Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone




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

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

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

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




What follows is a post in our ongoing collaborative series with the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is based on a new article by Adriana Clavel-Vazquez, “Sugar and spice, and everything nice: What rough heroines tell us about imaginative resistance.

After five seasons of House of Cards, it was finally Claire Underwood’s turn to be a proper rough heroine. In seasons one to four we find an interesting contrast between the moral transgressions that make Claire and Frank Underwood rough heroes: she is a ruthless, selfish, and drunk-with-power woman who is uninterested in motherhood; he is a ruthless, selfish, drunk-with-power man who has murdered several people. But in season five, Claire (finally!) murders Tom Yates, her journalist lover who had been given full access to the Underwood’s in previous seasons, and who was ready to publish an incriminating tell-all book. After poisoning him, Claire gives herself a couple of minutes to spare a few tears before calmly leaving dead Tom behind. 2017 was the year of the rough heroine in pop culture: in addition to Claire Underwood, appreciators were given Grace Marks in Netflix’s adaptation of Alias Grace, and Katherine Lester in Lady Macbeth. But why did it take so long? Rough heroes, like Walter White, Patrick Bateman, and A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, have been around since, like, forever. Continue reading




‘Aesthetic’ is a vague and frustrating term with a profligate and confused history.  During the Enlightenment, the term was employed as a synonym for beauty, which was understood as taking many apparently unrelated forms, from the natural world to gardens to art to interior decorating and even mathematics. In the last two hundred years, it has frequently been conflated with the concept of the artistic. Consequently, philosophical aesthetics has been understood as sharing the same subject matter as art criticism. Both of these conceptions are too restrictive when it comes to the contemporary discipline. Continue reading

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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




What follows is a guest post by John Rapko about the recent Guggenheim Museum controversy.

The controversy

On Friday, September 22, a friend sent me an e-mail alerting me to an on-line petition. This time the issue was that the Guggenheim Museum in New York City had released a list of the names of the artists and their works to be included in the upcoming show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” Among the 150 works were three involving live animals, including a video of an installation by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu wherein dogs were strapped into opposing treadmills, where they ran in place, tugged, and snarled at each other to exhaustion. The two other pieces are by artists better-known outside China: a notorious piece by Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World”, which shows a large structure wherein many reptiles and insects have been placed, with the animals left to willy-nilly eat each other, fight for space, or make some kind of mutual accommodation; and a video by Xu Bing that shows a boar and a sow, each densely painted with nonsense–Chinese and –Roman characters, mating in a gallery. Thousands of people, including myself after a scanning, were signing the petition. The Guggenheim quickly released a statement urging people to consider the works as a document of their times, and to reflect upon the situation of the artists who were driven to make such works. The signing of the petition only quickened, and by Tuesday, September 26, when the Guggenheim announced that the works would not be shown, supposedly because of the threatening tone of many of the complaints about the show, the petition had garnered over half a million signatories. What had happened? Was it simply a matter of an internet mob hurling electronic threats of violence towards the museum’s employees that forced the otherwise unjustified withdrawal of the works, as the Guggenheim stated? Was the withdrawal further a cowardly capitulation to thugs with an impoverished understanding of animal rights and human rights, indeed “tragic for a modern society”, as the artist Ai Weiwei said? Is this an act of “censorship” violating the artists’ “right to free expression”, as Huang Yong Ping, the artist behind one of the allegedly objectionable works has urged? Or had an inexplicable category mistake been corrected, as implied by the countless objections that “animal torture is not art“?  Continue reading

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hendersonThe American Society for Aesthetics has sponsored the development of new, annotated reading lists, with an eye to increasing diversity. These are intended for use in teaching, but would make a great reading list for curious minds!

These are publicly available at the ASA website, but Aesthetics for Birds has asked the designers of these reading lists to provide us with brief overviews of what we can find in the documents. That way you, our readers, have a better idea of what you are looking at and what you might want to look for.

