A Philosopher's Blog

Age of Awkwardness

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2015

Some ages get cool names, such as the Iron Age or the Gilded Age. Others are dubbed with word mantles less awesome. An excellent example of the latter is the designation of our time as the Awkward Age. Since philosophers are often willing to cash in on trends, it is not surprising that there is now a philosophy of awkwardness.

Various arguments have been advanced in support of the claim that this is the Awkward Age. Not surprisingly, a key argument is built on the existence of so many TV shows and movies that center on awkwardness. There is a certain appeal to this sort of argument and the idea that art expresses the temper, spirit, and social conditions of its age is an old one. I recall, from an art history class I took as an undergraduate, this standard approach to art. For example, the massive works of the ancient Egyptians is supposed to reveal their views of the afterlife as the harmony of the Greek works is supposed to reveal the soul of ancient Greece.

Wilde, in his dialogue “The New Aesthetics” considers this very point. Wilde takes the view that “Art never expresses anything but itself.” Naturally enough, Wilde provides an account of why people think art is about the ages. His explanation is best put by Carly Simon: “You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you.” Less lyrically, the idea is that vanity causes people to think that the art of their time is about them. Since the people of today were not around in the way back times of old, they cannot say that past art was about them—so they assert that the art of the past was about the people of the past. This does have the virtue of consistency.

While Wilde does not offer a decisive argument in favor of his view, it does have a certain appeal. It also is worth considering that it is problematic to draw an inference about the character of an age from what TV shows or movies happen to be in vogue with a certain circle (there are, after all, many shows and movies that are not focused on awkwardness). While it is reasonable to draw some conclusions about that specific circle, leaping beyond to the general population and the entire age would be quite a leap—after all, there are many non-awkward shows and movies that could be presented as contenders to defining the age. It seems sensible to conclude that it is vanity on the part of the members of such a circle to regard what they like as defining the age. It could also be seen as a hasty generalization—people infer that what they regard as defining must also apply to the general population.

A second, somewhat stronger, sort of argument for this being the Awkward Age is based on claims about extensive social changes. To use an oversimplified example, consider the case of gender in the United States. The old social norms had two fairly clearly defined genders and sets of rules regarding interaction. Such rules included those that made it clear that the man asked the woman out on the date and that the man paid for everything. Now, or so the argument goes, the norms are in disarray or have been dissolved. Sticking with gender, Facebook now recognizes over 50 genders which rather complicates matters relative to the “standard” two of the past. Going with the dating rules once again, it is no longer clear who is supposed to do the asking and the paying.

In terms of how this connects to awkwardness, the idea is that when people do not have established social norms and rules to follow, ignorance and error can easily lead to awkward moments. For example, there could be an awkward moment on a date when the check arrives as the two people try to sort out who pays: Dick might be worried that he will offend Jane if he pays and Jane might be expecting Dick to pick up the tab—or she might think that each should pay their own tab.

To use an analogy, consider playing a new and challenging video game. When a person first plays, she will be trying to figure out how the game works and this will typically involve numerous failures. By analogy, when society changes, it is like being in a new game—one does not know the rules. Just as a person can look for guides to a new game online (like YouTube videos on how to beat tough battles), people can try to turn to guides to behavior. However, new social conditions mean that such guides are not yet available or, if they are, they might be unclear or conflict with each other. For example, a person who is new to contemporary dating might try to muddle through on her own or try to do some research—most likely finding contradictory guides to correct dating behavior.

Eventually, of course, the norms and rules will be worked out—as has happened in the past. This indicates a point well worth considering—today is obviously not the first time that society has undergone considerable change, thus creating opportunities for awkwardness. As Wilde noted, our vanity contributes to the erroneous belief that we are special in this regard. That said, it could be contended that people today are reacting to social change in a way that is different and awkward. That is, this is truly the Age of Awkwardness. My own view is that this is one of many times of awkwardness—what has changed is the ability and willingness to broadcast awkward events. Plus, of course, Judd Apatow.

 

 

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On Being a Graphite Technician

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2015

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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Introduction to Philosophy

Posted in Aesthetics, Epistemology, Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2015

The following provides a (mostly) complete Introduction to Philosophy course.

