A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 1

by Haley on April 22, 2015

Haley Thurston is a resident blogger visiting us from her home turf at The Sublemon.

Art criticism, whether written by professionals or fans, is plagued by nonspecificity and a lack of self-justification. Things are implied to be good or bad, without a very good explanation for why we should consider them good or bad. For example, why is an “unrealistic character” a bad thing? How about “emotional dishonesty” or “implausible scenarios”? How about killing characters to prove seriousness? How about bringing characters back from the dead to please your audience? What about music that’s too loud or a scene that’s sexually violent? What about something that “celebrates the laborer” or something that is about “the relationship between abstraction and figuration”?

We can look at all of this disagreement, and say that the only common ground is that a quality didn’t work for someone, or it did. I think that does people’s intuitions a disservice. The fact that the experience of art is subjective is a fact, but for my purposes trivially a fact, the way that the experience of gravity is subjective, but gravity continues to exist whether one is in the Mariana Trench or the ISS. When people describe goodness or “beauty” in art, it seems to fall under five categories:

  1. A display of skill awed me
  2. I had a heightened experience
  3. The work gave me animal pleasure
  4. It is morally good that this work exists
  5. The work accurately described reality

I believe it is the confusion of these categories and not the idea of some qualities of artistic goodness being quantifiable or describable that is misguided, and it’s a lack of good vocabulary for what art actually does that continues to make these categories so mercilessly tangled.

I’m going to start today with number five, the relationship between realism and artistic goodness, and I’ll work my way through the others in subsequent posts. What do we mean when we say a work of art feels real? Emotionally real? Factually real? (Is there a distinction?) The Dardenne Brothers are very, very good at what they do, and so have been any number photographers, documentarians or 17th century portraitists. But those artists don’t feel any more artistic or vital, per se, than Picasso or Lord of the Rings. Realism seems to rank about as high as being made more than 100 years ago as far as getting your work of art appreciated goes.

So what are some better words?

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The Capitalist’s Zombie

by Venkat on April 15, 2015

I’ve been in Chile for a few days, preparing to lead some sessions over the next week or so at a startup bootcamp put together by Exosphere. Naturally, my mind has been wandering to other matters Chilean.

Chile, as an acquaintance remarked recently, has an economy based on two things: copper and astronomy. It’s also an economy that is to economists what Southwest Airlines is to management consultants: a very significant case study. It was the site of neoliberal experimentation by the Chicago School in the 1980s. More recently, it has been the site of the hilariously adolescent Ayn-Randian-Libertarian experiment that was Galt’s Gulch.

I was pondering these matters as I was shopping for, among other things, an interesting local beer to fuel my time here. After some fumbling with my near-non-existent Spanish (with some help from my Italian host who fumbles less), I ended up with a sixpack of something called Baltica Dry.


It is apparently the pretty-decent-and-cheap local Löbrau. It does not really appear to be “local” in any sense other than the brand name. As best as I have been able to discover, it appears to be brewed and canned for the Chilean market by Anheuser-Busch in the US (the particular sixpack I bought appears to have been canned in Uruguay though). So now, I basically have no clue about the provenance of my beer.

Baltica Dry is an example of what I call a capitalist’s zombie.

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The Essence of Peopling

by Sarah Perry 04.08.2015

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm. Nouns for human beings – “people” or “person” – conjure in the mind a snapshot of the surface appearance of humans. Using nouns like “people” subtly encourages thinking about people as frozen in time, doing nothing in particular. “People” is an anchor for thinking about human bodies […]

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The Art of Gig III

by Venkat 04.02.2015

And now for the thrilling finale. Read Parts I and II first.  I exited the AspireKat building at a slight trot. Time was of the essence. Anscombe was scurrying to keep up with me, trying to type with one hand on his open laptop, balanced on the arm of his Starbucks-mug hand. “Figure out Donna’s home address […]

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The Art of Gig II

by Venkat 03.26.2015

Read Part I first. I shut the door of the conference room gently behind us. We could still hear Khan and Isabella out in the reception area, but their voices were now muted. Saul seemed to be in some sort of philosophical reverie as he made his way to his chair. Guanxi looked at me […]

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The Art of Gig

by Venkat 03.19.2015

I don’t talk about my consulting gigs much on this blog, since there is surprisingly little overlap between my money-making work and my writing. But many people seem to be very curious about precisely what sort of consulting I do, and how that side of ribbonfarm operates. Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain without talking about actual […]

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The Art of Agile Leadership

by Venkat 03.12.2015

Like most of you, I have no idea what I am doing 98.3% of the time I make a decision. Of that slice of the pie, I am actively getting it not-even-wrong 93% of the time. I bumble through on the strength of the 5.3% of the time I get it right by accident, and […]

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Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty

by Sarah Perry 03.04.2015

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm. This essay attempts to place ritual in the context of evolving complex systems, and to offer an explanation for why everything is so ugly and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. On Boundaries and Their Permeability Boundaries are an inherent, universal feature of […]

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The Mother of All 2x2s

by Venkat 02.25.2015

A few weeks ago, I tweeted that I had made up the mother of all 2x2s — taxes vs. play/death vs. life — and that a large fraction of the models I’ve been playing with over the last couple of years, here on this blog, seem to fall neatly into (or are amenable to being […]

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A Dent in the Universe

by Venkat 02.18.2015

At higher levels of the Maslow hierarchy, imagination is a survival skill. At the apex, where self-actualization is the primary concern, lack of imagination means death. Metaphoric death followed by literal death of the sort that tortured artists achieve through suicide. Less sensitive souls, such as earnest political philosophers and technically brilliant but unimaginative mathematicians, seem […]

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