In which there are ghosts

Plato is hard, so let’s shitpost about art.


relatedThe Guardian’s Inferno and Notes on Values


Plato is hard, so let’s shitpost about art.

SSC writes a response to The Good Guy/Bad Guy Myth by Catherine Nichols. Nichols’  piece claims that good vs. evil stories are distinctly modern, older tales were more ambiguous, this was a causal factor for modern nationalism and subsequent atrocities.

On one hand, I don’t want to look a gift-horse in the mouth. I’m in favor of Old Books, they are indeed complex, thanks for the backup. Nichols’ underlying premise is worthwhile: a) Myths and epics and fairy-tales have a moral complexity and ambiguity we casually ignore; b) There has been a genuine shift in values, and while Christianity was part of it, the after-effects of the industrial revolution are much more relevant for our current society.

On the other, I agree with Scott’s criticisms. The historical argument presented is wild. The Spanish conquered most of the Americas between the 16th and 17th centuries under the pretense of moral ineptitude and evil among the natives. They had to be forced into enlightenment, which meant murder, torture, and slavery. Bartoleme de las Casas is considered more rhetorical than accurate, but he says some true things. Here’s his book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies: there’s a lot about feeding people to dogs and slaughtering children for fun, sometimes both at once.

Then again, maybe the Spanish were just early adopters. Pierre Menard (PDF) or Miguel Cervantes wrote a book about simplistic values in literature causing illusory political actions way back in 1604:

And so, having completed these preparations, he did not wish to wait any longer to put his thought into effect, impelled by the great need in the world that he believed was caused by his delay, for there were evils to undo, wrongs to right, injustices to correct, abuses to ameliorate, and offenses to rectify. And one morning before dawn on a hot day in July, without informing a single person of his intentions, and without anyone seeing him, he armed himself with all his armor and mounted Rocinante, wearing his poorly constructed helmet, and he grasped his shield and took up his lance and through the side door of a corral he rode out into the countryside with great joy and delight at seeing how easily he had given a beginning to his virtuous desire.

The Aeon piece is factually incorrect, its timing is screwy, fine. That’s not my problem.  The essay set off a very particular panic point for me.

In making the case that we have a simplistic good/evil binary, it set up its own – nationalist/liberal, politically bad/politically good, whatever you want to call it. Nazi references rule everything, it was not subtle. It argues against art as a tool for training moral values – which I happen to agree with – but makes it, instead, a political tool. Not that she wants that, because she doesn’t, but that it can do that, and thus that art which does such a thing is bad art.

In other words: it uses a political reason to brand certain types of art as “bad.”


Nichols is making a very specific argument, which is that art was politicized. It’s a complaint you hear left and right, hers is from the left, but you’ll find a similar thing on [literally any subreddit].

Now, I’ve argued similar things to Nichols before, but there’s a difference in cause: I don’t think art was politicized, I think our values changed around it. Nichols says: “Good vs. evil narratives are bad because they lead to fascism,” but fascism is how we talk about good and evil. She uses superheroes as an example, so will I: Hellboy is quite literally a demon, and the baddies he fights are nazis. Sure, they summoned him, but playing with the forces of darkness is neutral, it’s a tool. We only know they’re bad because nazis. Politics > earlier moral distinctions.

Where value=good/bad distinctions (roughly), a whole bunch of those got thrown out the window. There were many reasons for this, most of them material, that’s going to take the rest of this blog’s life to try and get at. The upshot of this is that the only things that can pierce our thick hides anymore are political values, as in: good and evil don’t work, they don’t frighten us the same way, something else has to fill in for them, so you no longer reductio to absurdism and Satan but to Hitler and Stalin. “Smartphone obsession is bad, but saying why sounds moralistic, judgmental, old; must be Trump.” Nichols may not intend this, but she’s reifying it: You need to make an analogy, to explain why Hollywood sucks, there is no aesthetic judgment appropriate because “aesthetics are subjective”, and it’s classist and pompous to call comic books uncouth. Must be nationalism (also Trump).

