Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

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Music, Theology, and Philosophy: A Conversation with Artist-Theologian Julian Reid

Image courtesy of Julian Reid

Artist-Theologian Julian Reid interviewed by Alex King

Julian is an artist-theologian who plays, speaks, and writes at the intersection of music, faith, and story. He is a founding member of the jazz-fusion group The JuJu Exchange and has two personal projects, including his solo show Inherited and his devotional series Notes of Rest. He also works with the grassroots organization Fearless Dialogues. He studied theology and the arts at Candler School of Theology and, before that, philosophy at Yale. He and his wife Carmen are based in his beloved hometown of Chicago. You can learn more about Julian on his website and keep up with him at @julianreid17 on Twitter/Instagram.

During or after you read this interview, please enjoy the sounds of the JuJu Exchange.

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What follows is a guest post by Eliya Cohen, PhD candidate in philosophy at Princeton University.

Imagine an industry that makes use of a business model much like a casino’s, except – in the most literal sense of the phrase – the house never loses. Not only would the house win in the long term, but every iteration of every game would be one where the house never coughs up a cent. And curiously, it would be precisely because the house never has to pay out, because patrons can never win, but only lose something of value, that the model would be largely unregulated.

Welcome to the video game industry, where the product is so enchanting that we almost forget that producers exploit us while we play.

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Ethics and Aesthetics of Stand-up Comedy Conference


WHEN: 4/5/17-4/8/17

WHERE: Bucknell University

CONTACT: Sheila Lintott (

The American Society for Aesthetics has awarded $7,000 in partial support for the Conference on the Ethics and Aesthetics of Stand-Up Comedy at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, April 5-8, 2017. The conference was organized by Sheila Lintott, Associate Professor, and Jason Leddington, Associate Professor, both of the Department of Philosophy.

NEW! Complete schedule for the Conference

NEW! Registration form for the Conference

The interdisciplinary conference will explore the intersections of stand-up comedy with other art forms and its potential for dialogue with social and political critiques. In addition to academic papers and presentations, the conference will include a performance workshop, an “open-mic” night, roundtable discussions with comedians, and stand-up comedy performances.

The Conference Organizing Committee includes faculty from English, Interdisciplinary Arts, and Women’s and Gender Studies, representing several colleges in the region.

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Race & Aesthetics 2015: A Retrospective

What follows is a guest post by Daniel Abrahams and Shen-yi Liao. This blog post is primarily written by Daniel Abrahams, a PhD student specializing in aesthetics at University of Leeds, and supplemented by Shen-yi Liao (in brackets), a Marie Curie fellow at University of Leeds. Liao was a co-organizer of the conference and Abrahams was a conference assistant. However, we would like to stress that these are just our own perspectives rather than any “official” account. Photos are by Shen-yi Liao and Sara Protasi.

Race & Aesthetics: A British Society of Aesthetics Connections Conference ran the 19th and 20th of May, at the Leeds Art Gallery. Fourteen speakers and several dozen more participants gathered to share thoughts on any of the points of intersection between the philosophies of race and aesthetics. Topics ranged from sexual attraction to humour to Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. In what follows, I’ll try to present short but effective summaries of each of the conference talks.

While the talks could be chunked into five or six thematic topics, constant throughout was pushing the limits of the aesthetic well beyond art and into as many spheres of experience as possible. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman and A.W. Eaton focus on sexuality – beauty, desire, and the bodily aesthetic. Sherri Irvin, Alia Al-Saji, and Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng discuss how context shapes racialized images and archetypes. Ron Mallon and Charles Mills examine the functioning and functions of humour. Kristie Dotson and James Camien McGuiggan focus the most heavily on their first-personal experiences of specific art works and artists, and on how art may both articulate and confront, with special attention to the different responses by audiences who are differently racialized.

There are two talks that do not easily fit in to the above categories. The conference’s final talk, by Katharine Jenkins and Jennifer Saul, provides a practical capstone to the previous discussion, starting to answer the question that Coleman opened the conference with: how to start decolonializing the curriculum. The other talk, by Paul Taylor, does not readily fit any categories because it effectively covers them all. He asks the broad question, “what is the Black aesthetic?”

Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman / A.W. Eaton / Sherri Irvin

Day 1 Talk 1: Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, “‘I Am a Sexual Racist'”

The talk followed two main tracks. The first was to look at whiteness, whiteliness, and shame. Quoting Samantha Vice, whiteness is a global hegemonic norm that merits shame in persons racialized as white. This is because shame is morally appropriate in the case where there is a gap between what a person is and what a person wants to be. Global white supremacy means that persons racialized as white are benefited in such a way that their welfare derives from harm done unto others. Since this harm is unjust, shame is appropriate.

This analysis of shame is drawn into an analysis of shamelessness, specifically on the part of Jesse Matheson who argued that he was a “sexual racist” and that there was nothing wrong with that. Coleman then followed this into an analysis of racialized sexual desire, and how to desire against the pressures of white supremacy. The conclusion he advocates is “metonymic sexual desire:” mutually arousing objectification.

Day 1 Talk 2: A.W. Eaton, “What Makes you Beautiful: On the Racialization of Bodily Taste”

As the title of the talk suggests, Eaton’s focus is racialized ideals of beauty. Her central point is that standards of beauty are not simply symptoms of white power, as commonly argued, but are rather important constituents. Beauty standards’ buttressing effects on white power are twofold. The first is that it prescribes a way for people to shape themselves, what features they ought to display. The second, deriving from the first, is that it provides a hierarchized standard of beauty. Accordingly, it is not just that considered-standardly-white features are beautiful, but that they are more beautiful than other features. As a case study of both these points, Eaton takes up how “white hair” is a largely artificial construction.

To work against the white supremacist bodily aesthetic, Eaton argues that we have to not just change the principles we recognize, but work to shape our affective character. This is because there is necessarily a sentimental dimension to bodily taste. Accordingly, it is not enough to simply recognize that the way one feels is shaped by white supremacy, but one must work to undo the way one’s affect has been so determined. An immediate way this can be done is by working against stereotypes, refusing to shape one’s one image in the mold of white supremacy.

[Readers can also read more about Eaton’s thoughts on this topic at Philosop-her.]

Day 1 Talk 3: Sherri Irvin, “Icons of False Hope? The Role of Images in Thinking About Racial Justice”

The main focus of Irvin’s talk was the recent idea that making police officers wear video cameras would work to reduce police violence. Her argument was that the videos alone would not be enough without changing how people approach these videos. To make her case, she drew upon several existing videos of such violence, and showed how they worked to provide justification for police action: the videos are examined with the attitude that the viewer is looking for any even slightly plausible justification for police violence, and any justification, no matter how small, is taken as justification for anything and everything the officer does. In one particular poignant example, Irvin shows a video of Ursula Orr being thrown to the ground by the police. Because of how Orr landed, her one leg being up and visible above the hood of the car, she was charged with aggravated assault.

This analysis is tied with an analysis of the titular “icons of false hope.” Using the example of 12-year-old Devonte Hart hugging officer Bret Barnum, Irvin argues that the image is taken as an “icon of hope” because it shows black passivity. Both still and moving images reaffirm that “there is a standard of compliant non-violence that is applied there [to people of colour] and not elsewhere.” Accordingly, images that are held up as hopeful icons are done so because they promise to a white audience that people of colour will return to their place within white supremacy.

Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng

Day 1 Talk 4: Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng, “Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, or, What’s Wrong with Blacking Up?”

Stear and Zheng start their talk by way of discussion of the “value interaction debate” – how and in what way do ethical qualities come to bear on aesthetic evaluations? Some works of art may invite participants to adopt or export pernicious views. These arguments may be applied so that mere imaginings, separate from works of art, may also be so evaluated.

Playing upon J.L. Austin’s speech act theory, Stear and Zheng argue that imaginings may be analogously understood: not only is there the content (locution) of the imagining and the causal upshot (perlocution) of the imagining, but there is the act of imagining itself (illocution). This allows them to say that immoral imaginings may be substantively disrespectful acts, even if they are without consequence. The way this works is that the imagination-illocution itself is something that may be shaped by social-political context.