Readings & Notes (PDF)

Class Videos (YouTube)

Part I Introduction

Class #1

Class #2: This is the unedited video for the 5/12/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the last branches of philosophy, two common misconceptions about philosophy, and argument basics.

Class #3: This is the unedited video for class three (5/13/2015) of Introduction to Philosophy. It covers analogical argument, argument by example, argument from authority and some historical background for Western philosophy.

Class #4: This is the unedited video for the 5/14/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the background for Socrates, covers the start of the Apology and includes most of the information about the paper.

Class#5: This is the unedited video of the 5/18/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the details of the paper, covers the end of the Apology and begins part II (Philosophy & Religion).

Part II Philosophy & Religion

Class #6: This is the unedited video for the 5/19/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the introduction to Part II (Philosophy & Religion), covers St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and some of the background for St. Thomas Aquinas.

Class #7: This is the unedited video from the 5/20/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Class #8: This is the unedited video for the eighth Introduction to Philosophy class (5/21/2015). It covers the end of Aquinas, Leibniz’ proofs for God’s existence and his replies to the problem of evil, and the introduction to David Hume.

Class #9: This is the unedited video from the ninth Introduction to Philosophy class on 5/26/2015. This class continues the discussion of David Hume’s philosophy of religion, including his work on the problem of evil. The class also covers the first 2/3 of his discussion of the immortality of the soul.

Class #10: This is the unedited video for the 5/27/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes Hume’s discussion of immortality, covers Kant’s critiques of the three arguments for God’s existence, explores Pascal’s Wager and starts Part III (Epistemology & Metaphysics). Best of all, I am wearing a purple shirt.

Part III Epistemology & Metaphysics

Class #11: This is the 11th Introduction to Philosophy class (5/28/2015). The course covers Plato’s theory of knowledge, his metaphysics, the Line and the Allegory of the Cave.

Class #12: This is the unedited video for the 12th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/1/2015). This class covers skepticism and the introduction to Descartes.

Class #13: This is the unedited video for the 13th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/2/2015). The class covers Descartes 1st Meditation, Foundationalism and Coherentism as well as the start to the Metaphysics section.

Class #14: This is the unedited video for the fourteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/3/2015). It covers the methodology of metaphysics and roughly the first half of Locke’s theory of personal identity.

Class #15: This is the unedited video of the fifteen Introduction to Philosophy class (6/4/2015). The class covers the 2nd half of Locke’s theory of personal identity, Hume’s theory of personal identity, Buddha’s no self doctrine and “Ghosts & Minds.”

Class #16: This is the unedited video for the 16th Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the problem of universals,  the metaphysics of time travel in “Meeting Yourself” and the start of the metaphysics of Taoism.

Part IV Value

Class #17: This is the unedited video for the seventeenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/9/2015). It begins part IV and covers the introduction to ethics and the start of utilitarianism.

Class #18: This is the unedited video for the eighteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/10/2015). It covers utilitarianism and some standard problems with the theory.

Class #19: This is the unedited video for the 19th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/11/2015). It covers Kant’s categorical imperative.

Class #20: This is the unedited video for the twentieth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/15/2015). This class covers the introduction to aesthetics and Wilde’s “The New Aesthetics.” The class also includes the start of political and social philosophy, with the introduction to liberty and fascism.

Class #21: No video.

Class #22: This is the unedited video for the 22nd Introduction to Philosophy class (6/17/2015). It covers Emma Goldman’s anarchism.

 

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Huck Finn

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on January 8, 2011

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.

 

The Supreme Court

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 11, 2010
WASHINGTON - MAY 20:  U.S. Solicitor General E...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Obama has announced his pick to fill in the vacancy on the Supreme Court: Elana Kagan.

Kagan has excellent credentials, including being Dean of the Harvard Law School. As such, it is reasonable to believe that she knows the law and legal theory. However, as critics are pointing out, she has never served as a judge and has rather limited experience as a lawyer.

Given that she has been nominated for a position as a Supreme Court judge, this is a legitimate matter of concern. After all, it is one thing to have studied and taught law as an academic subject and quite another to be a judge. To use an analogy, I have taught aesthetics for years, yet this need not qualify me to be an art critic. Certainly I know aesthetic theories and how to reason, but to actually judge art is a different matter than teaching aesthetics. Of course, this analogy can be broken by showing that judging matters of law based on academic legal experience is different from judging art based on academic experience in aesthetics.

