Anti-Edgy

In the art world something is "edgy" if it might well shock ordinary folks, but of course not in-the-know folks.  The idea seems to be that ordinary folks are shocked too easily by things that should not really be shocking.

The opposite concept, which I’ll call "anti-edgy", is of something that does not shock ordinary folks, but should.  In the know folks are shocked, but most others are not.  Why does the world of art and fashion emphasize the edgy so much more than the anti-edgy? 

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  • Bo

    What is an example of an anti-edgy thing?

  • http://www.alexisgallagher.com Alexis

    Robin,

    There are more ordinary folks than in-the-know folks. Artists and designers are interested in affecting the maximum number of people, so they aim to startle the ordinary folks.

    This focus on affecting the maximum number of people may be a bit simple-minded but it is quite common. Many people find politics and economics interesting as topics merely because politics and economics affect large numbers of people. They don’t mind much if those effects, or the people being affected, are rather banal.

    Perhaps contemplating issues that involve large numbers of human beings gives people a vicarious sense of power, as if they were ruling over those masses.

    I am interested in this idea of the anti-edgy. What are some examples?

  • T L Holaday

    Sounds like Pop Art meets your definition. Andy Warhol was shocked by supermarkets and celebrities; Roy Lichtenstein by comic books; Richard Hamilton gets credit for starting it all with Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?

  • T L Holaday

    It’s fun to multiply examples. What about Christo and Jeanne-Claude? Would you not agree that Over The River will call attention to something most people have stopped seeing? How many New Yorkers were conscious of the twenty-seven miles of pathways in Central Park before The Gates?

  • T L Holaday

    This is an irresistable game. What about the Annoyance Theater‘s production The Real Live Brady Bunch? It appealed simultaneously to the naive and the sophisticated: nostalgia and shock in adjoining seats.

  • shaun

    I disagree. I think the in the know people get too caught up in their own world and forget to care about the discretion of ordinary. I know plenty of artsy people who will look at a piece of art and think its out of this world, while the normal people don’t see it. They scoff and think that its something only they would appreciate. And they’re right to a degree, because they know the medium and are more in tune. Or it could simply be that they’re getting exposure that the normal people don’t get.

  • http://www.knowledgeproblem.com Mike Giberson

    Not directly in answer to your question, but the concept of “anti-edgy” seems the same as the common political remark, “If you aren’t outraged, then you aren’t paying attention.”

    Making this remark is obviously a (perhaps once clever) rhetorical move to suggest either you agree with the writer or reveal yourself to be out-of-touch.

  • http://web.mac.com/redbird/ Gordon Worley

    The first thing that jumps to my mind as an example of anti-edgy is existential risks to humanity. The general population is not really worried about them or only worried in the abstract, but not in their guts. A handful of people in the world, though, are really worried about them. To put this in terms of shock, the general population is not shocked by the idea that humanity might be destroyed forever because it doesn’t seem real enough to take seriously, while the in-the-know population knows it’s very real and thus may be shocked at how easily humanity can be destroyed.

    As for why edgy is popular, compared to anti-edgy, this almost seems too obvious. If a person joined a group that viewed something as edgy, this would shock other people and draw the attention of potential mates, thus increasing the group members reproduction rates if the group members would otherwise have not had a good chance of reproducing. A group with anti-edgy members, though, are not so interesting because they can’t get members outside the group interested, hence no potential reproductive advantage. So on the whole we should expect people who cannot gain edgeless access to increased reproductive opportunities to try to position themselves in edgy groups more often than anti-edgy groups because people who prefer joining edgy to anti-edgy have historically reproduced in greater numbers.

    That doesn’t seem like a just-so story to me, but maybe I’ve missed some important detail that causes my explanation to fail. Anyone see any holes?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Alexis and Gordon, yes artsy folks who just want as many people as possible to pay attention to them would prefer edgy over anti-edgy. So do they really care more about the attention of ordinary folks than the attention of artsy folk?

  • jb

    Edgy stances allow one to signal differentiation from the masses. Since the masses are considered primitive, unsophisticated and credulous, it’s both genetically and memetically valuable to demonstrate that you are ‘not one of the common folk’.

    Anti-edgy stances, to some degree, are essentially the other face of the same exact coin. If the masses aren’t upset about something, then again, it becomes genetically and memetically valuable to show that you are upset, thus, not one of the common folk, and therefore worthy of additional attention, power, etc.

  • http://lightskyland.com Matthew C.

    jb is right, edgy is all about signalling membership in the elite via a common perspective versus the plebian viewpoint.

    The whole point is to be fashionable, once the masses have jumped on the bandwagon what was fashionable is now passe.

  • http://www.alexisgallagher.com Alexis

    Robin:

    Short answer — I would say, yes, they do really care more about the attention of their audience than their peers.

