1, 2017’s #5, and one surprise appearance). So below you’ll see the most popular five posts that first appeared in 2019.


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This year marks the end of the second decade of the 2000s. In honor of this, we thought we’d take a look back at our decade with an end-of-year series.

The internet loves lists, especially year-end ones, and we’ve been feeding that love a little bit this December. We have hosted six lists of expert Decade-Best picks, including movies, games, writing, TV, music, and art. Our previous experts have been philosophers and other academics whose work concerns these topics, and people working in/on the relevant media.

Today, we have a slightly different theme. Our experts are our own Aesthetics for Birds staff, and they’ll be giving their Top Ten lists across all media and genres, no restrictions (though with some extra effort to include stuff in categories not already covered). It’s art and aesthetics in the broadest possible sense. So without further delay, let’s see this decade’s top aesthetic offerings.

Our contributors are:

    • Roy T Cook, AFB staff writer, professor in Philosophy at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities
    • Anthony Cross, AFB staff writer, lecturer in Philosophy at Texas State University
    • Matt Strohl, AFB staff writer, professor in Philosophy at the University of Montana
    • Mary Beth Willard, AFB staff writer, associate professor in Philosophy at Weber State University
    • Thi Nguyen, AFB assistant editor, associate professor in Philosophy at Utah Valley University
    • Alex King, AFB editor-in-chief, assistant professor in Philosophy at SUNY Buffalo

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Sometimes I put milk in brewed coffee. I do so when I go to I-HOP for a plate of International Pancakes and a bottomless cup of diner swill. Sometimes I buy coffee at the airport. It’s usually godawful sludge that’s been over-roasted and brewed too strong before stewing in a hot coffee urn for god knows how long. You better believe I add some milk to this stuff; it’s too ghastly to drink black. Milk can make bad coffee less bad. It also of course has its place in a number of venerable espresso drinks.

But what about good brewed coffee? There are some coffees that you just shouldn’t add milk to. The term “Third Wave” refers to the movement that treats brewed coffee as an artisanal product. High quality, well-processed beans are sourced from small farms, roasted to exacting specifications meant to highlight the coffee’s origin character, and brewed precisely one cup at a time. Every step of the process is oriented towards doing justice to a high quality bean. Adding milk to Third Wave coffee is antithetical to this aim. Milk masks the origin character, changes the mouthfeel, drowns out the subtle details.

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John Rawls said, famously, that the way to judge a society was to look at the condition of its worst-off.⁠1 It doesn’t matter how rich or well-educated the people at the top are. The best society is the one that best treats the people at the bottom.

Let me suggest a corollary: the Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture. The Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture says that, if you want to judge the quality of a food culture, don’t look at its finest restaurants and best food. Look to its low-end. Look to its street carts, its gas-station snacks. Look to what you can get in the airport at 2 AM. Any community can spit up a few nice places to eat, if they throw enough money at it. What shows real love for food, and real caring, is when people make good food when they could get away with making crap.


This is a Jamaican patty I had for $2 out of hot cabinet in a mini-market in Toronto. It made me cry, it was so good.

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What follows is a co-authored post by AFB staff writers Matthew Strohl and Mary Beth Willard.

John Corvino writes, of the narrowly decided Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, that the Supreme Court punted on many of the substantive issues:

What counts as protected speech, and why? Does it matter if the cake is custom? If it has words on it? How do we distinguish messages that are integral to one’s identity as a member of a protected class and those that are incidental to it?

We suspect it does matter if the cake is custom, but that the focus on messaging is a red velvet herring. To our minds, this isn’t primarily an issue of protected speech, at least in the sense being widely discussed in connection with the recent SCOTUS decision. Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George argue that custom wedding cakes bear expressive content, in particular, the recognition that the event the cake figures in is a wedding. We are skeptical about the prospects for this argument. As Chief Justice Roberts observed during oral argument, it’s hard to see why whether a cake is custom or not would make an expressive difference with respect to acknowledging the wedding as such. But the notion that a cake carries such expressive content strikes us as highly dubious in the first place. Setting aside any text or wedding imagery (which we assume would be a little too déclassé to be on offer in the first place from a cakeshop with ‘Masterpiece’ in its name), a wedding cake is just a really awesome cake. There is no systematic way to distinguish wedding cakes from other cakes on the basis of their intrinsic features. Wedding cakes are typically multi-tiered, but many high-end wedding cakes are one-tiered and there are plenty of other show-stopping alternatives to the multi-tiered cake. And, of course, multi-tiered cakes are often used to celebrate other occasions (including mermaid parties!). Continue reading

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In the penultimate measure of the first movement Clementi’s Sonatina No. 36, there is a short cascade of notes:

This sonatina is often used as a teaching piece, because it’s a great introduction for the early intermediate pianist to the techniques required in more complicated piano pieces. This little cascade is a good example of why. It’s short, only eight notes long. In the numbering system every beginner learns, your thumbs are ones; your pinkies, fives. The G and A keys are right next to each other on the keyboard, and one might expect that the prescribed fingering of two adjacent notes would require two adjacent fingers. Perhaps, because the sequence continues down the keys, the four and five fingers, so that other fingers are properly positioned to reach the next notes.

But that’s not what happens. The G is struck with the thumb, and the A with the fourth finger. To do this, one must curl the edges of the palm toward each other like a taco. Then, the second finger crosses over to reach the D, the third follows to strike the E, and then the sequence repeats. 1, 4, 2, 3. Continue reading