A second concern voiced by critics is that she will be an “activist judge.” When voiced by conservatives, this really means that they are worried she will be a liberal judge. After all, these same conservatives seem to have no problem with judges that actively push or support a conservative agenda. While I have some liberal views, I am inclined to favor moderate judges. As I see it, one main role of the court is to check the executive and legislative branches and moderates seem to be better suited to this task.

A third concern voiced by critics is that she will allow her values, feelings and opinions to influence her decisions. While a judge should strive to be objective, being objective does not mean being without values, feelings, and opinions. Also, the law does not interpret itself (if it did, we would not need the court). Rather, it is interpreted in terms of values. Once again, when conservatives complain about values, empathy and so on, what they seem to really mean is that the person is a liberal. After all, conservatives seem to be fine with rulings and opinions that match their own conservative values. However, there is merit to the general concern-a judge, like a professor, needs to be capable of judging in an objective manner and this involves being able to control the influence of such factors.

A fourth concern is that she will not be liberal enough. This is, of course, voiced by liberal critics. While Kagan has spoken out against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, she has also taken positions that please conservatives. I actually see this criticism as a mark in her favor. After all, I favor moderate judges and if the more extreme conservatives think she is too liberal and the more extreme liberals think she is too conservative, then this is evidence that she is fairly moderate.

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Hollywood & War

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on March 22, 2010
Inglourious Basterds
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Caryn James presents an interesting assessment of war movies in “Hollywood Goes to War (Again).” Her overall thesis seems to be that in order to resonate, a war movie must be relevant to today.

James presents her view in the context of criticizing HBO’s The Pacific, the follow up toBand of Brothers. James contends that this series lacks cultural resonance, which is presumably a serious flaw. In contrast, a movie like Inglourious Basterds is really about today’s wars rather than WWII (actually, the movie is science fiction-it is set in a parallel reality).

In making her case, James contends that an historical movie  “always reflect two eras: the ones in which they are set and the ones in which they are made.” To support this, she uses the example of Gone With the Wind and the recently mentioned Basterds. As she sees it, Gone With the Wind is about the Civil War, yet thoroughly grounded in 1930’s values, stereotypes and political context.

In the case of war films made today, James contends that they must take into account the changes in the view of warfare caused by Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of  Basterds, James takes the film to be properly set within the contemporary views of war. As James notes, Rachel Maddow takes the movie to show  “the modern strategic history of Al Qaeda.”  The Pacific, as she sees it, fails to take into account such changes and, instead, simply sticks within the time in which it is set.

Naturally, since Band of Brothers was a great success (that is, resonated), James has to explain this. After all, this series was set firmly in WWII. James contends that the movie resonated because the series arrived prior to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the United States was still in a “greatest generation” mood and Americans were inclined to pull together in a unity comparable to that of WWII.

The Pacific, she contends, fails to do this. For example, she notes that the movie shows war as matter of controlling territory which contrasts with how she sees contemporary war (winning hearts and minds).

Of course, there might be another reason why historical movies seem to be about contemporary matters. As Oscar Wilde put it, vanity leads people to think that art is about our time, rather than being about itself. It is natural for movies to act as mirrors so that people see in them a reflection of their time, values and so on. However, as Wilde argued, this could be seeing in them something that is simply not there.

As far as why historical war movies need to take into account contemporary matters, the answer is rather straightforward: James contends that movies that do not will fail. She presents Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers as an example of a failure. As an example of a success, she presents Eastwood’s  Letters From Iwo Jima.

Her explanation for the movie’s success is that the characters “echo with the suicide bombers who have become so common, yet remain so alien.” Roughly put, Letterswas a success because it is really about now and not about then.

This explanation is certainly appealing. After all, as Hume notes in his discussion of the paradox of taste, people have a preference for their own time and country in regards to art. So, people will tend to like movies that are “about” them. Also, relating to a different time and place can be difficult. Relating to what is based on our current situation is much easier and thus a film that does this is more likely to appeal to a broader audience.

