AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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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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Notable Artworld Grist for the Aesthetics Mill: 2014 Edition

Georgia O’Keeffe painting has record-shattering price tag (here)
 
 
Richard Prince’s ode to the profoundly creepy (here)
 
James Franco’s adorably awful homage to Cindy Sherman (here)
 
Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx gets a sweet reception (here)
 
Paul McCarthy’s Tree (2014) placed artistic arrears (here and here)
 


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PHILOSOPHER-ARTIST INTERVIEW: R.A. BRIGGS

Philosopher and Poet R.A. Briggs interviewed by Alex King

R.A. Briggs is a philosopher and a poet. She has been a Research Fellow at the Australian National University and at Griffith University since 2012. She has published widely on issues in metaphysics, epistemology, and decision theory. Her poetry has also been published many venues, but you can get a lot of it in one place in her book, Free Logic, which won the 2012 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for emerging poets in Queensland and was shortlisted for the 2014 Queensland Literary Award in the poetry category. Continue reading


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HIGH ART, LOW ART, AND THE STATUS OF AESTHETICS

high-low.png

What follows is a guest post by Alex King (Buffalo).

It’s a sad truth that aesthetics isn’t taken particularly seriously in the contemporary philosophical scene. 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.
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THE SOCIO-AESTHETICS OF PINK

What follows is a guest post by Elisabeth Camp. She teaches at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her research focuses on thoughts and utterances that don’t fit standard propositional models, including metaphor and sarcasm, slurs and insinuation. She also works on the varieties of imagination, the theory of concepts, non-human animal cognition, and maps.

I’ve been spending a disproportionate amount of time in the past year musing about pink.  I have a daughter who just turned 2 and is quite vocal in her opinions. High among these is the general gloriousness of pink and the intrinsic goodness of things that happen to be colored pink: for instance, that strawberry ice cream is maximally delicious, in virtue of its color. Her passion for pink is, most obviously, a form of comeuppance being visited upon me by an irony-loving universe; but it also raises some puzzles at the intersection of aesthetics, semiotics, and the politics of gender. How can she be so inexorably drawn to pink, even before having any peers to mimic? Why am I so irked by pink? Why do I even care what she wears? What should I do about it?

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

My daughter seems not to differentiate among these pinks, generally adopting a policy of “the more the merrier”; but I find myself repelled by some, and not merely reconciled to but attracted by others. While some pinks strike me as tacky, flat and one-dimensional, others look delicate, or resonant. Some go nicely with blue or grey leggings, while others demand white, or maybe stripes. Some make her look cute and spunky, others washed-out and dumpy.

These are aesthetic judgments with a vengeance: situational, perspective-dependent, richly evaluative. I’ve tried bracketing them, telling myself that none of it matters – a thought that was especially plausible when she was too small to care or even notice – and that it most definitely isn’t worth spending money on. Pink is fine, I mutter. She’ll just cover it in paint and applesauce anyway.

But those aesthetic evaluations are maddeningly persistent.  It turns out that the ‘pure’ phenomenal property is anything but: pink – or rather, various pinks, otherwise close neighbors in hue and/or saturation – are imbued with thick, sticky, if largely intuitive, cultural significance.  They are allied to, and in tension with, other colors in ways that make them suitable components of some overall styles and not others: hot pink fits with zebras and metallic silver stars; ballerina pink with tulle and hearts; dusty rose with gingham or Art Nouveau flowers.  And those styles in turn fit with different personalities: sassy; sweet; elegant.

Pink matters, then, because it is embedded in aesthetic structures that are themselves bound up with ways of being in the world that are partially aesthetic, but also personal and political.  Colors encode aesthetic norms that run straight through to style, personality, and culture. These norms are difficult to articulate; but like everybody else, my daughter and I are sensitive to them, and (already) dispute about them.  As Arthur Danto says,

The structure of a style is like the structure of a personality… This concept of consistency has little to do with formal consistency. It is the consistency rather of the sort we invoke when we say that a rug does not fit with the other furnishings of the room, or a dish does not fit with the structure of a meal, or a man does not fit with his own crowd. It is the fit of taste which is involved, and this cannot be reduced to formula. It is an activity governed by reasons, no doubt, but reasons that will be persuasive only to someone who has judgment or taste already.