We’re left making arguments that are – on their face – insane, ridiculous slippery-slope arguments about morality and art and [whatever], weird ossified formulations about democracy or socialism or capitalism to express aesthetic preferences. They’re stupid but they work, in roughly the same way that playing Eroica on a kazoo is stupid but will perk the ears of a musicologist. They connect with that dumb fucking panic that used to include Superbowl nipples and pentagrams. Within smaller groups you’ll drop different references: “The narrator of this book… well, he sounds like Greg.” “Oooooh.” Outside of that you need to appeal to broader values. “The narrator of this book… well, he sounds like a commie.” Yes, this is hyperbole, no, I will not back down.

That Eroica thing isn’t a joke: we are all musicologists now, carefully listening to or ferreting out political content to express non-political feelings because we have no other way to do that. Ten bucks says a school-hating tween can still perform a killer Marxist takedown of [literally anything]. It’s easy as breathing gogurt. We have to have learned this. See: all of earth in our age.

Adding to my suspicion that it’s an aesthetic judgment using political language: 1) If there’s an easy reason for modern films to simplify language and theme, it’s not nationalism but internationalism. That’s not a swipe at other nations nor at globalism, it’s just an economic fact: Shakespeare doesn’t translate as well as explosions do, and starting in the 80s to 90s the international market overtook the domestic (stats). Here’s a list of top-grossing films by year, watch what happens. Also: China. I’m not putting China on blast (Soul Mountain is great, but it wasn’t written with you in mind) nor am I saying “nationalist art is the complex one.” I’m saying that these factual inaccuracies are results of the critique, because the use of politics is a circumlocution and saying “international audiences are simplifying art” is , contextually, the opposite of “bad.”

2) “Complexity” is the metric for good, Hollywood is the example of bad, but am I supposed to buy that critically adored indie films are always thematically complex? “Discrimination is bad.” I fully agree, but that’s not a complex theme. It may be handled with powerful aesthetics – not the same as moral complexity – and it’s a good message, but even Superman agrees with it.

3) The two above will be taken as the “real” criticism – “This blogger’s clearly a reactionary, right, Leo?” – because they’re political signifiers. My criticism isn’t of Nichols’ politics, we probably agree about most things, that will not matter.


I’ve made this argument before. A more cautious version of myself would wait for the necessary framework, but I’m going to keep at it until it sticks:

1) Nichols’ article is a perfect example of what I’m talking about, and it appeared now.

2) When I made that critique, I said we have (properly) two values: facts/information/”truth” and politics. Our estimation of art happens to combine that perfectly.

3) It’s dangerous. As in: Nietzsche is terribly mishandled when he’s read too literally (uncritically), and I tend to avoid discussing him for that reason. But if there’s any one line of his to take literally and seriously, it’s the following: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Fail to grasp this and proceed to make a hellscape.

4) I have great interest in The Olds, but if I had to choose one single value that separated modernity from the ancient world, it would be the peculiar way we evaluate aesthetics.

(1) is above. In order:


We’re bad at understanding art. I mean really bad. The instinct is always to abstract from the form, to ignore the things that make it art, and focus on everything reproducible in the wikipedia summary. This explains most of it.

I hate jump scares, they’re obnoxious and easy and boring, here’s 30 minutes of them. Enjoy:

Consider the aspect of sound. Watch them with the volume off and you’ll know what I mean. I get it, this is obvious, blah blah.

Let’s say you’ve just watched a particularly frightening movie, and you’re recommending it to a friend. Horror films have a job, presumably it involves causing horror, so how would you express that this one is good at that job? What would it involve? I assume that the answer is something like “the plot is x“, but that really doesn’t tell you much. “There’s ghosts” describes half the targeted area. Try to replicate the sound of a jump-scare: “It’s like that, movie’s scary as hell.” You’re worse than the chump with the kazoo.

The point of the exercise isn’t “sound designers deserve more credit” – although true – it’s that a whole lot of what makes up the aesthetic experience of art is not capable of expression outside of its own terms. If you try to do so, you will fail, and if you trick yourself into thinking that they are, you will quadruple fail. I’m using horror films here because they’re the most blatantly obvious example, but they’re not unique.

What makes art good?


Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions.