First up is “Art and Cultural Heritage” [link to pdf] by Erich Hatala Matthes. Continue reading



The Headlines

Will Italy Back Down on Hermann Nitsch Show?

Italian animal rights activists have launched an online petition to stop a Nitsch performance, slated to kick off in Palermo on July 10, and continue throughout the summer until September 20…

The full story can be found here.

Animal Rights Activists Protest Untitled (12 Horses)

Animal activists turned up at Gavin Brown’s West Greenwich Village gallery space in New York to protest the showstopping final exhibit there before the gallery moves uptown to Harlem. The work in question is Jannis Kounellis’s Arte Povera masterpiece, 12 Horses, which debuted in Rome in 1969. The installation features 12 horses tethered to the wall, eating hay, on a rubberized floor…

The full story can be found here.

The Roundtable

Cynthia Freeland, Anthony Cross, Ross Cameron, John Rapko

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Sometimes, when asked what I work on, I’ve been known to reply, “Philosophy of the mustache.” In the past, this has always been a lie. This site seems like an appropriate venue for correcting the problem and mitigating my guilt, particularly because of esteemed Professor Mag Uidhir’s own fondness for sporting a mustache most appropriate to the genre of seedy 1970’s biker films.

Though ridiculous, the philosophy of facial hair is actually a pretty interesting topic, one that raises a number of issues in aesthetics and ethics and the intersection of the two.

Let’s start with the aesthetics. Unsurprisingly, a good case can be made for the position that facial hair can add or subtract aesthetic value from the world. It can be ugly, patchy, stringy, greasy, or sparse. It can disrupt an otherwise attractive face—consider the “depression beard” or “beard of sorrow” used in movies and on TV to signify that a character (usually portrayed by a handsome actor) has been brought low [1]. Beards can also be downright repulsive, as described in this passage from Roald Dahl’s The Twits:

The hair on Mr. Twit’s face didn’t grow smooth and matted like it does on most hairy-faced men. It grew in spikes that stuck out straight like the bristles of a nailbrush. . . . Mr. Twit didn’t even bother to open his mouth wide when he ate. As a result (and because he never washed) there were always hundreds of bits of old breakfasts and lunches and suppers sticking to the hairs around his face. . . . If you peered deep into the moustachy bristles sticking out over his upper lip you would probably see much larger objects that had escaped the wipe of his hand, things that had been there for months and months, like a piece of maggoty green cheese or a moldly old cornflake or even the slimy tail of a tinned sardine. Because of this, Mr. Twit never went really hungry [2].

Quentin Blake’s illustrations of Mr. Twit’s beard are correspondingly nauseating. But a rich, luxurious beard or mustache, properly cared for, appears on the face of it (heh) to add aesthetic value to the world. Think of the beards sported by ZZ Top, the mustaches of Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, and Rollie Fingers, and the beauty and dignity of all the presidents with facial hair (as compared to those without). Or to see some seriously meritorious facial hair, check out the website of the World Beard and Mustache Championships [3]. Even hipsters have recently discovered the power and grace of the full beard, having moved on from the mustache.

At this point, you might object that you’ve got a strong distaste for facial hair, and that you fail to see the appeal of some or even all of the examples mentioned above. My own wife tolerates the full beard, but believes the mustache to have only limited value (generally of the short-term, comedic sort, rather than aesthetic value). Disagreement about the value of facial hair is exactly what we should expect: aesthetic value attributions are typically fraught with conflict, prompting questions about relativism and standards of taste. I’d like to think that there’s a standard of taste that applies to facial hair, but I won’t defend that claim here.

