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Art & Assault II: Feeling & Aesthetic Value

One interesting issue in aesthetics is whether the ethics of the artist should be considered relevant to the aesthetic value of their work. Obviously enough, what people think about an artist can influence what they feel about a work. But how people assess works and how they should assess works are two different matters.

One way to approach the matter is to look at art works as analogous to any other work, such as a student’s paper in a philosophy class or the construction of a storage shed. In the case of a student’s paper, a professor can obviously be influenced by how they feel about the student. For example, if a professor learned that a student had groped another student, then the professor is likely to dislike the student. But if the professor decided to assign a failing grade to the groper’s paper, then this would be unfair and unjust—the quality of the paper has nothing to do with the behavior of the student. After all, the assessment of an argumentative paper in philosophy is supposed to be based on an objective assessment of the quality of the arguments and not on what the professor feels about the author.

By analogy, the same should apply to works of art: the quality and merit of the work should be assessed independently of how one feels about the artist and their misdeeds. In the case of the technical aspects of the work, this seems to be obviously true. For example, the misdeeds of an artist have no bearing on whether they get perspectives right or hit the correct notes in a song. These are objective matters and are clearly analogous to the use of logic in an argumentative paper. Another analogy, that will lead to an objection, is to a pro-athlete.

In sports like running and football, an athlete’s performance is an objective matter and how the spectators feel about the athlete has no legitimate role in judging that performance. For example, how the spectators feel about a marathon runner has no impact on how their time should be judged—it is what it is regardless of how they feel about the runner. By analogy, the same should apply to works of art—a work is what it is regardless of how people feel about the artist. The analogy to athletes, as noted above, opens a path to an objection.

While the quality of an athlete’s performance is an objective matter (in certain sports), pro-athletes are often also entertainers. For example, a professional basketball player is there to play basketball to entertain the crowd. Part of the enjoyment of the crowd depends on the quality of the athlete’s performance, but what an audience member thinks about the athlete also impacts their enjoyment. For example, if the audience member knows that the athlete has a habit of hitting his girlfriends and they do not like domestic abuse, then the fan’s experience of the game will be altered. The experience of the game is not just an assessment of the quality of the athletic performance, but also a consideration of the character of the athletes.

By analogy, the same would apply to an artist. So, for example, while Kevin Spacey might be a skilled actor, the allegations against him impacts the viewer and thus changes the aesthetic experience. Watching The Usual Suspects knowing about the allegations is a different experience than watching it in ignorance.

The easy and obvious reply is that while people do often feel this way, they are in error—they should, as argued above, be assessing the athlete based on their performance in the game. What they do off the field or court is irrelevant to what they do on the court. In the case of the art, the behavior of the artist should be irrelevant to the aesthetic merit of the work. For example, The Usual Suspects should not be considered differently in the face of the allegations against Spacey. Once again, people will feel as they do, but to let their feelings impact the assessment of the work would be an error.

This is not to say that people should feel the same about works in the face of revelations about artists or that they should still consume their art. The right to freedom of feeling is as legitimate as the right to the broader freedom of expression and, of course, people are free to consume art as they wish. They are also free to say how a performance (be it athletic, academic or artistic) makes them feel—but this is a report about them and not about the work. Naturally, there are aesthetic theories in which the states of the consumer of art matter and these are certainly worthy of their due—but this goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.

Another way to approach the matter is to consider a case in which nothing is known about the creator of a work of art. To use some obvious examples, a work might be found in an ancient tomb or an anonymous poem might appear on the web. These works can, obviously enough, be assessed without knowing anything about their creators and this suggests that the moral qualities of the artist are irrelevant to the quality of the work.

Suppose that the anonymous poem was regarded as brilliant and beautiful, but then it was established that it was written by a terrible person, such as Hitler or Stalin. Nothing about the poem has changed, so the assessment of the poem should not change either. But, of course, many people would change their minds about the poem based on the revelation. Now imagine that it turns out that the attribution of the poem was in error, it was really written by a decent and kind person. Nothing about the poem has changed, so the assessment should remain unchanged. The point is that tying aesthetic assessment to the character of the artist entails that judging the aesthetic merit of a work would require knowing the moral status of the creator, which seems absurd. Going back to the sports analogy, it would be like having to determine if a runner was a good or bad person before deciding whether a 14 minute 5K was a good time or not. That is, obviously enough, absurd. Likewise for the art. As such, the moral qualities of the artist are irrelevant to the aesthetic merit of their work.




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Art & Assault I: Money


2017 saw many once powerful men brought down by accusations of sexual harassment or assault. Among these men are Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was fired from his company and Netflix has announced that it will not continue the wildly successful Netflix series House of Cards with Spacey. While the misdeeds of these men raise many issues relevant to philosophy, one interesting subject is the impact of the misdeeds of those involved in the arts on their works. This is, of course, an old topic—philosophers have been discussing the relevance of the ethics of the artist to the aesthetics of their works. However, it is still worth discussing and is obviously relevant today. I will begin by getting some easy matters out of the way.

