Tag Archives: art

Three Questions to Ask Regarding Pages to Screens

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I consider myself something of a movie buff, I am out-buffed by one of my colleagues. This is a good thing—I enjoy the opportunity to hear about movies from someone who knows much more than I. We recently had a discussion about science-fiction classics and one sub-topic that came up was the matter of movies based on books or short stories.

Not surprisingly, the discussion turned to Blade Runner, which is supposed to be based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Phillip K. Dick. While I like the movie, some fans of the author hate the movie because it deviates from the book. This leads to two of the three questions.

The first question, which I think is the most important of the three is this: is the movie good? The second question, which I consider as having less importance, is this: how much does the movie deviate from the book/story? For some people, the second question is rather important and their answer to the first question can hinge on the answer to the second question. For these folks, the greater the degree of deviation from the book/story, the worse the movie. This presumably rests on the view that an important aesthetic purpose of a movie based on a book/story is to faithfully reproduce the book/story in movie format.

My own view is that deviation from the book/story is not actually relevant to the quality of the movie as a movie. That is, if the only factor that allegedly makes the movie bad is that it deviates from the book/story, then the movie is actually good. One way to argue for this is to point out the obvious: if someone saw the movie without knowing about the book, she would presumably regard it as a good movie. If she then found out it was based on a book/story, then nothing about the movie would have changed—as such, it should still be a good movie on the grounds that the relation to the book/story is external to the movie. To use an analogy, imagine that someone sees a painting and regards it as well done artistically. Then the person finds out it is a painting of a specific person and finds a photo of the person that shows the painting differs from the photo. To then claim that the painting is badly done would seem to be to make an unfounded claim.

It might be countered that the painting would be bad, because it failed to properly imitate the person in the photo. However, this would merely count against the accuracy of the imitation and not the artistic merit of the work. That it does not look exactly like the person would not entail that it is lacking as an artistic art. Likewise for the movie: the fact that it is not exactly like the book/story does not entail that it is thus badly done. Naturally, it is fair to claim that it does not imitate well, but this is a different matter than being a well done work.

That said, I am sympathetic to the view that a movie does need to imitate a book/movie to a certain degree if it is to legitimately claim that name. Take, for example, the movie Lawnmower Man.  While not a great film, the only thing it has in common with the Stephen King story is the name. In fact, King apparently sued over this because the film had no meaningful connection to his story. However, whether the movie has a legitimate claim to the name of a book/story or not is a matter that is distinct from the quality of the movie. After all, a very bad movie might be faithful to a very bad book/story. But it would still be bad.

The third question I came up with was this: is the movie so bad that it desecrates the story/book? In some cases, authors sell the film rights to books/stories or the works become public domain (and thus available to anyone). In some cases, the films made from such works are both reasonably true to the originals and also reasonably good. The obvious examples here are the Lord of the Rings movies. However, there are cases in which the movie (or TV show) is so bad that the badness desecrates the original work by associating its awfulness with a good book/story.

One example of this is the desecration of the Wizard of Earthsea by the Sci-Fi Channel (or however they spell it these days). This was so badly done that Ursula K. Le Guin felt obligated to write a response to it. While the book is not one of my favorites, I did like it and was initially looking forward to seeing it as a series. However, it was the TV version of seeing a friend killed and re-animated as a shuffling horror of a zombie. Perhaps not quite that bad—but still pretty damn bad. Since I also like Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books, I did not see the travesty that is Disney’s John Carter. To answer my questions, this movie was apparently very bad, deviated from the rather good book, and did desecrate it just a bit (I have found it harder to talk people into reading the books since they think of the badness of the movie).

From both a moral and aesthetic standpoint, I would contend that if a movie is to be made from a book or story, those involved have an obligation to make the movie at least as good as the original book/story. There is also an obligation to have at least some meaningful connection to the original work—after all, if there is no such connection then there is no legitimate grounds for having the film bear that name.

 

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The Secret to Artistic Success is…Luck

The Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a writer and someone who teaches an Aesthetics course, the cause of artistic success is a matter that I find rather interesting. When I was an undergraduate I was involved in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. In the course of the debate, I defended free will. The professor on the other side made an interesting point in claiming that I believed in free will because I wanted credit for my success. That remark stuck with me and I found it applied elsewhere, such as matters of luck (that is, chance that turns out favorable or unfavorable).

Since I have been a gamer for quite some time, I am well aware of the role (or roll) of chance in success. However, as the professor noted, I wanted credit for my successes and hence while I acknowledged the role of luck, I tended to minimalize its role. However, after having some modest success with my books and teaching Aesthetics for years, I came to accept the view that luck (that is, favorable chance) has a large role in success. Of course, this was a largely unsupported view. Fortunately, Princeton’s Matthew Salganik decided to investigate the matter of success and had the resources to do so.

In order to determine the role of chance in success Salganik created nine identical online worlds. He then distributed the 30,000 teens he had recruited for his experiment among these virtual worlds.  Each group of teens was exposed to the same 48 songs from emerging artists that were unknown to the teens. In return, the teens were able to download the songs they liked best free of charge.

One world was set up as the control world—in this world the teens were isolated from social influence because they could not see what songs their fellows were downloading. In the other eight worlds, they could see which songs were being downloaded—which informed them of what the other teens regarded as worth downloading.

This experiment was certainly well designed: each world is identical at the start and the test subjects (the teenagers) were randomly assigned to the worlds.  Given the quality and size of the experiment, the results can be safely regarded as statistically significant.