Good art makes us think more deeply and has a moral vision. Bad art gets people to sign up for armies and fight in wars. First: Those aren’t descriptions of pieces of art, they’re descriptions of non-fiction masquerading as art. They’re the horror film’s plot, what it’s about (moral complexity vs. good/evil) rather than what it is. Second: Those are descriptions of utility, art is (presumably) important because it makes us think deeply. Third: All political. Why not exchange it for philosophy, essays, oped columns?

When we talk about “art”, and especially “good art”, we tend to fall into discussing themes. “It’s interesting because it explores x, it’s valuable because it represents y.” Those are analogies. “Why is Invisible Man good?” It’s about existentialism, if you’re white and in a library. It’s about race relations, if you’re white and on a date. Neither is right, it’s about both, it’s not because of both that it’s good, I get this is obvious, it must be said. Aesthetics are hard and this is hasty, but if I wanted to jerry-rig a definition for “good art” it would be “art for which all philosophical analysis can only be an analogy.” That includes metaphysics, religion, politics, all of it. Not that it doesn’t contain those, but for which a list of themes, purpose, intent, biography, etc. would fail to exhaust why it is good. Try to describe what makes Hamlet good. “It’s mellifluous.” Sounds stupid, completely accurate.

Those analogies serve distinct functions, they’re necessary, they’re good. Good art criticism serves a distinct purpose, not the least of which is better appreciation of the piece of art itself. The problem is when you misunderstand the analogy, reinterpret the purpose of the art as information and content. “Why is this a good piece of art?” Its [political content]. Fine, then why is it a piece of art and not an tract? What is its purpose in that format? “Art is important because it trains us to think things about things.” So it’s like better rhetoric, got it. Can’t wait for the Wes Anderson knock-off about an academy brat using Pointillist debate to win the regionals.


I can hear the screams and I know you’re not watching the jump scares video anymore. Ask: why does “thematic complexity” track so well with a high art/low art distinction? We’re judging quality of art based on “amount of information”, which is nonsense, and we’re lying to ourselves. There’s nothing thematically or morally or politcally more complex about high-art, it’s an aesthetic difference. That dude Greg hates French movies because they’re boring. Greg’s more on the money than the critic who praises them for their themes. Sure, you don’t think they’re boring. And? Pacing, style, flow – those differentiate auteur/pleb better than anything else.

I know, that distinction collapsed, it was probably the reds. Same argument: why did that happen? What argument are you going to get from the average scholar? “[Low status art] has just as much – if not  more – complexity and philosophical thought than… Thematically they are the same…” I agree, and? The defense still has an inherent valuation of complexity, theme and information. Run as fast as you can, you are upholding the same structure.

Listen to me now: that quality of work = complexity is not a mistake, nor is it a mistake that we interpret that as the “purpose” of art. We have a faith in the efficacy of information and that alone. “People act based on facts” and art’s purpose is thus making them know the facts. Hence art which discusses [theme] and [such other theme] is no longer good art plus those, it’s good because of those.

Add section (II) to this one and you have it. We turn art into information: “political” or “philosophical” or [whatever], but the bit that strikes us most is political, because we use political values are how we coordinate and determine good and bad.

The effect of this – when we take those metaphors literally, when we fail to recognize them as a lack of diction rather than the introduction of a political one – is the politicization of art. [Artwork] gets associated with [political group], which means it’s bad, tribe it up, etc. But it’s not causal in itself. There was no conspiracy to make art highly political. I mean, there were groups that wanted to, but if they succeeded (which I doubt) it was only because we already had this lack, there was already a mostly-all-politics sublayer to exploit in the exact same way that there had to be a Christian sublayer before a painting could be declared blasphemous.

Also, sure, why not, unscrupulous companies use that to drive sales. Who cares, related.

There is no cabal. We have a poverty of values. You can identify themes and plots and [whatever], but the ultimate experience of beauty is primary, it’s trying to describe qualia, which we have no respect for.


Themes and plots are great for teaching things and examples. I use them all the time, I’m a hypocrite, you caught me. Mythos is useful, but it’s not what makes art important, and judging it on that principle will lead to a nightmare world.


“Does art produce values?”  No, yes, not really.

