An Aesthetics Reading List for Programmers

5 April, 2009

In a recent post, Twitter API Lead and frequent unwilling flamewar spark, Alex Payne, called for the "reintroduction [of] logical thought and civil society" to online technical debate. In addition to the usual lamentations over the substitution of Language Wars and political polemics for hard-evidence, reasoned argument, and sympathetic dialog, Payne also made an usual call for programmers to acquire better tools for dealing with the softer, more subjective side of the debate:

Some technical discussions veer towards the purely aesthetic. Thankfully, the humanities have provided us tools for reasoning about that which hard science may not be able to measure. Spend some time with art and theater criticism and you'll find intellectual instruments aplenty for the comparative evaluation of seemingly intangible qualities such as beauty, theme, and emotion.

This struck me as both a great fresh idea and an area in which I might be able to help out. Before my recent life as a Rails programmer and startup founder I was an Art History major with a focus on 19th and 20th century art criticism and theory. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on a comparison of the Academy Awards to the art policy of Louis XIV's France and I worked for years at the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

While I definitely agree with Alex that programmers could greatly benefit from increased aesthetic literacy, the body of literature on the topic is immense and intimidating. As Alex himself mentioned in a recent tweet, Aesthetics stretches "as far back as the Poetics, as recent as Eco's 'History of Beauty'". It also covers texts of such divergent degrees of difficulty as Kant's Critique of Judgement and Leonard Maltin's 2009 Movie Guide.

So, as an aide to programmers looking to improve their ability to produce and critique aesthetic arguments, I've put together a short reading list of items I find both accessible and helpful. These texts vary from actual art criticism to art history and theory. They also vary in vintage — from the very recent to more than 100 years old — and in format — from serious book-length essays to short art criticism and reportage.

This list is by no means meant as a comprehensive survey but merely as a stimulating starting point comprised of ideas and voices I've found especially formative or provocative in my own aesthetic judgement. In an attempt to be a friendly and welcoming host, I've placed a high preference on works that are short and readable.

James Elkins

James Elkins is a professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He specializes in applying the visual analysis tools of art history and theory to a broad range of images (from popular culture to scientific imagery) and also in analyzing the history and difficulties of art institutions. His writing is clear, direct, and often quite funny.

How to Use Your Eyes is a book meant for a popular audience. It focuses on training the reader in the careful observation of their own reactions to visual phenomena in the natural, technological, and aesthetic worlds. It is a tour-de-force in the powers of observation and description that form the core of aesthetic judgement and communication.

Stories of Art is an eccentric survey of art history in all of its diverse forms of practice. Elkins starts with a series of drawings meant to tease out his own unique perspective and to invite the reader to do the same (see my in-depth post about this here: James Elkins' Idea Mapping Method). He then proceeds to look at a series of different art historical text from around the world, using their different focuses to denaturalize the traditional western narrative of art and to examine the usefulness of wildly other approaches. It's a great book for knocking art history off of the high pillar of importance and inevitability on which art historians tend to place the discipline. A fun read designed to greatly empower the reader to pursue their own course through the history of art and interesting objects.

Clement Greenberg

Clement Greenberg was probably the most influential and certainly the most controversial art critic of the 20th Century. He was closely associated with the Abstract Expressionist school of painters based in New York in the 40s and 50s (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffman, et al). He rose to prominence as the school's advocate and then fell out of favor when he forcibly opposed the Minimalist and Pop Art movements that replaced it in the early 60s.

Greenberg is known for tying his aesthetic judgements of individual artists and artworks to a proposed linear narrative of the history of art. More specifically, he argued that the history of art represented a process of artists reducing each medium to the essential properties that were specific to that medium. In the case of painting this meant flatness and therefore abstraction. His arguments were forceful and based solely on the aesthetic qualities of the work he wrote about (rather than explicitly taking into account any political or social factors). He strongly advocated the importance of a small 'avant-garde' in advancing this march of aesthetic progress.

These views are closely associated with the idea of "Modernism" in art and opposed in a variety of different ways by a broad group labeled "Post-Modernist".

However we might now judge their conclusions, Greenberg's classic essays, especially "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", are models of clarity and compelling argument. He is especially expert at linking his judgements of specific works to a larger narrative or thematic argument. Also, Greenberg is required reading because much art writing in the second half of the 20th Century is, in one way or another, a response to his work.

Elaine Scarry

Elaine Scarry is a Philosophy professor at Harvard University. Her diverse work, on topics ranging from torture to aesthetics, covers the relationship of the physical world to the ethical lives of people. On Beauty and Being Just is a short, gorgeously written essay in which Scarry argues that our perception of beauty is the root of our sense of justice. For Scarry, beauty is the strongest mechanism for our surroundings to compel us towards empathy and action.

Scarry's writing effortlessly moves between the kind of intimate observation of personal perception in which Elkins specializes to a grand sense of perspective stretching back to Athenian political philosophy. This book is a powerful example of the interdisciplinary power of aesthetics and a rare example of clarity, poetry, and specificity in writing on such a potentially abstract topic.

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire was a poet, art critic, and essayist in mid 19th Century Paris. He was the foremost champion of the emerging modern arts and a trenchant observer of contemporary popular life, especially Parisian street and cafe culture. In his epochal essay, The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire coined the term "modernity" and redefined the role of the artist as capturing the essence of the modern age, "its own carriage, its expression, its gestures". For an art world that had been bent on emulating the glory of the classical and renaissance worlds for hundreds of years, this was a revolutionary idea and Baudelaire's own writing (and life as a highly-visible dandy), lively beyond the usual bounds of civilized propriety, exemplified the radical change he proposed.

Baudelaire is the ultimate example of capturing a zeitgeist, articulating its aims, and enshrining it in history.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes was a French Philosopher in the middle of the 20th Century best known for his work on semiotics (Mythologies). Semiotics (and its related successor fields, Structuralism and Post-Structuralism) is an attempt to study the relationship between representations of the world and the things represented. At its worst, the field is often highly technical verging on obscurantist, but Barthes brought a profoundly personal engagement to his topics and a poet's ear to his arguments.

The best and most pleasurable of his books is also the one most relevant to a developing Aesthetician: Camera Lucida. Here, Barthes teases out what makes photographs (and snapshots particularly) so directly affecting to us in a way that is rare in the arts. It's an amazing combination of the personal and the general and a truly moving and poignant book that's also filled with distinctions (such as the studium vs. the punctum) that remain useful in discussing all kinds of potential objects of aesthetic delectation.

Other Critics

Obviously, any list such as this can barely scratch the surface. For example, I've left off two of my favorite more straightforward ciritics: Dave Hickey (the Hunter S. Thompson of art criticism), Peter Schjeldahl (art critic for the New Yorker) as well as a number of my favorite historians/theorists: Geoffrey Batchen and Jonathan Crary, just to name two.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when starting a survey of a field as immense as Aesthetics is that it's okay, even encouraged, for your knowledge of the field to be eccentric, personal, and full of gaps. Think of your reading in this area like your music collection: your goal isn't to listen to and love everything but to stay curious and wide-ranging enough find things that most delight and surprise you. This isn't Electronics or Compiler Theory. There isn't a linear progression of beginner to advanced texts and there are few universally accepted right answers. There is just appreciation (or the lack thereof) and its cogent articulation.