Given that the same 48 songs were available in each world, if quality was the defining factor for success, then it would seem to follow that each world should be fairly similar in terms of which songs were downloaded the most. However, Salganik found that the worlds varied a great deal. For example, 52 Metro’s song “Lock Down” was first in one world and 40th in another world. Salganik concluded that “small, random initial differences” were magnified by “social influence and cumulative advantage.” In short, chance was the decisive factor in the outcome. As a gamer, I certainly appreciated these findings and could easily visualize modelling this process with some dice and charts—like in games such as Pathfinder and D&D.

Lest it be thought that chance is the sole factor, Salganik found that quality does have some role in success—but much less than one might suspect. Based on additional experiments, he found that succeeding with a work of poor quality is rather hard but that once a certain basic level of quality is achieved, then success is primarily a matter of chance.

In terms of the specific mechanism of artistic success, a group of people will as a matter of random chance decide that a work is good. The attention of this group will attract more attention and this process will continue. Those who are drawn by the attention seem to engage in the reasoning that the work must be good and special because all the other people seem to believe that it is good and special. However, the work was

Interestingly enough, Leo Tolstoy seemed to have hit on a similar idea—although he obviously lacked the means to run the sort of experiment conducted by Salganik.  As Tolstoy said, “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as art, then a definition of art is devised to cover these productions.”  Tolstoy believed that approach failed to distinguish between good and bad art and thus he regarded it as flawed. With a tweak, this can be used to capture Salganik’s findings: “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as good, then it is believed by others to be special.”

Interestingly enough, the sort of “reasoning” that Salganik’s experiment seems to have shown is the Appeal to Popularity fallacy: this is the “reasoning” that because something is popular, it follows that it is good/correct. It also nicely matches the similar Bandwagon fallacy: that because something is winning, it follows that it is good/correct. Not surprisingly, this is grounded in the cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect: people have a psychological tendency to align their thinking with other people. In the case of Salganik’s experiment, the participants aligned their thinking in terms of their aesthetic preference and thus created a bandwagon effect. The effect is rather like the stereotype of the avalanche: a small, random event can set off a massive tide. Given that the process of selection is essentially not a rational assessment of quality but rather driven by cognitive bias and (perhaps) fallacious reasoning it certainly makes sense that the outcomes would be decided largely by chance. The same, if his experiment extends by analogy, would seem to hold true of the larger world.

 

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Is Photorealistic Drawing Art?

 

Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism

Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Traditionally, drawing has been regarded as an imitative art. That is, artists create images based on real things. Naturally, this imitation can range from simply copying entire scenes to creating an original assembly from bits and pieces of real things. Descartes, in his clever painter analogy in his Meditations, makes note of this interesting nature of painting (which also applies to drawing). As he saw it, perhaps dreams are assembled like paintings from bits of real things. At the very least, he argues (before moving on to even greater skepticism), the colors used are real.

Moving away from metaphysics and epistemology back to aesthetics, it seems well established that imitating real things does not disqualify a drawing from being art. In fact, artists are often praised for their ability to accurately imitate reality. Interestingly, though this realism is often praised, there might be a point at which a drawing is too real to be considered art.

One argument for this is easy enough to make. When teaching my aesthetics class, I demonstrate my lack of drawing ability and ask them why my badly drawn capybara is not art. They point out the obvious—it does not look much a capybara because it is badly drawn. I then ask them if it would be art if I could draw better and they tend to agree. I then ask about just photocopying (or scanning and printing) the picture I used as the basis for my capybara drawing. They point out the obvious—that would not be art, just a copy.

Obviously, part of the reason the photocopy or scan would not be art is that it is just a mechanical reproduction (although I am sure that someone clever could argue that it is art and someone even more clever would find a way to sell it as art to people with more money than sense).

Things become considerably more interesting when a photorealistic image is created not by a technological means of duplication, but by hand. For example, Samuel Silva recreated the image of a red haired girl from a photo by Kristina Taraina as well as other photorealistic images. While Silva works with color Bic pens (seriously), Paul Cadden creates his photorealistic works by drawing and also with paints. He, however, uses the term “hyperrealism” rather than “photorealism.”

Clearly, the creation of such realism in imitation requires great technical skill. For example, Silva can create photorealistic colors using Bic pens and this demonstrates an impressive mastery of color. There is also the obvious technical skill required to imitate a photograph with such incredible accuracy.

However, it is clear that technical skill alone does not make the results art. After all, this technical skill can be exceeded by a decent color photocopier or a computer connected to a color scanner and printer.

It might be objected that the technical skill does make it art, despite the fact that a machine can do it better. To use an analogy, the fact that a scooter could beat a champion runner does not prove that the runner is not an athlete. Likewise, the fact that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden does not mean that they are not artists. This leads to a second point about art and imitation.

The problem, it can be argued, is not that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden. Rather, it is that there seems to be a point at which the exactitude of the imitation ceases to be a contribution to the artistry and rather begins to detract from it. While it seems unlikely that an exact tipping point can be specified, it does certainly seem that this is the case. Why this is so can be shown by returning to the reason why a mechanical copy is not art: there is nothing in the copy that is not in the original (laying aside duplication defects). As such, the more exact the copy of the original, the less room there is for whatever it is that makes a work art. As such, to argue that Silva or Cadden is an artist requires showing that they do more than merely copy. That is, they must add something aesthetically significant to their work that is not in the original.