Moreover, my daughter cares about pink because, even in the absence of obviously gendered toys, without anyone urging her to be “a good girl,” with her only peers encountered fleetingly on the playground, she’s figured out that pink is for girls, which is something she wants to be.  Her first forays in the world of aesthetics are also explorations in self-identity. And this is also why I care about pink: my aesthetic judgments about color, direct and immediate as they are, are now charged with my hopes and fears for her and her place in the world.  I want her to be beautiful and kind and smart; I hope she grows up to be strong and self-determining; I fear she will be drowned in a sea of girlitude, as in JeongMee Yoon’s 2006 portrait of her daughter, See Woo and Her Pink Things:

JeongMee Yoon (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Jenkins Johnson Gallery)

Construction, Reality and Meaning

Of course, it wasn’t always so. Maybe pink was always freighted, but it wasn’t always for girls. According to Jo B. Paoletti, white clothing was common for children of both sexes well into the 19th century, because color dyes couldn’t sustain the rigors of repeated washing. When colors did become more common, the gender affiliation went in other direction, in virtue of aesthetic color judgments that might have seemed just as obvious but differed starkly from our own. Thus, a 1918 article in a trade publication intoned that “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” The contemporary gender association emerged in the 40’s but retreated from the 70’s – when feminism helped popularize a more uni-sex style – until the mid-80’s, when marketers began promoting strongly gender-differentiated clothes, diapers, cribs and toys. Our contemporary palette of pinks is also of fairly recent vintage. The instability of dyes made pale pink the only viable option until chemical advances enabled Elsa Schiaparelli to launch Shocking Pink in 1937, which she featured in her avant garde designs, often in collaboration with Surrealists like Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, and Man Ray.

Evidence for constructedness can demonstrate lack of inevitability, and hence the possibility of change. But it doesn’t show that what is constructed isn’t real, for us, now. My aesthetic responses to pink, like my daughter’s, are direct and immediate, something I can’t easily alter or put aside. Moreover, my taste for some pinks over others, and for other combinations of colors, textures and patterns, is part and parcel of a more encompassing set of tastes extending to food, furniture, turns of phrase, music, and ‘high’ art. These visceral, unreflective judgments hang together in a complex habitus, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, which is itself the product of my own meandering navigation through the socioeconomic environment. As a result, every time I dress myself – and my daughter – I signal to the world, and to myself, who I am, where and how I fit in. These signals matter, affecting what people expect from and how they respond to me. Conforming to and flouting these expectations has real, concrete consequences about how others treat me; and I ignore them at my peril.

If pink – or pinks – are systematically embedded in complex, intersubjectively robust semiotic structures, do they mean those structures? The parallel with names is instructive. Piles of empirical evidence show that names embody and transmit complex socioeconomic signals, with significant real-world consequences for factors like employment and promotion. Beyond the relatively coarse-grained categories of gender, ethnicity, and class, names can evoke more specific schemas, as the psychologist Tania Lombrozo discovered when she deployed Mechanical Turk to help name her second child: “Katia” sounds like a supermodel; “Austen” like a rich white tomboy. But none of this pushes me as a philosopher away from direct reference orthodoxy for names. This is not because I reject the possibility that something as messy and amorphous as a schema or habitus could belong to semantics; I’ve argued that slurs are conventionally associated with perspectives or schemas. But in the case of slurs, unlike (most) names and colors, the connection is tight enough to engender an indefeasible commitment: using a slur commits the speaker to endorsing a certain way of thinking about the targeted group. If we call to account someone who uses a slur in ignorance of its associated perspective, they need to retract their statement on pain of remaining on record as a bigot. By contrast, someone who names or dresses their child in ignorance of their associated schemas may end up regretting her choice, but doesn’t normally stand liable for endorsing that schema. More generally, associations and schemas are pervasive, powerful aspects of our cognitive and social lives, to which philosophers would do well to pay more attention; but we shouldn’t just lump them in with concepts or ignore important differences among varieties of meaning.

