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Course Description & Objectives

“The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating.”
Susan Sontag

In our present-day reality of Project Runway, Pinterest, the foodie movement, film and fashion blogging, we have all become arbiters of taste, and we cast our SMS ballots confidently for the subjects and objects we deem to be of superior and inferior quality. But what powers invest us with the authority to assess the things we consume? What conscious or implicit criteria inform our everyday acts of aesthetic judgment?And do we make pronouncements on preference like these in a disinterested way, according to some universal standard? Are we rather guided by subjective ideals? Or are our selections passively captive to cultural constraints that precede us—social forces over which we have little consciousness or control?

This course approaches the present aesthetic order of things somewhat awkwardly–by using all the wrong things, and reviewing the controversial texts in critical theory, art history, critical race, and queer studies that tell us why that’s so. Our semester-long venture into philistinism will cross discipline and cultural context, pausing on the abject subcategories of camp, kitsch, and poshlost’, a uniquely Russian brand of banality made infamous by no less a cosmopolitan snob than Vladimir Nabokov himself. In our time together, we will consider what aesthetics as a branch of philosophy is all about; contemplate why particular aesthetic regimes and hegemonies come into existence when they do; ask about the ideological labor done by the twin arts of distinction and discrimination; and look at how certain historical subjects are sullied by being identified with bad taste, becoming, in effect, disgusting objects themselves. As it happens, the latter associations with repulsion are sometimes relished to resistant ends, the artful fruits of we will also sample during the term.

In its broad arc, the syllabus for this course bends back to the basics of aesthetic experience from the age of Enlightenment before hurtling us headlong into modernity for a futurist slap in the face of public taste. Still reeling, we will get a feeling for the avant-garde’s consistently ambivalent relationship to popular culture and mass ornament in the age of mechanical reproduction. The dividing lines between good and bad taste, high and low art, “culture” and crap, become intensely charged at midcentury in the context of hot and cold war, and so the course will pause next in the symbolic spaces of socialist (or “totalitarian”) and capitalist society to make sense of these binaries as they bear on global economies of consumption. The final course on the course’s tasteless menu will be appropriately meta-aesthetic for postmodernity:we will lay a feast of bad objects from the world around us, and chew on them together with our cumulatively cultivated palettes…and mouths wide open, of course.

open mouth

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