One obvious avenue of approach is to draw an analogy to photography. By its very nature, an unaltered photograph merely captures an image of what is there (photons bouncing of surfaces and all that).  What the photographer adds is her perspective—that is, she selects what she will capture and thus what makes the work art is not that it duplicates reality (which it must by the laws of physics) but that the photographer has added that something extra (which, to steal from Locke’s Indian, I must say is “something I know not what”).

As such, someone who creates photorealistic images of photos could be adding that something extra in a way comparable to what photographers do when they create their art (assuming, safely enough, that a photograph can be art).

The rather obvious reply to this is that a person who is creating a photorealistic re-creation of a photograph does not seem to be adding that something extra. Cadden does, however, claim that he is not engaging in photorealism, but rather in what he calls hyperrealism. He says that

“Hyperreal paintings and sculptures are not strict interpretations of photographs, nor are they literal illustrations of a particular scene or subject. Instead, they utilise additional, often subtle, pictorial elements to create the illusion of a reality which in fact either does not exist or cannot be seen by the human eye” and he adds that “Furthermore, they may incorporate emotional, social, cultural and political thematic elements as an extension of the painted visual illusion; a distinct departure from the older and considerably more literal school of Photorealism.”

From a theoretical standpoint, Cadden is certainly on solid ground. After all, he makes an argument analogous to the one used above, namely that he adds that “aesthetic extra” that makes his work more than a technical achievement in manual duplication. There is, however, the question of whether that “aesthetic extra” is present in his works. Since he works from photographs, it seems easy enough to put the matter to an empirical test by comparing his works to the original and giving due consideration to the difference. As such, if his work differs in aesthetically significant ways from the original image, then it would be safe enough to consider it art and him an artist.

In any case, both Silva and Cadden are remarkably talented and do amazing work.

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On the aesthetics and politics of Aboriginal art

I’ve been reading Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context (Columbia University Press, 2012), by Robyn Ferrell.

The book deals with Aboriginal acrylic painting – work produced by indigenous artists based in the Australian desert. Ferrell is particularly interested in the work of female artists, though much of the book actually relates to acrylic painting produced by Aboriginal artists of both sexes. As is noted at various points in the text and the dust-jacket blurb, this style of art bears some superficial resemblance to abstract expressionism, as might be suggested if you glance at this painting by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, but the understanding of art and its role (and of the world more generally) that lies behind it is completely different from anything you’d expect of, say, Mark Rothko.

I must say that I found this book disappointing – perhaps I picked up the wrong impression (e.g. from the blurb and the opening chapters) of what it was going to be about. Before I get to that, I’ll point out some things that I liked and that might make the book attractive for some readers. For a start, it gives a good overview of the history of Aborginal acrylic painting, which dates back only to the early 1970s, even though it draws on much older traditions. It also has some fascinating and enlightening discussion of the near-impossibility for university-based researchers of carrying out sociological research involving Aboriginal artists. The local cultural expectations for interaction are not easily compatible with the kinds of formal accountability that are (probably rightly) expected of grant holders. This must be frustrating, and when, near the end of the book, Ferrell writes directly and clearly about her experiences, the pages come alive.

Unfortunately, there is also much to dislike about the book. Although it raises some interesting questions about the aesthetics of Aboriginal art, it goes nowhere near giving an answer to them. Ferrell is happy to talk about there being “masterpieces” as well as inferior work, but we never get learn what criteria she has in mind.

Some of the questions are fairly obvious. The images can be very attractive, even exciting, for Westerners, purely because of the characteristics of pattern and colour that have nothing to do with any esoteric meaning, or any discipline of fidelity to it (or to any techniques of expressing it). Thus, there appears to be a disconnection between the way the work is appreciated by, say, gallery curators and the general public in Australia and other Western countries (on one hand) and how it is intended by the artists, and how it is understood and evaluated by their peers and their immediate communities (on the other hand). At the end of the book, I feel that this fairly obvious point has been raised, but not explored in any detail at all. I am little the wiser about the aesthetic characteristics of Aboriginal acrylic art, or about its esoteric meanings, or about the relationship between the two.

As a white Western man, perhaps I shouldn’t know some of this stuff. But even establishing that would require a much more intense discussion, and a better set of arguments, than the book ever embarks upon.

It also fails to tell me anything new or detailed about the international art market and how it interacts with the local cultures that produce the work under discussion (despite this being one of the aspects highlighted in the blurb). Once again, I am little the wiser.

There’s some useful discussion of the recent debate in Australia, particularly over the last twenty years since the High Court’s judgment in the Mabo native title case, about Aboriginal dispossession and the plight of remote Aboriginal communities. The discussion is likely to be most useful to non-Australian readers, however, as much of it is very well known within Australia. There is also a certain reluctance to draw clear conclusions, even nuanced or complicated ones, about all this – much of the discussion is highly inconclusive, though Ferrell does take a surprisingly uncritical stance toward the current Northern Territory National Emergency Response (otherwise known as the Intervention), which has actually received a great deal of criticism in Australia. It’s drawn flak pretty much continuously for lack of consultation with Aboriginal communities, denials of legal rights that are available to other Australians, and, more recently, for inadequate or perverse outcomes.

I have no strong opinion, one way or the other, about the merits of the Intervention, but surely some of this needs to be addressed in a bit of detail once its merits are under discussion.

And in any event, the relationship between these larger political controversies and the official subject of the book – Aboriginal acrylic painting – is never made clear. This artistic practice and the body of work that it has produced undoubtedly take place against the historical background of Aboriginal dispossession and the current background of ongoing deprivation and related controversies. It’s fine to discuss these, but once again I’m not much the wiser about how, in any detailed sense, they relate to the art that’s under discussion, or how it relates to them.

