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Destroy the ‘Mona Lisa’ for an NFT?

pixelated image of Mona Lisa painting

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Damien Hirst is a contemporary English artist whose work is world-renowned. Recently, I had the opportunity to view a collection of his work at the Galleria Borghese in an exhibition titled “Archaeology Now.” Hirst works almost exclusively in the genre of sculpture, but recently he has been pursuing a decidedly less physical kind of art — NFTs.

NFT, which stands for “non-fungible token,” is a piece of digital property that is unique — nobody but the owner of the NFT has that exact electronic object in their possession, and it is marked as an original in a way that digitally distinguishes it from all copies made. Hirst is part of a recent project, titled The Currency, in which artists submit works of art which are then turned into NFTs. For example: a sculptor can create a physical sculpture and put it on display in a museum or an art gallery. On the other hand, that sculpture could be turned into an NFT, and the owner of that NFT would then be able to print the image of the piece wherever they like, send the image to anyone who wanted to see the piece, or possibly even 3D print an exact replica of the piece. Art in the form of NFTs allows artists to send their works all over the world. And some would say that “sending” digitized artwork is much better than loaning physical works of art — there is no limit on the number of places one may send the image to and no time spent waiting for it to get there. The idea behind The Currency is a sort of competition between what we might think of as the “received view” of art — that the physical originals have a unique value that cannot be replicated by digital copies — and an emerging view that denies a difference of value between the two (or, perhaps, sees more value in the NFTs).

For artists, art connoisseurs, or even regular art-appreciators, the idea of destroying a physical work of art might be painful to think about. So much time, money, and resources have been invested in attempting to preserve original physical copies of works like the Mona Lisa that these efforts have become intertwined with the pieces’ value. Recent examples of near destruction of great works of art are similarly met with horror, sadness, and a rush to try to preserve the pieces. Just think of the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, or the vandalization of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Is Hirst’s project — one in which original works of art may be destroyed if clients choose to keep the NFT instead — a tragedy? While the project is unquestionably controversial, is there anything inherently wrong in destroying (the physical copy of) a work of art, so long as the NFT remains?

One argument in favor of owning NFTs over physical copies of works of art is that access to these pieces could be expanded greatly. Rather than having to travel to a museum to see a certain piece, viewers could simply download a digital copy reproduced by an NFT. This could be done, in theory, in a sensorily immersive way, such that there would be little difference between the digital experience and the in-person experience. Those who lack resources to travel, or the time to visit museums, could have access to the great works of art that they might otherwise be deprived of. This democratization of art could, in turn, boost education equity and improve education outcomes across demographics. The experience of art could be liberated from its typical exclusivity.

But there is another strong argument for answering “no” to this question, which relies on intuitions many have about what it is that is valuable about art. Philosopher Alexander Pruss pursues this question in relation to one particular form of art: music. In a blog post titled “Musical Beauty and Virtual Music” Pruss asks “where does the musical beauty lie?” He goes on:

“One day […] I expect many people will have direct brain-computer interfaces. When they ‘listen to music’, no sounds will be emitted (other than the quiet hum of computer cooling fans, say). Yet I do not think this will significantly change anything of aesthetic significance. Thus, the production of musical sounds seems accidental to the enjoyment of music.”

Pruss here argues that the way the music is produced, the technology through which the sounds are emitted, does nothing to change my experience of the music and, therefore, does nothing to change how valuable the music is. The beauty — and value — of music therefore must lie in the experience of it. Similarly, people who agree with Hirst may find themselves drawn in this direction with regards to other forms of art, like sculpture, paintings, performance art, etc. Perhaps the value of these pieces lies in what we experience when we observe them, and not in the physical manifestations themselves. Destroying the Mona Lisa, therefore, may be perfectly fine so long as the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa can be preserved. Hirst seems to have a similar idea about the value of art, saying, “I just think anything that looks good and feels good, and makes you feel good, you know, it’s good art.”

This picture of value calls to mind the famous “experience machine” thought experiment proposed by the philosopher Robert Nozick. In the fictional scenario, you are given the option of plugging into a virtual reality machine, where you will (1) forget you’re in a virtual reality, and (2) live an incredibly happy and fulfilling life, all while your body is kept alive for as long as possible. Guessing that most people would refuse to enter the experience machine, Nozick uses this thought experiment to argue that the value of good things in life goes beyond mere experience — there is value in the goods actually occurring in reality, outside of our perception of them. For example, we might think that it is better to actually have relationships with real others, than to merely believe you have relationships with real others, even if there is no difference between the experience of the real relationships and the experience of the simulation. Likewise, one might think that there is value in the original piece of physical artwork itself that goes above and beyond the viewers’ experience of it. The fact that Frida Kahlo herself put these precise, meticulous brush strokes on the canvas, for instance, may hold value that is not grounded in our experience of her work.

Further, we may wonder whether the experience of seeing original works of art in person really can be preserved in an NFT. Anyone who has been deeply affected by the experience of viewing their favorite originals face-to-face may be skeptical that NFTs can truly capture the full experience. One difficulty would be recreating the awareness of sheer size, something important to the experience of carved works like the Appennine Colossus or Landowski’s Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and to large-scale paintings like the Sistine Chapel. Such awareness requires something like a sensory comparison of your size compared to the size of the work of art — something that would likely be difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for an NFT to facilitate.

A further complicating factor is that we tend to believe that pictures of art are not themselves art. For example, if you go to the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel, and then purchase a poster print of The Creation of Adam at the gift shop, you probably do not actually believe you have taken the painting home with you. Moreover, you also likely do not believe that your poster is equally as valuable as the original painting on the roof of the ceiling. The gift shop certainly thinks there is a difference in value, as a poster of the painting costs only about as much as one admission ticket! Whence the difference in value? Does it have to do with scale? But we can easily imagine a to-scale replica of the Sistine Chapel. Is the difference in value related to the wide availability of replicas compared to the limited availability of originals? If so, NFTs would retain the single-original status of works of art, and thereby (presumably) keep their value high, giving the owners of the NFTs full rights over any reproduction of the work. Additionally, some creators have sought to solve the problem of the inherent value of the original by positing that creators and artists may decide for themselves which work is the original: the physical copy, or the NFT. Choosing to designate the NFT as the original, as one YouTuber suggests, may change our understanding such that the physical copy becomes merely a “tool” used to create the final product, the NFT.

And finally, we may question whether Hirst’s project — exchanging original physical works of art for NFTs — would work for other kinds of art beyond painting and sculpture. There are, for example, works of art specifically created by the artist to exist only for a moment. Instances of this kind of art include a recent piece by Banksy titled “Girl with Balloon” which was secretly designed to self-destruct a few hours after it sold (the destruction was only partially successful), as well as performance art such as Chris Burden’s famous “Shoot” in which his friend shoots Burden in the arm with a gun.

Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist about buying and selling art as NFTs, it is clear that the emerging technologies raising these philosophical questions will have a large impact on our view of art — what counts as art, who counts as an artist, and how we can best experience the work of those working with digital and physical mediums. May it make us more creative, and more open to appreciating the creative talent of others.

Creation, Destruction, and the Ethics of “Murderabelia”

absratct image of ink painting

On March 30th 1981, 25-year-old John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Regan. He was convinced that doing so would earn him the affection of the young woman with whom he was obsessed — the 19-year-old actress Jodie Foster, who had recently starred in the film Taxi Driver. Hinckley was successful at shooting the president in the chest, and in the process he also shot Press Secretary James Brady in the head, Secret Security Agent Timothy McCarthy in the side, and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty in the neck. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a psychiatric institution.

Hinckley remained at St. Elizabeth’s for 34 years before he was conditionally released into the care of his mother in 2016. He now owns a shop that sells books and antiques. While institutionalized, Hinckley gained a fondness for expressing himself through art; he paints and also writes and plays music. For many years, if he wanted to display his work, he was required to do so anonymously because of statutes that prohibit convicted criminals from benefiting from the notoriety that they gained from committing their crimes. In October, 2020, he was granted permission by a District Court judge to sign, claim credit for, and sell his work.

Hinckley’s visual art consists mostly of landscapes. Other notorious criminals create art that is more disturbing and intimately connected to the crimes that they have committed. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was convicted of killing 33 young men and boys and burying them in the crawlspace under his family home is infamous for creating art depicting himself as a killer clown. Before he was convicted, Gacy would often dress up as a clown to entertain patients at the local children’s hospital. His art is inseparable from who he was and is as a person; it is a manifestation of the murderous persona that he developed over the course of many tragic years. Arthur Shawcross, murderer of 14 people in the 1980’s, also created art related to his crimes, some of it surprisingly similar to the art created by Gacy. Other killer artists include Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, Anthony Sowell, and Elmer Wayne Henley.