The aesthetic qualities of facial hair exert normative pressures: under at least some theories, and under at least some circumstances, one ought to wear facial hair. There’s at least some aesthetic normativity here, but there might be ethical obligations to grow facial hair as well. I don’t think any such obligation can be extracted from the Kantian tradition (feel free to prove me wrong about that. Could it be an imperfect duty to grow facial hair?). But it does arise in natural law context, emerging from Aristotelian considerations about proper functioning. Anselm writes, in what is certainly one of the only philosophical passages devoted to beards:

Not having a beard is not dishonorable for a man who is not yet supposed to have a beard, but once he ought to have a beard, it is unbecoming for him not to have one. In the same way, not having justice is not a defect in a nature that is not obligated to have justice, but it is disgraceful for a nature that ought to have it. And to whatever degree his being supposed to have a beard shows his manly nature, to that degree his not having it disfigures his manly appearance. [4]

On this view, when you can grow a beard, not doing it is an aesthetic defect: it’s unbecoming and it produces a disfigurement of your manly appearance. Furthermore, it’s an ethical defect: it’s dishonorable and disgraceful.

You might be unpersuaded by Anselm, on the grounds that natural law theory is a crock and it should be anticipated to have bizarre consequences that stand at odds with sensible moral intuitions. Fair enough. As I thought about this issue, however, I realized that it’s also possible to advance a utilitarian argument for the obligation to grow facial hair. Who knew? In general, one of the main insights of utilitarianism can be captured by using a principle of waste avoidance as a rough guideline: ceteris paribus, if one has the capacity to produce beneficial consequences with the resources one has, one ought not to let those resources go to waste [5]. Suppose that one has the ability to grow a fine beard or mustache. Not using this ability is aesthetically wasteful. With minimal effort, one could add something of beauty to the world. The costs of growing a beard are low, and doing so produces additional goods; time ordinarily spent shaving can be put to better use, and resources that go into shaving cream and razors are conserved. So, it seems, according to the utilitarian, those who can grow beautiful facial hair ought to grow it.

For the record, growing facial hair also seems to be a divine command, if you buy into that sort of thing. Leviticus 19:27 reads, “You will not round off your hair at the edges or trim the edges of your beard.” Priests, in particular, “will not make tonsures on their heads, shave the edges of their beards, or gash their bodies” (Leviticus 21:5). More on this in a bit.

Perhaps the obligation to grow facial hair ought to sit uneasily with us. In fact, perhaps we should even be uneasy about any positive aesthetic value facial hair bears.

To begin, it’s pretty obvious that not everybody can grow facial hair. Many men can’t grow it, some of those who can can’t grow any that looks nice, and the vast majority of women can’t grow it. The quote from Anselm and the utilitarian argument I gave both respect these facts: since ought implies can, being unable to grow (nice) facial hair removes the obligation to grow it. At the same time, there’s something odd going on here: to grow beautiful facial hair is to do add value to the world in a way that other people can’t, precisely due to genetic dispositions that are associated with manliness. Anslem’s claim that being beardless disfigures one’s manly appearance implies that facial hair is a necessary condition on being manly.

This position is common in many religious and cultural traditions, where facial hair serves to differentiate men from women and children (as well as to differentiate men from men of other faiths). While many contemporary Muslim scholars argue that beard growth is encouraged but not obligatory, the Taliban and other fundamentalist Muslims are forbidden to shave their beards [6]. It’s the same with Hasidic and some other Orthodox Jews, many of whom are required to wear long peyos (uncut sidelocks) and beards. Greek Orthodox clergy are forbidden to shave.

Further evidence: Samson, in the Biblical story, was a Nazarite, having vowed never to shave or cut his hair; when he was shaved (by a woman!) he became like a woman and lost his strength. The Amish believe that once a man marries, he must not shave; in 2011, the leader of a fundamentalist Amish sect in Ohio and his followers were convicted of hate crimes for shaving the beards of those Amish they believed to be insufficiently pious. The men of “Duck Dynasty” used to have a very yuppie, nigh metro-sexual look; they apparently realized that for marketing purposes, it would be good to look like real men, so they grew giant beards [7]. There is also evidence that the incidence of facial hair growth spikes in reaction to men’s fashion trends that are perceived to be too effeminate [8]. I think this explains not only the Freddie Mercury mustache, but also the hipster trend of growing mustaches and beards—it’s a way to show that you’re manly even though you wear skinny jeans. Complimenting your skinny jeans with a beard is like complimenting your hose with a codpiece. Finally, to get into more personal and potentially sensitive territory, a lot of notable philosophers have worn beards (even when beards weren’t in fashion for men). Is it any accident that (a) philosophers tend to be bearded and (b) we have a serious problem attracting women to the profession?