Heteronormativity, Heteronymy, and the Revaluation of Values

Still, even if pinks don’t mean sassy or sweet or sexy – or surreal – in any sense recognizable to analytic philosophers, pink is clearly freighted with sociocultural significance. And much of it isn’t pretty.

On the one hand, my gut reaction against my daughter’s wearing hot pink and zebra stripes is clearly an expression of snobbery. But like it or not, one of my tasks as a parent is to transmit the ‘cultural capital’ I have accrued, so that my children can locate themselves in the world – so that the most doors can be open to them, by knowing what signals they’re sending. Further, part of my aversion to hot pink derives from my (justified, I believe) aversion to its associated schema: to girlhood as heavily featuring cupcakes and poodles, and manicures and shopping as intrinsically entertaining, self-actualizing activities. By contrast, I can embrace more of the connotations surrounding dusty rose: gardens, tea and crumpets, woodland fairies.

On the other hand, both hot pink and dusty rose are bound up with gender codes that are at least stifling and plausibly repressive. Many of the boys at my son’s preschool liked pink, at least up through age 4. Maybe it struck them as a “decided and strong color,” or maybe they just liked it, though part of their attraction often seemed to be precisely to its associated schema. (As a child, my husband seems to have deemed it his favorite largely out of sheer cussedness.) By the time they reached kindergarten, though, these proclivities had been largely extinguished or at least repressed, except in those few who have doubled down with nail polish and ruffles. (Just before our daughter’s birth, our son announced that he was “allergic” to pink. Now, he exhorts his friends “We don’t like princesses and pink, do we?” Which, on the one hand, Right. But on the other, No.)

The exclusion of boys from a wide range of perfectly viable, even important forms of dress and play because of their association with femininity is bad enough. But in a patriarchial society, the confinement of girls to a limited set of permissible ways of being is considerably worse. In particular, empirical evidence suggests that highly gendered clothing can serve as a trigger for stereotype threat, leading girls and women perform worse on tests of stereotypically male abilities, like math and engineering.

These seem like decent reasons for my daughter not to go around constantly swathed in pink. At the same time, she just does really like it. And it’s not as if she’s engaged in a form of false consciousness, glomming on to something she doesn’t genuinely enjoy because other people tell her she should. She’s too hard at work constructing who she is in the first instance. And a crucial form of self-construction is feeling one’s way in to a style, finding what’s fitting for your own particular personality. She likes pink because it helps her to actualize her self; if anything, it would be heteronymous for me to banish pink from her wardrobe.

So what are we, as right-thinking, over-educated, squarely upper-middle-class parents, to do? One option is to actively appropriate pink, much as targeted groups have done with slurs like ‘queer’, by “revaluing the values” of schema-associated properties. We do attempt this with the princess mania that besets pre-K girls, giving Xena the warrior princess figurines for birthdays instead of the flouncy Disney royalty they would clearly prefer (not that Xena is entirely unproblematic in her own right). But reappropriation can’t be achieved in isolation; in the absence of a coordinated counter-cultural movement it just perpetuates established stereotypes. Besides, “pink pride” is easily coopted, so that apparent re-valuation becomes a more insidious form of accommodation. (I’ve decided this is why I hate Frozen.) I’d prefer my daughter to play with regular construction tools and LEGO, not cutesy heart-embossed pink ones; and Victoria’s Secret’s PINK Nation seems like a thinly disguised attempt to sexualize tweenhood by marketing thongs alongside sweatpants and bedding.