These artifacts produced by incarcerated criminals are trade items in the small but thriving business known as the murderabelia market. Those that deal in this kind of thing obtain letters, artwork, recorded music, and even the hair and skin of notorious criminals. Some true crime aficionados will pay a significant price for these items.

Over the years, many pieces of legislation have been passed in an attempt to ward off the possibility that the commission of a crime, in many cases a serious and violent one, will make various forms of artistic expression more profitable for the person or people who committed it. In the immediate aftermath of the Son of Sam murders that plagued New York City in the summer of 1977, New York passed the Son of Sam Law prohibiting criminals from profiting from expression that is lucrative because of the notoriety that they have gained from their crimes. Many other states quickly followed suit. The law was passed because people believed that David Berkokowitz, the person found legally responsible for the killings, was planning to sell exclusive story rights related to his life and crimes to the publishing company Simon & Schuster. They reasoned that if any money is made from the sale of such items, that money should go to the families of the victims. The company, which was attempting to publish the memoirs of Henry Hill, the FBI informant whose life story would later be dramatized in the movie Goodfellas, sued in 1989. They argued that preventing convicted individuals from expressing themselves in this way violated their First Amendment rights. They won the case in the Supreme Court, which held that the laws were constructed in a way that was too broad to achieve the state’s compelling interest.

Hinckley differs from the other figures listed above. He suffers from mental health issues and the court decided that he could not be held legally responsible for the crimes that he committed for that reason. The attitudes that we have toward criminals frequently turn on the extent to which we believe that they acted freely. If coercive factors were in play such that Hinckley had no real control over whether he shot Regan, we shouldn’t hold him fully responsible for doing so. Certain mental health problems are coercive in this way.

Freedom of expression is important for many reasons, and some of them are therapeutic. Art therapy is used in a variety of settings to deal with trauma and mental health problems. The therapeutic aspects of creating art don’t happen only at the individual level; sharing, interpreting, and discussing art is a social experience. Limiting this form of expression might violate access to our nature as creative and social beings who need these outlets in some form or other to survive and to be psychologically healthy.

That said, there are great discrepancies from one state to the next and from one jury to the next when it comes to how seriously people are willing to take insanity defenses. The legal definition of insanity has nothing to do with whether a person has a diagnosed or diagnosable mental illness and has everything to do with whether the person in question knew the difference between right and wrong at the time that the crime was committed. Some people view mental health problems as coercive factors and others do not. Some of the other convicted criminals who make art could have also been deemed legally insane, had they had a different lawyer, a different jury, a different judge, or been tried in a different state. A similar problem arises when it comes to death penalty sentences — such judgments are often arbitrary and have more to do with where a defendant committed a crime than with the mental state of the accused at the time that it was committed.

Even if there are good reasons to allow the social experience of artistic expression to take place, there may also be legitimate medical and social reasons to prevent it. Hinckley was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, and early on doctors feared that social recognition of his art and music might get in the way of his work on that condition. Human beings are both creative and destructive forces. Not all forms of creation are positive, but some of them are so positive that they are life-affirming. Does cutting off all pathways to creation disrespect the dignity of human beings?

There are other cases in which creation is really a form of destruction. Sometimes, the creation of art is a display of hate and violence — not all art is rainbows and rose petals, or even landscapes. What’s more, we often don’t want it to be; it can be important that art is cathartic. That said, sometimes an artist’s intent is to pass along their rage. The artist may want to revictimize the people that they’ve hurt, or to lash out against people they believe have hurt them. Indeed, some families feel crushed when art created by someone who killed their family member is sold. They feel that the perpetrator has not only robbed them of their loved one, but they are taking that crime all the way to the bank.

There are many artists who haven’t been convicted of crimes who have nevertheless done awful things and are terrible human beings. For example, the 20th century artist and architect Eric Gill is now known to have sexually abused his two oldest daughters, yet his art is still featured in exhibitions and is a fixture of private collections. Some of this work even features his nude daughters as subjects. The 16th century artist Caravaggio was violent and was sentenced to death for murder before he fled to Naples, yet his work is displayed at The Louvre in Paris, The Uffizi in Florence, and The National Gallery in London. All of these years removed, much of his art is likely to be more interesting rather than off putting to patrons as result of the profile of the artist. We don’t need to go centuries into the past to witness this phenomenon. The decisions of contemporary politicians may have been the cause of many unnecessary deaths, yet people are inclined to think of that art as charming some decades removed from the fact.

A critical component in the moral assessment of this issue has to do with the people who obtain, sell, and purchase this art. Why is it that a person might want a painting composed by a serial killer to feature prominently in their collection? Perhaps it is a desire to own something noteworthy and unusual that no one else has. It may be an instinct to be, somehow, close to infamy. The fact that these objects are available for sale gives people the opportunity to glorify the wrong people, to look to the worst possible individuals as role models. There is nothing “cool” about John Wayne Gacy. If this art was hanging in a gallery and the artist was unknown, no one would purchase it. It is because the art was created by a serial killer, and not in spite of that fact that led to the purchase of the work. Should we approach all works of art with an empathetic eye, or is there some art to which it is important that we do not relate? Does some art weaken our moral character rather than build on our capacity to view the world in new and diverse ways?

Art is a meaningful part of the human experience. The conditions under which it is made are rich and varied. Our aesthetic experiences and judgments are linked, in many cases, to other kinds of value judgments, which makes these questions very difficult to resolve.

On the Art of Evildoers

close-up photograph of Philip Roth

The fall of a literary star is something to behold. At the beginning of April, Blake Bailey was the toast of the literary world; his new biography of the novelist Philip Roth had been published to acclaim, landing on The New York Times best-seller list. But by the end of the month, Bailey’s fortunes were laid low by horrific allegations made against him, including that he raped two women as recently as 2015 and “groomed” middle school girls when he was a teacher in the 1990s. After they surfaced, his publisher, W.W. Norton, took the rare step of stopping promotion and shipment of the book just days after his literary agent dropped him as a client.

One might very well be tempted to say, “good riddance.” And there is no reason to defend Bailey personally; the accusations against him are credible and multiple. Yet Norton’s decision raises an important philosophical question: how evil does a person have to be in order for it to be impermissible to disseminate their art?

One problem we are immediately confronted with is the issue of arbitrariness. Are there any criteria for setting a threshold for the badness of a person such that it is impermissible to disseminate their art? One fruitful perspective on this question comes from rule consequentialism, which evaluates the rightness of acts according to how much the rules permitting or obligating those acts would promote overall good consequences, however the latter are spelled out. This perspective helps with the problem of arbitrariness because it prompts us to compare, in a morally meaningful way, different thresholds in terms of their hypothetical consequences. Not publishing Bailey’s book implies a rule setting the threshold for permissible publication at rape or sexual assault (or, presumably, worse). What would be the effect of consistently applying that rule as compared to a world in which the rule permitted disseminating just about anyone’s art?

Shockingly, not a few great artists have either admitted to or been credibly accused of rape or worse. William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, details his attempted rape of a 15-year-old girl named Dora in his unpublished memoir Men and Women. William S. Burroughs killed his wife; Norman Mailer came close. Eldridge Cleaver famously wrote about raping white women as an act of revolutionary violence. Of course, Woody Allen stands credibly accused of sexually assaulting his daughter, Dylan Farrow; Roman Polanski was actually convicted of drugging, raping, and sodomizing a 14-year-old girl. And then there’s Bill Cosby. And Hitler, whose Mein Kampf chillingly lays out the dictator’s plans for the extermination of world Jewry.

The point is this: applied consistently, the rule implied by the act of not publishing Bailey’s work would deprive us in some cases of great works of art, and in other cases of important information. Publishers, producers, and art dealers, hesitant to invest in works that they might end up having to pull, might refuse to enter into contracts with artists without intrusive background checks. Yet the world of the consistently applied rule would also be better than ours in certain respects: victims would not be retraumatized by the fame of their abusers; artists might be deterred from committing heinous behavior by the thought that it would negatively affect their careers. How one weighs these different effects is a matter of fine judgment. In my view, the benefits seem speculative, while the costs seem probable and cumulatively great. But I could be wrong.

