Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

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Polite Conversations: Philosophers Discuss the Arts

What follows is a guest post by Brandon Polite (Knox College).

In my YouTube series, Polite Conversations: Philosophers Discuss the Arts*, I interview philosophers about their work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. We typically discuss a particular journal article or public philosophy piece (including some pieces from Aesthetics for Birds), diving into their views and exploring their implications for anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes. The aims of this series are twofold. The first is that I want to show off the cool and innovative work that’s happening in the field of aesthetics right now, both to the wider philosophical community and to the general public. There is some really amazing work being done in our field, and more people should know about it!

The second aim is pedagogical. Getting to see philosophers doing philosophy together can be a really eye-opening experience for students. To that end, these videos can be used as a way to deepen your students’ insights into a text you’ve assigned them to read, which is how I use them. Alternatively, one or more could be used in place of readings if, say, they’re too advanced for an introductory-level course. I have painstakingly edited the captions—including sometimes highlighting key terms and phrases—to make them accessible to those who want or need them. As teaching tools, the videos are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

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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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Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Term of the Day #2:
philosophy of art

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Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! [UPDATE: This was called Word of the Day initially, but it quickly became obvious that ‘word’ was too restrictive and that there were cleverer titles.]

Terms of Art #1:
aesthetics (sometimes esthetics*)

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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!    



What follows is a guest post by Anna Christina Ribeiro.

Stop and think for a moment about the things you have done and said, and the thoughts you have had today. Have you noticed the look of a newscaster on television, or the voice of one on the radio? When you got dressed this morning, did you consider the look of your clothes, how well they matched, or how well they reflected your style or your mood? Have you looked out the window and thought it was a nice day, or a dreary day? Have you listened to music? Watched a movie or TV show? How many times in the process of doing these things did you think ‘That is beautiful’ or ‘That is a great story but the protagonist could have done a better job’ or discussed your reactions to a song, a show, a film, a novel, an art exhibit, with friends? Do you sometimes have a pleasant feeling come over you when you look at someone’s face? When you look at a sunset? When you stop and stare at waves crashing one after another on a beach, and the vastness of the sea behind them? When you see the trees swishing to the breeze outside, and a feeling of peace fills you and you forget for a moment what you were doing? Did you imagine, as you read these lines, each of these scenes, and did you react similarly to each of them as you might have were you really experiencing those things? Now consider how you often stare in awe at a lightning storm, which as you know could easily kill you as it has killed many, and yet you take pleasure at the sight of it anyway—usually so long as you take yourself to be safely sheltered, but sometimes even when you know that you are not. Or when you read a novel whose subject is unpleasant, do you not yet relish the way the story is told, the way it engages your thoughts and feelings? When you read or hear a poem, do you ever notice how the words used, they way they sound together, engages you as much as the meaning of what is being said? Do you feel about some languages that you love or hate the way they sound, regardless of whether you understand the language? Is there someone whose voice you enjoy hearing even if what they are saying is not of great importance, or whose voice grates on you no matter how momentous what they say is, to the point of interfering with your paying attention to what they are telling you?

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A Very Practical Defence of Aesthetic Value

What follows is a guest post by Simon Fokt. Simon is a recent graduate of University of St. Andrews and a professional musician. His work focuses on classification of art, aesthetic properties and art ontology, and exploring the borderlines of art and the aesthetic. His publications include ‘Pornographic art – a case from definitions’ (British Journal of Aesthetics 52.3, 2012) and ‘Solving Wollheim’s Dilemma: A Fix for the Institutional Definition of Art’ (Metaphilosophy 44, 2013).

Aestheticism doesn’t fare very well these days. Modern artists not only aren’t very interested in making aesthetically pleasing works, but have developed a certain disdain towards them. Being aesthetically pleasing is often seen as being at best passé, and at worst an expression of artistic naivety or acclaim seeking. Of course, this is not without reasons – a great deal of aesthetic ideas have been exploited, beauty may be an obstruction on the road to art’s other aims, and the uniquely aesthetic attitude or experience may be mere myths. Though sometimes it seems that the reasoning isn’t quite right: it is true that good art rarely finds much popular acclaim, but the fact that something finds little acclaim hardly makes it better art.