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


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Keeping Our Place

What follows is a guest post by Jennifer Judkins. Jennifer is an Adjunct Professor at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, where she teaches music bibliography for performers and guides graduate research. She spent many years standing in the back of orchestras counting rests, and her musings between timpani rolls have nursed many years of interest and writing in aesthetics, especially in regard to musical performance. Recently, she was a contributor to the Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music (2011)

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The Problem of Elitism in Aesthetics

What follows is a guest post by Bence Nanay. Bence is Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp and Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Between Perception and Action (Oxford University Press, 2013) and editor of Perceiving the World (Oxford University Press, 2010) and he just finished his book on aesthetics, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford University Press, under contract), all very elitist, really. This picture shows him pretending to be down with the kids, but the truth is that he has no idea how to play drums (as you can probably tell from the picture)… Also, he looks about as dumb on this picture as Kelso from That 70s Show(to throw in a really elitist reference)…

Let’s begin with a little quiz:

Who are the characters depicted in these following three pictures:

My conjecture is that even the sophisticated aesthetics-y audience of this blog can name the characters in the third, but not the first and the second picture (correct me if I’m wrong). (solutions below)

But we, aestheticians, like to use examples like the first and the second picture – and rightly so, they are amazing images. This raises the question about our audience: who are we talking to? To the connoisseurs of Domenico Veneziano and Antonioni? Or to what university administrators like to call the wider public? Aesthetics has an elitism problem and we all know this, but prefer not to talk about it.

I recently said in an interview that aesthetics as a discipline is considered to be marginal in the eyes of other philosophers (and got some heat for this from all kinds of directions). One of the reasons for this is exactly the perceived elitism of aestheticians – we go on about extremely highbrow examples like Proust, Bartok and Godard and most of our colleagues find it difficult to relate to this. And our students also find it difficult to relate to this.

But if aesthetics has an elitism problem, what can we do about this? I myself have tried all the strategies I could think of at some point or another in my life, and I’m really unhappy with each of them:

  1. Ignore the problem. Just assume that your audience has as much background in atonal music and modernist cinema as you do. If they don’t, it’s their problem, maybe they’ll feel ashamed and go home to educate themselves.  
  2. Throw a bone to the crowd sometimes. When I served as a TA in Richard Wollheim’s 200-strong intro to philosophy of art class, one day he came to me enthusiastically, saying he will talk about an artwork the students can surely relate to – and then he talked about the Watts Towers in LA. The idea was that the student from Southern California are bound to love it. To Wollheim’s greatest amazement, the students were not particularly thrilled.
  3. Try to educate the audience. I have to confess that I have done this quite a bit. Especially when teaching, which may be excusable. But this can be pretty heavy-handed. Once when I needed to use examples of the representation of dance in film (why? I’m not sure. Maybe something about the relation between the visual and the auditory?), I eased them in with the scene from Pulp Fiction, but then went on to do some Godard, Pasolini  and even Bela Tarr. As I said, heavy-handed.
  4. Go completely anti-elitist. Stop talking about high art altogether and focus on artforms and examples the audience can be expected to know and like – sitcoms, comics, punk-rock, street art, porn, horror, late-night talk-shows, whatever.

I would be genuinely curious to know who opts for which strategy – or if there are other strategies the readers of this blog can recommend. I don’t want to pretend that I have a solution to this issue of elitism – I don’t. But I really think this is something we, as a profession should talk about and take seriously.

The real issue is that I suspect that the problem of elitism goes much deeper. I have been mainly talking about choosing what examples one uses to demonstrate an aesthetic phenomenon. But there is an even more important sense in which we should address the issue of elitism within aesthetics – if we remain too elitist, we may miss out on genuinely important aesthetic phenomena that have become extremely widespread around us, but we failed to notice in our ivory tower.

And here comes the bombshell. I believe that no work in aesthetics addressed what is now the most dominant way of engaging with narratives and it’s called shipping. I talked to two or three dozens of aestheticians about shipping in the last year or so and not one of them knew what shipping was, so I can safely assume that you don’t either.