Another idea is that it is wrong to benefit people who are guilty of heinous moral wrongs, perhaps because it encourages or emboldens them to continue behaving as they do, or because — if they continue to commit badly — we may take on partial responsibility for their wrongdoing. Here, I think, we can do better than simply throwing up our hands and concluding that we must benefit wrongdoers if we want to benefit from their art— or at least, that we must benefit only them. For example, in Bailey’s case, Norton could have decided to donate all of the proceeds minus Bailey’s royalties from his book to rape survivors’ organizations. This outcome would surely not encourage Bailey, as it constitutes a clear condemnation of him. This would also be a great way of establishing some symbolic distance between the publisher and the author.

There are other compelling arguments against publication from a non-consequentialist perspective. Some may think that it is simply wrong to honor individuals who are guilty of heinous moral wrongs. By “honor” I mean something like expressing admiration for a person in a way that tends to enhance their social status. Perhaps this is wrong because such individuals do not morally deserve to be honored — and not because honoring them would bring about bad consequences. Publishing a person’s book certainly does honor them; thus, it is wrong to publish. The trouble with this argument is that it is arbitrary: when is a moral wrong so heinous that the obligation applies? Is there any reason to prefer the rule that sets the threshold for heinous acts at the killing of ten people rather than the killing of one? There doesn’t seem to be. Without any reason to draw the line at rape or sexual assault rather than, say, the extermination of the entire human race, we might as well choose the higher bar. But if we draw the line at the higher bar, then in effect publishing anyone is permissible.

That we nevertheless tend to believe it is wrong to honor people who don’t deserve it helps to explain why the question whether it is wrong to publish evil people will remain with us for the foreseeable future. Human beings have a well-documented aversion to ambivalence, preferring to hold either wholly positive or wholly negative attitudes towards persons and things. But publishing evil people puts us in the uncomfortably ambivalent position of having to appreciate and honor their talents while abhorring their deeds. This will never be a natural fit for beings like us.

Art, Death, and Experience

photograph of rollercoaster at dusk

In 2010, Lithuanian artist Julijonas Urbonas created a work of conceptual art that posed, and continues to pose, a fascinating challenge to contemporary notions of death. The piece is called the “Euthanasia coaster,” represented materially by a small model of a roller coaster made of thin wire. Described on Urbonas’ website as “a hypothetic death machine in the form of a roller coaster,” the machine is “engineered to humanely–with elegance and euphoria–take the life of a human being,” or more accurately, twenty-four human beings at once.

Urbonas is right, the model does have an austere elegance. The tracks rise in a narrow but staggeringly tall parabola, then plummet back to the ground, finishing in a series of loops that grow smaller and smaller until the ride is over. The loops generate enough centrifugal force that the passengers are deprived of oxygen quickly enough to die before the car reaches the end of the line.

When we talk about medically-assisted suicide, we usually ask whether or not the terminally ill have the right to humane euthanasia. A far less common but no less interesting question, which takes for granted the notion that those who wish to die have a legal right to do so, is whether or not euthanasia in a clinical hospital setting is the best way to aid the suffering. Has the ritualistic and cultural significance of death been eroded by our efforts to be humane, and are there ways to restore that lost meaning to our final moments?

It’s easy to be put off by the idea of death by roller coaster. Urbonas was partly inspired by his stint working at a theme park, but to many, hopping on a coaster may seem a flippant or macabre way to spend one’s last moments. However, the roller coaster is a very polyvalent symbol, especially in relation to death. It isn’t a space for quiet reflection, like a hospice, but a visceral experience of power and speed. It’s also a communal experience, which reminds us of how often death is a solitary experience in the modern world. There also may be meaning in the form of the coaster; tall, sloping coasters often resemble mountains, which have long been associated with divinity (Mount Olympus is just one example), and the idea of ascending to one’s death has parallels in many world religions.

Perhaps most importantly, the ride creates an increased sense of bodily awareness in the participant, just as the body is about to die. You give up bodily control to the track, but you get something in return: terror and ecstasy. These words, terror and ecstasy, are often linked in the ancient Greek tradition of death. Through this piece, Urbanos seems to suggest that we have lost touch with that older tradition, and exchanged the vitality of full acceptance for sterility.

The idea of death as a machine is bound to make us flinch. The guillotine, which has inspired terror and revulsion for centuries, is a machine of death inspired by Enlightenment values. It kills with cold, rational efficiency, and in many ways, Urbanos’ coaster is the anti-guillotine. His work is about joy rather than rationality, and though it may involve a kind of spectacle, like the guillotine, it’s less about efficiency and more about the bodily experience of the deceased. His work also reminds us that we live in a culture where death and mourning are relegated to private spaces. Roller coasters are hulking monuments that dominate the landscape, and their silhouette of sprawling rib-like tracks are unmistakable from a distance. Death is not hidden in Urbanos’ work, but forced out into the open.

It is, of course, just a conceptual experiment. Urbanos has no plans to actually build his roller coaster of death, as the legality (and ethics) of the machine would be highly questionable. But his art still raises many questions about how we experience death, and whether or not we should expand the options available to those suffering from terminal illnesses. The solution to their plight isn’t to build a macabre theme park, but to question our understanding of death as unspeakable and unthinkable.

The Social Justice of Copyrights and “Public Domain Day”

photograph of Duke Ellington record

In addition to starting a new calendar year, January 1st marks “Public Domain Day” when copyright restrictions expire for a new batch of artworks, thereby allowing new audiences to view them more easily and new artists to adapt them without needing special permission from the copyright holder. This year, the United States saw certain works from Buster Keaton, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Duke Ellington, Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, and more enter the public domain, including the classic jazz song “Sweet Georgia Brown” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous book The Great Gatsby.

On the one hand, it might seem like increasing accessibility to cultural artifacts is simply obviously good; given how many high school English classrooms rely on battered copies of Fitzgerald’s story, for example, we can see immediate benefits (both aesthetic and practical) to making it easier and cheaper to purchase new books. But, taken to its logical conclusion, this kind of argument seems to suggest that it might always be necessary for artworks and artifacts to be so accessible. If Gatsby really is so valuable, and if it is so embedded within American culture that it is often called “the great American novel,” then why should Americans have had to pay to read it in the first place? Put differently: why is The Great Gatsby only just now entering the public domain?

In brief, the concept of a copyright offers two related basic protections:

  1. It ensures that artists are compensated for the work that they perform, in a way that
  2. Ensures that society will continually benefit from the work of new artists (who, following from (1), will feel free to pursue their art).

This is why, for example, the Constitution specifically grants Congress the power to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Basically, in theory, copyrights work to level the social playing field a bit so that artists can (at least potentially) enjoy sufficient financial security to be able to practice their art. In effect, this makes copyrights a matter of social justice, since the people who benefit from these protections the most are precisely those from less-affluent or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. Although F. Scott Fitzgerald was not exactly socially disadvantaged, the person aiming to write the next great American novel could easily be discouraged from doing so without the hope of protected financial recompense for their labor offered by the copyright system. That is to say: aspiring writers might instead spend their energy towards non-artistic ends if their Gatsby was to simply immediately enter the public domain without helping the writer to, say, buy groceries.

To illustrate, imagine two people who both have an interest and talent for music: Thomas is born to a wealthy family in Hollywood, while Susan grows up in a lower-middle-class family in the Ozarks. Even if copyrights don’t exist, Thomas still has the luxury to pursue his art to his heart’s content: his family’s wealth offers him a level of comfort that shields him from the risk of “wasting time” on a hobby with no guarantee of compensation. The same cannot be said of Susan so easily: while she might still have plenty of personal reasons for playing music on her own, if the realities of her social position, say, require her to work a full-time job in order to provide for basic necessities, then she would be taking on considerable risk to herself if she instead chooses to devote her time to her art without any real guarantee that her music could offer her a profitable career. In principle, copyright laws offer Susan the promise of some financial protection such that if her art ends up becoming profitable, then she will be able to uniquely enjoy the monetary fruits of her labor without other artists being allowed to copy her work (at least for a time); it’s true that Thomas gets this benefit too, but notice that it doesn’t really affect him — he already had the financial protection to do as he liked with his art in the first place.

So, philosophically speaking, copyrights serve as a mechanism to help underwrite the kind of equality that John Rawls talks about with his first principle of justice: in explaining his view of a free and fair, egalitarian society in A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.” Insofar as copyrights can serve to more fairly distribute opportunities to develop artistic skill and create artworks, they might be thought of as components of a just society. Without protections like this in place, it would become, in principle, roughly impossible for anyone not born into privilege to pursue a career in the arts.