    Long answer — it’s a mug’s game saying what people “really” care about, isn’t it? Human motivation is always mixed and obscure. Also, people are diverse. If the majority of arty folk care about attention from ordinary folks, then that defines a norm in the arty folk community. And then even if a minority of arty folk cared more about the opinions of other arty folk, that minority would appear to care about ordinary folk opinions because they were just catering to the preferences of the peers they really do care about it. And of course, they would probably be aware of all the subtleties and indirections shaping their own motivation.

    Yet another factor is that shocking ordinary folk is also a natural behaviour for a community that wants to sharpen the boundaries that define them as non-ordinary. So collective vanity is also a motivation, as well as the common vulgar habit of assessing importance by counting the number of people affected.

  • T L Holaday

    Artsy folks who just want as many people as possible to pay attention to them would prefer edgy over anti-edgy.

    What?

    Thomas Kinkade is a huge counterexample. He succeeds in gaining the attention of the many with images that provide comfort.

    Vargas?

    LeRoy Neiman?

    Peter Max?

    Norman Rockwell?

    Andrew Wyeth?

  • ShardPhoenix

    T L Holaday:
    Maybe it’s just me seeing things from a modern perspective, but at least some of Norman Rockwell’s work actually seems like a pretty good example of “anti-edgy” as defined in the OP.

  • http://www.alexisgallagher.com Alexis

    T L Holaday:

    Good point. Good counterexamples.

    But aren’t we all take for granted that Robin’s argument is just an argument about one dynamic, one attention-getting strategy — that is, that these stylized arguments are not intended as categorically as they are phrased?

    (Boy I hope so, or we’re wasting a lot of time here.)

  • Jef Allbright

    For me as a futurist, an example of this dichotomy which I deal with almost every day is the perceived edgy avant-garde nature of “transhumanist” thought, caricatured in imaginings of a future state of having escaped present constraints, exceeded present pleasures, on behalf of the present self, extending with increasing mastery of the universe.

    This in contrast with the anti-edgy conception of working in the here and now, increasingly effectively *within* constraints, expressing an increasing context of evolving values (of which pleasure is derivative), growing in increasing scope of agency (to the exclusion of an essential self), with increasing instrumental effectiveness but within an increasing context of uncertainty.

    Why do our more basic emotional responses correspond more strongly with our more basic perceptions? How else could we have evolved?

  • josh

    Most hip hop lyrics should shock ordinary folks.

  • http://drchip.wordpress.com/ retired urologist

    RH asks: Why does the world of art and fashion emphasize the edgy so much more than the anti-edgy?

    The edgy “world of fashion” at the Singularity Summit was clearly intended to signal “high g”. I signaled non-nerd (low-g?) observer by wearing a collared shirt and leather shoes. This seems to change with the generations, as much of what is current with younger high-g nerds is similar to the the hippie culture of the ’60’s-’70’s, most of whom have now rotated out of edginess.

  • Michael Bishop

    Any group based on shared values/aesthetics/purposes which rewards individuals who act more like outsiders than insiders will change or disappear.

  • http://danielhumphries.typepad.com Daniel Humphries

    josh:

    Really? “Most”? .. and “should”?

    You don’t listen to much hip hop, do you? 😉

  • Firebrand

    I think most big modern scientific advances are anti-edgy. The general public has an exaggerated idea of what cutting edge (if you pardon the pun) technology can accomplish– they think we’re capable of “genetically engineering” rabbits with wings, “reprogramming DNA” whatever that means, and are on the verge of human-level AI.

    So when you announce that you’ve shown, say, that knocking out a particular gene confers resistance to oxidative stress in worms, flies, and mice the average member of the public will say: “Yawn. That’s really fascinating. Why haven’t you people reprogrammed teh DNAs to cure cancer already? After all the tax-money we gave you to sequence the damn genome, you’d think you’d do something useful with it instead of studying nasty little critters.” Meanwhile, this is the kind of study that gets published in Nature, cited hundreds of times, and talked about for a decade at scientific meetings.

    This may extend to other specialized fields. I don’t know what cases lawyers consider to be the most important ones of the last decade, but I have a hunch the high-profile celebrity criminal trials that tend to make headlines would not dominate such a list.

    Perhaps there hasn’t till now been a word for anti-edgy because it’s the default path for news in a given field. And any news that merits mention in the general press is probably already old news in the field that originated it, thus becoming edgy.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    So do they really care more about the attention of ordinary folks than the attention of artsy folk?

    They don’t want the attention of artsy folk, but status among artsy folk. Actually shocking artsy folk will not contribute to your status. Selectively shocking non-artsy folk will appeal to the artsyfolk’s common mythology of what makes them superior.

  • http://dfranke.us Daniel Franke

    retired urologist: yesterday’s high-status fashion is always today’s low-status fashion. It used to be that high-status people wore suits. Now if you’re wearing a suit it’s because your boss makes you wear one, and the high-status people wear slacks and polo shirts.