What art does is affirm, and its method of affirmation is beauty. Beauty is a value. It’s not one we care about. “So art says nothing about culture.” What? It says plenty about culture, but the culture within the art is not the purpose of art. Art is how we affirm, it’s how we make beautiful, it’s the only that we have that can do that. It hallows human existence. If aesthetics is first philosophy, it comes from that: What do I find beautiful, not what pre-approved theme is being made beautiful?

I get that I’m splitting hairs here, but they’re hairs you must split. We do not value beauty, and reducing art to utility – to gussied up scraps of information – is how you destroy it.

“Good art has deep themes” but bad art is only deep themes. People who make bad art tend to be people who are bad at art, both the creating and the understanding aspects. They know that Good Art Says Important Things, where important things=Stuff About The Poor or perhaps The Evanescent Sadness Of Human Existence, and then they set out to write about that.

Yeah. “There’s ghosts.”

It’s pretty common to refer to obscure philosophers as bad poets, and I think that’s accurate and just. It’s equally accurate and just to refer to a whole lot of modern artists as bad philosophers.


Briana Rennix and Nathan Robinson’s Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture comes closest here, quite possibly because Architecture was wrecked before anything else. (Note that before making the case for beauty they have to make the “this is why it’s undemocratic” argument. I don’t blame them – I do the same thing. You work with the values you have.)

But more than just abolishing skyscrapers, we must create a world of everyday wonder, a world in which every last thing is a beautiful thing. If this sounds impossible, it isn’t; for thousands of years, nearly every buildings humans made was beautiful. It is simply a matter of recovering old habits. We should ask ourselves: why is it that we can’t build another Prague or Florence? Why can’t we build like the ancient mosques in Persia or the temples in India? Well, there’s no reason why we can’t. There’s nothing stopping us except the prison of our ideas and our horrible economic system. We must break out of the prison and destroy the economic system.

There’s an easy test for whether a building is beautiful or not. Ask yourself: if this building could speak, would it sound like the Rubaiyat or the works of Shakespeare, or would it make a noise like “Blorp”? For nearly 100 years, we have been stuck in the Age of Blorp. It is time to learn to speak again.

What they do not say: we are well on our way to a world where that last paragraph makes no sense.

There’s a lot of debate about censorship in the arts these days, so unsurprisingly artists and museums are capitalizing on it for attention. I won’t say that “political correctness gone mad” isn’t a fear of mine, but it’s much less pressing than the fear that, as a society, we have lost the ability to produce anything of value. It will come when we train our artists that their non-fiction is more valuable than their fiction.

It will also probably lead to mass political rage, that’s bad too, it won’t destroy us. It will just be… bad, bleak, empty. You don’t get apocalypse, you get last men, human existence reduced to Very Action 5. Without qualia worth a damn, nor the tools to complain about it:

“I don’t like this emptiness and vapidity. It’s undemocratic.”


Top still from Ishirō Honda’s All Monsters Attack


Author: Lou Keep

9 thoughts on “In which there are ghosts”

  1. This is my third attempt at writing this comment. The first one was just the words “holy shit” over and over again, and the second one was boring. But I finally get what you have been saying about everyone losing the ability to judge things in terms of any value asides from politics and the sorts of values we share with badgers (meaning economics).

    I think it was because this had bugged me recently somewhere else. There is a Youtube series on video games called extra credits (which is excellent, and they make an even better series called extra history), and they were describing what makes a good video game. And they did almost exactly what you described in the second half of section IV. It bugged me, but now I know why.

    I want to make an irresponsible guess as to why politics and complexity have both been mistaken for beauty in artwork. Art is supposed to excite emotions, and make you learn (sort of) about your own internal structure. “Good” art does this particularly well, and “deep” or “important” art is supposed to make feel the parts of yourself that are important.

    Sometimes art can be “good” by bringing more parts of yourself into play at once. The emotions can interact in different ways. This is how “complexity” gets mistaken for “good”. This can work well, provided all the different parts of your inner being are brought out in a symphony, and not a checklist.

    “Political” also has an easy time being mistaken for “Good”. Things you are willing to fight or argue over are usually a powerful thing for art to elicit, and can thus be quite aesthetic. The soviet anthem is beautiful. But of course [the whole article].