It’s worth noting that this is also why artists cannot copyright “generic concepts” or natural elements of normal life: a copyright is only valid for unique artistic creations. In mid-2020, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sued Netflix over the depiction of Sherlock Holmes in its film Enola Holmes; while many of Doyle’s stories involving the character of Holmes have entered the public domain, they all tend to present Holmes as a generally cold and unemotional person. Because it is Doyle’s later stories (that are still under copyright) that see Holmes display more warmth and kindness, the caring demeanor the detective shows his younger sister in the Netflix film provoked the copyright-holder to sue. However, the generally-ridiculed lawsuit was settled out of court in December, presumably because “warmth and kindness” are hardly unique artistic creations.

But this also evidences the problem with the other side of copyright laws: artworks are importantly different than commodities or other products for sale. Fitzgerald and Doyle weren’t just “doing their jobs,” for example, when they wrote The Great Gatsby and the Sherlock Holmes stories: they were effectively contributing to the cultural fabric of our society and the artworks that we collectively use to texture our social fabric with shared points of understanding and reference. It might be argued that, just as “warmth and kindness” are ubiquitous to the point of being un-copyrightable, the cultural familiarity of a character like “Sherlock Holmes” is (or is becoming) similarly un-copyrightable.

Such is the argument for “Public Domain Day.” Only the most radical defenders of the public domain would argue that copyrights are, in principle, problematic: indeed, artists both need and deserve to be secure to create their art (consider also: how else might audiences expect to come by new art to appreciate?). However, over time, the sedimentation of individual artifacts into the cultural consciousness makes a unique property claim on them less clearly valid — particularly after the original artist’s death. Though details differ by country, it is common now for copyrights to extend (in general) for either fifty or seventy years after the death of the artist, allowing both the original creator and their dependents to uniquely benefit from the artwork for a limited amount of time before legal ownership of the artifact is distributed collectively.

Rawls also carves out a space for thinking about copyrights in this way within his Difference Principle that allows for some individuals to benefit more than others if that inequality also serves to benefit the least advantaged in society: presumably promoting the further and continued creation of new artworks (as copyrights are designed to do) is just such a public benefit. But once the general welfare is no longer upheld by the existence of a copyright, it would be just for the copyright to dissolve — as indeed we see demonstrated and celebrated each year on Public Domain Day.

(A crucial note: you may have noticed my repeated hedging in previous paragraphs as I have defended copyright law “in principle” or “philosophically.” This is because the actual practice of copyright law in the United States is fraught with problematic and unfair issues that Rawlsian principles of justice would struggle to support. Indeed, the extension of copyright terms seen in the last few decades, the corporate interests apparently motivating such legislation, and other threats to a shrinking public domain (as well as unique questions posed by new forms of art and media) are all issues that deserve both philosophical and legislative attention in a way that is far more complicated than the simple picture I’ve sketched in this short article!)

Still, copyrights play an important part for anyone looking to protect the financial interests they have bound up in their art; for the rest of us, Public Domain Day grants us the green light to continue bearing back into the past to bring it forward into today.

Cardi B, Ben Shapiro, and the Pop Culture vs. High Culture Debate

black-and-white photograph of two white men sharing opera glasses ina theater box

Recently, there has been a clash of rival philosophies in the public sphere. Popular rapper Cardi B not too long ago dropped a controversial single. Her song, titled “WAP,” is incredibly raunchy, and its impropriety prompted the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro to accuse it of being demeaning to women. Nonetheless, as we will see, Shapiro’s problem with this song goes far beyond its explicit lyrics. In fact, Shapiro’s criticism of WAP fits into a long history of members of dominant groups criticizing and dismissing instances of “low” culture in favor of “high” culture.

But before that, let’s treat the man charitably and evaluate his critique of the song. In a tongue-in-cheek tweet, he wrote that “it’s misogynistic to question whether graphic descriptions of ‘wet-ass p****’ is [sic] empowering for women.” It is interesting that he focuses on the “graphic” nature of the song. Of course, sex has been a part of pop music since the beginning. And it has always been controversial. The Beatles sang “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” and had their song “A Day in the Life” censored by the BBC. Ostensibly, this was for a drug reference. However the song only contained a reference to cigarettes. John Lennon said he thought the phrase “I want to turn you on” had gotten them censored. But of course, these songs could not today be called “explicit” or “graphic.” So then, maybe Shapiro has a point. Maybe these songs are acceptable but such graphic songs as WAP are not.

Alas, it is not so easy. Shapiro places rappers and The Beatles on the same level regarding “suckage.” How is this position consistent? Well, it seems Shapiro equally dismisses all pop music. We can see this from his tweets comparing rap negatively to Mozart and explicitly stating that he does not consider rap music at all. Combining this claim with his earlier one about The Beatles, we can conclude Shapiro doesn’t consider The Beatles to have produced music either. This is odd given how Rolling Stone Magazine has consistently ranked The Beatles at the top of their list of the “100 Greatest Artists.” To understand Shapiro, to see why he despises WAP so much, we must now consider how one could come to the conclusion that pop music isn’t music.

Much to Shapiro’s chagrin, I’m sure, Mozart is beloved but not as much as he used to be. The rise of popular or “pop” music starting in the 50s with Elvis Presley and solidifying with The Beatles in the 60s meant the end of classical works of Mozart and Beethoven being the standard of music. And these pop artists couldn’t have gotten a foothold without technological advancements like radio democratizing access to music. Before, you either had to go to a concert hall or play the music yourself. And you could really only do the former if you were well-to-do.

In fact, for a very long time there has existed a class distinction when it comes to music, and in fact to all of art. There is “high” art and there is “low” or “pop” art. These compose high and low culture respectively. People will argue a lot about what counts as “high” art but we can come to a decent understanding through some uncontroversial examples: the epics of Homer, the poems of Catullus, the sculptures of Michelangelo, the plays of Shakespeare, and the symphonies of Beethoven. “Low” art (until recently) would not include any writing since only the upper class could write. Additionally, few commoners would be able to afford the marble, paints, and even just paper and ink that are requisite for much of high art. And who could write a symphony without ever having seen more than a few instruments in one place at a time? Again, until recently, all but the upper class had to spend a great deal of time laboring.

Which is better, high culture or low? And is the difference really so substantial as Shapiro makes it out to be? Aesthetics is the study of beauty. When talking about whether one piece or set of art is better than another, we are usually judging them by the standard of beauty. So what makes something beautiful? One camp says that beauty is completely subjective. An old Latin aphorism expresses this: “de gustibus non est disputandum” (“there cannot be arguments about taste”). If this were true, the distinction between high and low culture would be pointless. But of course people do argue about taste. Who has not gotten into an argument about whether this or that song, this or that movie, is superior to another?

One way of settling these arguments by appealing to authority. Let the movie critics at Rotten Tomatoes decide whether the movie was truly good. But those who study literature, sculpture, music, and art will usually judge the classics of high culture as superior to those of pop culture. Movie critics, as everyone knows, love art films more than summer blockbusters. The tastes of critics and the tastes of the public don’t always match. How do we justify ourselves in these cases? And how do the experts themselves decide?

There may be some ways to define beauty or “goodness” more clearly, if not completely rigorously. Good pieces of art are usually complex. They are often difficult to make. They frequently express a message. And of course, most subjectively, good art gives us pleasure, or at least an emotional reaction of some sort. Of course, all of these rules, except possibly the last one, have exceptions. John Cage’s song ‘4’33”,’ which is just silence, isn’t complex. Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedia” artwork isn’t difficult to make: it’s a banana duct-taped to a wall. Alas, it’s not as easy to ascend Plato’s ladder as we had hoped.

The main argument in favor of popular culture and art is that it’s far more pleasurable for more people. Most of us remember the classics of high culture as the books/plays/art/songs we were assigned in boring classes in high school. The argument is easy to make: If Mozart is so good, why don’t more people choose to listen to him?

Now is a good time to consider the other thing that makes art “high” rather than “low.” High art isn’t just good. And not all good art is high art. High art is partially defined by its exclusiveness. How few artistic works of women or people of color are counted as high culture? How many works not produced in Europe? “Rap music isn’t music” was not an uncommon position twenty years ago and even though rap continues to grow in popularity, a rap album hasn’t won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year in over 15 years. Until rap, via white male rapper Eminem, got popular with white men instead of black people, it was simply not accepted. In the same way, until The Beatles got popular with white, adult men instead of just teenage girls, pop music too was considered not to be a legitimate art form.

Cardi B, from the perspective of a high culture aesthete and according to the prejudices of our society, represents the lowest of the low. She is a woman and a person of color. She’s bisexual and a former sex worker. Regardless of whether her music is good or not by any measure we’ve discussed, it would never be counted as high culture and so is dismissed by some as worthless.