This is an interesting explanation, but not the only one. After all, Letters’ success might have little or nothing to do with its alleged relevance to today’s wars. For example, it might simply have better acting,  a better plot, and have whatever else it is that makes one movie better than others. Letters seems to be a thoroughly WWII film. After all, the suicides in the movie are not anachronistic devices used to make the film resonate with now. Japanese soldiers really did commit suicide.

Of course, it could be argued that the film resonates because it just so happens that the situation is similar to that of today (that is, WWII is like the current wars in certain ways). But, it can also be argued that the film resonates because it addresses themes that are universal. As Hume argues, a fad might take hold for a while and appeal across a limited time or space, but truly good art would overcome such limitations and have an appeal beyond its locality and time.

In my own case, Letters resonates because it addresses matters that go beyond the particular wars of then and now. For example, the young Marine’s letter is not about WWII or today. Rather, it captures something universal across all wars. So, it is about all wars, in a way.

As such, my view is that while a movie might be appealing because it is relevant to the specifics of our time, for it to have true and lasting appeal, it must be relevant in a general way. That is, it must touch on what is universal in human experience.

This is obviously possible. There are movies (and other works of art) that are clearly not about our time in particular that still resonate. To use an obvious example, the works of Shakespeare resonate across time even though they are not grounded in post 9/11 assumptions.

As Hume argued, works might enjoy a temporary or local appeal by being about here and now. However, a work that is too locked into its time will, of course, be left behind as time moves on. This is not to say that such works do not have an appeal or value. However, such works will suffer a diminishing status as they become increasingly irrelevant. They will fail the test of time and this is a mark against them. Wilde, of course, was even more harsh. He regarded modernity of subject matter to be the way to create bad art.

There is, of course, a certain artistry in making an historical movie set in a past war that is really about today’s wars. After all, a movie set in the Iraq War is not a metaphor of the war, it is simply about the war. A WWII movie that is grounded in contemporary views of war can have such a metaphorical role.

However, there is a concern about such alterations. After all, historical films are supposed to be historical and altering the past to please the present can be regarded as somewhat questionable. To use a specific example, if the Pacific were to be altered to so that it followed the assumptions held about wars today, then it would no longer be a true WWII movie, but a movie about today set in WWII. While it is tempting to revise history (and historical films) so they match the views of today, this does violence to the past and violates an important purpose of history: to show us what was. At the very least, I can appeal to a selfish motive-do we want our time revised away in the movies of our descendent’s? Presumably we do not and, as such, should be wary of doing this to our ancestors.

That said, it can also be argued that such alterations can be acceptable. After all, historical movies are not history and their primary purpose is not to show what was, but to achieve certain aesthetic goals. As such, making historical movies grounded in contemporary assumptions is just fine.

This does seem reasonable. However, it also seems reasonable to accept that movies that stick with history can also achieve those aesthetic goals. Unless, of course, audiences have such a poverty of feeling and intellect that they cannot get beyond their own time and place.

James finishes with an obvious concern: what about movies about contemporary wars? James claims that the Hurt Locker, which has been wildly successful, is actually a defective film. James’ criticism is that the film’s flaw is that it “appropriates old-fashioned Greatest Generation hero worship while blithely ignoring the urgent question of whether the war should be fought at all.” She seems to regard the film’s critical and general success as an amazing trick on the part of Bigelow.

Naturally, James is assuming that the film must address this question. While this is a good question, it seems to be an error on James part to assume that a film about the Iraq war must address the question she thinks is important. After all, a war film need not address a major political (and moral)question of the day in order to be a good film. In the case of the Hurt Locker, its quality and the success which it has earned seem to be the most effective arguments against James’ criticism.

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Art & Cannibalism

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2010
Chef Boyardee logo.
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Having taught aesthetics since 1993 I am accustomed to hearing about weird and even stupid things in the arts, so I was not even surprised when I saw a bit on cannibalism and art on the History Channel. I had heard about the artists before, but the show inspired me to write a bit about this.

The segment that made the greatest impression was that about Marco Evaristti. This fellow had his fat liposuctioned, turned into meatballs, canned and then served as part of a pasta dinner to fellow artists. The piece was called Polpette al grasso di Marco.