One area of concern that is more a matter of psychology than philosophy is the impact of the artist’s behavior on the audience. To be specific, the experience of the consumer of the art can be affected by what they believe about the ethics of the artist. It is certainly possible that an audience member will find that their aesthetic experience is diminished or even destroyed by what they believe about the artist. For example, someone watching a Kevin Spacey movie or show might find that they can only think of the allegations against Spacey and thus cannot enjoy the work. It is equally possible that the audience member will be unaffected by what they think of the ethics of the artist. For example, someone who enjoys The Usual Suspects might find their enjoyment undiminished by the allegations against Spacey.

While considerations of how people might react are relevant to discussing the aesthetic issues, they do not settle these issues. For example, how people might react to an artist’s misdeeds does not settle whether the ethics of an artist is relevant to the aesthetic merit of their work. To use an analogy, how fans feel about a professional athlete’s moral misdeeds does not settle the issue about whether they are a skilled player or not.

Another area of concern is the ethics of supporting an artist who has engaged in moral misdeeds. This is, of course, part of the broader issue of whether one should support any worker whose has engaged in moral misdeeds. As such, it is a moral issue rather than a specifically aesthetic issue. However, it is worth addressing.

While a customer has every right to patronize as they wish, what is under consideration is whether one should support an artist one regards as a bad person. On the one hand, a moral case can be made that by supporting such an artist by buying their work, purchasing tickets to their movies or subscribing to a service that streams their shows one is supporting their misdeeds. Naturally, as the degree of financial support diminishes, so too does the support of their misdeeds. To illustrate, if I think a painter is evil, but pay them $10,000 for a painting then I am obviously providing more support than a situation in which I think Kevin Spacey is evil, yet keep paying my subscription to Netflix.

It is also worth considering that unless the artist is operating alone (such as a lone painter) the decision to not support their art does not just impact the artist. So, for example, if someone decides to not buy any Kevin Spacey movies because of what Spacey is accused of doing, they might cost Spacey some microscopic bit of revenue, but they are also punishing everyone else who might get money from the sale of those movies, such as everyone else involved in making the movie as well as the retailer selling it. While people have every right to make their purchasing decisions on what they regard as ethical grounds, it is also important to consider that the target of their ire might not be the only one impacted.

On the other hand, it can be argued that supporting an artist one regards as morally bad is not supporting their misdeeds. After all, one is paying for the art (or experience of the art) and not paying them to commit misdeeds. The purchasing of the art is not an endorsement of the misdeeds but a financial transaction and what matters are the aspects that are relevant to the transaction. To use an analogy, one does not need to inquire whether a mechanic has engaged in misdeeds that have nothing to do with their job before deciding to use their services or not. One also does not feel obligated to investigate what the mechanic might use the money for. What matters is the quality and cost of the work. Naturally, a person might prefer a nice person as a mechanic or be upset if the mechanic used the money to pay prostitutes, but that is a matter of preference.

It can be argued that patronizing a bad person who is an artist does support their misdeeds. After all, it is the wealth and power of people like Spacey and Weinstein that enabled them to get away with their misdeeds for so long. On this view, once a person knows about the misdeeds they would be morally accountable for continuing to provide support for the artist. Naturally, they can plead ignorance regarding past support. This is analogous to patronizing a company that is accused of doing terrible things—on the one hand, one can claim to be just buying their product or service without endorsing their misdeeds. On the other hand, without customers they would be far less able to do their misdeeds.


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On Being a Graphite Technician

One of Hitch 2015my core aesthetic principles is that if I can do something, then it is not art. While this is (mostly) intended to be humorous, it is well founded—I have no artistic talent. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I have successfully taught aesthetics for over two decades.

In the course of teaching this class, I became rather interested in two questions. The first was whether or not a person without any artistic talent could master the technical aspects of an art. The second was whether or not a person without any artistic talent could develop whatever it is that is needed to create what is often referred to as a work of genius. Or, at a much lower level, a work of true art.

While the usually philosophical approach would be to speculate about the matter over boxes of wine, I decided to engage in some blasphemy and undertook an empirical investigation. To be specific, I decided that I would see if I could teach myself to draw. I would then see if I could teach myself to create art. I began this experiment in the August of 2012 and employed the powers of obsession that have served me so well in running. It turns out they also work for drawing—I have never missed a day of drawing, even when I had to scratch out sketches on scraps using a broken pencil. Yes, I am like that.