You are shipping a couple if you really really want two fictional characters of a serialized narrative fiction, mostly a TV show, to have a romantic relationship. The term itself was coined when the world was fascinated with the sexual tension between the two main characters of the TV show, The X-Files, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. But it became a really global phenomenon with two extremely popular serialized narratives, Harry Potter and Friends (thus the illustration above)

Arguably, it were the writers of Friends who discovered that you can double, triple or quadruple the number of viewers if you manage to get them to ship a couple on your show – in the case of Friends, Ross and Rachel. Sitcoms before Friends didn’t use this trick. But after Friends it was not possible to ignore the shipping aspect of the genre. All the big sitcoms have been using it systematically – the more intelligent ones, like Community or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia use it ironically or comment on the phenomenon on a meta level. (By the way, see what I’m doing here, in a blog post on elitism???)

But shipping is not only for TV show junkies. Probably the most visible shipper community is the Harry Potter fandom. What makes shipping in this context even more a question of life and death is that there are two (well, at least two) couples to ship: Ron and Hermione or Harry and Hermione. Here is J. K. Rowling’s account of her encounter with the phenomenon of shipping:

Well, you see, I’m a relative newcomer to the world of shipping, because for a long time, I didn’t go on the net and look up Harry Potter. A long time. Occasionally I had to, because there were weird news stories or something that I would have to go and check, because I was supposed to have said something I hadn’t said. I had never gone and looked at fan sites, and then one day I did and oh – my – god. Five hours later or something, I get up from the computer shaking slightly [all laugh]. ‘What is going on?’ And it was during that first mammoth session that I met the shippers, and it was a most extraordinary thing. I had no idea there was this huge underworld seething beneath me.

I’m not sure ‘seething underworld’ is the best way of thinking about this phenomenon. Harry Potter is somewhat atypical inasmuch as shipping had no visible effect on the books themselves (at least according to the author). But most serial narratives are radically transformed by the phenomenon of shipping. This is especially clear with TV shows. There are two characters in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson and Robin Scherbatsky, who seem to have good on-screen chemistry and this got the shippers going. The writers noticed this and turned the narrative in a way that lead the shippers along with the usual will they, won’t they play. The shippers became more and more vocal and more and more desperate. But finally Barney proposed to Robin and all was well – in the last season they got married and the shippers were extremely happy. But then the showrunners pulled a nasty trick in the finale – they had Barney and Robin divorced and got Robin together with the shippers’ grand enemy, Ted Mosby. The shippers were outraged, but, from a cynical financial point of view, this outrage came too late – the show was over, the ratings soaring throughout the last seasons. If the shippers burned their DVDs and merchandise, this did not really influence the show’s revenue…

This is a clear example for how shipping influences the actual work. But what is even more shocking (to me at least) is the way shippers engage with the work. To stick with the Barney/Robin example, you can have some taste of this from this shipping site, where you can find all kinds of delicacies, from the analysis of the symbolism of the trench-coats of the two characters to the hidden visual messageabout the love of Barney and Robin in a blue and yellow trashcan (not joking). Clearly, a lot of mental and emotional energy is spent on this.

How new is shipping? When you read the Flaubert book and want Frederic Moreau and Madame Arnoux to end up together, is that shipping? I don’t think so. What I take the main characteristic of shipping (and the most scary thing about it) is that all other considerations are deemed irrelevant compared to the interest in getting the shipped couple together. How I Met Your Mother has a certain amount of narrative complexity, at least for a work in its genre. But the shippers have no patience for that – whatever does not move the two characters towards each other is time and energy wasted. And once they are together, happily engaged, any narrative complexity is seen as a distraction from showing the two of them holding hands being happy.

