Can we trust aesthetics to be fair ?
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“Illustrators should only be hired based on the quality of their work, not their identity” reads the comment on a post calling for LGBTQIA+ illustrators to send their portfolio. My first instinct is to explain from my own perspective, as a queer artist, what it means to feel that an organization values my experiences, or acknowledge the systemic obstacles to certain spaces of the industry for marginalized folks. But this has been done, and more eloquently that I could articulate it myself here. What I can do though, what is more rarely done, is to take this idea seriously. What if indeed, the quality of the work what was all that mattered when it comes to deciding who gets to work in the creative industry ?
I see three premisses to this original statement. The first is about the quality of the work, and what it means to do “good work” and who gets to decide. The second deals with work, as in paid labour, and how it is distributed in a competitive market. Thirdly, the last piece has to do with identity and whether aesthetic judgments should take into account who is doing the “good work”. Tying these three threads together I see a concern for an ethics and fairness.
This discussion is about to get philosophical but bear with me, I’ll do my best to articulate the abstraction of philosophy with concrete examples from the creative industry. So, let us ask the question : Can we trust aesthetics to create a fair creative industry ?
The good, the bad and the ugly
What do we talk about when we talk about the “quality” of an illustration ? What makes an illustration beautiful ? Who gets to define what is beautiful ? Is beauty the only criteria ? Is aesthetic pleasure universal ? These questions are what the field of Aesthetics is trying to answer. To give a bit of flesh to these questions, let’s bring in two major thinkers on the topic. The first one is XVIII th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. The second, XX th century sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.
For Kant, aesthetic judgment was a “subjective universal”, which means that while finding something beautiful is a personal experience, it’s anchored in a concrete reality and we can think that everyone ought to feel the same way. For example if I find an illustration beautiful, I should be able to argue why and convince others that it is indeed, beautiful. Unlike appreciating the taste of cilantro, judgment of taste ought to be universal too. It must also be disinterested, we ought to feel pleasure from the experience of beauty, but not think something is beautiful because it brings us pleasure. This way, Kant situated judgment of taste above any social or cultural understanding of the beautiful as something pertaining to a certain common sense.
Bourdieu, on the other hand, argues that taste is always contextual and contingent on - particularly - social class. For him, what is considered the legitimate taste is actually the one of the ruling class. People always use aesthetic judgments to social ends, notably to classify themselves and others. As he famously argued,
“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed” (Distinction) Bourdieu
Note here how the aesthetic pairs Bourdieu is using to illustrate his point are anything but neutral and objective. “the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar”, these are normative judgments loaded with socio-cultural meanings, not simple categories.
Thanks to Immanuel and Pierre, what constitute a “beautiful illustration” is now a much more complex question. On the one hand, illustration quality doesn’t really fit within the disinterested criteria of Kant since illustration - to a certain extent - always serves a purpose. On the other hand, if what is considered beautiful is socially constituted, how can we ever trust our perception to judge an artwork’s value ? And should we ? The problem with talking about the quality of the work as an absolute criteria is we rarely get to know who is defining the good, the bad or the ugly. As artist Dan Ritter has written :
A primary problem that results from using a specific aesthetic criterion for judging the quality of an artwork is the evaluation of the criterion itself. [...] The primary aesthetic question “What is good art?” becomes dependent on the question “What is beauty?” The subjectivity of defining good art is replaced with the subjectivity of defining beauty.
Aesthetic judgments have the uncanny ability to cover their tracks. Like a shape-shifting octopus, they crawl at the bottom of our collective subconscious and disappear. As I mentioned last week, a lot has been done by decolonial creatives to expose the ways “beautiful” became a shortcut for white settler aesthetics. But the point raised by the comment quoted in the introduction isn’t simply about pure aesthetic experience, it’s about work, success and who deserves it.
Get your ass up and (art)work
The term meritocracy has gained a lot of popularity in the past decades, it became an unquestioned goal to achieve exemplified by the plethora of so-called “self-made” [insert any economically successful profession]. Broadly defined, meritocracy is “a system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit”. We can trace this idea back to the Protestant (specifically Calvinist) work ethic according to which God helps those who help themselves and the more work you do, the closest you get to save a spot in Heaven (while accruing a lot of capital along the way).
Now, artists have their own version of this, what philosopher Shen-yi Liao has called “aesthetic meritocracy”, the notion “that only aesthetic merits or demerits should determine our allocation of attention and time [to an artwork]”. We hope the “best art works” will naturally emerge and the “best artists” will become successful by the sheer quality of their work. Such aesthetic meritocratic system is maintained through different mechanisms in the creative industry. For example, I often hear or read advice to beginning illustrators along the lines of “keep posting and good things will come” or “just do the work you love and it will eventually work out”.