While this experiment has just one subject (me), I have shown that it is possible for a person with no artistic talent to develop the technical skills of drawing. To be specific, I have trained myself to become what I like to call a graphite technician. At this point, my skill is such that people say “I like your drawings because I can tell who they are of.” That is, I have enough skill to create recognizable imitations. I refuse to accept any claims that I am an artist, on the basis of the principle mentioned above. Fortunately, I also have an argument to back up this claim.

When I started my experiment, I demonstrated my lack of drawing ability to my students and asked them why my bad drawing of a capybara is not art. They pointed out the obvious—it did not look much like a capybara because it was so badly drawn. When asked if it would be art if I could draw better, they generally agreed. I then asked about just photocopying (or scanning and printing) the picture I used as the basis for my capybara drawing. They pointed out the obvious—that would not be art, just a copy.

Part of the reason the photocopy or scan would not be art is that it is just a mechanical reproduction. When I draw a person well enough for others to recognize the subject, I am exhibiting technical skill—I can re-create the appearance of a person on paper using a pencil.  However, it is clear that technical skill alone does not make the results art. After all, this technical skill can be exceeded by a cheap camera, a photocopier or a computer connected to a scanner and printer. Just as being able to scan and print a photo of a person does not make a person an artist, being able to create a reasonable facsimile of a person using a pencil and paper does not make a person an artist—just a graphite technician.

Why this is so can be shown by considering 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. So, as I get better at creating drawings that look like what I am drawing, I get closer to being a human photocopier. I do not get closer to being an artist.

This sort of argument would seem to suggest that photography cannot be art—after all, the photographer is just a camera technician. An unaltered photograph merely captures an image of what is there. One counter to this is that a photographer (as opposed to a camera technician) adds something to the photograph (I do not mean digital or other manipulation). This seems to be her perspective—she selects what she will capture. So, 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. This something extra is what makes the photograph art and distinguishes it from mere picture taking. Or so photographers tell me.

It could be countered that what I am doing is art. Going back to the time of the ancient Greeks, art was taken to be a matter of imitation and, in general, the better the imitation, the better the art. Of course, Plato was rather critical of art on this ground—he regarded it as a corrupting imitation of an imitation.

Jumping ahead to the modern era, thinkers like d’Alembert still regarded fine art as an imitation, typically an imitation of nature aimed at producing pleasure. However, his theory of art does leave a possible opening for a graphite technician like myself to claim the beret of the artist. d’Alembert defined “art” as “any system of knowledge reducible to positive and invariable rules independent of caprice or opinion.”  What I have done, like many before me, is learned the rules of drawing—geometry, shading, perspective and so on. As such, I can (by his definition) be said to be an artist.

Fortunately for my claim that I am not an artist, d’Alembert distinguishes between the fine arts and the mechanical arts. The mechanical arts involve rules that can be reduced to “purely mechanical operations.” In contrast, d’Alembert notes that while the “useful liberal arts have fixed rules any can transmit, but the laws of Fine Arts are almost exclusively from genius.”  What I am doing, as a graphite technician, is following rules. And, as d’Alembert claimed, “rules concerning arts are only the mechanical part…”

What I am missing, at least on d’Alembert’s theory, is genius. On my own view, I am missing the mysterious something extra. While I do not have a developed theory of “the extra”, I have a vague idea about what it is in the case of drawing. As I developed my technical skills, I got better at imitating what I saw and could cause people to recognize what I was imitating. However, an artist who draws goes beyond showing people what they can already see in the original. The artist can see in the original what others cannot and then enable them to see it in her drawing. All I can do is create drawings where people can see what they can already see. Hence, I am a graphite technician and not an artist. I do not claim this to be a proper theory of art—but it points vaguely in the direction of such a theory.

That said, the experiment is continuing. I intend to see if it is possible to learn how to add that something extra or if, as some claim, it is simply something a person has or does not have.


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Monkey Selfies & Animal Artists

While in Indonesia in 2011, photographer David Slater’s camera was grabbed by a macaque. While monkey shines are nothing new, this monkey took hundreds of shots including some selfies that went viral on the internet. As many things often do, this incident resulted in a legal controversy over the copyright status of the photos. The United States copyright office recently ruled that “Works produced by nature, animals or plants” or “purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings” cannot be copyrighted. While this addresses the legal issue, it does not address the philosophical issue raised by this incident.

From a philosophical perspective, the general issue is whether a non-human animal has moral ownership rights over its artistic works. This breaks down into the two obvious sub-issues. The first is whether or not a non-human animal has a moral status that can ground ownership rights. The second is whether or not a non-human has the capability to create a work of art. These issues have often been the subject of philosophical discussion, but it is certainly worth considering them again.