I want to use this opportunity to write without the rigour imposed by analytic journal papers, and ask some normative questions: should art remain aesthetic or not? Is it good that art became largely non- or anti-aesthetic? They touch on more general issues in art evaluation: what makes (modern) artworks good? What is the role of aesthetic properties in such evaluation? These are all very big questions, and a blog post can only scratch their surface. But I only want to make a simple, practical, point: whatever non-aesthetic functions or aims art has, other disciplines and practices achieve them better. Art will keep losing the competition unless artists focus on what they are best at: achieving their ends in aesthetically rewarding ways.

What are art’s non-aesthetic functions and aims then? Let me review some likely candidates.

An old but important criterion is a work’s moral value. Many modern artists assume the role of moral instructors, or perhaps society’s conscience. They comment on various social problems, raise awareness of poverty, exploitation and environmental issues. Although it is not commonly believed that it is art’s only or even main purpose to provide moral guidance or express moral views, this is what many artists are in fact doing. (Naturally, this need not imply that an artwork’s value should be higher if it expresses a morally agreeable message. Instead, one could hold that the value resides in how successful a work is in passing its moral message, regardless of the value of the message itself.) 

Another important way of assessing art is on cognitive criteria. Art can tell us something about the world and ourselves, gives insight into personal emotions, social conventions, values, and last but not least – art itself. Art can be a tool through which we become better acquainted with ourselves and the world, thanks to which we can understand ourselves and others better. 

Art can also be assessed on the basis of how well it serves a practical function – how well does it express the majesty of the state, how well does it convey the character of a company, how successful is it in convincing people to do something, how well does it help them deal with their problems, how useful it is in everyday life, etc. 

Finally, art can serve a much simpler purpose: it provides pleasure and entertainment. It is meant to be fun and interesting, provide a distraction from everyday life, or just offer a pleasant way of spending time.

In any of those cases a work’s aesthetic value can be a double-sided blade. Sometimes it might distract the audience from the work’s actual message – the audience might be too busy focusing on the work’s composition, enchanted by its daintiness to notice that it’s trying to make an important point. In other cases, however, a work’s beauty may be advantageous – it may help express the positive value of whatever moral stance is presented, make conveying some meanings and concepts easier through eliciting aesthetic interest and perception of them, or simply win the piece some attention. Similarly, while on one hand beauty may divert the viewer’s attention from the work’s function, on the other it can make using the object more rewarding or pleasant, and thus enhance its functionality. Likewise, although there is a great deal of non-aesthetic entertainment to be found in art, of which dadaist and anti-art definitely provide, in most cases it is aesthetic pleasures that are sought after.

Of course, artworks can be made purely for art’s sake. Some can be still assessed on purely aesthetic criteria, or satisfying a specifically aesthetic need, providing aesthetic experiences. Art can also be seen as something that is primarily meant to be judged on its originality or inventiveness – it is creating something new, something not yet done, that really matters. Art is often seen as something that is meant to shock or push the boundaries of what is acceptable, and thus challenge the public’s received views.

Again, being aesthetically pleasing might work both ways. By tending only to the aesthetic sense, art might become rather unsophisticated and focus merely on crowd-pleasing, but the fact that a beautiful piece is more likely to gain public acclaim does not mean that beauty’s main (or sole) virtue is to make it popular. Beauty doesn’t have to always be an obstacle in other cases either. The originality and shock value of anti-art or readymades might lie in the fact that they are non-aesthetic, but Lutoslawski’s use of controlled aleatorism in music is highly original, yet produces an aesthetically pleasing effect. Jonathan Yeo’s collage portraits of modern politicians and celebrities created from pornographic magazines cuttings are aimed at shocking the public, but are not devoid of aesthetic value – indeed, it is precisely the fact that they combine pornography with fairly classical ideals of aesthetic painting that makes them shocking.

