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Graffiti, DJs, and Comic Books

November 22, 2016

Side by side portraits: Roy Cook and Chris Nagel

Side by side portraits: Roy Cook and Chris Nagel
Roy T. Cook, left, and Chris Nagel. Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency

Graffiti tags, comic books, DJ sets—these are typically not the kinds of artworks that concern the philosopher thinking about art. But in the research of Professor Roy T. Cook and PhD candidate Chris Nagel, each one of these underappreciated genres of popular art receives special attention. “I think all of these art forms are significant,” says Cook, “because they are complex, interesting, and hence worthy of philosophical attention.”

Though most of Cook’s writing on art has been concerned with comic books, of which he has been an avid collector since adolescence, he has also written on designer toys, Star Wars, and LEGO bricks. For Cook, these art forms aren’t just a source of entertainment, but objects worthy of philosophical analysis. “Comics, in particular,” he says, “deserve special attention because of their unique combination of images and text, and the manner in which images and text combine to form a narrative.” Cook points as an example to what he calls “metafictional comics,” which break storytelling conventions in ways that other kinds of literature seldom, if ever, do, whether it is by breaking the fourth wall or featuring superheroes with the ability to perceive and manipulate speech bubbles. “I think that looking at comics that ‘break the rules’ is a really fruitful strategy for coming to a better understanding of exactly what those rules amount to and how they function,” explains Cook.

From Ludwig to loops

Whereas Cook concerns himself with comics, Nagel’s research explores the philosophical ramifications of street art and dance music. Street art is not only underappreciated among philosophers of the visual arts, Nagel maintains, but it poses a challenge to one of the foremost theories of art today: the institutional theory of art. The institutional theory, championed by philosophers like George Dickie and Arthur Danto, says (roughly) that art is precisely that which is recognized as such by the art world, which is to say art historians, critics, museum experts, collectors and the like. Nagel contends that graffiti, as a “non-institutionalized, small-community art form not meant to be consumed by anybody in the ‘art world,’” shows that the institutional theory is inadequate. In 2014, Nagel presented these ideas at the Philosophy of Street Art: Art in and of the Street conference put on by New York University and the Pratt Institute. In addition to the challenge it poses to the institutional theory, Nagel is also concerned with street art’s authenticity—“What is the ‘streetness’ about street?” as he articulates the problem. “Must it be in the street, or can it be in an art gallery?” he asks. On this question, Nagel believes there is still much need for philosophical reflection.

More recently, Nagel has been investigating the ontology of DJ sets. He will give a presentation on this topic to the American Society of Aesthetics annual meeting in November. Though the philosophical literature is dominated by musical works drawn from the classical canon, Nagel contends that a DJ set is just as much of a musical work as, say, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and is therefore no less worthy of philosophical consideration. Indeed, as Nagel points out, DJ sets have certain features that make them unique among musical works. In addition to simply pressing a button to begin the playlist, there is, Nagel says, “a spectrum of what you can do in addition to this while you’re DJing,” including scratching, looping, and mixing tracks—musical techniques wholly unknown to the world of high-culture music that most philosophers of music inhabit.

Redefining 'fine'

Though the art forms that interest Cook and Nagel are certainly underappreciated, there are signs that the almost exclusive focus in the philosophical literature on so-called “fine arts” is eroding. As Cook points out, “there is an increasingly visible push to make university research and teaching engage with the interests and needs of the public more generally. And, speaking purely demographically, the public doesn't read Finnegan's Wake, it reads Detective Comics; it doesn't listen to Beethoven, it listens to Taylor Swift; it doesn't watch Last Year at Marienbad, it watches Supernatural... I think that as philosophy and other academic disciplines strive to be more relevant to the 'real' world outside the walls of academia, we will continue to see more attention being paid to popular art.”