The intent of his work was to explore cannibalism from an artistic standpoint. My own view of the matter is that his approach was more sensationalist than substantive and did not really add much (or anything really) to the aesthetic and philosophical discussion of cannibalism. I am also inclined to regard what he did as not being art. After all, he simply had liposuction, had his fat made into meatballs and served a meal. As such, he was a patient, a purchaser of meat balls, a cook and a host-hardly the stuff of art.

While I have not had liposuction, I have been a patient, I have bought meat balls, I have cooked them and served them at a dinner.In a odd coincidence, I have even had a discussion over cannibalism over meatballs (which began as a discussion over the ethics of eating meat). On the face of it, none of this activities are artistic in nature and hence the burden of proof seems to rest on those who claim it is.

The main distinction between what I have done and what he did was to actually serve his own fat in the meal. While this does technically transform the meal from non-cannibalistic to cannibalistic, it is not clear that this results in an aesthetic transformation of the event. What needs to be shown is that adding such a content to a meal somehow transforms the event into art. After all, serving some beef meatballs to facilitate a discussion about eating meat hardly seems to transform the event into art. Likewise, adding some human fat to the meal does not seem to make that art either.

Interestingly, as I watched the clip showing the artists talking about cannibalism all I could think was this: “you might be talking like artistic intellectuals, but you just ate some guy’s ass fat.”

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Interview with Whis

Posted in Aesthetics, Humor, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2009
Tea Bags

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The following is a guest post from Peg Winni, a noted expert on the nexus of art and politics. In this post, Peg interviews Whis, a conservative artist whose real name remains unknown.

Peg Winni: “Whis, you are somewhat unusual in that you are gay, an artist and extremely conservative. Have you always been all three?”

Whis: “Well, I was born gay, developed my talent as an artist and was originally very liberal. But, I recently became a Republican. Log cabin, of course.”

Peg Winni: “How recently?”

Whis: “Well, let it suffice to say that I voted for Obama.”

Peg Winni: “But now you are against him?”

Whis: “Yes. He promised to do something about “don’t ask” and didn’t. He also promised other things. When he betrayed us, I knew I had to become a Republican.”

Peg Winni: “But Republicans tend to be anti-gay.”

Whis: “That is the stereotype and the myth. But, in actuality, many Republicans are gay. Just look at Larry Craig and Ted Haggard. In fact, as the kids would say, most of the Republican agenda is totally gay.”

Peg Winni: “So how does your conservative views influence your art?”

Whis: “Well, I see it as an evolution. When I first started, I held my brush in my hand, then tried holding it in my mouth. To make a statement. Then I thought that taping it to my penis would make more of a statement. But, pulling the tape off hurt a whole bunch. So, I just started painting with it. But then I saw Glenn Beck talking about the tea bag parties. I love tea bagging and wanted to get involved. I’d tea bag with Beck any day of the week. But, to get back to the art, I thought that I could express the Republican outrage by incorporating tea bagging into my art. So, I applied finger paint to my ‘tea bag’ and used it to artistically enhance images of the Democratic leadership. I tea bagged them left and right.”

Peg Winni: “So, your art expresses in paint what the tea party folks express with words?”

Whis:“Quite so. We all want to tea bag America. I even scream out political sayings when I do my art. Once, I even did a piece at a town hall meeting-just dropped my pants, slapped on the paint and starting tea bagging away on photos of Obama while I was yelling at the Democrats.”

Peg Winni: “How did the other tea party folks react?”

Whis:“The other tea baggers were impressed. They could see how much I loved America-almost as much as Glenn Beck loves it. By the end of the town hall, most of the tea baggers had their pants off and the paint was everywhere. It was a great day for America!”

Peg Winni:“That must have been quite a sight. Tell me, do you have any plans to expand your art?”

Whis:“Actually, yes. The town hall meeting got me thinking that I could make my artistic tea bagging into a performance art. I could go to town hall meetings, paint up and slap my tea bag on the foreheads of the Democrats.”

Peg Winni:“Wouldn’t that be considered some sort of assault?”