Aesthetic value is by no means a necessary feature of artworks, but neither must it be completely useless. Are there any independent reasons as to why art should or should not be aesthetic? I believe that there are. Modern art has powerful competition: virtually all of its goals are also sought for and often achieved more successfully by other disciplines. In this context, remaining aesthetic may be good for art, differentiating it from other practices, so making it unique and perhaps more worthwhile.

Art is hardly the only discipline involved in the present discussions on moral and political issues. The thoughts expressed in most artworks tend to be rather unimpressive when compared with what moral and political philosophers or critics have to say. And unsurprisingly so – it is impossible to express the detail and nuance of volumes of books and papers with a single installation. Of course, artists and philosophers have different aims – artists might be interested in tackling more specific and perhaps more immediately important issues, and they have been often considered acute observers of the social reality, able to perceive problems and highlight these to a wider audience. But while this might be true, artists are hardly the sole possessors of that power – in fact, it seems that thousands of people are quite good at it, as multiple successful satirical images, comics, and ‘demotivators’, testify. Naturally, the ways in which art and webcomics work towards their goals are quite different, but the aim, raising social awareness of a moral or political issue, may be achieved just the same. However iconoclastic it sounds, art may turn out to be less successful in achieving its aims than comics because it tends to be more difficult to access due to its institutional confinement, complexities of interpretation, or simply the fact that it is rarely free to see it.

Monica Bonvicini, Add Elegance to Your Poverty, 2002
black graffiti on wooden billboard, white paint
courtesy the artist, Copyright: Jürgen Schulz 
Gold Diggers, available at, courtesy of the author.
Joel Pett, Climate Summit, published in USA Today,
just before the Copenhagen climate change conference, December 2009.


Is art any better in expressing moral issues and advocating moral stances than web comics?


Similarly, if art is there to fulfil a cognitive function, it is once again faced with immense competition from psychology, social sciences, and humanities. Volumes have been written on the human condition, difficulties related to interpersonal relations, self-knowledge, etc., and it seems that what art offers is often somewhat naive in comparison. For example, Martin Eder is fascinated by the fact that `a porn magazine functions like the cute little animals, according to a simply coded system. All of the poses can be understood right away. That points up the way we think and how quickly everything is pigeonholed’ (U. Grosenick (eds.), Art Now, 2008, p. 84). In his art he tries to explore those issues, but it can hardly be expected that several paintings, collages, and installations can tell us more about the way our brains categorise and pigeon-hole sense-data or how stereotypes work, than years of research of Gestalt psychology, psychology of perception, psychology and sociology of cultural stereotypes, etc. – in fact most of those issues have been discussed a hundred years before Eder. (This is not to say that there aren’t areas in which art is the best source of knowledge – as Kundera claimed, novels might be the best tool we have to teach us about human emotions, dealing with suffering or understanding others; yet as evidenced by the above example, artists seem to aim at achieving much more than what they are actually good at.)

The case is no different with all sorts of other functions art can perform. Raising a company’s status is probably better done by donating to charities than building impressive office buildings and filling them with paintings. Improving the image of a country is done better through political speeches than constructing fancy International Exposition pavilions. Most art of everyday use serves its functions poorly simply because for the great majority it is unaffordable – even the most popular and mass-produced designs like the famous Wassily Chair can be almost fifty times more expensive than their close-enough non-artistic equivalents. 

Marcel Breuer, Wassily Chair (Model B3 chair), 1925
designed in Bauhaus and exhibited e.g. at the The Museum of Modern Art, New York
available for purchase from £200 to £1500 
IKEA’s PELLO  chair, available for purchase for £35


Surely art which aspires to be functional and serve in people’s everyday needs should be first affordable?