In all, an interesting topic, but a somewhat frustrating and disappointing book, at least from where I’m sitting.

No sexual images, please – we’re atheists

In an earlier post at Talking Philosophy, which I linked to from my personal blog (Metamagician and the Hellfire Club), I asked readers the blunt question, “What is a sexual image?” Considerable discussion ensued on both sites, but no consensus emerged as to just what “a sexual image” actually is.

Accordingly, I am now struggling to understand what an ordinary person would understand by the expression “sexual images” in a provision that attempts to prohibit their display in a certain context. Perhaps it might convey something definite to a censorship board with an established body of decisions, and it might be possible to review what such boards and the like have decided, but its meaning is very unclear to an ordinary person. We don’t seem to be able to agree on what is a “sexual image” and what is not. So how about “Psyche and Pan” by Edward Burne-Jones? It appears to me to convey plenty of erotic charge, so if it’s not a “sexual image” I’d like to know why not. What does the expression convey to you, such that this Burne-Jones painting (and many others by the great pre-Raphaelite artists) is not a “sexual image”?

As some readers will know, Atheists America has recently promulgated a code of conduct for its conventions, setting down, among other things, the following definition of “harassment”:

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

This is dreadful drafting. It seems to say that harassment includes “offensive verbal comments relating to … sexual images in public places”. In that case, it is fine to have sexual images in public places, but no one must make offensive verbal (what other sort are there?) comments about them. Likewise it is fine to indulge in sustained disruption of talks or other events, but not to make offensive verbal comments about it if it happens. But I assume that any sensible tribunal would interpret the provision to mean something like this:

Harassment includes:

(1) offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion; and

(2) sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

That being the case, “sexual images in public spaces” constitute “harassment” under the code … and harassment is prohibited. Forget anything else in this strange code (e.g. it seems that “following” someone, perhaps a friend when you ask for directions and she cheerfully says, “Follow me!”, is defined as harassment). Today, let’s just focus on the prohibition of sexual images.

Why on earth would the mere public display of a low-impact sexual image such as “Psyche and Pan” be considered harassment (of whom, exactly – of anyone who sees it?). Is selling such an image at a convention, and displaying it for sale to likely purchasers, really a form of harassment? Who says so? How does this even remotely relate to the ordinary meaning of the word “harassment”, or even to expansive ideas of “sexual harassment” in employment law (where it is true that the pervasive display of relatively high-impact pornographic images, perhaps combined with other conduct, might make a workplace a hostile zone for some people)? The provision is so sweeping and unnuanced that I have to wonder what could be behind it. Perhaps it’s just a matter of people not thinking things through and realising how overbroad their drafting is, compared with whatever mischief they actually had in mind.

Now, it may be that American Atheists would have other reasons for not approving vendors that would display and sell, say, posters of pre-Raphaelite paintings. Perhaps it’s remote from their mission. But that seems like a reason why they don’t actually need such a provision. In any event, I can imagine circumstances where it might be completely appropriate to display such an image. What if it, or some other image with a similar erotic charge, is used on the cover of a book about the religious suppression of erotic art, or just about the philosophy of sex? And what if this book is on sale at the convention, perhaps with many others? These scenarios are not especially bizarre or unlikely. Books are sold at conventions all the time, and the cover art often has at least a low-grade sexual frisson.

I would have thought that an avowedly atheist organisation would lean strongly against the problematisation of erotic images, given that this is precisely one of the things that atheists object to from the religious and from religious moralities. I don’t know how often the issue would come up at an atheist convention, but it must surely happen from time to time. Even if it never happens in practice, it would be nice to know that an organisation such as American Atheists stands in favour of eros and against sexual prudery.

Thus, this provision is exactly the wrong one to include in a code of conduct, and I do hope that we don’t see other organisations with supposedly atheist or secular agendas going down such a path.

Modern art and its alleged evils

This post is adapted from one I made on personal blog a few days ago – hopefully, it might attract interest here. The issues spin out of current debates in Australia (which are similar to some debates elsewhere) about freedom of speech and expression. During the discussion, I was referred to an article by Ben Hourigan, published by the Institute of Public Affairs – a more-or-less libertarian think tank that I often disagree with (but like the Cato Institute in the US, it also takes some stances that I find intellectually attractive).

This piece by Hourigan goes back some years to a controversy in 2008 about the work of a celebrated Australian photographer, Bill Henson, which can be controversial because of images like this (warning: the image is not, in my view, an example of pedophilia, child pornography, or anything remotely of the kind – but there are people who disagree). I posted on this issue on numerous occasions in June 2008 (e.g. here), if you want to follow up on my personal blog.

Hourigan makes some comments that I agree with:

Australia’s most recent dramatic controversy over freedom of artistic expression centres on veteran photographer Bill Henson’s images of nude and semi-nude pubescent boys and girls. Following a complaint by Hetty Johnston of the anti-child-sexual-assault organisation Bravehearts, in May 2008 police seized photographs from a Henson exhibition due to open at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. Just under two weeks later, police dropped all charges after the Office of Film and Literature Classification gave nearly all the images in question a rating of G (general). The sole exception, the image of a naked thirteen-year-old girl circulated on exhibition invitations, received a rating of PG (parental guidance recommended). Receipt of any rating at all is enough to quash charges of child pornography or indecency, but the awarded ratings are the broadest recommendations of suitability for any audience available under the Australian scheme, and mean that the Henson photos are subject to no legal restrictions on their exhibition or sale.