Obviously there is a great deal of value in the art which composes high culture. No one would seriously argue that Ode to Joy hurts their ears or that Shakespeare was a hack. And really, opinions like those of Shapiro where popular music and art is dismissed as worthless are vestigial; few hold them and those that do are old. Nonetheless, it is common for our biases regarding the origins of art to sway what would otherwise be legitimate discussions about beauty. Black teens making graffiti are a menace. But when Banksy does it, it’s okay and even counted as high culture. WAP may be a terrible work of art. That’s debatable. But the suggestion that it or any other instance of popular art isn’t art at all isn’t. Any such suggestion is an attempt at exclusion, an attempt to prop up the slowly dying concept of high culture.

Is TikTok Good or Bad for Rap?

photograph of TikTok icon on ipod sitting on empty counter

TikTok has taken over the world by storm. In 2018, it became the most downloaded app on the IOS networks app store with 45.8 million downloads, passing up YouTube’s 35.8 million and Instagram’s 31 million. With around 800 million active users worldwide, the app has been the hub for the latest viral challenges, skits, and dances.

In the wake of TikTok’s popularity comes a very noticeable shift in the music industry, specifically for rap. Lately, rappers look for the success in the virality of their music through TikTok and have continued to engineer their music for the platform. This new wave of rap music coming up through TikTok begs the question if it’s a good thing for the genre or causing a regress.

The power of TikTok and what it could do for the modern day music artist first came apparent with Lil Nas X and his smash hit “Old Town Road.” The song saw a variety of remixes, was the source of endless memes, and maybe most importantly, it sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a record breaking 17 consecutive weeks.

Lil Nas’s success wouldn’t have been possible without TikTok though. Before, his song sat in the void with millions of others hoping for even the slightest exposure. But once it popped up on TikTok and people grew curious about the rap-country mashup playing in the background of other user’s videos, the song exploded from there. Since then, along with Lil Nas’s affirmation, TikTok emphasizes what the app can do for music creators.

With Lil Nas’s success in mind, how is TikTok regressing rap? After all, along with the accolades the app helped his song achieve, TikTok and Lil Nas X demonstrated how versatile rap can be when blended with other genres. It even shed some light on the LGBTQ community’s relationship with rap music when Lil Nas came out as queer.

Maybe the issue isn’t so much with “Old Town Road” than it is with the surge of music artists coming after Lil Nas, looking for their chance at virality and Billboard standing. Since then, countless rap artists and groups have strategized putting their music on TikTok for their chance at pushing their brand, so much so that there are tutorials on how to make music on TikTok go viral.

But in the midst of this scramble for virality, up-and-coming rappers who are already established, as well as seasoned rap veterans, have made their mark with their music on the app. For instance, the rapper/singer Doja Cat’s song “Say So” entered Billboard’s Hot 100 at number 96 after trending on TikTok. Even the living rap legend Drake has gotten in on the app when his 2018 hit “Nonstop” gave rise to the “Flip the Switch Challenge,” where people stand in front of a mirror and change clothes after turning off a light. The challenge received more than half a billion views.

Now, in the midst of the world in quarantine due to COVID-19, Drake released his latest single “Toosie Slide,” a track with lyrics turned instructions for a simple dance that Drizzy seemingly made up on the fly. Like the dance, the song itself isn’t groundbreaking. Yet it reached number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Why? Besides the fact that he’s simply Drake, the Toronto rapper has been doing for years what rap artists looking for virality on TikTok have just started to do—using social media creatively to push music. The majority of people listening to “Toosie Slide” don’t have it on their playlist to study or travel. Whenever the song is playing, the person who turned it on is filming themselves or someone else to post online to go along with the latest trend.

So, yes, tapping in to social media to push music isn’t anything new. But while Drake has always bided his time and made calculated moves with marketing his music, it’s as if rappers looking for TikTok to make their music viral are throwing what they have at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Maybe this is the core of the issue with TikTok and a negative impact on rap. The genre is over saturated to begin with. But now, with the advent of TikTok and its formulaic nature, anyone who’s read a Dr. Seuss book and knows how to use Garage Band has a shot at becoming the next big thing. It seems as if rap artists looking to TikTok for fame are looking for just that. The music itself and the quality of it becomes second to virality.

However, even compelling and unique works can come from the combination of rap music and TikTok, arguing that music quality and virality go hand in hand. Take Tierra Whack, a Philly rapper who made waves in the rap industry with her debut project Whack World. But there’s a catch. There’s a total of 15 tracks on Whack World, and they’re all 1 minute long. For the music listeners who want an immersive music experience, Whack released a 15 minute visual consisting of a series of vignettes that catered to each track.

But the short songs themselves are engineered towards potential listeners on TikTok. It’s easier for users to pick out what they want to use for their 15-second video from a 1-minute song than a 3-minute and longer song. Even a producer that worked on Whack World said that TikTok’s 15-second window is pushing producers  to be more concise with their songs. No more long intros or inside jokes on outros.

But why should TikTok dictate how rap music is made? For likes and to be featured on the app’s main page? This way of thinking is reminiscent of that of those in the PR/advertising industry—modern day Mad Men.

But should music really be made the same way that Super Bowl commercials are? A person with a glass half full way of thinking might say that we should welcome this shift in hip-hop and encourage how the genre is reaching so many people through the app. But then, the most cynical critic could take one look at artists engineering their music to be featured for 15 seconds on an app and say that they’re catering to a generation of listeners with decreasing attention spans.

With TikTok growing ever present in rap, it seems like we’re one generational shift away from the music from the early 10’s and prior being considered archaic. And the amazing thing about rap music is that the genre is always evolving. Though that shouldn’t mean that the past is completely forgotten, and the future is always one that we should be headed for.

Artist, Art, and Appreciation: Where Is There Space for Morality?

photograph of Polanski at Cannes

Roman Polanski, who confessed to drugging and raping a 13-year-old in 1977 and has had a new rape case brought against him this year, did not attend the Césars on February 28th. Protests denounced the 12 nominations his film, titled “J’accuse” and known in English as “An Officer And A Spy,”, received.

“By supporting the aggressors, by celebrating the aggressors, one does not allow the victims to speak out. Their word is denied,” Celine Piques of women’s activist group Osez le Feminisme said.

The entire academy announced their plans to step down following this year’s ceremony in response to disagreements over how to handle cases like Polanski’s. He has only avoided prosecution for his confessed crimes because he fled the US in the 70s; he is still wanted in the US.

“Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims. It means raping women isn’t that bad,” Actress Adele Haenel told The New York Times earlier this week. When Polanski won for best director, boos and shouts spread across the audience, and Haenel walked out, accompanied by others.

Despite the messages of the protestors, the history of resistance against working with Polanski, and France’s Culture Minister speaking out the day of the Césars to say that awarding Polanski with a Cesar would “send the wrong signals,” Polanski continued to characterize his absence from the awards as an attempt to avoid a “public lynching” by feminists.

Putting Polanski’s victim complex and reprehensible tone-deafness aside, we can attend to a common struggle that humans and cultures experience when it comes to valuing art.

It is a hallmark of societies since the Neolithic period that we produce art. Visual art, physical art, music – we are creative creatures that appreciate beauty. Further, so long as folks have theorized, we have come up with views about why we create art, what it is that makes things beautiful, and whether there is distinctive value in such objects and activities.

Cases like Polanski and “J’accuse,” and a disappointing number of others (R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, the list goes on), brings to the fore the question of how our moral evaluation of the creator of art influences or assessment of the art itself. This isn’t a simple question, however, and some distinctions serve us well in tackling the question.

First, there are different ways that something can be valuable. An action, object, or person, can be valuable because it serves a purpose and thus be instrumentally valuable. Or, such things can be valuable because they have moral worth: they could help someone in need, reduce harm, or contribute to a flourishing life. They could be morally valuable. They could be valuable because they are beautiful, or elevate our aesthetic experiences or understanding; this is roughly what we mean to capture when we say that something has aesthetic value.

At the Césars, the protestors claimed it was morally wrong to publicly appreciate Polanski’s art because of our moral evaluation of him as a person. Let’s consider the possible interactions of moral value and aesthetic value.

Some art is revealing in its engagement with immorality in its very content. For instance, part of what makes the work of art valuable is the immoral nature of the work itself: the anti-heroes or villains that play central or significant roles, or immoral actions that are key to the plots. Through exploring the more terrible parts of our natures and horrible things that humans can do, we may gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and each other. For some, the immoral content of a work (its lack of moral value) will impact the aesthetic value of the artwork. Most, however, can acknowledge the value in, say, the villainous Raskolnikov, or disgusting Humbert Humbert, or bullying and two-faced Snape.