Ron Mallon / Charles W. Mills

Day 1 Talk 5: Ron Mallon, “Humour, Automaticity, and Automata”

The goal of Mallon’s talk was to look at how different dominant theories of humour deal with humour that takes race as its subject. The first half of the talk was picking through the existing theories of humour to move towards a more biological theory of mirth experienced as an epistemic emotion. The goal of humour, then, is to trigger this mirth reaction. Mallon uses Hurley, Dennett, and Adams’ model where the primary mechanism for which mirth is used, and the mechanism that gave rise to humour, is the sorting out of incompatible committed beliefs.

Moving away from broad theories of humour (and mirth), Mallon looks at particular sorts of jokes. First considered are category jokes, where the humour lies in some characteristic of the category defied. With respect to racial jokes, these trade on some person displaying some feature that is considered contrary to their racial category. Implicit in racial category humour, importantly, is some considered-essential feature that the mirth-triggering feature is defying. Similarly, mechanical humour also trades upon the assumption of essential racialized characteristics in the butt of the joke.

Day 1 Talk 6: Charles W. Mills, “White Lies / Black Humour”

Capping off day 1, there was Mills on humour within the philosophy of race. Looking at the three canon theories of humour – superiority, relief, and incongruity – he showed how Black humour used elements of all three to carve out space within white supremacy. Against the supremacy of white supremacy, Black humour can carve out space simply by asserting equality and upending the white supremacist hierarchy. The relief theory of humour is shown in how humour was used to create an escape from the tensions of colonialism. And the incongruity theory was put to use in showing the moral and intellectual hollowness of white supremacy.

Paul C. Taylor

Day 2 Talk 1: Paul C. Taylor, “Turning Aside at the Beginning”

Taylor started the second day by sharing some of the foundational work for his upcoming book. The title of the talk comes from W.E.B. Du Bois – “in the struggle to be human, how can we turn aside to talk about art?”

The aesthetic is that which is engaged immediately, that is felt directly. Aesthetic experience, following Dewey, begins with every day experience. Race, in turn, is about the material advantages and ideas that shape everyday life. Accordingly, the aesthetic is one way in which the effects of race are felt and engaged daily.

Taylor said that his Black aesthetic is “a conjunction, a network of cultural spaces… attended in the context of Black life.” He then laid out six themes that run throughout Black aesthetics: invisibility; authenticity; appropriation; existence and affect; art-ethics relation; and somatic aesthetics.

Alia Al-Saji / James Camien McGuiggan / Kristie Dotson

Day 2 Talk 2: Alia Al-Saji, “Waiting in Racialized Time: A Phenomenology of Racialization through Image and Film”

The focus of Al-Saji’s talk is the experience of racialization in art, with a specific focus on art that seeks to criticize images by reproducing them. She picks up from Fanon in Black Skin/White Masks, where he writes about waiting for himself while watching a film. Examples of “waiting for oneself” would be something like waiting for the Black bellhop or the Muslim terrorist – the tokened stereotypical image.

Racism importantly functions by protecting the power of the in group. Even when particular borders of power may shift, the othering mechanism that defends the in group persists. This makes it difficult to subvert images by tokening them – despite context they nevertheless present the white supremacist dichotomy. A better strategy is focusing on presenting counter-stereotypes, such that those that speak to the diversity of experience.

Day 2 Talk 3: James Camien McGuiggan, “Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B: A Case Study in Ethics and Art”

[McGuiggan focused his talk on Brett Bailey’s controversial work, Exhibit B, which puts on display men and women racialized as black as they would have been in 19th Century European human zoos. McGuiggan made a conscious decision to not show any photographs from the work. Instead, he gave an elaborate description of the work as a whole, which in his view includes the gazes of the typical racialized-as-white spectator, such as his own.

McGuiggan argues that Exhibit B forces an immoral response from the typical racialized-as-white spectator – the racist gaze – in order to, ideally, produce a moral outcome – by making them confront their own current racist attitudes. It is thus an especially interesting case for philosophers who are interested in ethical dimensions of art, and where ethics and aesthetics intersect. In the end, McGuiggan argues that it does not make sense to answer the question “Is Exhibit B good or bad?” because its goodness and badness are inextricably bound together.]