The conclusion? There is no conclusion. While I am somewhat shocked at the effect of shipping on both our engagement with fiction and on the fictional works themselves, my aim here was not to make fun of it. Nor was my aim to urge all aestheticians to devote all their time to the systematic theoretical analysis of shipping. But I’m really puzzled by how our profession should approach phenomena like shipping. So this is not a ‘telling you how things are’ kind of post, it’s post I’m hoping to generate some discussion about elitism in aesthetics and ways of dealing with it and the phenomena it may restrict us from engaging with.

Solution to the quiz at the beginning: Saint Zenobius and the widow in Domenico Veneziano’s predella; Claudia and Sandro in Antonioni’s L’Avventura; Chandler Bing and Joey Tribbiani in Friends.


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EDITOR-ARTIST INTERVIEW: PETER MOMTCHILOFF

OUP Editor and Indie Rock Legend Peter Momtchiloff interviewed by Christy Mag Uidhir

Peter Momtchiloff has been philosophy editor at Oxford University Press since 1993. He studied classics at Oxford. He has played guitar in many bands, including Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, and currently the Would-be-goods and Les Clochards. Continue reading


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Animal Abuses in Art

What follows is a guest post by John Rapko. John is a Bay Area-based philosopher of art and art critic. Currently he teaches art history at the College of Marin and ethics and the philosophy of art at the California College of the Arts. He previously taught the philosophy of art and the theory of contemporary art at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the San Francisco Art Institute. He has published academic writing in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, British Journal of Aesthetics, and Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, and art criticism in Artweek and artcritical.com. A volume of his lectures on the philosophy of contemporary art, Achievement, Failure, Aspiration: Three Attempts to Understand Contemporary Art was recently published by the Universidad de los Andes Press.

In late March of 2008 the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter McBean Gallery mounted a show of the artist Adel Abdessemed’s work, entitled “Don’t Trust Me.” Within days the show became the object of a storm of protests, the particular target of which were six videos, each just seconds in length, that depicted animals seemingly being bludgeoned to death with single blows of a sledgehammer to the head. The protests, in the form of emails to various administrators and staff at SFAI and of on-line comments, were of such vehemence as to induce SFAI to close the show within a week of its opening, and some two months before its scheduled end.

Or so it is said. Yet little about the work, and nothing of its significance, has been settled through discussion, and not only because of the brevity of the exhibition. The SFAI administration at that time put out numerous claims about the circumstances of the making of the work that were incredible on the face of it, and have since been explicitly contradicted by Abdessemed himself. Nor has anyone ever produced evidence of a single credible threat of violence towards anyone associated with the exhibition. The show seems more a rumor than an actual exhibition, with half a chorus objecting to show on the grounds of the evident depravity of the killing animals for, or perhaps as, art; the other half considers the objectors to be a herd of yahoos, part naifs, part terrorists.

The issues clustering around the use of animals as materials in contemporary art have been raised again in the recent show at SFAI, “Wrong’s What I Do Best.” The show, co-curated by Hesse McGraw and Aaron Spangler, allegedly presents the work of artists who bear some sort of resemblance to the country music ‘outlaws’ whose work is inseparable from their hard-livin’ lives, and yet whose work, in its very waywardness, somehow simultaneously obscures those very artistic lives from which it emerges. One wishes that the works shown were merely as murky as the concept. Aside from a characteristically challenging video from Kara Walker, almost hidden away under the stairs, most of the works are dispiriting, with a new kind of low reached by the ‘paintings’ from Club Paint, whose sole aim seems to be to catch and hold the viewer’s attention precisely so long as it takes to induce a mood of boredom tinged with disgust. The show’s announcement attempts to catch the eye with a photograph of a taxidermied pig, its back marked with a skein of tattoos. It’s a work, if that’s the word, by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who began tattooing live pigs in the 1990’s and who, allegedly in evasion of Belgium’s animal-protection statutes, in 2004 set up an ‘art farm’ of tattooed pigs in China. After being tattooed, the pigs, so Delvoye claims, are allowed to live some of their ‘natural’ lives. At some point, determined by who knows what criteria, the animals are killed, then either taxidermied or skinned; in the latter case, the skins are then stretched and displayed. These works, along with Abdessemed’s films of animals being slaughtered, and yet others of his showing animals confined in a tiny space and set to fight each other, and a recent one showing chickens afire, their legs bound and hanging from a wall, have been grouped together in discussions of the use and abuse of animals in art.

