Aesthetics was the first philosophy course I took after the introductory one. Aside from some interesting pedagogical choices, the class was very enjoyable. Even though a lot of the reading we looked at were from reformed thinkers, and even though I didn't always like the things they had to say, talking about aesthetics is something I will almost always make time for. I mean, I'm writing this on a film blog...
An obvious question for aesthetics is, "What is art?" Or, "What makes good art good?" There are a number of provocative answers to such questions. Cal Seerveld, in his all-knowing-contemporary-reformed-demi-godnessity, posits that "allusivity" is key. Basically, this means that art should be suggestive. It should show glimpses of beauty. In other words, it should always be subtle and ambiguous. At the time I remember scoffing at this idea. Honestly, I was scoffing more at the presentation of the idea, than the idea itself.
Fast-forward a few years, I'm having a variety of aesthetic conversations with Agust. His passion for film strikes a clearly similar note to Seerveld, railing against pretension in films. I don't think I've known anyone so acutely sensitive to manipulation in film. We've debated many a film based on this sole piece of criteria. Ultimately, I'm more likely to offer leeway for manipulation, than Agust is....just because I think, to some degree, it is just as essential to art as allusivity. (However, when we sit down and hash out our terms and definitions, we essentially agree).
Lately, I've been considering a distinction within manipulation - moral pretension vs. aesthetic pretension. Both are basically telling the audiences how they should think or feel. Moral pretension manipulates the audience into thinking that certain people or actions are bad, without giving the matter due consideration. Whether or not the given stance is legitimate, the film does not let the audience decide for itself. Instead it says, "This is right way of seeing the world - PERIOD." If you disagree, then you are wrong. This form of pretension can get away with vast oversimplification and moral bullying of a uniquely deceptive kind. The main critique against the recent OSCAR-WINNING movie Crash, seems to be that it is morally pretentious. It simplifies race relations and people in America and leaves no room for other opinions.
On the other hand, there is also aesthetic pretension. By this I refer to films and elements of film that stylistically manipulate the audience. It is the director saying, "Oooh, look what I can do. This is clearly a great film." Flashy audio/video effects are used to almost distract the audience from what is going on elsewhere in the movie. Accordingly, both types or pretension are often used together. The Dark Knight uses pretty stunning visuals (especially action scenes) and the unique character of The Joker to distract the audience from pretty stupid "moral dilemmas" both general (e.g. the normal Batman fodder) and specific (e.g. the scene with the boats near the end). Part of the aesthetic pretension is that it does not seem justified with the rest of the tone, feel, and scope of the movie. Ok, The Dark Knight is an action film - accordingly, I wouldn't be that harsh on it in this respect. And to say that Nolan is using the aesthetics to cover up the moralizing is overly-suspicious and skeptical. However, whether or not that's what he meant to do, I still get the feeling that it is what is happening in the movie.
So, I'm obviously still fiddling around with these distinctions. Of these two, I'm more willing to forgive aesthetic pretension than moral pretension. And I think part of the conversation should include mention of the validity of these concepts. Are people reading these things into Crash and The Dark Knight? I know I can be pretty good at reading too much into things. Part of the fun of talking about art and movies is that there is much room for differing opinions. Hopefully, though, these opinions can exist in the give and take of honest, self-reflective conversation.