Can’t get Netflix? You may be suffering an aesthetic injustice

Unthinkable: Lack of cultural access is a serious wrong, says philosopher Rachel Fraser

Aesthetic injustice?: Renée Zellweger in What/If, on Netflix

There are lots of injustices in the world – economic, political, sporting (“Ref, we were robbed”). But what about aesthetic injustice?

Yes, that is a thing – and if you have never considered it, that’s probably because you have never felt excluded from cultural activities, nor detected discrimination against your gender or ethnicity in art and literature.

Rachel Fraser, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, was in Dublin recently delivering a lecture on the subject in which she emphasised the role of aesthetic practices in identity-formation. Engaging in an activity such as gardening or painting "anchors our sense of who we are and what our lives are 'about'." If you face a barrier to engaging in a certain practice, the logic runs, a potentially important avenue of self-discovery is closed off to you.

Still not sure if it’s a real thing? Fraser, today’s Unthinkable guest, explains further.


What is aesthetic injustice?
Rachel Fraser: "Suppose that Tilly wants to be a painter, sends off her portfolio to an art school, and gains admission on the basis of that portfolio," she says. "Then the art school finds out that she is a woman, and rescind their offer. Here, Tilly seeks to acquire an aesthetic skill – painting – but is blocked from acquiring this skill. Not only this, the blockage is unjust: it is imposed simply because she is a woman.

“Here is a different, and slightly more subtle kind of case. Suppose that John is an extraordinarily talented pianist and composer, but the musical establishment, rather than recognising his playing and compositions as deft, playful, and innovative, systematically regard them as clumsy, naive, and ugly.

“This failure of recognition might just be bad luck; lots of avant-garde artists are written off by myopic contemporaries. But suppose that John is black, and that his white peers, who are producing similar work, are widely lauded as visionaries. Here, it seems that the widespread failure to recognise John’s aesthetic skill is a product of his race; in other words, he faces barriers to recognition that his white peers do not, and thus suffers an aesthetic injustice.”

What specific barriers to aesthetic practices need to be tackled?
"We can distinguish between barriers of access and barriers of recognition. Tilly faces barriers of access – she is blocked from acquiring an aesthetic skill – whereas John faces barriers of recognition – he has acquired an aesthetic skill, but it goes unrecognised as such.

Lacking talent is just bad luck, not an injustice. But if you couldn't play the cello because you'd had no opportunity then one would be a victim of an aesthetic injustice

“In the contemporary West, I suspect that class disadvantage imposes the most significant barriers of access: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be able to afford music lessons, or go to art school, or muck about with paint as a child. The remedy for such barriers is obvious, though tricky to implement.

“Barriers of recognition are a little more subtle: they occur when judgements of aesthetic value are distorted by the social position of the artist… It’s unclear to me what the remedy for such barriers might be: reconfiguring a culture’s norms of judgement is a risky and delicate business. Perhaps prestigious institutions should work to confer cultural capital on unjustly marginalised aesthetic traditions.”

What if I'm just not very musical? Is it aesthetically unjust that I can't play the cello?
"Lacking talent is just bad luck, not an injustice.

“If, on the other hand, you couldn’t play the cello because you’d had no opportunity to develop your musical talents, because of poverty or discrimination – and so, perhaps, came to think of oneself as talentless – then one would be a victim of an aesthetic injustice.”

If I don't have access to Netflix am I the victim of aesthetic injustice?
"Maybe. It would depend on at least two things: why you lacked access to Netflix, and on what other opportunities you have for aesthetic enrichment. I'll take these in turn.

“First, compare the situation of a reclusive millionaire who chooses to live on a remote island without internet access, and a poverty-stricken family who can’t afford the subscription fee. The reclusive millionaire’s lack of access is genuine, but it is within his power to remedy. The poor family’s lack of access looks quite different.

“We can introduce a second important difference. The millionaire, we can suppose, has a large private art collection, a huge library, and lives in beautiful natural surroundings. Thus, although he does not have access to Netflix, he has many other opportunities to engage in aesthetic appreciation. The poverty-stricken family, on the other hand, we can suppose, have no private art collection, own few books, and lack ready access to natural beauty. In other words, their lack of access to Netflix is part of a systematic pattern of aesthetic deprivation, where the millionaire’s is not.

“There is a further question of whether watching Netflix is a genuinely aesthetic practice, or a genuine opportunity for the cultivation of aesthetic skill; if it is not, then lacking access to Netflix may count as an injustice, but it will not be an aesthetic injustice.

“According to one very pessimistic – and rather snooty – picture of Netflix use, people use it to simply passively consume content with little or no aesthetic value. I suspect this view is inaccurate. Of course people use Netflix to binge watch rubbish – I know I do! – but they don’t only do this. They also use it to watch aesthetically rich content with a relatively sophisticated critical eye. Or so I suspect.”

How does technology contribute to aesthetic injustice? We now have access to a huge amount of cultural content but most of it is rubbish.
"It depends both on how the rubbish is socially distributed. If the flooding of the cultural sphere simply degraded everyone's experience, that would be bad, but not unjust.

“But I suspect that, in contexts like ours, in which exchanges of aesthetic artefacts and practices are heavily influenced by concentrations of wealth and integrated with economies of prestige, it is likely that there will be higher concentrations of low grade artefacts in cultural environments inhabited by the marginalised, and higher concentrations of higher grade artefacts in elite cultural spaces.

“And insofar as it is generally difficult for non-elites to access elite cultural spaces, there will be barriers to non-elite agents accessing aesthetically valuable objects and practices that are concentrated in elite spaces.”


Which is better for the mind: Netflix or Amazon Prime or Sky?
Plato replies: "Every seeker after wisdom knows that until philosophy takes it over his soul is a helpless prisoner, chained hand and foot in the body, compelled to view reality not directly but only through its prison bars, and wallowing in utter ignorance."