Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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.


Interview with Film & Television Writer/Creator Kyle Killen

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What follows is an interview with Kyle Killen. Kyle is a film & television writer and producer. He is the creator and showrunner for the critically acclaimed Fox television series Lone StarAwake (NBC), and Mind Games (ABC premiere Feb. 24th). He also wrote the screenplays both for the films The Beaver (2011), starring Mel Gibson and directed by Jodie Foster, and Scenic Route (2013), starring Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler and directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz.

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What Artworks Hide From Us

What follows is a guest post by Zee Perry. Zee is a Ph.D. candidate in her 5th year at NYU’s department of Philosophy. Zee sometimes says she likes the metaphysics of X for most Xs. She’s writing a dissertation about the metaphysics of physics, specifically the metaphysics of physical quantities, but she has a long standing professional and personal interest in the ontology of art. Her semi-professional website is here.
What I’d like to do with this post is present some half-baked ideas I’ve been not-quite-working on and see if the ensuing discussion can’t help bake them a bit further.
Consider what an artwork “puts before” its audience. Artworks, like paintings, present features, like an arrangement of colors, textures, brushstrokes, etc, to their audiences to be seen and appreciated. Sometimes these features are presented via that artwork’s instances, like how a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica presents sounds (and perhaps sights), which an audience is meant to listen, evaluate and appreciate. Artworks as public entities. It’s natural and tempting to say that an artwork’s “public” features, those features it puts before or presents to its audience, are of particular importance to that work’s value and identity.
I want to ask what possible role features of an artwork that are NOT put before the audience, features which are inaccessible to an audience member qua audience member, could have.
To do this properly, we need to have a better idea of how an artwork presents its features to an audience.
The proper way to engage with an artwork (or one of its instances), as an audience member, can vary greatly from work to work. One engages with instances of films, plays, symphonies or operas by (usually!) sitting in one seat and quietly looking and/or listening to what’s going on in front of you. Installation or sculpture, on the other hand, is often engaged by walking around the gallery floor, getting a look at the work from a variety of angles.
If Xis some art-object (‘art-object’ here meaning an art-instance that audiences are meant to engage with, regardless of whether that instance is identical to the artwork itself) with some property P, it isn’t enough that I, as an audience member, can come to know that X has P. What’s necessary is that it’s (in principle) possible for me to come to know X has Pby engaging with Xin the prescribed way.
Furthermore, there’s no need to restrict to what the audience actually picks up on, or even on what the actual audience could have picked up on. An art-object XpresentsP to its audience just in case—holding fixed how Xactually is—(1) there could be an audience member, A, (2) properly engaged with X, (3) such that A could (in principle) come to know that Xhas P by being so engaged.
I’m not sure if this is the exact right way to think about presentation (I’m open to suggestions or amendments!), but its fine for our purposes.
There’s a thesis I’ve seen implicit in various positions in the philosophy of art. Roughly, it amounts to saying that no feature of a work can be constitutiveof that work unless it is (or is supposed to be) presented to that work’s audience (either directly or via its instances). Most folks I’ve talked to about this thesis claim to be at least somewhat sympathetic to it. I’d like to put some pressure on it here.
Before I do that, let me say a very little bit about what’s constitutive of a work of art. Here are three marks that a feature of a work is constitutive: (1) A work’s constitutive features are appreciation-relevant. (2) If a work has instances, its constitutive features are the ones possession of which determine whether and to what extent a potential instance is a correct instance of that work. (3) To appreciate a work with multiple instances, we identify and appreciate the features of the instance which are constitutive of the work it’s an instance of (e.g., we appreciate that a symphony is moving because we recognize that the performance we’re attending is moving).
I’ve said the above thesis is implicit in a good deal of our thinking in the philosophy of art. D. Davies (2010), for example, writes “An instance of a work is something that makes manifest to receivers certain properties that bear experientially upon the appreciation of the work.” Receivers here are audience members, and an instance “makes manifest” to them properties which “bear experientially”[my emphasis] on appreciation of the work. That is to say: the properties of an instance which bear correctly on appreciation of that work (the properties constitutive of that work), are presented (“made manifest”) to the audience—which is why it’s appropriate to say they “bear experientially” on appreciation.
A less straightforward example comes from a popular style of account of fictional truth or fictionality. Accounts of the sort I’m talking about are couched in terms of invitations to imagine, e.g. P is true according to a given work of fiction if the author of that work invites her audience to imagine that P (see Currie (1990) p.31-49 and Lamarque and Olsen (1994) p.45).
What’s important is that an author invites her audience to imagine P by presenting her audience with the work. The way you engage, as an audience member, with a work of fiction is by identifying what you’re invited to imagine and then imagining it. So you are only invited to imagine if it’s in principle possible for you to identify that you’re so invited by engaging with the work in the right way.
Both of these positions involve something close to the spirit of the thesis that what’s constitutive of a work must be presented to its audience. What I’m interested in doing here is looking at a few cases that put pressure on this position. Once I’ve presented these cases, I’ll largely leave the hard part—sorting out what’s going wrong and determining what course of action to take next—to you, the reader, to work out in the ensuing discussion.
Case 1: Doubt.
This first case was described to me as fact on two different occasions by two unrelated sources (I haven’t been able to actually verify their story).