When professional, government-appointed classifiers place Henson’s images so clearly within the law, it’s astonishing to see politicians whip up such a media storm and inspire such heavy-handed action from police. The moral panic went all the way to the highest levels of our political system, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd telling the Nine Network that he found the image of the thirteen-year-old girl “absolutely revolting.” NSW premier Morris Iemma called the photographs “offensive and disgusting.” The politicians’ foray into amateur art criticism continued when Art Monthly Australia used a photograph by Polixeni Papapetrou of a naked-but relatively modestly shot-six-year-old girl as its cover in July 2008. This act of defiance against the attitudes that had victimised Henson prompted the prime minister to comment: “frankly, I can’t stand this stuff.”

Hourigan goes on to say various useful things about this particular episode in Australian social and political life and others, such as the exhibition at an earlier time of the famous Andres Serrano photograph “Piss Christ”. Most notably, he sums up at one point:

The Prime Minister shouldn’t be intruding on civil society by parading his uninformed opinions of contemporary photography in the mass media. The police shouldn’t be confiscating artworks and tarnishing Henson’s reputation with charges relating to child pornography when they should have been able to tell how clearly the images in question fall within the law. Crazy people should have more respect for private property and not go smashing up artworks with hammers, and newspapers shouldn’t do so much to feed a public perception that the art world is impossibly depraved.

However, Hourigan segues into his own rant about the evils of modern art and the culture within which it is created and promoted. The attitudes of hostility to Henson and others are understandable, he thinks, because: “Whether they see it as a way to turn a profit or, more nobly, as their moral and artistic duty, the core of their art practice is the activity of violating, however subtly, mainstream reasoning, taste, and morality.”

So far, so good. Some artists, especially more avant-garde ones, doubtless do consider it their duty to challenge and trangress mainstream reasoning, taste, and morality. That, however, seems to me altogether a good thing as far as it goes. Mainstream ideas and values should not go uncontested, or so I think, and we do rely on artists to contest them. The result may not always be pretty, and sometimes boundaries that should not be crossed will be – or at least that is a risk. For example, contrary to the moral panic in mid-2008, Henson’s photography does not demean or blatantly sexualise its subjects, but what if it did? At some point, images with certain similarities could cross the line and become child pornography, even though that never actually happened in Henson’s case (and the images were ultimately given G-ratings, or in one case a PG rating).

The point is that there are some limits, even if broad ones, to what can be (acceptably) done even in the name of high art. There is an edginess about much serious art, and it is, indeed, understandable that it makes many people uncomfortable.

At the same time … within those broad limits, art plays a valuable role, and it is one that requires defence all the more because of the edginess aspect. Without that defence, it is very easy to imagine the boundaries closing and constricting, as populist political leaders like Kevin Rudd appeal to the wider community’s prejudice and ignorance.

And this is where Hourigan’s emphasis is all wrong. His ultimate point seems to be that the messages conveyed by transgressive art are banal, and that this makes it more difficult to defend art and the artistic community. He makes much of the claim that Henson’s message can be reduced to “puberty is a time of uncertainty, and that even though we might want to treat teenagers as children, their bodies are capable of carrying an adult sexual charge” OR even to something so simple as “puberty is difficult and thirteen-year-olds have a budding sexuality.”

Now, there is something right about this. Perhaps these are (the?) messages conveyed by Henson’s photographs, and the second formulation in particular sounds rather trite. But it won’t work to reduce any artistic production to a message that could equally be expressed as an abstract proposition. Imagine where most popular art and culture would stand if we did this – much of it could be reduced to simple propositions such as “hurting people is bad and romantic love is good”. Hey, by stating this proposition I have now saved you the trouble of reading numerous books and watching numerous TV shows and movies.

That is not how it art works, of course, though exactly how it does work is a complicated issue for critics, philosophers, and artists themselves in their introspective moments. It’s not that we can really expect modern art to embody more surprising, or arcane, social, moral, or philosophical insights. The power of any artwork is not going to depend on these but on its ability to move and provoke through mastery of technique. If we are moved by Henson’s work to think thoughts along the lines of, well, “puberty is a time of uncertainty, and … even though we might want to treat teenagers as children, their bodies are capable of carrying an adult sexual charge,” the experience cannot be substituted by my writing those words in a blog post.

The beauty of Henson’s work is that it provokes these thoughts, and doubtless others, perhaps many of them uncertain or mutually contradictory, through the power of its composition and other aesthetic qualities. The thoughts are not merely stated abstractly, perhaps in a dogmatic way, perhaps supported by arguments, but are brought home to us through surprise (but not surprise at an abstract proposition) and emotion, delivered by the artist’s mastery of his chosen medium.

Saying much more would lead us into controversial and intellectually murky areas of philosophical aesthetics, a subject on which I claim no specialist expertise. But it is obtuse and unworkable to demand of artists that they convey more profound and surprising messages. At the time of the Henson debacle, Hourigan found some useful and even incisive things to say, but his final admonition to artists misses the point.

Are Definitions of “Art” Stupid?

English: Jerry Holkins (Tycho of Penny Arcade)

Image via Wikipedia

Like most gamers, I am a regular reader of Penny Arcade. In his 12/12/2011 column, Jerry Holkins made some interesting comments about defining art. As a philosophy professor who teaches an aesthetic class every spring semester, I was pleased to see two of my interests merge (like a fireball merging into a pack of gnolls).