The discussion of such works as Abdessemed’s and Delvoye’s can hardly be said to have advanced much in the past six years, but the general defense of such works characteristically involves one or both of two claims: (1) It is said that the works are ‘about’ something of evident social, political, or cultural importance (‘post-colonialism’ or ‘industrialisation of food’ in the case of “Don’t Trust Me”, ‘Arab Spring’ with regard to the video of the burning chickens). In most cases it is further claimed that the works are ‘critical’ of what is being depicted and/or of the practice of which the action depicted is an aspect; (2) The defenders of these works charge those who object with a lack of self-awareness and self–reflection. If those who object eat animals or animal products, they are said to fail to grasp how these works indict them for their complicity in larger practices of exploiting animals. If the objectors are moral vegans, they are said to lack the acuity to see that and how these works actually expose the very practices they oppose. So those who object to the works are said to be intellectually blinkered in their failure to grasp the work’s subject, and artistically obtuse in not sensing the work’s ‘criticality’. The claims in (2) diagnose the character traits that block those who object from grasping the claims made in (1).

Both these defenses are located at a very general level, and fail to consider, in a manner typical of contemporary theorizing in the visual arts, some basic questions  of meaning and value in art, and how these come to be attached to artworks: How and under what conditions, one wonders, does being ‘about’ some important issue relieve an artwork of the charge of immorality? What criteria govern ascriptions of ‘criticality’? If I show an episode of “My Mother the Car,” dub it an artwork, and declare it to be a critical examination of ‘the imbrication of industrialization and domesticity’, does it thereby possess that very meaning and significance? With regard to these particular problematic works, little has been published. A seemingly sophisticated attempt by Pamela M. Lee to interpret Abdessemed’s films as ‘about’ transhumanism (don’t ask) goes awry from the beginning when she misdescribes the films as showing human hands—there are none.

But it seems to me that neither these two lines of attempted defense of these works, nor my testy counter-questions, really approach what unsettles people so. For the unease here, I would suggest, is not alleviated by the assurances (false in these cases, but conceivably true in other works involving animals) that the animals were humanely treated (Delvoye’s pigs), or that the practice of slaughter is merely being documented (Abdessemed). How might we approach the issues? Is there anything in the widespread response that the very idea of using animals in art is problematic, even for those who eat meat and wear leather?

One line of reflection that suggests itself asks us to reflect on what an artist does in making a work, and what the significance is, in the mind of the viewer, of the very fact that the work is made to be viewed. In the opening chapter of his great book Painting as an Art, the philosopher Richard Wollheim describes how what the painter does in the course of practicing painting as an art; the account might well be thought valid, with some qualifications, for the visual arts generally. The painter paints and monitors with her eyes the results of her activity. So in the act of painting, the painter actually plays two conceptually distinct roles: the agent/maker, and the viewer. The painter qua maker marks something for the painter qua spectator. The painter, Wollheim stresses, is the first viewer of the painter, though of course not typically the last. And so the viewer of a painting, whether the painter herself in the act of painting, or a later viewer of the completed work, has a particular intimacy with the painter qua maker; the maker has made it for the viewer, and the viewer takes up what the painter has done, gazes upon it, explores it, imaginatively enters it, reflects on it, with each of these affecting and being affected by the others. In a different context of considering the use of animals as food, the philosopher Tzachi Zamir has noted that something made to be perceived has a what he calls an ethical depth-structure, that of a temporally extended action: the action inaugurated by the making of something is only completed in the appreciative viewing of the thing. So in the arts, the appreciative viewer necessarily experiences a kind of complicity, or again an intimacy, with the action of the artist to a greater degree and a greater intensity than in a wide range of other uses of artifacts. The viewer consummates what the artist begins: this is the very action, the making of something to be seen, put to such an astounding range of good uses in the millennia of human life, that is at the core of the idea of the visual arts. And when the inauguration of the work is morally problematic, the viewer shares in the maker’s fault; the making and the viewing are two parts of the same wrong. Zamir adds that this has an additional dimension of wrongness: not only completing the morally problematic act, but participating in, and so sustaining, a wrong practice.

