AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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“WE ARE EVERYTHING AND WE ARE NOTHING”: AN INTERVIEW WITH ACTOR AND FILMMAKER JULIE DEPLY

What follows is a guest post by Hans Maes (University of Kent) and Katrien Schaubroeck (University of Antwerp).

As part of Routledge’s Philosophers on Film series, Hans Maes and Katrien Schaubroeck are editing a volume on the so-called Before trilogy directed by Richard Linklater. The trilogy chronicles the love of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) who first meet up in Before Sunrise (1995), later reconnect in Before Sunset (2004) and finally experience a fall-out in Before Midnight (2013). Not only do the individual films present storylines and dilemmas that invite philosophical discussion, but philosophical conversation itself is at the very heart of the films.

Julie Delpy, who co-wrote the trilogy and was twice nominated for an Academy Award (best adapted screenplay) for Before Sunset and Before Midnight, agreed to be interviewed for the book because, as she explains, she has a soft spot for philosophy. What follows is an excerpt from that interview. The full text will be included in the volume that is scheduled to appear in 2021 and that will contain contributions from Christopher Cowley (University College Dublin), Diane Jeske (University of Iowa), James MacDowell (University of Warwick), Hans Maes (University of Kent), Kalle Puolakka (University of Helsinki), Anna Christina Ribeiro (Texas Tech University), Katrien Schaubroeck (University of Antwerp), Marya Schechtman (University of Illinois), Michael Smith (Princeton University), and Murray Smith (University of Kent).

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THE FEMINIST REVOLUTION CONTINUES: CONTRIBUTIONS OF WOMEN TO THE VISUAL ARTS (CAA) AND AESTHETICS (ASA)

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The author at her easel (photo courtesy of Peg Brand Weiser)

What follows is a guest post by Peg Brand Weiser.

The Feminist Caucus Committee (FCC) arose within the American Society for Aesthetics in the fall of 1990 with an impromptu meeting at the annual conference, that year in Austin, Texas. A chronology of events over the past three decades is now documented in a new online essay, “A Brief History of the FCC on the 30th Anniversary of its Founding,” co-authored by Carolyn Korsmeyer (Buffalo), Cynthia Freeland (Houston), and me. It is located on the FCC page that also celebrates faculty representatives at various summer programs for women and diversity. 2020 is also a year to celebrate the winners of the 30th Anniversary FCC Essay Prize: Sherry Irvin (Oklahoma) with Honorable Mention awarded to Alia Al-Saji (McGill). Continue reading


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HOW TO PARTAKE IN THE FUCKERY: A ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION ON HIP-HOP, GENDER, AND LANGUAGE

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L to R: Bates, Lissa Skitolsky, and BL Shirelle

In January, we hosted an interview and preliminary discussion of some pressing issues in rap and hip-hop. We wanted to investigate the fact that, in Bill Adler’s words, hip-hop has never been “a model of civil discourse”. We did that by talking to two queer Black women rappers, BL Shirelle and Bates, to get their takes on the matter. Now we follow that up with a roundtable of scholars, each reflecting in their own way on what BL Shirelle and Bates had to say.

[Warning: This discussion contains explicit language, including a variation of the n-word.]

Our contributors are:

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SOR JUANA’S ROUGH HEROINES: COGNITIVE IMMORALISM IN PRIMERO SUEÑO

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Portrait of Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera

What follows is a guest post by Adriana Clavel-Vázquez and Sergio A. Gallegos.

Against all odds, Novohispanic nun Juana Inés de la Cruz gained widespread recognition as a writer in her lifetime. Today, she is also recognized as a distinguished Early Modern philosopher who advanced one of the earliest defenses of the right of women to be educated, and who emphasized how human knowledge is constituted by doubts and struggles. She was particularly preoccupied with the lack of recognition of women as intellectual peers, and its consequences for how women are treated. Continue reading


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THROWBACK MOVIE REVIEW: VARIETY (1983) BY BETTE GORDON

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Today, we’re starting a new series. During the first week of each month, Francey Russell (Barnard/Columbia) will offer a philosophical reflection on film: a single film, a director, a technique, a genre, an author, etc. Plots will be discussed, hence spoilers.

By way of introduction, Francey works primarily on moral psychology and is writing a book on the topic of self-opacity. She is also working a project on genre and representations of human agency, focusing especially on the erotic thriller. Continue reading


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“TO OPEN MY LEGS IS TO OPEN MY MOUTH”: SEXUALITY AND ART

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In September this year, French-Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah De Robertis exposed her vagina in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

A few days ago, she was acquitted of charges of sexual exhibitionism by Paris’s High Court. Why? Because (a) her intent was not sexual in nature, and (b) the “material element of the crime” was missing (= you couldn’t *see* her genitalia because pubic hair obscured it). (Yes, you may giggle now.) Continue reading


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MARY BETH WILLARD REVISITS “FEARLESS GIRL” STATUE

What follows is a guest post by Mary Beth Willard (Weber State University)

When I last wrote about Fearless Girl, I observed that the meaning of the little Bull-challenging statue will lie in its interaction with the public, who for the moment has claimed it as an icon of feminism, capturing the vivacity of little girls at that tender age where they still dare to dream.

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Fearless Girl reportedly now has a permit through 2018, and this has angered none other than the creator of Charging Bull, Arturo di Modica, who has asked for Fearless Girl to be relocated, because it’s making his Bull into a villain. Continue reading


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MARY BETH WILLARD ON “FEARLESS GIRL” STATUE

What follows is a guest post by Mary Beth Willard (Weber State University)

On a cold December night in 1989, artist Arturo di Modica installed Charging Bull, a three-and-a-half ton bronze bull, in New York’s Financial District. Di Modica had no official permission to install the statue, which he said symbolized the “strength and power of the American people” following the disastrous 1987 stock market crash.

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These days Charging Bull is a well-beloved tourist attraction, so you probably don’t remember, if you ever knew, that the immediate reaction to this guerilla Christmas gift was mixed. Crowds loved it, but the police were called by the securities exchanges, who then hired a contractor to remove the bull. Five days later, the city announced that it would have a temporary home two-and-a-half blocks south on Bowling Green, where it stands today. Continue reading


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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.]