Holkins is not a man who minces words or treads lightly across the interwebs. He states quite directly that

I don’t think I’ve ever read a definition for art that wasn’t stupid.  Generally speaking, when a person constructs a thought-machine of this kind, what they’re actually trying to do is determine what isn’t art.  I have always been white trash, and will never cease to be so; what that means is that I was raised with an inherent distrust in the Hoity and a base and brutal urge to dismantle the Toity.  This is sometimes termed anti-intellectualism, usually by intellectuals, when what it is in truth is an opposition to intellect for intellect’s sake.  The reality is that what “is” and “isn’t art” is something we can determine with a slider in our prefrontal cortex..

Being, I suppose, in the intellectual class I naturally take some issue with his remarks.  However, being honest, I must also admit that there is truth in what he says. First, the issue taking.

Having taught aesthetics for quite some time I have read a multitude of attempts to define art. Some of them are, in fact, what could be called stupid. However, there are many that are serious attempts to engage a difficult problem in an intelligent manner. As such, I would not be inclined to call them “stupid” in the usual meaning of the term. For example, Mill might be wrong about art, but his attempt to address the matter hardly seem to be imbecilic. But, to be fair, perhaps Holkins has only read stupid definitions of “art” (perhaps including my own works on the subject). Now to the admittance of truth.

As noted above, I would not be inclined to call all philosophical attempts to define art as “stupid.” However, it seems evident that they have all been less than successful, at least to date. Otherwise, of course, we would already have our correct definition and a just and right sorting out the art from non-art could finally commence.

Holkins goes on to add that

If this thought-machine had any purpose other than to create a world with less art, I could cut it some slack.  But it doesn’t.  It’s entire purpose is to rarify art, controlling expression thereby.  The aperture must be cinched, and quickly, before someone creates a cultural product without elite imprimatur.  Its effete and its fucking disgusting.

Holkins is right that many attempts to define art aim at excluding things from the realm of art. Or, at the very least, as rejecting certain art as bad art. Tolstoy, to use an obvious example, was rather concerned with distinguishing between what he regarded as real art and what he took to be counterfeit art (in his sense of the term). Mill, however, seemed to be genuinely concerned with avoiding creating a merely academic definition of “art” in his discussion of the matter in the context of poetry. However, even he seemed rather judgmental in his categorizing of novels versus poetry. However, there does seem to be some value in determining what is and what is not art.

As with any difficult activity, it is quite reasonable to enquire why it is worthwhile to take the trouble to try to define “art” or even specific types of art. There are three general reasons to do so.

First, society and individuals expend money and other resources on art-so it is important to know whether the resources are being expended for real art or whether they are being wasted on pseudo-art.

To provide a concrete focus for this, I will play the devil’s advocate…or perhaps the philistine’s advocate and present some cases of dubious art.

When I was a graduate student atOhioStateUniversity, I encountered works that seemed to be more the work of clever scam artists than true artists. Once, when I was running, I encountered what appeared to be construction scaffolding. Since it was blocking my running route, I assumed that it had most likely been dragged there by drunken frat boys. I tried to kick the structure over, but it was fortunate it was well enough constructed to stand up to my half-hearted attempt. It turned out that Ohio State had paid to have these wooden structures erected around campus at the direction of an (alleged) artist. In a second encounter, I came across sheets of plywood that had been painted blue. Seeing that they were leaning against trees, I assumed someone had painted them and had set them up to dry-I had done the exact same thing myself when working a summer painting job. But, much to my surprise, it turned out that I had been in the presence of the work of an artist.

In my third encounter, Ohio State had paid another artist to design a pyramid made out of cinder blocks. Once completed by workers, the pyramid was painted white. The local skate punks found the structure ideal for doing skating tricks and one even claimed that he had made something like it back home, only much smaller. This caused him to wonder of he was an artist. After learning that he had not been paid to construct his pyramid, I assured him that he was, in fact, not an artist.

In my fourth encounter, I came across an illuminated fish tank filled with inflated condoms. I assumed this was a prank, but once again I was informed that I had been blessed with an artistic experience.

In my fifth encounter I went to a show on art relating to AIDS. Though AIDS is serious, the art presented seemed much less so. One example I vividly recall is a scene consisting of large sheets of packing Styrofoam “inhabited” by store bought stuffed seal toys. I considered rescuing, in a Green Peace fashion, the seals from their Styrofoam prison but thought that might be inappropriate.

In addition to showing that I am most likely a philistine with no true appreciation of modern art, these cases illustrate the importance of defining art. If my assessment, namely that none of these things counted as art, was correct, then Ohio State had most likely wasted money that could have been used to acquire real art or perhaps to pay graduate students a bit more for their indentured servitude. If my assessment was mistaken, then perhaps it had been money well spent.

Without an adequate definition of art, there would be no rational way to settle this dispute and the alleged artists would not be able to justify their claim to the money. After all, if one expects money for a product or service, it is up to that person to prove that the goods are as claimed. Since this is accepted practice in other sales, there seems no principled reason to grant a special exemption to artists.

In light of the above discussion, it would seem that the use of a definition of art would be rather useful to both sides. For the purchaser of art, it can assist in avoiding being ripped off by pseudo-art. For the artist it can provide grounds for proving the worth of her goods.  Without such a basis for rational discussion, there would not be a principle way to settle such matters.

