AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


6 Comments

JAMES WOOD ON HOW CRITICISM WORKS

James_Woods
Photo credit: Claire Messud

What follows is an interview of writer and literary critic James Wood, who is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard. He is interviewed by Becca Rothfeld, a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard, and an essayist, literary critic, and contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Times Book ReviewThe Atlantic, and more. 

James Wood is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker, the author of two novels and six books of criticism, and the most exhilarating literary critic alive. He made his name writing long, ambitious, and often searingly negative essays, among them his famed takedown of so-called “hysterical realists”  and his evisceration of Paul Auster’s hypermasculine posturing. But I know Wood primarily as a lover of literature, and in recent years, he has done much to champion contemporary novelists, among them Ben Lerner and Teju Cole. Wood is a voracious quoter, and in his pieces he allows the works he loves to speak in their own voices. I love Wood for many reasons, some of which I fleshed out in my review of his latest essay collection, Serious Noticing. By way of summary, I love his beautiful prose, his appreciation for well-wrought sentences, and his argumentative and philosophical acumen. My favorite essay of his—perhaps my favorite piece of literary criticism in the world!—is his ravenous take on Moby-Dick and God. (The son of a minister, Wood’s vexed atheism rears its head in many of his essays.) In this interview, I spoke to him via email, initially about why he prefers to do interviews via email, ultimately about both his broader aesthetic commitments and what he thinks criticism amounts to.

Continue reading


1 Comment

“OLD TOWN ROAD”: COUNTRY OR NOT?

Soon after Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” debuted in December 2018, it quickly rose to the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. But in March of 2019, Billboard removed the song from the country chart, claiming that it had been wrongly classified as country. The track went on to top the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, staying there for a record 19 weeks. But a debate remained about whether Billboard’s claim was right. Is “Old Town Road” a country song or not? Continue reading


5 Comments

WHAT A GREAT CRITIC DOES

What follows is a guest post by Antonia Peacocke.

Art critics get a really bad rap. The stereotype of a critic is a haughty, pedantic grump who loves passing judgment on art—without being able to do anything creative themselves. According to the stereotype, critics are assholes ready to destroy the dreams of hopeful artists and intimidate the rest of us into feeling dumb.

This stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Critics—or, at least, great critics—are really not assholes. They love art, and artists too, and they are not here to intimidate the rest of us. To see the potential of great art criticism, it helps to read a great art critic. Continue reading


1 Comment

“TRAUMA-FEEDING”: WHY IT’S NOT OKAY TO EXPLOIT TRAUMA IN ART

traumafeeding1.jpg

Room, Cité Universitaire, Paris, with Al Ghazali quotation:
“I follow love’s caravan wherever it goes. For love is my religion and my faith.” (2006)

What follows is a guest post by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer & Misty Morrison. It also appears cross-posted at the Cleveland Review of Books.

We want to draw attention to a practice inside contemporary artistic practices and to suggest a set of considerations that could gradually change it, for we take it to be morally dishonest and aesthetically compromised. We call this practice “trauma-feeding.” The expression is our invention. We think trauma-feeding is enmeshed in corrupt conditions in the economy of contemporary art so that to talk about it is to talk inevitably about the institutional framing of artistic practice in an art economy that cultivates practices, habits, and sensibilities that allow artists to hustle their way to success in a neoliberal economy structured by gross inequality of wealth and of capabilities. With trauma-feeding, their mode of hustle is parasitic (from para – alongside – sitos – food) on everyday people’s moral sensibilities. The hinge in our discussion is the relation between trauma-feeding, consumable spectacle, and viability in a neoliberal art economy, predicated off of everyday people’s moral sympathy. After explaining what we mean by “trauma-feeding” and relating it to the social-economic conditions to which we’ve alluded, we will argue that artists and institutions have a moral responsibility to deal with trauma differently, particularly by following through in responding to it. They should stop being morally dishonest and parasitic.

Continue reading


7 Comments

ZOMBIE FORMALISM: OR, HOW FINANCIAL VALUES PERVADE THE ARTS

zombie.jpg

Damien Hirst, Dantrolene (1994)

What follows is a guest post by Sarah Hegenbart.