Whis:“No, it would be art. The Democrats, for all their faults, do love the arts. So, they would have to let me do it. Plus, I think most of them would enjoy a good tea bagging, too. That is one thing that there is bi-partisan support for. After all, they don’t have the ‘bi’ in ‘bi-partisan’ for nothing. ”

Peg Winni:“Interesting. Well, I’ll look for you on Fox News.”


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Naked in the Museum

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2009

The Met had an impromptu and unexpected addition to its exhibits when  Kathleen Neil disrobed so she could be photographed by Zack Hyman. Since she was naked in public, it is hardly a surprise that she was arrested. Naturally enough, people are wondering whether this is a case of art or not.

On one hand, the answer is easy: it all depends on which theory of art (if any) is correct. On the other hand, the answer is rather difficult to determine: which theory (if any) is correct? Rather than wander about in various theories, I’ll just ramble a bit about the matter.

On the face of it, this could be art. After all, photographs seem to be well-established as a form of art (within limits, of course) and art involving naked folks is also well established. So, to use an argument by analogy: if other photographs of naked people are art, then this photo can also be considered art. Of course, the focus of the controversy is the fact that Neil got naked in a public place. While this is generally illegal, what is illegal need not automatically be considered to be non-art. After all, the legal status of something does not entail anything about its aesthetic status.

Some folks have been asserting that the photo is pornographic because Neil is naked. While it is easy enough to take all naked photos to be pornographic, there seems to be an important distinction between what would be porn and what would not be. Of course, the possibility of artistic pornography should also be given reasonable consideration.

Since this is a blog rather than a major essay, I will but dip my toe in the shallow end of theory. At this depth, I would say that the intent of the photographer (and the subject perhaps) would be an important factor. While both art and porn are generally taken to aim at creating an emotional effect or stimulating a response, the types of responses that art aims for seems to be distinct from that of pornography. Roughly put, porn aims and sexual excitement whereas art (generally) tries to aim at a somewhat higher target (the heart or mind rather than the groin). In this case, Hyman and Neil seemed to have an artistic intent and hence I’d be inclined to agree with them that they were attempting to create art.

Not surprisingly, some folks dismiss the notion of artistic intent. After all, it can be rather difficult to tell what the artist’s true intent might have been at the time. In this case, the usual default is to consider the work itself. In this case, the challenge would be to lay bare the qualities that would distinguish a work of art from pure (or mere) pornography. While this might seem a simple thing, it can actually be rather challenging. True, most porn would tend to be easy to spot as such because of the quality (or lack thereof). But this does raise the obvious objection that porn might be art, albeit poor art. These difficulties serve to illustrate that we do not really have any truly effective definitions of “art” and “porn” that would allow us to properly sort things out.

We can, of course, follow the old adage and say that art (or porn) is in the eye of the beholder. If someone sees a naked photo as porn, it is porn to him. If he sees it as art, it is art to him. Of course, this makes it a rather subjective matter and would seem to imply that any obscenity would lie within the audience rather than the work.

The conclusion to be drawn is the usual one: we still lack a proper account of art, despite centuries of discussion.

Arts, Lies and Yale

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 19, 2008

Recently an art student created quite a stir with her alleged art project. She claimed that she had repeatedly impregnated herself (using the “turkey baster method”) and then forced herself to have miscarriages with herbal medicines. She provided a video clip of herself bleeding and expressed her plans to create a display composed of her blood, Vaseline (to keep the blood from drying), and plastic wrap.

Initially, the Yale Daily News took her claims at face value-thus showing the critical approach commonly taken these days. The next day, the News posted another story discussing the proposed project further as well as the reaction it had received (universally negative).

The evidence at this time seems to be that the art project involves various lies. The New York Sun has posted a piece that seems quite plausible and serves to show that much of what the student alleged is probably false. The student herself also admitted that she had not actually engaged in the self-impregnation nor the self-induced miscarriages.

Naturally, this situation raises many moral issues.

Obviously, if she had in fact been doing what she claimed she was doing, her actions would have been both horrifying and immoral. As a philosopher, I generally feel compelled to argue almost anything-but I am willing to let this point remain without a developed argument. If creating life merely to kill it to make a statement is not intuitively wrong, then I (almost) cannot think of a way to even start an argument against it.

