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Otterbein Associate Professor Patridge evaluates morals in art, film, humor

Otterbein Associate Professor Patridge evaluates morals in art, film, humor

Is this, the world’s shortest joke, racist?

Two Irishman walk out of the pub.

This is how Stephanie Patridge, associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy, spends a lot of her time, thinking about moral evaluation in imaginative contexts like art, video games and humor.

Patridge is not an art critic. She is a philosopher of art. She could tell you whether to see a film or not or whether a joke is funny or not, but that is not what her work is about.

“Engaging with art philosophically generally involves asking more general questions, questions that may very well be pertinent to art criticism,” Patridge said. “You might say that I am often engaged in ‘meta-art criticism,’ that is I think about what makes artworks good or bad along different evaluative dimensions, including ethical ones. I talk about individual works only to illustrate more general claims. I also think very generally about the counters of an aesthetic property, say ‘the funny’ or ‘the beautiful.’”

Patridge singled out as an example the films, Triumph of the Will, a 1935 German propaganda film that chronicled the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, and The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 American silent film about the American Civil War and Reconstruction.

“Both are amazingly beautiful cinematic achievements if you just pay attention to the cinematic elements,” Patridge said. “Both of these films have quite racist content, in one case valorizing the Nazi Party and in the other case, valorizing the Ku Klux Klan. The question then is: is it right to say that they are some of the best films in the history of cinema when the moral content is so grotesque?”

In the example of the world’s shortest joke, in which the joke-teller is poking fun of the drinking habits of the Irish, Patridge, in one of her latest research papers entitled, “Joking About Race and Ethnicity,” seeks to uncover a host of distinctive philosophical issues.

Building upon previous work done by philosophers and psychologists, Patridge asks and answers many questions. For instance, “why do some tellings of a joke seem racist, while others not? Why do racist jokes seem more offensive than other forms of disparagement humor? Are there distinctive harms involved in telling racial and ethnic jokes? Does the race of the joke-teller make a moral difference?”

In her work, Patridge usually finds the hardest case possible.

“I’m trying to make things as hard morally as I can for myself,” Patridge explained. “So imagine some white people sitting around telling racial jokes to one another for their own enjoyment. They are not trying to disparage anyone. Let us even go so far as to imagine that they do not have such attitudes."

Other research papers forthcoming from Patridge include “Gender in Videogames,” “On Representations of Gender and Race in Videogames,” and “Videogames and Imaginative Identification.” She is also co-editor, with David Goldblatt, professor of philosophy at Denison University, of the upcoming book, Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, a collection of about 100 essays, ranging from Plato's aesthetic theory to street art. 

She has also done work on the ethics of pornography in an earlier work entitled, "Exclusivism and Evaluation: Art, Erotica, and Pornography."

Patridge never talks about censorship in her work.

"I'm pretty pro-free speech and I don't think that things should be censored because they have pernicious content,” Patridge said. “But, I don't work on those sorts of issues. I'm more straight-up on the ethics side, not on the political philosophy side of these debates."

Patridge’s interest in such research topics of art, video games and humor began with her dissertation on the intersection between art criticism and ethical criticism.

“I came to graduate school with an interest in the philosophy of art and developed an interest in ethics while I was there,” Patridge said. “I brought those two issues together in my dissertation, thinking specifically about the scope and legitimacy of moral criticism when thinking about the value of an artwork.

“Philosophy can be quite erudite and removed from the world,” Patridge continued. “I really wanted to have a topic where I could just turn to somebody at a bar and when they ask me what I do, I can tell them and they will say, ‘Oh, I always wondered about that.’” 

Learn more about Otterbein's Department of Religion and Philosophy.