In all those cases it seems that art simply does not stand against its competition. The reason why it ‘stays in business’ is most often because it fulfils its functions differently than other disciplines. In particular, it can fulfil them with style, elegantly, with a unity and beauty often unachievable in any other way. People buy artistic furniture not because it is better for sitting or drinking coffee on, they buy it because it looks better. They read literature rather than psychology papers when they want to understand themselves and others better, because through the metaphor and compositional unity they can look at the subject differently. They don’t look for ethical advice in art because it makes the arguments clearer, but because it can arouse pity and fear, or inspire charitable emotions, or convey the beauty of virtue. It seems thus that if art is to serve any of the above functions successfully, it can be better (or at least different and not worse) than other disciplines if it does it by using aesthetic means.

Surely though, art doesn’t have to serve any of those functions at all! Art can be done for it’s own sake, simply to be interesting or original, to shock and push the boundaries, or just to ask and explore meta-artistic questions.

However, even here art’s rule is far from being unquestioned. This might be a bold claim, but it seems that there is simply not much to be done in the meta-art department after Duchamp, Cage and Rauschenberg. The specificity and boundaries of many media have been explored and the door to introducing pretty much anything as a new medium has been opened. Moreover, meta-issues might be better discussed by aestheticians and art theorists, or perhaps, as Danto has argued, the artists who do meta-art simply turned into theorists themselves.

Furthermore, artworks might be best at interestingly referring to other artworks, being original in the context of other works, and pushing the boundaries of art and artworld members, but viewing art in such a narrow way seems quite limited. Artists may have much wider ambitions: they want to push the boundaries of society, not just their colleagues and a couple of critics; to present something original simpliciter, not original compared to the last five years of conceptual art in the West; interesting for everyone, not just those who know modern art history in detail. But in a wider context it once again seems that art has powerful competition. The times when artists were the most shocking people out there have long passed – reality shows, extreme sports, hard pornography and body modification push personal and social boundaries way beyond what the most extreme artists ever presented. Nor is originality the strongest side of modern art – save for the fact that most works tend to be rather derivative, entertainment and advertising industries are striving for the same goal and often achieve it to a comparable or higher degree.

Hermann Nitsch, photo from Theatre of Orgies and Mysteriesperformed between 1962—1998
copyright by Atelier Hermann Nitsch
A person suspended on hooks during a performance at a fetish party in Moscow
photo by MartaFrost, 2005


Is the art of even the Vienese Actionists so shocking in a world in which anonymous amateurs do similarly extreme things?


It seems that if artists were resolved to achieve the aims listed above without much use of aesthetic means and with no consideration for the aesthetic value of their works, they would find it really difficult to compete with other disciplines and practices. Consequently, art would become a less accomplished sister, worse at almost everything it does. Why then, should anyone consider it worth spending time on? And indeed, this might partially account for limited funding, low gallery attendance and artist unemployment. It is common to think that art is quite useless, and this might be partially because it aims to do things it is not particularly good at, or at least not as good at as other disciplines. Basically, we don’t need artists to get these things done.

The `something’ that made traditional artists different from scientists, social critics, cartoonists, and social activists, was the fact that they could make things not only successful in achieving a goal, but also achieving it in an elegant, internally consistent, expressive, beautiful etc. way. When they were doing `absolute’ art, art actually had its own sake – providing aesthetic experiences, satisfying the aesthetic need. The aims of art today, such as being original, shocking, interesting, etc., are hardly art’s alone, and unless artists try to achieve them while at the same time remaining aesthetic, they are not much different from advertisers, pornographers and extreme sports persons.

One could argue that the above-mentioned difficulties are not a bad thing at all. Good art is meant to be hard to make. It is a good thing that the competition with other disciplines is steep, because this requires artists to work really hard to achieve something. But where is the line between setting the standards really high, and shooting oneself in the foot? Perhaps in some cases this strategy pays off, but it takes no social scientist to notice that most modern artists are limping.

More importantly, it seems that creating something truly beautiful is often much harder than creating something witty, shocking, or taking a moral stance, and thus it does offer a true challenge. Creating a pretty and agreeable crowd-pleaser might indeed be easy, but this is surely not the same as creating something of real aesthetic value. And it might be true that past art largely exploited the potential of beauty, that nearly everything worth making has been made. But that only means that if artists want a true challenge, turning back to beauty is exactly what they should be doing.