While the fact that her alleged actions were mere fictions does serve to lessen the immorality of her behavior, her behavior certainly does seem to be morally questionable.

The main moral concern is that she lied and her lie seems to have been a harmful lie. While everyone lies, lying is something that is, on the face of it, wrong. Some regard lying as intrinsically wrong (such as Kant) while others see it as wrong on utilitarian grounds (lying tends to create more harm than good). Whatever the specific grounds, it seems rather well-established that lying is wrong. Hence, her lies were wrong.

Naturally, people do attempt to justify lies by arguing that their lies were harmless or actually served a greater good. However, her lies do not seem to serve a greater good. Many people were morally outraged by this and people had to waste time sorting through her lies in order to get to the truth. Further, her lies no doubt served to needlessly bring back painful memories for women who suffered miscarriages.

Of course, it could be replied that people often express opinions that others find offensive, but this is all part of the price for freedom of expression. While this has some merit, there is the matter of common decency. A sense of decency enjoins us to place limits on what we say and do-not because we should not be free to express ourselves but because we should, as decent human beings, care about what our words and deeds will do to others. The right of expression is a vital and basic right. But compassion is also a basic and vital virtue. Those who insist on their rights and refuse to cultivate their virtues are but spoiled children.

That said, I do think that sometimes offensive things can and should be said. This can be a tough moral call, but in this case I believe that Ms. Shvarts made a moral error.

It might be further countered that art itself is a lie and hence her art was to lie about what she was actually doing.

The notion that art involves “beautiful untrue things” (Wilde) and “lying skillfully” (Aristotle) has a strong philosophical pedigree. Naturally, some philosophers (most notably Plato) criticize art on this exact ground.

Intuitively, art is a deception and a lie. The easiest and most obvious example is that of film: movies are fake. The actors are pretending, the dialog is (usually) fiction, and the settings are often fake. As Plato noted, paintings are illusions and lies as well-a painting of a person is but an image and not a real person.

For thinkers like Wilde and Aristotle, lying was not the key part: lying is not a sufficient condition for art. In the discussions presented about art by the likes of Wilde and Aristotle, a work has to meet some rather challenging standards to be considered art and has to meet even more serious standards to be considered quality art. While the notion of art has been transformed into an abomination that permits almost any foolishness to be called art, I’ve always refused to embrace that abomination. While I confess that I do not have a complete theory of art, I have given the matter considerable thought (take my class on Aesthetics at Florida A&M University to see my view as well as competing views) and have written a bit on the subject (buy my forthcoming book-What Don’t You Know?). One easy argument is this-a good definition must exclude some things. If anything can be art, then “art” is a meaningless term.

Considering the project put forth by Ms. Shvarts, it seems reasonable to say that if it is art, then it is not very good art. It does not express mastery of an artistic skill and it does not seem to be presenting to the world anything of beauty or aesthetic significance.

What can be said is that she lied and created a moral furor. While this did create an emotional response, the response was to her alleged misdeeds. This is no more art than if someone claimed to be throwing kittens into a wood chipper or a serial killer. Such claims would create a response, but would not be art. Even if the person claimed to be an artist. As Tolstoy argued, just because you make someone feel an emotion, it does not follow that it is art.

Ms. Shvarts does seem to be of a sort I have so often seen-those who consider any sort of drama to be art, provided that it seems to serve their ideological purposes. She even uses all the standard buzz words: “We have this huge f—ing institution telling us: ‘That’s what power looks like. That’s what empowerment looks like.’ It’s these patriarchal, heteronormative trappings of a voice, of a right to speak, but really I think we should think more about it. We need to stop being sheep.”

I do agree that we should think more and stop being sheep. In this case, I think we need to think seriously about what art really is and not just follow the artsy trends like sheep. I also think that the use of empty buzz words does nothing of artistic, philosophical or political significance.

Lest anyone think that I am some sort of philistine, I have taught aesthetics since 1994 and have a great appreciation of the arts. Further, I am always open to a good argument. If someone can make a plausible case as to why her lies should count as good art, then I will accept that argument. Until then, I can only regard her as a liar and a poor artist (and that is being generous). I did consider that these words might be unkind, but they seem to be justified.

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