Québec has a set of laws determining what constitutes a “professional artist” and the protections such artists can claim. While the attribution of the status is mostly based on quantitative metrics (number of publications, exhibitions, etc.), until recently the association of Québec illustrators was granting the status based on a qualitative assessment of the work of candidates. This made the process of deliberation not only more complex but also highly subjective (in a Kantian way), depending on who was on the jury that year and their aesthetic judgment of what constitute a “good work”. This is not just philosophy. The status allows said “professional artists” to claim a generous tax credit. This way, “aesthetic merit”, or having one’s work deemed “good”, has a very real, economic impact of creatives lives.
While comments like the one that sparked this text often speak of the ideal of a meritocratic world as a thing that already partially exists, or that used to exist before things like affirmative action became more common. In practice though, Shen-yi Liao reminds us we are far from being an actual meritocratic society because, well, we’re far from living in an ideal one :
[...] the social structures of the world makes it very unlikely for us to be good aesthetic meritocrats. Structural forces like colonialism, racism, and sexism make it very likely that many worthy works are simply inaccessible to many people, including us. The same structural forces also make it very unlikely that the works you discover—via popular media, via your friends’ shares, via algorithms’ recommendations—just happen to be the most worthy ones.
The danger of thinking that aesthetic meritocracy has ever been real is this ignores the ways social but also technological and economic structures have always limited what art we are able to see, let alone value. Illustrators who started on social media like Instagram in the pre-algorithm era have been able to accrue thousands of followers by the mere quantity (not quality) of work they would post online. Today, unless you’re willing to really spend time working for Instagram by increasing “engagement”, you’d be lucky if 10% of your followers see your work. How much the work is worth to the attention economy guides what we’re able to experience, not its quality.
In the context of the creative industry, aesthetic value and economic value are so closely related that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate them. But as philosopher Michael Sandel wrote in his book The Tyranny of Merit : “Being good at making money measures neither our merit nor the value of our contribution”. When certain aesthetics are reinforced by privately-operated algorithms, visibility turns into a certain type of capital in the form of followers. I have seen many occurrences of the ways an artist’s following matters to some brands when it comes to hiring illustrators. This doesn’t mean popular work is bad work, but it doesn’t mean it’s better work. Hoping for the “good work” to naturally rise to the top in our attention-driven, hyper-competitive creative industry is like hoping for a feather to spontaneously rise from a tub of tar.
Illustration will always be tied to late stage capitalism as we provide the raw material for stylized commodities people consume everyday. What our work looks like, where it appears and how will always be tied to some other agenda. Working toward a fairer industry means redefining together the terms of the discussion. This involves talking about how we can change the structures and systems that maintain certain aesthetics on top and excludes others, rather than merely be “inclusive”. In an article about how classical music has excluded black music on an aesthetic level, Chris Jenkins, the associate Dean at Oberlin Conservatory explains that in a redeeming effort,
Like many fields, classical music’s chosen method of diversifying has not addressed its own values and approaches in order to become more inclusive, but rather has sought to diversify the population in which it inculcates a particular set of aesthetic priorities. Consequently, aesthetics themselves can end up constituting a structural barrier to diversification.
Aesthetic meritocracy is not the solution to social inequalities in the creative industry, it’s part of the problem. An aesthetic judgment is not really the subjective, common sense response to the beautiful and the sublime Kant described, it’s a semiotic practice that reinforces a powerful, normative structure grounded in western colonialism. As Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vazquez showed :
“[...] aestheTics was universalized and became used as a normative framework within European philosophy. AestheTics, as many other normative frameworks of modernity, was used to disdain or ignore the multiplicity of creative expressions in other societies.”
We don’t need more people to be able to compete on this normative aesthetic market (the neoliberal idea of inclusivity) but as Chris Jenkins mentioned, we need to open up what we consider aesthetically worthy in the first place, to question the ways we naturalized categories such as “good” or “beautiful” and redefine them from the ground up. But before doing this, there is one resistance idea about works of art and their makers we need to look at.
The FOMO of creative scarcity
Moving away from philosophical thought experiments, let’s look at what actually happens in the creative industry. How do we negotiate the relation between the work and the people who makes it, and should we indeed, value on the work regardless who made it.