Second, classifying something as art and the creator as an artist gives them both a certain status. Art is typically regarded as having a status that is different from that of non-art and this status often affords art special protection and treatment. Further, artists are often regarded as having a special status that entitles them to special rights or privileges, such as the right to control their work after they have sold it and the view that they should be treated as a cut above the herd. Without an adequate definition of art or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, it would be rather difficult to rationally discuss the matter of the status of an alleged work of art or that of its creator. For example, without a principled way to distinguish art from non art, the claim that an artist has a special right to control her work after it has been sold would be baseless. After all, how would one know whether she was an artist or a mere pretender? How would one know whether her alleged art was art, or merely another commercial product subject to the same consumer whims as a hamburger or a pair of jeans?

Such classifications also have extensive social and political implications, especially in cases involving specific cultures, ethnic groups or genders. For example, to regard the alleged art of a culture as not really being art is to dismiss that aspect of the culture. While it should not be assumed that all such cultural manifestations are art, it would be a mere prejudice to deny such potential art a fair hearing. Without an adequate definition of art, disputes over the true status of the works of a culture, gender or ethnic group become mere expressions of empty opinions. After all, without a basis for settling the disagreement, any position is as well founded as the other-that is to say, not at all. If one person claims that, for example, rap is mere noise and not art, then she is no more wrong or right than a person who asserts that classical music is not art and is also mere noise.

Third, and finally, artists and critics need to know the difference in order to create and judge art-otherwise they would not know what they are doing.

If a person claims to be a critic or an artist then it seems reasonable to expect her to be able to justify her judgments about art. If she can justify them, then she must have standards that she is appealing to-in other words, she must have a definition of art. If she lacks such standards, then her judgments must be unfounded. In this case, there seems to be little reason to listen to her. She might be right, in virtue of some gut feeling or emotional reaction, but she would not be able to provide any reason as to why someone else should believe her. Thus, it would seem that an account of art would be  useful to both the artist and the art critic.

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DIY Art

Icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x.

Image via Wikipedia

Having recently written a post on artists selling their ideas of art, I have been thinking about the matter of what I call DIY art. Or perhaps it should be called “kit art” or “some assembly (and parts) required art.”

Traditionally, when someone buys art they are usually buying a finished product such as a painting, sculpture or play. There are, of course, exceptions such as when people buy works that were left unfinished by the death of the artist. However, the usual intent is to buy a completed work.

However, as I noted in an earlier post, there are artists who sell works that are incomplete. In some cases, the “work” is merely a short description such as DeWitt’s “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides.” The person who purchases such a work has to provide both the materials and the labor in order to have the work instantiated. Interestingly, these works do not come cheap-there seems to be no “discount” of the sort one expects to get when buying a set of plans for something as opposed to the completed object.

There are arguments in favor of taking such directions as being art. First, they could be seen as being on par with other DIY art such as paint by number or art kits for various items. True, the paint by numbers sets and art kits provide materials as well as the directions, but this could be regarded as a modest difference. After all, if something can be sold as art that requires the purchaser to add labor, it would also seem that requiring the purchaser to also  provide the material would not change matters much.

One obvious reply is that it could be argued that when one buys a paint by number set or an art kit, one is not buying art. To use an analogy, if you buy eggs, flour, milk and a recipe for a cake, you are not buying a cake. Rather, you are buying what you will need to make a cake. Likewise for the art-buying the idea is no more buying the art than buying a cookbook is buying meals.

Second, it could be argued that what makes a work a work of art is not the matter that composes it nor the labor that constructed it. Rather, it is the idea or concept behind the art. To use the obvious analogy to Plato’s forms, the true art lives in the realm of ideas and not in the instantiation of the idea. As such, it does not matter which hands complete the work, it is the mind that conceived it that is the artist.

One obvious reply is that while this does have some appeal, the creation of art seems to require more than merely thinking of a brief idea. In some cases, the substantial idea can be considered art-such as the writing of a song or conceiving a poem. However, merely coming up with a description or short directions such as the example above, hardly seems to count. To use a rather obvious example,  if I say “a story in which suspense builds until the twist ending blows the audiences’ mind” I have not thereby created a novel: I actually have to do the work for it to be a work of art. If I merely provide a title, such as “Brittle Soul”, I also do not create art.  Likewise, merely providing a short description of how to make a work of art would not itself be art, but merely a possible recipe (or even just a potential title) for art.

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Buying the Concept of Art

Pablo Picasso 1962

Image via Wikipedia

Since I have taught Aesthetics since 1994, little that occurs in the strange world of art surprises me. One of the more recent trends is the selling of the ideas of artists, as opposed to the selling of an actual work of art. For example, Lawrence Weiner put a $160,000 price tag on his idea  of “2 Metal Balls + 2 Metal Rings (Set Down in the Groove).” For the $160,000 you do not get any balls, rings or a groove. Rather, you would receive a certificate that permits you to write the phrase in a room or create/commission the sculpture that you think it happens to describe.

Works, if that term can be used, were also sold by Sol LeWitt before his death. While he did create art objects, he also created “works” that were just vague instructions for creating a piece. For example, “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides.”

Tino Sehgal tops both DeWitt and Weiner. Sehgal does not even offer a certificate or set of instructions, he apparently just makes odd things occur and permits no recording of the event. These “works” are sold for cash in front of witnesses, but no documentation is provided. One of his “works”, which was purchased for around $100,000 is the concept of a museum security guard slowly undressing. Naturally, the money does not buy an actual security guard or an undressing, merely the concept as put forth by Sehgal.

