Big Data Aesthetics?

Experimental philosophers aim to use empirical methods to inform philosophical enquiries. Since many of the early, prominent, influential works make heavy use of the contrastive vignette technique, it is easy — especially for those already hostile to experimental philosophy — to think that experimental philosophers don’t do anything but CVT studies.

That’s a mistake. Methodologically, experimental philosophers are a heterogeneous bunch. Meskin, Phelan, Moore, and Kieran conducted an experiment that involved visual priming. Chandra Sripada used structural equation modeling to shed new light on the side-effect effect. And, to come back to one part of the title of this blog post, Nicole Hassoun and collaborators harnessed the “big data” from the micro-lending institution Kiva to uncover how people think about distributing aid.

Onto the other part of the title: aesthetics. Can “big data” inform philosophical aesthetics?

Before that question can be answered, we need to consider another, even more pressing question. Where can such data come from?

Any proposed “big data” study faces a difficult challenge right from the start: getting the data. The kind of information that is most accessible, such as the ones that can be gleaned from art history textbooks, is also inevitably heavily biased toward the relatively few iconic artworks. Datasets constructed this way would be unlikely to give a fully informative picture of the artworld. So when it comes to highly abstract philosophical questions, say about the nature of art, such datasets seem to be only of limited use.

Where else can we look? Thankfully, as I learned from the wonderful blog Museum 2.0, many museums — notably the Tate — are now making datasets of their collections openly accessible. Although the Tate dataset has only been available since the beginning of this month, there are already fascinating, if preliminary, findings from it. (Of course, researchers also encountered some serious problems in the mean time: notably, not all objects in an art museum’s collection are artworks.)

As a first-pass reaction, there seems to be much that can be learned from “big data aesthetics”. What say you, readers? Which questions in philosophical aesthetics, on your view, would be most amenable to empirical investigations using the museum collection datasets?

[x-posted at Experimental Philosophy Blog]


Mere Exposure to Bad Art

One of the precursors to our project is the paper “Mere Exposure to Bad Art” by Aaron Meskin, Mark Phelan, Margaret Moore, and Matthew Kieran. Here is a quick synopsis:

In a 2003 study, psychologist James Cutting briefly exposed undergraduate psychology students to canonical and lesser-known Impressionist paintings (the lesser-known works were exposed four times as often), with the result that after exposure, subjects preferred the lesser-known works more often than did a group of students who had not been exposed. Cutting concluded that mere exposure explains a great deal about the formation of artistic canons. If he’s right, then repeated viewing of the ‘bad art’ on Tumblr might make you like it more.

We reported findings suggesting that increased exposure to art works does not necessarily make people like them more. Instead, the quality of an art work remains at the heart of its evaluation.

After its publication, the paper received a good deal of press. Here is a sample:

Related Research Output:

Aaron Meskin, Mark Phelan, Margaret Moore, and Matthew Kieran (2013). Mere Exposure to Bad Art. British Journal of Aesthetics 53(2): 139–164. DOI:10.1093/aesthj/ays060

Art, Race, Curatorship

From NPR’s Code Switch blog comes a fantastic piece about the ethics and aesthetics of curating race- or ethnicity- or gender-centric art shows.

So is there such a thing as “Latino art” or “Asian art” or “African-American art”? Are they “racial hang-ups,” as African-American artist Raymond Saunders put it in his 1967 essay “Black is a color”? Or are they necessary categories that force white-run museums, publishers and concert halls to recognize artists of color?

Included in the discussion is the philosopher / conceptual artist Adrian Piper:

But that brings up a larger issue: Are museums doing an artist a favor or a disservice when they group shows together around ethnicity or gender rather than aesthetics? Adrian Piper believes it’s a disservice. She’s a conceptual artist whose work is in the collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She recently demanded that a film of hers be removed from a show of black performance art. Piper preferred not to be interviewed, but she sent NPR the email she sent to the show’s curator. In it she wrote that “as a matter of principle,” she does not allow her work to be exhibited in “all-black shows,” because she believes these shows “perpetuate the segregation of African-American artists from the mainstream contemporary art world.”

(See also her announcement on retiring from being black.)

A truly thought-provoking discussion!