Facial hair, in short, carries a lot of cultural baggage with it. It’s a symbol of manliness. In fact, it’s a symbol of patriarchy. That’s not good.

The patriarchal aspects of facial hair point to a disturbing parallel. Growing beautiful facial hair might just be the equivalent of creating a beautiful painting that’s oppressive towards women. When it comes to the intersection between ethical value and the value of art, various stripes of ethicists and moralists endorse something like the following: approving representations of something morally bad (e.g., by making that thing beautiful) are ethical and artistic flaws in a work. The better action to take, when representing something morally bad, is to condemn it: that produces ethical and artistic merit. Accordingly, if you’re going to put a symbol of patriarchal oppression out there in public, you ought to take pains to indicate that it’s bad.

One way to do that is to make the symbol ugly. Strangely enough, in the end, Mr. Twit (despite numerous other vices) might have had the right idea all along. I shall now excuse myself in order to slather my newly unkempt beard with moldy cheese and sardine tails. I expect any similarly bewhiskered readers to do the same.


1. An example readers of this blog are likely to be familiar with is the depression beard on Bruce Wayne at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises. Al Gore also grew a notable depression beard in real life after the Supreme Court ruled against his election to the presidency. For other examples, see the Beard of Sorrow at TV Tropes.

2. Roald Dahl, The Twits (New York: Bantam-Skylark Books, 1980): p. 5-7.

3. See

4. Anselm, On the Fall of the Devil, in Three Philosophical Dialogues, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002): Ch. 16, p. 85.

5. John Harris, for example, uses this principle to support medical research on extra embryos not used in artificial reproduction. See “Stem Cells, Sex, and Procreation,” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 12 (2003): 353-371.

6. For reference, see Ibrahim B. Syed, “Growing Beard: Is It Mandatory in Islam?” According to another website that appears to express a more conservative variety of Islam, “What Islam Says about the Beard”, facial hair distinguishes men from hermaphrodites!

7. See Vyan, “Duck Dynasty is a Fake Yuppies-in-Red-Neck-Drag Con Job”.

8. See Sarah Gold McBride, “’Power Is on the Side of the Beard‘: Masculinity and Facial Hair in Ninteenth-Century America”.

Notes on the Contributor
Henry Pratt is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. He got interested in philosophy around his senior year in high school, when he somehow arrived at the inverted spectrum argument all by himself, blowing his mind. Shortly thereafter, he grew a speed metal goatee and began working his way through a large range of facial hair types while an undergraduate at the University of Vermont and while working on his Ph.D. at The Ohio State University. His primary philosophical work is on artistic value, though he’s also interested in the philosophies of comics, film, and other popular arts.



What follows is a guest post by M. B. Willard, a metaphysician with an aesthetics problem. She is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Weber State University.

Imagine becoming adrift in a novel in the way often described by avid readers: You’ve become lost in the book. Perhaps you’ve become so engrossed that your coffee grows cold, neglected on the table beside you. Perhaps you’ve lost track of time, to be startled when the clock chimes. Perhaps the story is deeply sad, and you spend the rest of the day in a mild malaise. Perhaps the story’s protagonist struggled in abject poverty, and you come away believing that while of course the story is made up, people really do live like that, and you resolve to increase your annual contributions to charity.

(Or perhaps you watched Star Trek; you spend the rest of the day mildly keyed up against injustice, and rebuke the man in front of you at Starbucks when he is rude to the barista. No judgment, Walter Mitty.)

You’ve been transported (cf. Gerrig 1993); through fiction, you’ve visited a new world, and you’ve returned somewhat changed. Continue reading