On the face of it, this sort of art seems to be either an amazing scam or a profound, but sincere, delusion (or perhaps something else). First, the “art” described does not seem to amount to anything that would seem to actually be worthy of being regarded as art. At the very least, it surely cannot be regarded as meaningful or significant. As proof,  I can easily create something on par with Weiner’s “art”, such as “three wooden cubes and six ceramic hoops, placed within a depression.” For those who think what Weiner does is art, they can prove it by offering to buy my work, bargain priced at $1,600. In the case of Sehgal, there seems to be nothing artistic about a museum guard undressing. After all, they presumably do that at the end of the day anyway and, of course, strippers have been doing that sort of “art” for quite some time (and for far less money). Second, even if these things are art, the prices seem clearly absurd for what the purchaser acquires. The concept of a museum guard stripping down hardly seems worth $100,000. For those who think so, I would gladly sell the concept of a philosopher stripping down for $1,000. I’ll even top Sehgal by providing a certificate of authenticity.

That said, an argument can be made that this sort of art is, in fact art.

Imagine, if you will, that you have found a Picasso in your attic. You make arrangements to auction it and then get a thrill as the bids escalate ever upwards. But, then the dream is shattered. The multi-million dollar painting turns out to have been done by your uncle rather than Picasso. True, it is brilliantly done and, the experts agreed (before finding it to be a fake) that it was better than all of Picasso’s other works. But, since it was done by Uncle Ted and not Picasso, it is only worth $10.

But, in a strange turn of events, you find what seems to be a duplicate of the painting in your attic and the experts confirm that this was painted by Picasso, who happened to have copied Uncle Ted’s painting for fun. This painting sells for millions, since it is deemed a genuine Picasso. As a small joke, you donate Uncle Ted’s painting to the museum that buys Picasso’s painting and ask them to display them side by side. When no one is watching, you switch the labels and are amused to see how people react.

If this intuition play has merit, what makes the difference between the two works is nothing about the works, but rather about who created the work. That is, the Picasso painting is great and valuable because it was by Picasso while the other painting is lacking in value because it was done by Uncle Ted. As such, what is being sold is not so much a work of art but the artist who created the work. If this is true, then the artists who sell their concepts are being treated essentially the same way that other artists are being treated: what matters is not what is being sold, but who created it. The work itself, one might claim, is not particularly relevant.

Another argument that can be used is based on analogy to the sale of other ideas, such as patents. When a company or person buys a patent, they are not buying a specific widget, gizmo or even a specific piece of paper. Rather, what is is being bought is the concept that has been patented. Such concepts can be very valuable indeed. Likewise, when someone buys the concept of an artist, they are doing the same sort of thing. Of course, patents generally tend to provide something useful that required some actual thought and effort to create and the value of a patent generally depends on what can be done with it, as opposed to what name merely happens to be associated with it.

Overall, I regard the sale of these “art” concepts as either a brilliant scam or a sincere delusion (possibly both). But, perhaps I would change my mind if someone bought my great work, “Philosopher Undressing.”

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Huck Finn

The classic book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is no stranger to controversy. The latest incident involves an edition that replaces the “n-word” with “slave”, presumably to sanitize the book.

While it might seem intuitively wrong to make such a change, there are some reasons that can be used to justify this change.

First, the n-word is regarded by many as offensive to a degree that warrants its removal from art. Of course, it might be argued that the n-word is still dropped with great regularity. However, it could be replied that since Twain was a white man, he should not have used this word (or should not use it were he writing today) and hence the search and replace is correct. It could also be argued that no one should use the word and hence it is acceptable to remove it from works, regardless of the skin color of  the person using it.

Second, this book is one of the most banned books in America, presumably because of the n-word. The book is, however, an important work of literature. By replacing the offending word, this sanitized version of the book should be somewhat more appealing to squeamish school boards. As such, this could provide a compromise situation. Students would be able to read a book very much like the one Twain wrote. Those concerned with protecting the youth from the word could be satisfied with this alteration.

However, there are some very good reasons as to why the book should not be changed.

First, there is the obvious matter of freedom of expression. Changing the word is, in effect, a form of censorship. If artists have a right to this freedom of expression, then this sort of censorship would seem to be unacceptable.

Naturally, it can be argued that the right of the artist is outweighed by the offensive nature of the word. There are, of course, always good reasons to restrict freedom of expression so as to protect people from harm (the yelling of “fire” being the stock example). The question is, of course, whether the alleged harms of leaving the word  in the book exceed the right of the artist (even though he is dead).

It could be pointed out that the modified edition is but one edition, thus allowing readers to chose which version they read. As such, the artist’s freedom of expression remains intact and the freedom of choice for the readers is expanded. This seems to be a point worth considering.

Second, there is the concern that such a change violates the artistic integrity of the work. It could be seen as being on par with someone putting shorts on David because the nakedness of the statue offends him.  The word that is being replaced could be regarded as a integral part of the work and the change could thus be seen as damaging the artistic integrity of the book.

Tied into this is also the matter of historical integrity. Modifying past works, be they artistic or otherwise, because people find some of the content offensive, seems to be rather problematic. One of the main problems is that this sort of approach seems to embrace what might be regarded as a type of dishonesty-a willingness to change things so as to avoid what offends.

Third, the publishers of the modified version are, of course, selling the book as being by Mark Twain. However, this modification means that the product is not truly just Twain’s work anymore. As such, it would be incorrect to present it as being the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Rather, it should be the Modified Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, based on the Original Version by Mark Twain.

This does seem to be a reasonable matter of concern.

Overall, it seems that the work should not be altered in this manner.