AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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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.