If something along the lines of Wollheim’s and Zamir’s suggestion is right, we can see at least what would be so intensely objectionable about these works for the moral vegan: they ask not merely that one use the animal, and not just one enjoy the product of the use, but that one complete the use.  For the moral vegan, for whom all use of animals is abuse or exploitation, this multiplies the original harm. But does the moral vegetarian, and moreover the meat eater, have any special cause for complaint, beyond whatever artistic badness, narrowly construed as a work’s possessing the everyday artistic faults of being incompetent, boring, or trivial?

The philosophy Christy Mag Uidhir has investigated our responses to racial matching and mismatching of actor and character in films. Why, he asks, might we think that there is something artistically flawed in John Wayne playing Genghis Khan, but something artistically valuable in Linda Hunt playing a male dwarf in The Year of Living Dangerously? Mag Uidhir argues with great care for the conclusion that racial mismatching is a flaw when it encourages false beliefs about the character and/or the character’s perceived ethnicity. He briefly discusses the case of animal abuse in saying that we find Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthasar “less beautiful” when we learn that the donkey Balthasar was actually beaten as part of the making of the film. This seems off the mark to me, but the more general claim Mag Uidhir makes is helpful: as with racial mismatching, the use of animals is artistically objectionable (that is, aside from concerns whether the animal was in fact harmed in the making of the work) when it blocks the viewer’s ‘up-take’, one’s ability to engage with the work appreciatively, entering the open-ended process of play among cognitive, moral, imaginative, and participatory perspectives. In malign instances of uses of animals in art, we are constantly interrupted in such play by the awareness of the very thing, the animal, that was used in the process. We may be blocked not by the thought that the animal was harmed, but by the sheer thought that the animal was used. For such use is in an important sense unnecessary: there is no existing practice of, say, tattooing pigs in which Delvoye was participating, and so in the very viewing of the work we are asked to enjoy, and then to develop a taste for, works that involve an unnecessary use of animals. Artistic as well as moral creativity would be better channeled to other ways of artistic making, ways that could be reflectively affirmed.

Even if something along the line of thinking suggested here is right, this could only be the beginning of engaging with these complex issues. But there’s an irony in the show “Wrong’s What I Do Best” that escapes the curators. One wonders whether the curators did after all sense something of this depth-structure, and seek to exploit it for a further problematic effect. There are two of Delvoye’s pigs in the show, placed a few feet from each other in the gallery’s mezzanine. One cannot see them until one arrives near the top of the stairs. Both pigs’s heads are slightly cocked, the further one more so, so that one sees without preparation the pigs as if turning towards you as you arrive. The effect is of the briefest sort, as a kind of dullness and lack of focus afflicts the pigs’ eyes, and one is struck rather by their alienness and peculiar lifelessness, more dead than the dead. The cheapness and half-heartedness of the effect seem like nothing so much as the emblem of the show, as the show’s announcement suggests, but not in a way that does credit to the curators.

References

Pamela M. Lee, “Animal Feeling” (2012) in Adel Abdessemed je suis innocent.

Christy Mag Uidhir, “Aesthetics of Actor-Character Race Matching in Film Fictions” (2012). Philosophers’ Imprint 12/3

— “What’s So Bad About Blackface?” (2013) in Race, Film, & Philosophy, eds. Dan Flory & Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo

Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (1987)

Tzachi Zamir, Ethics and the Beast (2007)