One approach to the issue of ownership rights is to note that non-human entities are taken to possess ownership rights. To be specific, corporations are taken as having ownership rights—they can and do own copyrights. If a legal fiction like a corporation can be taken to have ownership rights, there seems to be no principled way to deny the same rights to animals. After all, animals have a significantly better claim to rights since they are actual entities with qualities analogous to human persons.

The easy and obvious reply to this approach is that corporations are legal fictions (and legally fictional persons in the United States) and, as such, this does not help with the philosophical issue of whether or not animals can have ownership rights. Legally, the matter is simple: just like corporations, animals have whatever legal rights the law provides. So, if the Supreme Court ruled that animals are people and can own property, then that would be the law—but the philosophical issue would remain unresolved. That said, if corporations should be regarded as having ownership rights (and as people), then it hardly seems unreasonable to accept that animals also have ownership rights (and as being people).

In order to determined whether animals have ownership rights or not, it would be necessary to determine the foundation of these rights. Locke famously bases property rights on the claim that each person owns her own body (well, God does…but He is cool about it) and hence each person owns her own labor. This labor is mixed with common property and thus makes what it is mixed with the property of the laborer. If animals have this sort of self-ownership, then they would have the same ownership rights as humans—whatever an animal mixed her labor with would be hers. The stock counter for this is that animals are not owners—they are objects to be owned. It is worth noting that people have long said the same thing about other people.

Higher animals like dogs and primates also seem to grasp the basics of ownership: they distinguish between what is their property and what is not. To use a concrete example, my husky clearly grasps the distinction between her toys and similar objects that belong to others. As such, there seems to be some basis to the claim that animals regard themselves as possessing ownership rights.

The obvious objection is that animals have, at best, an extremely limited understanding of property and this could simply be attributed to possessiveness or territoriality. The obvious reply to this is that ownership does not seem to require an understanding of property rights—corporations (which have no minds and hence have no understanding) and humans who are dumb as posts are still regarded as having ownership rights.

While the debate over ownership could go on endlessly, animals seem to have as good a claim to ownership rights as humans do, at least in terms of the foundation of such an alleged right. Roughly put, if humans have ownership rights, then animals would seem to qualify as well. Thus, it would seem that animals do have ownership rights.

The next issue is whether or not an animal can create an artistic work. Addressing this properly would require an adequate definition of “art” that would enable one to distinguish between art and non-art. While there have been many attempts to provide just such a definition, they have all proven to be inadequate. Since such a fine definition is lacking, a rough and ready approach must suffice.

In this case, the rough and ready approach is to begin by considering cases in which it is intuitively appealing to accept that a human is creating a work of art. The next step is to use an argument by analogy to determine whether or not an animal could do the same sort of thing.

One clear case is that of painting: a human intentionally applies paints to a surface based on the contents of her intentional states and this image is typically a resemblance to something internal (a feeling or thought) or external (a person, landscape, etc.). While animals do apply paint to surfaces, their lack of language makes it rather difficult to determine what they are doing. If, for example, elephants painted pictures recognizable as elephants, flowers or whatever, them there would be very strong grounds for thinking they are creating art. But, to be fair to the animals, there are humans who create paintings that look exactly like those created by elephants. The main difference is that the humans claim to be artists while the elephants say nothing. But, if the matter is judged entirely by the work produced, if those humans are artists, then so are the elephants.

Another case is that of photography and it seems reasonable to accept that a photo can be a work of art and a photographer an artist. The challenge is, obviously enough, distinguishing between the taking of photos and being an artist. To clarify, photos can be taken by automatic timers, motion sensors, tripwires or by accident but these would not be cases involving an artist. To use an analogy, if the shelves in a shed fail and the paint spills to create a work identical to that of Jackson Pollock of Van Gogh, that would not make the shed’s owner an artist. If the paint where spilled by a trip-wire trap, this would not make the victim an artist. So, being an artist in photography thus requires intent and control rather than automation or chance. At the very least, the photographer must know what she is doing and act with intent.

In the case of the monkey taking pictures, the key question is whether or not the monkey understood what it was doing and acted with intent. If the monkey was just playing with the camera and it just happened to take a few shots that looked good, the monkey is no more an artist than an automatic timer, motion sensor or defective shutter control that made the camera constantly shoot.

It might be objected that some of the shots were quite good aesthetically and judging by the work itself, the monkey had produced art. This does have some appeal—after all, whether the work is art or not should (it can be argued) rest in the work itself rather than the process of creation. But, even if this is granted, it does not follow that the monkey is the artist. After all, an automated camera shooting constantly would almost certainly produce artistic photos eventually—but the automating machinery or software would not thus be an artist. Thus, there could be art but no artist. In the case of the monkey, this seems to be the most plausible explanation—the money was probably just pushing the button and by chance some good images occurred. As such, the monkey was not an artist.


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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.

My Amazon author page.

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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.