I’ve argued before our fundamental concept of “style”, as an assemblage of visual forms, colours, ideas attached to an individual artist stems from economic, rather than creative necessity. When in the XVIII th century Great Britain the statute of Anne gave writers the right to derive an income from the publication of their work, the question of how to link the latter to the former became crucial. Writers suddenly needed to prove their “authorship” over the work and they did so by using the concept of style as the recognizable, inalienable, material form ideas take. This was in line with the growing romantic ideology that art is an expression of an artist’s individuality and, how philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte put it at the time :
“[...] each writer must give his thoughts a certain form, and he can give them no other form than his own because he has no other. But neither can he be willing to hand over this form in making his thoughts public, for no one can appropriate his thoughts without thereby altering their form. This latter thus remains forever his exclusive property.” (1793)
It seems, at least in an economic sense, we believe artworks and artists to be de facto tied together. But economics is not the only way we’re tying art and artists together.
As many of you probably know, the past few years have seen the rise and fall of a “critical discourse” (to be generous) about how a certain type of illustration we could call Flat Art became associated to Big Tech companies and more generally “corporateness”. I wrote a bit about it elsewhere so I won’t be repeating myself too much. But the case of “Corporate Memphis” offers a striking insight into how the creative industry conceptualizes the link between the artist and the artwork.
Unlike the usual case figure of immoral artists doing great art, the Corporate Memphis moral panic was about good artists supposedly making immoral art (or at least for immoral clients). Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before people started associating the work with the moral failure of its creators themselves. Artists working with this style got targeted directly on the assumption they were participating actively (i.e. more actively than the rest of illustrators) to a corporate, neoliberal system. The flatness and colourfulness of the work became a metaphor for the deceitful Big Tech companies that were using it.
It seems odd that while it was so easy to unabashedly turn against artists based on their work, it feels so much harder for our society to turn its back to certain artworks based on the moral failure of their creators. This has to do with the romantic origin of how we conceptualize artistic work in western societies. We tend to see art as a rare gift, originating within rare individuals with special powers and abilities. The issue now is that this makes us very reluctant to give up on great art, because we are so convinced that it’s a scarce resource. No one likes to miss out on a shooting star flashing through the sky for a split second.
But is this FOMO justified ? For Shen-yi Liao, the cultural offer is so vast and our time so limited, there is no point getting too attached to an artwork because it’s “so good” :
For any hypothetical White-Supremacist Swedish black metal band that is worthy, there’s probably a hypothetical non-White-Supremacist Swedish black metal band that is just as worthy. We live in a world where the embarrassment of riches makes this rather likely. So, yes, you will miss out on something good when you stop listening to the White-Supremacist band, but you would also have missed out on something good if you didn’t.
Focusing so much on what we feel is good work as the only way to assess the merits of this work is slippery slope. Aesthetic is a situated concept, merit is a dodgy ideology and ignoring identity seems a bit too convenient. So in the end, can we trust aesthetics to create a fair art world ?
What I judge to be good work is not a mere matter of perception, it’s never been. After years of aggressive social mobility, I remember going back to my parents house and thinking that the decoration was such bad taste. As an educated artist with a serious complex about my modest origins, I had developed a taste for English countryside wallpapers and spent too much time reading House & Garden. Aesthetics became a way for me to participate in some aspects of a social class I couldn’t never really afford.
When it comes to illustration, everyone has their reason to pick one aesthetic over another, The New Yorker has smart conceptual images to stroke an intellectual class’ ego while Facebook uses charming colourful characters to conceal their privacy violations. When so many different agendas are at stake, what does it means to be aesthetically meritorious ? Whether it’s social class, capitalism or racism, aesthetic meritocracy is not only impractical, it may also not be desirable at all. It’s a hard discussion to have. The creative industry is filled to the brim with precarious workers of all horizons trying to “make it”, and neoliberalism would have us think that there can only be a few “winners” in the attention economy war.
What best to conclude than an illustration, figuratively and literally. The Lady Justice is often depicted with a blindfold as a way to signify her impartiality. This reflects our cultural hope for justice to apply to everyone no matter their background. In order to be fair and just, we need to look only to the actions that are being judged, not the person who did it. Aesthetic meritocracy aligns itself with this cultural assumption this might be one reason it might feels like an intuitive way of considering the question of aesthetic worthiness, blind to irrelevant (i.e non aesthetic) factors.
Yet, the first ever depiction of a blindfolded Lady Justice, attributed to Albrecht Dürer in 1494, was actually a satire for the allegorical Ship of Fools. The blindfold, put on by the fool on the woman, symbolized how the justice system was blind to many injustices and was selecting truth arbitrarily. It’s only later that the sign changed meaning to depict impartiality. Maybe the ideas about aesthetics, merit and identity I discussed here constitute our own blindfold, tools we use to think of a fairer future that might actually be the very things that keep us from achieving it.
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