Day 2 Talk 4: Kristie Dotson, “Negative Space: Black Feminist Thought and Racialized Aestheticization”

Dotson spoke on the unknowability problem, which is the difficulty people have in centering the lives and experiences of Black women. She began her talk by noting that over seven hours of question and answer periods following talks she had given, she had been given exactly one question specifically on Black women. Normally, despite her speaking about Black women, she is instead only asked about Black men.

The unknowability problem has Black women being forced to occupy “negative epistemic space.” To talk about this, Doston used Kara Walker’s silhouettes. Here, silhouettes of men and women are projected onto a white canvas. This creates the effect where “the people who live in negative space start taking up space.”

Day 2 Talk 5: Katharine Jenkins and Jennifer Saul, “The Pragmatics of Inclusivity: Visual and Linguistic Cues to Group Membership”

The last talk of the conference was practically oriented: what is the best way to create an inclusive syllabus. Philosophy has more than a bit of a problem of both the current faculty and acknowledged canon being overwhelmingly white and male. The first two possibilities surveyed focused on just drawing attention to the race or gender of the philosopher being read or considered. These options were considered inadequate because they leave the implication of that person’s identity open, and in a racist/sexist society the way most people unpack the implication will be in part directed by racist/sexist implicit biases. What Saul and Jenkins put forward as the superior option is to confront the issue of discrimination and bias head-on, and to open class with a direct discussion on the subject.

The Audience!

[One thing we were especially pleased about is the diversity of the conference participants. In addition to aestheticians and other philosophers, the conference attracted academics from Sociology, English, and Education. Moreover, the conference also attracted museum professionals, artists and curators, and other members of the public.

We were also grateful to Jude Woods of Leeds Art Gallery, who took some philosophers on an impromptu tour of the museum’s more racially-tinged artworks, which has generated much reflection, including this blog post on Edward Armitage’s Retribution (1858) by Nils-Hennes Stear. Finally, we are most grateful to British Society of Aesthetics for providing the majority of the financial support for this conference.

Readers can get other perspectives on the conference by looking over tweets with the hashtag #RaceAesthetics2015.]


Street Photography & Dehumanization

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Meena Krishnamurthy is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manitoba. She works in political philosophy. Her current work focuses on exploitation, coercion, oppression, and gossip. Issues that lie at the intersection of philosophy of language and political philosophy have recently come to fascinate her. 

There are many aspiring photographers who take photographs of vulnerable people, people who are down on their luck, often poor and homeless, and label their images as “street photography.” There are many things that might be morally suspect about street photography that involves vulnerable people. One idea that I would that like to develop here, using Robin Jeshion’s recent discussion of slurs, is that these types of pictures are dehumanizing of their subjects.

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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 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.


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)


Damn the Consequences

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What follows is a guest post by James Harold. James is a Professor of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College. He works primarily in aesthetics and meta-ethics, and is particularly interested in the intersection of those two fields. He has also written about the role of principles in critical evaluation, philosophical psychopathology, empirical ethics and aesthetics, and ancient Greek and Classical Chinese philosophy. In a universe not terribly distant from this one, however, he’s still working in scene design and carpentry, probably at some small regional theater.

When a contemporary philosopher condemns a work of art for being morally flawed, you can bet good money that she does not mean that the artwork has pernicious effects on its audiences.[i]More likely she means that the work sympathizes with a vicious protagonist, that it endorses a morally odious viewpoint, or something along these lines. In the twenty years or so since the revival of “ethical criticism” in Anglophone philosophy of art, an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the ethical evaluation of art, but almost nothing has been said about whether or not works of art might have real ethical consequences on audiences.[ii]Instead, champions of ethical criticism take pains to distance themselves from such thinking. To cite a pair of well-known examples: Noël Carroll writes that “a moral defect can count as an aesthetic defect even if it does not undermine appreciation by actual audiences so long as it has the counterfactual capacity to undermine the intended response of morally sensitive audiences”[iii]; Berys Gaut claims that his view “does not entail the causal thesis that good art ethically improves people”[iv].

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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.