    Okay, I got that off my chest, and I feel better now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Speaking with respect to complexity, the creation of art is nothing more than a series of decisions, an endless tree of reductions from infinite possibilities to a very specific presentation (think word choice in a poem, frame composition in a photograph or film). One of the more easily understood criterion for what makes a “brilliant” artist is the number of conscious decisions present in a work (Stanley Kubrick, obsessing over what color and model of telephone to use in the Shining, but more importantly spending four hours lighting every scene first). Hence the affirmation you will hear in any literary studies class to never attribute anything in a work to a mere “accident.” Its bullshit, of course, but it gets at the point. What people forget is that it is entirely possible to make a large number of specific decisions arbitrarily and in pursuit of no particular vision whatsoever (think any of a hundred forgettable Baroque composers (but not Bach!)). Often, simplicity in the service of a more unified conciet can redefine a field of art much more effectively than a myriad of staid, micromanaged moves we have all seen before (think Mozart, or to use my favorite example, Tarkovsky, whose films are infinitely complicated in their philosophical implications, but which unfold mostly as long, clean, wide shots with minimal cutting or camera movement).


    2. I know EXACTLY what you are talking about, and as much as I love Extra Credits, they have that tendency to be just a little overbearing on their desire for games to put on “big boy pants”. It’s a tendency at I in general super support, but I had (just like you) this gawing feeling at the back at my head that complexity doesn’t immediately equal good art. Or that superficial “maturity”, like those David Cage games, does not a deep game make. But I forgave it for the longest time, simply because they were some of the few developers out there willing to try something more artistic in their sensibilities.

      But I digress. I actually find that games might be one of those few remaining bastions of “low-brow” culture that can actually make stupendous art that simultaneously is not overbearing and pretentious. Perhaps it’s because they have to ship eventually, and that they have to make a product that will actually appeal to an audience larger than a few artsy groupies. But then again, I digress.


  2. ‘Art’ is that which expresses things that are higher dimensional than can be easily spoken of. Good art aligns a complex, high dimensional shape (sound, pace, lighting, plot, characterisation, connotation, etc etc.) to produce a coherent whole, that is, the parts all make sense in light of the whole.


  3. What exactly do you mean by calling beauty a “primary” experience? My initial impression was that you were saying it can’t / shouldn’t be explained or analyzed in terms of other mental categories. But I suspect that’s a stronger claim than you’d want to make. Surely it’s possible to make meaningful statements about what kinds of things produce the impression of beauty? And to describe beauty’s psychological / sociological / anthropological role? What are the practical implications of identifying beauty as a primary experience?


    1. You’re correct, of course.

      I was partially thinking of qualia, although “primary experience” is not really a great way to put that, and in retrospect I’m unsure quite why I did. Stream of consciousness qualia->colors->color wheel, perhaps. One can certainly describe what produces colors – light waves, human anatomy, etc.; more symbolically, we can discuss emotional responses (red is frightening, blue is soothing?), sociological and anthropological ones, linguistic differences, etc. None of that, in a Hard Problem way, get at the phenomenological “color.” I suppose I was also trying to get at the way experiencing something as beautiful is normally a judgment that exists before conscious thought. That it might be influenced by conscious thought (for example: there are poems and songs I now have an immediate reaction to but one informed by previous analysis and etc.) still doesn’t quite get at the sudden moment of recognition.

      Practically, I was making the case that the experience of beauty is an end-in-itself, and that we no longer value – or, more likely, no longer know or express that we value this experience – in the way previous cultures did. Without the words (or value) to express that, we analogize from the experience of beauty to things we do explicitly value: politics, morality, politics, politics. I definitely don’t deny that art plays a huge role in formation of culture and values, etc. and I should have been more careful with my language here. I just don’t think that’s its primary purpose. Beauty might be vaguely filler language at least until I can properly define it (later essay). More more practically, I think art is one of the few things (probably the only secular thing) that defends against nihilism.

      I’m working on a piece to clear up some of this one, let me know if it makes more sense later. You might get quoted.


      1. It already makes more sense. Mostly what I was looking for was what you said about “a judgment that exists before conscious thought”. Thanks!


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