However, perhaps it makes sense to be troubled by art with immoral content. If it has immoral effects like bringing out immoral aspects of the audience, or promoting immoral ends, we may have pause about the attitudes we see as appropriate to have towards the art. This conclusion rests on the empirical claims that appreciating or engaging with art that has suspect moral content does promote such ends, however. And there may be a spectrum of appreciation involved with recognition of aesthetic beauty that makes such empirical research difficult. When we recognize the narratives of Dostoevsky and Nabokov as immoral,should that diminish our appreciation of their beauty or technique? Or does it perhaps have implications for the behaviors we ought to consider morally appropriate to take up in relation to such works of art? In other words, there are, roughly, two stances here: we can take aesthetic value and moral content to be independent, or we can take aesthetic value to depend on the moral value of an artwork.

This brings us to another important part of assessing appropriate ways to engage art: its context. Art has performative force, whether it be visual art, performance art, music, or what have you. The context in which it exists is part of its nature and when we characterize the meaning of a work in order to determine the aesthetic or moral attitudes that are appropriate to have towards it, these features must be taken into consideration as well. A painting that is critical of a political leader has different meaning if presented in the square outside the building housing the governing body (where it may constitute a threat), or in a textbook. A piece of music by a classical composer performed for family and friends may not carry the same social messaging as the same music selected as the highlight of an orchestra’s season, where the historical lack of diversity in such selections can make this choice controversial.

These aspects of a work of art, the content and context, can affect how we value it. Or, we can attend to these aspects to consider what attitudes it is appropriate to have towards the art itself. (Or perhaps these amount to the same thing – what is the difference between “valuing” and having an attitude toward something?)

With these distinctions in mind, let’s return to the Césars. A third and controversial issue is how the features of the creator can affect the value of the art. The debate over the extent to which the author’s intention affects the meaning of a piece will continue to loom over discussions of art, but for cases where engaging with the art amounts to engaging with the creator, and praising or celebrating the art means elevating the creator in the community, profession, or culture, the question is less theoretical.

To, as a community, celebrate art by a powerful and immoral creator is, to many, morally reprehensible. This is distinct, it seems, from the judgment that the art is immoral. Rather, it is closer to a judgment about whether it should have been produced in the way that it was.

The film was the product of more than just Polanski’s efforts. A full cast, production team, and crew of people put forth extensive work in order for this artwork to be released and then nominated at the Césars (though they did not attend). Jean Dujardin, who was nominated for best actor in this film, was among those who worked on “J’accuse” and did not attend the ceremony. However, he posted on Instagram, “By making this film, I believed and I still believe I made more good than harm.”

Dujardin seems to have made the judgment that the aesthetic value of the art outweighs the negatives of working alongside, appearing to be indifferent to the wrongs of, or being part of celebrating the work of, Polanski. These are three ways of assessing the “harm” Dujardin could speak of. The “good” presumably is the work of art, which, according to the Césars, is a good film. But the cost of the good film is having a self-avowed sexual criminal in a position of power and influence in the film community for colleagues to work among. The cost of the film is to have those without the power and choices Dujardin has appear indifferent to such harms in order to succeed professionally, and for the outward effect of this appearance for other victims of gender-based violence to receive this appearance of indifference from the film industry. And the cost of the film is to have other films, not facilitated by people with this history, further marginalized by the communities that celebrate art.

The Killing Joke: The Ethics of ‘Joker’

photograph of joker graffiti on wall

Batman and his archnemesis the Joker have been battling for almost eighty years. Since the Joker’s first appearance in Batman #1, the Batman versus the Joker rivalry has been taken from comic book pages and blown up on the big screen. From Cesar Romero’s slapstick take on the clown to Jack Nicholson’s off putting rendition, to Mark Hamill’s comically creepy voice acting, to Heath Ledger’s version, and finally Jared Leto’s, the Joker character has equally creeped out and engaged audiences for decades. Now, the clown has made his return to the big screen in director Todd Philips’ Joker. But this isn’t your typical Batman versus Joker story. It’s all about the homicidal clown’s backstory and how he takes over Gotham City. While the film has received great reviews, there’s a narrative of discontent attached to it. In the wake of a surge of mass shootings in the United States, some moviegoers have called Joker insensitive for how the film handles the character. The controversy surrounding the film asks the question: Should Joker have even been released at the time that it was?

The obvious answer here, and one that a business person or really anyone who can count, is yes. After all, the film earned $849 million globally, and $47.8 internationally over the weekend, with a budget of $64 million. But money isn’t the issue here; it’s what the movie means and how it’s message has translated to audiences.

It all started with the premiere of Joker at the Venice Film festival. The story of mentally ill Arthur Fleck, a struggling comedian in Gotham who has everything taken from him and descends into madness, resonated with the audience in Venice. So much so that the film was awarded a Golden Lion for best film. But on the other hand, critics pointed out that the disturbing story of Arthur Fleck hit too close to home regarding some of the recent events that have occurred in the United States. In Joker, at the peak of Fleck’s misery, he commits murder and realizes that he enjoys it. Finally, at the high point of the movie, Fleck “becomes” the Joker as he commits murder in front of a studio audience.

In response, critics explained that the Joker’s character inspires angry, misogynistic young men who’ve been responsible for far-right and white supremacist violence. Indeed, some of the most recent mass shootings have been caused by white men. For example, in August, Patrick Crusius entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and killed 22 people. Later, it was revealed that his motive was to kill as many Latinx people as possible. Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who murdered 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, was known to have a “desire to kill people.” Self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylan Roof entered a church and killed 9 African American worshippers in hopes of starting a race war. With these mass shootings in mind, it’s then understandable why Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson would say that Joker “may be irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes.” He might have a point. In the film, Fleck’s life automatically garners sympathy, as the opening shot of the film is him getting beaten up in a clown suit. Misfortune after misfortune, it’s almost as if Fleck has no choice but to become the Joker. And at the same time, the film suggests that maybe–just maybe–if a few lies weren’t told and Fleck was loved a bit more, he wouldn’t have become what he did. Now, with this in mind, how many more Patrick Crusiuses and Nikolas Cruzes are out there? What are the chances that they see Joker and identify with the character to such an extent that they feel inspired by him? Even the background of Adam Lanza, the gunman who killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School mirrors Arthur Fleck’s in Joker, as they both have behavioral issues, mental health problems, and detrimental relationships with their mothers. 

But Lawson wasn’t the only one with these concerns either. Families of the victims of the Aurora shooting in 2012, where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers watching The Dark Knight Rises, penned a letter to Warner Bros, the studio that made Joker, calling for them to use their platform to fight gun violence. In response, Warner Bros. said that Joker is not an endorsement of any real-world violence. Todd Philips then went on to say that the movie is more about a lack of compassion in the world than anything, and Joaquin Phoenix, the actor who plays the Joker, remarked that viewers should simply take the film for what it is. Maybe Philips and Phoenix have a point. Philips went on to say that art can be complicated, and it’s often meant to be complicated. Maybe that’s what Joker should be taken as–art. As a movie. Just because the film is relevant to some real-world events shouldn’t mean that it can’t be released or it should be criticized for reflecting real-world issues. The tragic shootings that have happened will always be a part of U.S history, so what difference does it makes if the film came out 5 or 10 years from now? No matter when this movie would come out, the real-world events that have happened would be associated with it.

But then, there’s another side to this Joker controversy. Protesters in Beirut over thecountry’s financial crisis have started to paint their faces like the Joker. Photos of people in Joker masks and face paint have been popping up in Hong Kong and Chile as individuals protests against their respective governments. Internationally, it’s as if the Joker has become a symbol of revolution, not a twisted justification for violence. But if the Joker has then become this symbol for protest, can the film still really be seen as just art–as just a movie? It seems that the film has gone past box office expectations, not in terms of money, but becoming a global phenomenon. In the same vein, the film’s international influence almost prevents it from being contained within itself. It’s sheer influence brings it into the real world. So maybe, the film did need to be released and the world needed to see the Joker on the big screen again. Because either way you look at it, the film proposes an idea–be it terrorism or revolution. Now, since the film’s release, there haven’t been any mass shootings, but perhaps the reason that the film shouldn’t have made it to theaters is the fear of what someone who thinks that those two ideas are synonymous would do.

The Remarkable Odyssey of a Solid Gold Toilet

photograph of solid gold toilet America

In the early morning hours of Saturday, September 14th, a golden toilet named America was stolen from the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Artist Maurizio Cattelan crafted the piece of art in 2016 for an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The toilet is fully functional and was designed to resemble the other toilets in the museum. Patrons had the opportunity to use the costly commode, crafted entirely of 18-carat gold, for the purposes for which such items are typically intended. The work was installed on Thursday of last week, again, in a fully functional fashion, in Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England. A 66-year-old man is in custody in connection with the incident.