John Patrick Shanley wrote a play called Doubt (which was later made into a movie starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman) about a Catholic priest accused of assaulting a member of his parish. The audience is meant, in keeping with the play’s title, to be extremely uncertain about whether or not Father Flynn is guilty or innocent by the end of the show. What’s unique about Doubtis that Shanley has (allegedly) in fact made a decision about Father Flynn’s innocence. And for any authorized performance, Shanley shares this secret decision with that performance’s director and the actor playing Flynn.
We can respond to this in at least two ways:
(1) Shanley’s belief that P(where P is either “Flynn is guilty” or its negation, depending on what Shanley actually believes) is fictionally true in Doubtis really just a matter of Shanley having a favoriteinterpretation of his own play. His choice of interpretation makes no difference to anything constitutive of the play.
(2) Shanley’s belief that Pand the fact that he shares that with the director and actor playing Flynn is evidence that Preally is fictionally true in Doubt. P influences the play’s direction and the performance of the actor playing Flynn.
Importantly, Doubt‘s audienceis not invited to imagine that P. The audience is explicitly intended to be remain in doubt as to whether Por ~P. The invitation to imagine P is patently not presented to the audience.
I’m not going to take a stand on whether (1) or (2) is right. I think there’s a good case for each. I do think that our art theory shouldn’t rule out either option before the discussion starts. Specifically, given that Shanley himself likely accepts something like (2), and that the gimmick of the play is that the audience is in doubt about something of which there’s a fact of the matter,our theory of fictional truth or fictionality shouldn’t automatically rule this option impossible.
Case 2: Conflict.
Consider another play called Conflict. The plot revolves around a character, Marjorie, getting an important letter. She won’t tell her various friends and family, only opening the letter in secret to read it.
Suppose further that the play is performed in a variation of theatre-in-the-round (pictured), with the audience split between seats on the North and South sides of the stage. Marjorie reads her letter in secret standing by the bookshelf at point A and later crouched behind the couch at point B. At point A, which all of the North but none of the South sides of the audience can see, the letter she reveals is clearly bad news. At point B, which only the South side of the audience can see, the letter is clearly good news.
Both Marjorie getting good news and her getting bad news are presented to the audience, since, there exists a way of engaging with the work (namely, sitting on the north/south audience) for which each is presented. As such, there’s no problem in saying that either element of the play is a constitutive part of the work.
However, it’s extremely plausible that the fact that the North and South sides of the audience are given conflicting informationis constitutive of the work. It’s a feature of the performance that correctly bears on the appreciation of the play itself. However, it’s also clearly not presented to the audience. The suitable way to engage with a play like this is to stay in one’s seat and attend to what happens on stage. There is no way that this mode of engagement could give one epistemic access to the mismatch in what the two halves of the audience witness.
Case 3: Interactive Art.
This last case concerns an entire art form, interactive art. Thinking about what could be constitutive of an interactive artwork was what got me thinking about presentation in the first place.
What’s presented to the audience of an interactive artwork varies. Videogames present sounds and images on a screen. Interactive literature, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire (which can be read in a variety of different orders) or a Choose Your Own Adventure book (of which different portions are read depending on what decisions the reader has the protagonist make), present a series of words on pages in a particular order. Interactive theatre/installation like Sleep No More (explained) present elaborately dressed sets in various rooms each audience member can freely explore (some of which are occupied by actors or other audience members). For all interactive artworks, exactly which images or words or performances are presented needn’t be the same every time (and will be different if the audience interacts with the work differently).
What is the same every time is also what I think plausibly constitutes works like these. Each instance of these works has the same (or, in the case of the Sleep No More, relevantly similar) modal character—facts about what would happen ifthe audience were to press this or that button, or turn to this or that page according to the instructions, or walk into this or that room at a given point in time. Modal features, however, are notpresented to the audience. Proper engagement with a single instance simply can’t give an audience member enough information about what would happen had things gone differently.
Modal features are very good candidates for being constitutive of interactive artworks. We evaluate instances of interactive artworks based on more than what they actually present us on one encounter. These modal features of instances bear correctly on the appreciation of interactive works themselves; Sleep No More makes you feel like a voyeur by giving you absolute freedom because that’s what its performances do. Having the right modal character also matters to the correctness of instances; if a videogame would have suddenly exploded had you deviated at all from what you actually did while playing it, then it’s broken (regardless of what it actually presented to you).
Last bit: Discussion.
So what should we say about these cases? I’m interested to learn what you think about them. Let me close with two (brief!!) points to clarify and direct the discussion here.
First, I think it’s not at all obvious that the same thing’s going wrong in each of these cases. Much of what’s wrong with Case 3 and (perhaps) Case 1 can be treated in terms of what would have been presented/invited had things gone differently. But there doesn’t seem to be any way of accurately framing Case 2 in this way. Similarly, there may be a way of dealing with Case 1 which gets our account of fictionality out of hot water but has nothing whatsoever to say about Cases 2 and 3.
Second, allowing that artworks can have constitutive features which are not presented to their audience may require us to reexamine the role of the audience in appreciate and evaluation. If being in the audience isn’t even in principle sufficient to evaluate and appreciate every (relevant) thing about a work, then what’s so special about engaging with art directly anyway?
Lamarque, Peter (1994). Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective. Oxford University Press.
D. Davies (2010). Multiple Instances and Multiple ‘Instances’. British Journal of Aesthetics 50 (4):411-426.
Gregory Currie (1990). The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge University Press.