Once upon a time, the month of June was jet-set season for the international artworld. After a meet and greet at the preview days at the Venice Biennale, which used to take place in early June, the crowd of artists, curators, critics, dealers, and collectors jumped on a plane, a train, or a yacht heading towards Basel, Switzerland. Basel wakes up at least once a year when astronomical amounts of money are paid for works so contemporary that the paint on the canvases has hardly finished drying. Or possibly even works that are such hot shit that they are not available yet because they are still on view in one of the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale. But the unavailability only increases the desire. (This is a pattern recognizable from other unhealthy relationships, too.) Knowing the economic laws of supply and demand, clever dealers strategically positioned themselves in the pavilions of the Venice Biennale to advertise their artistic assets. Continue reading


Leave a comment

WHICH INTERPRETATION? AESTHETIC EVALUATION IN THE GALLERY-MUSEUM

What follows is a guest post by Jennifer A. McMahon.

Have you ever found yourself patiently listening to a range of interpretations of an artwork, wondering whether there was some objective way to negotiate the plethora of sometimes idiosyncratic and whimsical responses? Regarding this question, it is interesting to compare the typical objective of a community-based-book-club to the way gallery visitors talk about the art they see. A reader seeks to make sense of a novel in terms relative to their own life experiences. If a reader finds by referencing expert authority that their experience is far removed from what the author had in mind, the value they place on the work might be diminished rather than prompt them to any new experience of it (unless they were reading it as part of a course on which they were to be assessed). With visual art, the situation until recently was quite different. The gallery visitor might ask what a work meant and establish this by reading art historians and art critics. But recently, the gallery has become an analogue of the local book club. The gallery program officers seek to provide experiences for their visitors and by definition this means, finding the means whereby the visitor can make sense of a work relative to their own life experiences. Today it can seem downright fascistic to ask for the view of an expert! Continue reading


1 Comment

IS THIS REALLY ART? AESTHETIC DISAGREEMENT AND CONCEPTUAL NEGOTIATION

Picture1

What follows is a guest post from Elizabeth Cantalamessa (University of Miami).

Think about the endless debates over what, really, is art. We get it over the latest Star Wars movie, or over Richard Prince’s series of Instagram screenshots titled New Portraits, or the recent Banksy “art-world prank” where a print of Girl With a Balloon “self-shredded” upon its auction. Articles are written, exhibitions are curated, theories are proposed – but, if there’s no fact out there in the world that can settle the debates, why do people waste their time trying to get others to agree with them? It seems that we face a dilemma: either people are wasting their time trying to figure out what “really” makes something art – or there is some deep fact about these objects that would settle the debates if aestheticians and the like just do enough analysis and theory. Continue reading


14 Comments

CAN WE SEPARATE THE ART FROM THE ARTIST?

miles.jpg

The following is an updated version of a post that appeared originally on the philosophy website Daily Nous as part of their “Philosophers On” series. Thanks to Justin Weinberg for permission to repost it with updates here.


This edition of Artworld Roundtable appears in collaboration with Chris Richards, the pop music critic for the Washington Post. Over the last several weeks, we have presented a series of roundtable discussions based on Richards’ “five hardest questions in pop music”: “cultural appropriation, problematic lyricism, selling out, the ethics of posthumous listening, and … separating the art from the artist.” AFB has rounded up several thinkers working in these areas to see what they have to say about each question. Richards has provided AFB with key examples to draw out the problems and complexities of each debate. First was cultural appropriation. Second was how to respect the wishes of dead artists. Third was whether selling out is still possible. Fourth was how to engage with objectionable lyrics. Today we ask whether and to what extent we can separate art from the artist who made it.

The past couple of years have been filled with news about artists and entertainers history of sexual harassment and assault. But the bad behavior of artists isn’t limited to that. Many musicians are outspokenly racist. Some have committed crimes or even murders. And others are just terrible jerks.

How, if at all, should the personal character and moral transgressions of musicians change what we think about, and how we act in regard to, their music?

Whether we can separate the art from the artist is the fifth of “the five hardest questions in pop music”, as described in the Washington Post by pop music critic Chris Richards. Below is the guiding question accompanied by a few examples that Richards finds particularly salient, followed by our contributors’ responses. Continue reading


Leave a comment

ARTWORLD ROUNDTABLE: THE ART OF IMMORAL ARTISTS

The following is a post that appeared originally on the philosophy website Daily Nous as part of their “Philosophers On” series. Thanks to Justin Weinberg for permission to repost it here.


The news over the past several months has been full of revelations of sexual harassment and assault by men involved in arts and entertainment and other fields (for lists of recently revealed cases, see here and here). The cases have brought to the public’s attention a variety of questions concerning power, justice, gender relations, privacy, business practices, and the responsibilities of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. When it comes to those involved in the arts, most of us come into contact with them largely as consumers, and so it is no surprise that one of the questions many people are discussing is this: How, if at all, should the moral transgressions of those involved in making art change what we think about, and how we act in regard to, their art? Continue reading