America is no stranger to front-page headlines. In keeping with presidential tradition, in 2018, President Trump requested to borrow a work of art from the Guggenheim Museum for display in the White House. In particular, he asked for Van Gogh’s Landscape with Snow. That request was denied. He was offered America instead.

To point out that there are layers upon layers of irony in play in this story would be, perhaps, to state the obvious. One level of irony comes from the fact that a golden toilet that represented income inequality was forcibly torn from its palatial home. The toilet was installed in Blenheim Palace in the same way its less expensive counterparts would be. As a result, stealing it required ripping it out. This was done quickly and caused significant water and structural damage to the room.

The motivations for the caper have yet to be revealed, and it might be amusing to speculate that the perpetrator knew just how ironic his actions would be and that he did what he did for that reason. Such speculation is probably misguided—the work was probably stolen because of the worth of the gold. If this is the case, the whole thing is actually even more poetic and provides a critical insight: it is a luxury to be in the position to view a million dollars worth of gold as nothing more than high art or social commentary. The message that Cattelan was trying to convey when he created America has to do with income inequality in America, and with the inescapable features of existence that we share in common regardless of our differences in wealth, status, and power. The theft of America organically goes meta on that message. The person who stole the piece presumably didn’t think that the best use of a million dollars worth of gold was to ironically adorn the water closet of a British palace somewhere.

It might be tempting to believe that the golden toilet saga represents art at its very best. Here, the value isn’t in the beauty of the piece or in the skill of the artist. Instead, it’s in the fact that it provides a potent motivation for reflection on income inequality both locally and globally. The community of art viewers, including presidents, museum docents, and art thieves, has contributed to the art and to the content of the message—it is an evolving work that reflects back at us who we are and what we value. The question is thus posed in a unique and interesting way. Art is a compelling form of speech. We might conclude, as a result of all of this, that as a human community we ought to take a page out of a toilet thief’s playbook and deconstruct the systems of wealth, privilege, and power that make golden toilets possible.

On the other hand, while we in the west are making toilets out of gold to finally generate long overdue conversations about income inequality, children in impoverished countries are dying of preventable diseases. Communities suffer from lack of access to food, shelter, clean drinking water, and basic medical care. It may be the case that America poses questions about income equality in a way that gets people to sit up and listen, but what does it say about our priorities that this is what it takes to get us to pay attention? Why aren’t we motivated more strongly by empathy for suffering beings?

A further observation has to do with the kind of value that we place on art and the ways in which that value gets expressed. The creation of art has instrumental value and may even have intrinsic value. It may be the case that the process of engaging in creative activity has value all on its own, regardless of whether the work created is good by any objective standard, or whether the creation serves a social function for the community at large. Human beings can be the harbingers of devastating destruction, and it is good to remember sometimes that we can be powerful creative forces as well. It also seems just and fair for artists to be compensated for their work. That said, the art world itself contributes to its own system of social hierarchy. Not all creation is created equal, and maybe it shouldn’t be. One great irony of the golden toilet heist is that six million dollars of the seven million dollar valuation of the art is the work’s value as art. Only one million dollars of the valuation is located with the gold of which the piece is comprised. Our valuation of art contributes to class-based distinctions. The possession of highly-valued fine art is a status symbol. Last year, a sculpture called “Rabbit,” created in 1986 by artist Jeff Koons sold for 91.1 million, setting a record for the most expensive work sold by a living artist. The sculpture resembles a rabbit-shaped silver Mylar balloon. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of people in sub-Saharan Africa died of Malaria, while multi-million dollar rabbits sat on the tabletops of the elite.

Inclusion, Artistic Expression, and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

Photograph of two women in dresses and a man on a stage with a Victoria's Secret pink background

On December 3rd, 2018, Victoria’s Secret put on their annual fashion show. Every year the event attracts millions of viewers. The runway-style presentation features popular entertainers and extravagant props, sets, and costumes. Despite the high profile status of the participants, ratings for the event have declined over the years. In 2018, the event produced the lowest ratings in its more than twenty year history.

The 2018 show faced criticism for its lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion and for comments made by the company’s CEO Ed Razek. When asked about potential inclusion of trangender and plus-size models, Razek said:

“If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have …It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world, and any other fashion brand in the world would take it in a minute, including the competitors that are carping at us. And they carp at us because we’re the leader.”

Many viewed these comments as highly insensitive.  

A number of fairly high profile people have responded to this conception of “fantasy” in noteworthy ways. In 2015, androgynous model Rain Dove took to social media to make a point about beauty standards. Dove’s physical appearance does not conform to societal expectations—they have been hired to walk on runways for both male and female fashion lines. Dove took pictures of themself in Victoria’s Secret lingerie, some with pictures of Victoria’s Secret models taped on their face and some without to make the point that beauty, and fashion as art, does not have to comport with a binary understanding of gender.

Since 2016, supermodel Ashley Graham, well known for her activism for the cause of diversity in the fashion industry, has taken to social media to express her view that the Victoria Secret fashion show should be more inclusive. This year, she posted photos from her Ashley Graham for Addition Elle lingerie runway show, which featured models of all shapes and sizes. She included the hashtag, seemingly directed at Victoria’s Secret, #BeautyBeyondSize.

To many, it just seems like good common sense for brands to be more inclusive. Most people don’t look like Victoria Secret models. Human beings come in a range of shapes and sizes and express their identities in different ways. It sure seems as if there is good money to be made by appealing to a broader range of people.

If the issue is considered from the perspective of what would be best for society at large, it seems fairly clear that the public good would be advanced by inclusion. Too many people look in the mirror and hate what they see. Our relationship to our bodies is an existential matter. When that relationship is unhealthy, it can feel that we are trapped in a foreign and uncomfortable space. The hope is that this aspect of people’s lives could be transformed for the better if society stops sending the message that people can love themselves only if the body they occupy is shaped in a particular way.

What’s more, it would just be more convenient if the fashion industry were more inclusive. People would be happier if they knew they could reliably walk into a store and purchase attractive clothing that they would be comfortable wearing. As it is, people from a range of diverse groups must shop online or find specialty stores to meet their needs. This strikes many as discriminatory and unnecessary.

That said, even if we acknowledge all of these points, even if we think that change needs to happen, we still need to figure out how the change should happen, and the case isn’t as morally simple as it may appear. Fashion is a form of art. As we’ve seen, some people object to the way it gets made and to the form that it tends to take. If society objects to a form of art, does the obligation fall on the artist to stop making art of that type? Art can be a form of speech. Presumably, that’s part of the issue with the Victoria’s Secret fashion show—it sends the message that these and only these are the kinds of female bodies that are attractive. In his controversial comments, Razek essentially admitted as much—the fashion show is a fantasy and “Angel” bodies are the bodies worth fantasizing about. We might find that message ugly, but does it follow, then, that Razek should change his message or even quit speaking entirely? We rightly value free speech and freedom of artistic expression. What’s more, the ugly part of the message surely isn’t the only part of the message. Even if fashion shows aren’t your cup of tea, even if you find them objectifying, it’s difficult to deny that beauty of a certain type is being celebrated there. Is it wrong to celebrate that beauty because doing so fails to celebrate other forms of beauty?

There are several options open to consumers who would like to see the fashion industry change. First, people interested in fashion can create their own art—art that is geared toward a more diverse clientele or that is committed to celebrating the beauty of a diverse range of bodies. This suggestion is intuitively appealing, but it’s also important to recognize the incredible difficulty a startup fashion line would have competing with a fashion giant like Victoria’s Secret. Industries and institutions engage in gatekeeping. Those with the power have little interest in sharing it when it doesn’t satisfy their interests to do so. Humans are not unlike other animals in the sense that we engage in sexual competition for mates. We use fashion, in part, to fabricate peacock feathers as a sexual display to potential mates. The fashion industry has tremendous power as the puppeteers guiding the motions of important human interactions. The power players are unlikely to hand over the strings to new people with subversive ideas about how or even why the puppets should move. That said, no artist or set of artists could advance an alternative message if no one tried.

Another, more accessible approach is for consumers to speak with their wallets. Some existing and successful companies are tuning into the fact that there is a not small customer base that would like to see fashion change dramatically. Consumers of all shapes, sizes, and presentations can buy fashion from companies that share their values.