  • http://stuartbuck.blogspot.com Stuart Buck

    Robin’s post reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about art, from Brian Micklethwaite:

    As for the endlessly repeated claim that art is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, I don’t buy that. And I don’t believe the people who say that they do buy it are being honest. I think that a picture which they have no problem with, but which they believe makes other people whom they disapprove of uncomfortable, makes them very comfortable indeed, and that that is the kind of discomfort (i.e. not discomfort at all, for them) which they like, and are referring to with all this discomfort propaganda. They no more like being genuinely discomforted by art than I do.

  • http://www.meteuphoric.blogspot.com Katja Grace

    Anti-edgy is pretty common, for example in environment and social justice type groups (yes, outsiders care a bit often, or take it as a vague source of virtue, but nowhere near as much as members).

    The reason that there is no word ‘anti-edgy’ is that ‘edgy’ does not mean ‘shocking to others but not me’. Sociopathic killers are not edgy. Edgy means something like ‘purposely at the edge of shocking and non-shocking’. Edgy things are to push the boundaries of what the public accepts. Topics that are well within ‘shocking’ for the general public and not for some group are called ‘shocking’ and something like ‘socially unaccepted’ by those people respectively. Opposite topics are called the same things the other way round. People assume their idea of shocking is right of course, so there is little need to use terms that communicate how an average member of the species also feels about issues.

    Edgy is a specific sort of in-between case. The opposite of it would be something just within the bounds of ‘non-shocking’, designed to pull those bounds inwards. But those bounds are not pulled inwards generally. Why is that? Practically, you can’t get anyone’s attention by doing things that are non-shocking, so if there were anti-edgy acts we wouldn’t see them. Plus if such an act persuaded anyone, they would rightly be shocked. Instead you have to talk in way that doesn’t shock anyone about such issues. Doing so is called ‘thought provoking’ usually, which can mean ‘edgy’ or its opposite. Also in practice it’s harder for people to be shocked by something which is part of normality, than to be un-shocked by something that previously wasn’t, so the former happens more.

  • http://www.meteuphoric.blogspot.com Katja Grace

    Correction: opposite topics are called equivalent things the other way round.

  • josh

    Daniel,

    I’m 27, so I am pretty familiar with mainstream hip hop. I’ll take back the “should”, but not the “most”. What I am really saying is that I am surprised that most square people aren’t shocked by most rap lyrics considering how prude our culture is about other things. The highest charting hip hop song is currently T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” followed by “Can’t believe it.” Google the lyrics and tell me you aren’t a little surprise that this is considered music for ordinary people.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/pmcarlton/iblog Pete Carlton

    The “whatever you like” lyrics represent a rather orthodox evol-psych view of asymmetric human mating strategies. I’d have to go with edgy.
    ..
    I really like that Brian Micklethwaite quote, Stuart. It reminds me of a lecture I attended in San Francisco, by Slavoj Žižek. A very entertaining thought-provoking lecture as usual, but I got the distinct impression that for a large part of the audience the point was actually to play the I’m-not-shocked game: to laugh at certain moments (dealing with the topics of the holocaust, incest, cannibalism, etc), not as a reflection of genuine amusement, but precisely to signal “I am the kind of person who can laugh at this content, instead of being shocked by it.” I wasn’t shocked, I tried to understand what Žižek was trying to say about it, but I didn’t find it laughable (and neither, I suspect, did he.)

  • Firebrand

    And now I’m wondering if there’s a name for things that seem obvious to non-experts but shocking to experts… and it’s the experts who are wrong. Some areas that come to mind are:

    economics, genetics of intelligence, immigration, child rearing, ethics…

  • Addam

    The first way to do something anti-edgy that come to my mind is: a straight ripoff of a historical work, or a subtle ripoff of something contemporary, people who know the norms of the medium will notice the lack of originality.

    Any others?

  • Crush on Lyle

    Pete: I think laughing at lectures (and poetry readings, which I attend a lot of) is almost always just signaling of “insider” status. It’s obnoxious, but also very difficult not to engage in.

  • MrHen

    To skip the comments and reply directly to the question of the post:

    Because most people do not like to be shocked. Anti-edgy is more likely to shock those who created it. A simple conclusion is: anti-edgy shocks yourself, edgy shocks others. It is more fun to shock others.

  • Alejandro

    The following well-known Bohr quote seems relevant: “If you are not shocked by quantum physics, you don’t understand it”. Mediocre popularizations often make it seem like the big QM surprises are indeterminism and an obesrvation-changes-reality effect. Both ideas are rather banal and much less shocking that the accurate statement of the theory. I think quantum mechanics is the perfect example of the anti-edgy theory

  • tom

    The problem in this prompt is that it divides shock value into two mutually exclusive groups: that which shocks the public and not artists, and that which shocks artists but not the public. The goal of most artists that aim for edginess is to shock everyone. The problem is that most fail to shock the desensitized artist population but can still cause a stir among the general population. There are some, however, that have succeeded in being truly edgy (eg Manet, Miro, Picasso).

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Alex Tabarrok has a paper on avant-garde vs popular art that can be found via his page if you have JSTOR access.