‘Toto Forever’ and the Ethics of Sound Pollution

Namibian sand dunes outlined against blue sky

In early 2019, Namibian artist Max Siedentopf revealed his newest sound installation: six solar-powered speakers hidden somewhere in the Namib Desert with an mp3 player programmed to repeatedly play one song – Toto’s quadruple platinum 1982 hit, ‘Africa.’ Dubbing the project ‘Toto Forever,’  the artist explained to the BBC “[I] wanted to pay the song the ultimate homage and physically exhibit ‘Africa’ in Africa…Some [Namibians] love it and some say it’s probably the worst sound installation ever. I think that’s a great compliment.”

With nearly 500 million recorded listenings on Spotify (and over 447 million views on YouTube), Toto’s rock-pop smash hit remains as unusually popular with contemporary fans as it was when first released nearly four decades ago. Dozens of covers circulate online, redone in genres ranging from heavy metal to 8-bit electronica to jazz saxophone, and ‘Africa’ has been featured in television shows like South Park and Stranger Things, tributed by celebrities in home movies, and sampled heavily in Pitbull’s ‘Ocean to Ocean’ from the soundtrack of 2018’s billion-dollar blockbuster film Aquaman.

But what are the ethical implications of consistent sound pollution in an otherwise untouched ecosystem? Should the widespread popularity of ‘Africa’ in America allow the song to pollute Africa itself?

Although it is designed to withstand the harsh climate of Namibia’s coastal desert, Siedentopf admits that the environment will eventually “devour the installation entirely,” leaving the plastic components of the project to decay in the sand – however, long before this sort of waste becomes an issue, the persistent drum beat of the four-and-a-half minute song will inevitably affect the local environment for the worse as it, among other issues, drives away animals, thereby disrupting the natural balance of the ecosystem.

Sometimes called the “forgotten stepchild of the environmental movement,” concern for noise pollution has increased as technological developments over the last century have led to ever-widening varieties of aural litter. Although activists groups like the Noise Abatement Society or the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse are often focused on the consequences for humans who cannot escape the sounds of traffic, phone notifications, emergency sirens, and the like, the broad ecological consequences of modern technology are also an area of real concern. Consider, for example, the NAS’s wind turbines campaign that aims to raise awareness about some unexpected side-effects of this green energy source that often sounds like, in the words of a family living near a wind farm in northwestern England, “a washing machine that’s gone wrong. Its whooshing drumming just goes on and on…it’s an audio version of Chinese Water Torture. The noise is such that it is felt as much as heard.’

While wild areas are often far from quiet themselves, it is not hard to imagine how the introduction of artificial sounds can adversely affect local populations. As Kirsten Parris and Robert McCauley explain, such noise “can affect an animal’s ability to hear or make it difficult for it to find food, locate mates and avoid predators. It can also impair its ability to navigate, communicate, reproduce and participate in normal behaviours.” Although the consequences of such disturbances can take time to present themselves, the ripple effects of food chain disruption can be catastrophic in the long run.

Often, environmental activism depends on something like cost-benefit analyses to determine how much inconvenience should be allowable in return for green initiatives; in the case of ‘Toto Forever,’ a largely conceptual artwork that has already started to fade from the public consciousness, the math does not seem difficult. Not only has whatever popular aesthetic value produced by Siedentopf’s piece already begun to fade, but that value must be weighed against the invasive effects of unnecessary noise on the local ecosystem of “one of world’s oldest and most biologically diverse deserts.” More importantly, this can be a case that draws popular attention more broadly to the ethical issues of noise pollution in general – something that “a hundred men or more” could certainly do something about.

On Bad Artists, Good Art

Photograph of an older TV with "The Bill Cosby" displayed on it

It is becoming a common occurrence to read in the news that one of your favorite actors, musicians, filmmakers, or other celebrity does not have the quality of moral character that you perhaps thought they did. Examples are plentiful: Bill Cosby has been convicted on three cases of aggravated assault against women (and been accused of many more); Harvey Weinstein was recently indicted on rape chargers; Kevin Spacey has been accused of sexually propositioning a minor; Spotify recently decided to remove the songs of R Kelly from the platform amid many allegations of sexual assault; and most recently (at least, at the time of writing this) Rosanne Barr’s racist tweets resulted in the cancellation of the reboot of her show Rosanne. What inevitably follows each new accusation, indictment, arrest, or general revelation are articles, opinion pieces, and discussions online and in print asking the same question: is it okay for me to watch shows, or movies, or listen to music, made by people who have done reprehensible things? Continue reading “On Bad Artists, Good Art”

Is There a Problem With Scientific Discoveries Made by Harassers?

A scientist taking notes next to a rack of test tubes.

The question about bias in science is in the news again.

It arose before, in the summer, when the press got hold of an inflammatory internal memo that Google employees had been circulating around their company. The memo’s author, James Damore, now formerly of Google, argued that Google’s proposed solutions to eradicating the gender gap in software engineering are flawed. They’re flawed, Damore thought, because they assume that the preponderance of men in “tech and leadership positions” is a result only of social and institutional biases, and they ignore evidence from evolutionary psychology suggesting that biologically inscribed differences in “personality,” “interests,” and “preferences” explain why women tend not to hold such positions.

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The Berkshire Museum and the Ethics of Selling Art

The Berkshire Museum in Western Massachusetts, which has 40,000 objects in its collection, including both works of art and historical artifacts, plans to sell 40 works of art to help fund a building renovation and to add to its endowment. According to NPR, the museum sees this move as essential to its continued success and financial stability. Van Shields, executive director of the museum, claimed, “To survive, it is change, move, or die — we have to change… It is not about what we have. It is about who are we for.”

However, some in the larger world of art museums have protested the move. The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors reportedly urged the Berkshire to reconsider its decision. Particularly, some have objected to the fact that among the paintings to be auctioned are some paintings by Norman Rockwell, who lived his last 25 years in the same county where the Berkshire Museum is located.

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Fearless Girl, Charging Bull… Sketchy Dog?

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Wall Street standoff between the Fearless Girl and the Charging Bull sculptures. It’s quite clear that Americans are still split between Team Girl or Team Bull, but now there is a new player in the mix.  Recently, Charging Bull gained a new ally in the form of a temporary installation named Sketchy Dog, who spent his few hours of fame urinating on the girl.

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Social Issues as Product Promotion: Exploitation or Artistic License?

On April 4, Pepsi recalled an ad less than 24 hours after its release on account of ridicule for its insensitivity towards social justice movements. In the ad, Kendall Jenner is in a photoshoot when she notices a protest occurring outside. Prompted by a head nod from one of the protesters, she joins the crowd and eventually hands the police officers on duty a Pepsi; outbursts of applause and cheering come from the crowd when the officer accepts the Pepsi.

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In Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, Interrogating the Aesthetics of Erasure

In the wake of numerous killings of black men and women by police, representation of black death in media and art has become a heated debate. The most recent turn in this discussion does not surround a recent killing, but a murder over six decades old. At the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a prominent art show in New York, artist Dana Schutz has faced sustained protest from artists and activists over Open Casket, a painting depicting the body of Emmett Till, a black teenager brutally murdered by two white men in 1955.

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Richard Mosse and the Ethics of Photographing Crisis

The ongoing Syrian refugee crisis has raised ethical concerns surrounding immigration, borders, and terrorism. However, one less-discussed ethical dilemma surrounding refugees is that of photojournalism and art. Irish photographer Richard Mosse made headlines last week after publishing photographs taken of refugee camps using cameras with military grade thermal radiation. The photographs are extremely detailed and might even portray a sense of voyeurism.

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Rebellion and Passion in India’s Indie Music Scene

The world only knows Indian music from Bollywood’s “filmy” ballads and cinematic love songs. Music in India seems to enter the world in few forms other than through the cinema industry.  However, Bollywood does an incomplete job of representing the music of India just as the iTunes charts would to Americarepresenting only the big, mainstream record artists. Under the wraps of a Bollywood-obsessed entertainment scene, there is a burgeoning independent Indian music industry that is teeming with life and passion. It is young, determined, and rebellious. This indie music industry surfaces many interesting questions about art’s longstanding struggle against capitalist values and the role of anti-establishment industries in societies like India’s.

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Should Theatre be a Safe Space?

Recently, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the smash Broadway musical, Hamilton. During closing curtain remarks, Pence was directly addressed by the cast of the musical. The address encouraged Pence and the rest of the Trump administration to uphold their promise to truly be an administration working toward the welfare of all Americans. The cast expressed that the diversity represented in their multi-ethnic retelling of the founding of America is a true representation of the American dream and that Trump’s administration should respect the diversity so cherished in American values. You can view the full video of the address here.

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