by Daniel A. Kaufman
In “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” H.A. Prichard observed that mainline moral philosophy is essentially an exercise in epistemology, since its primary concern is with providing proof of the soundness of our moral responses — our feelings of obligation and duty — and we might very well say the same thing of mainline philosophy of art criticism; that it is essentially epistemology, insofar as its main task is to provide us with proof of the correctness of critical responses to works of art.  Of the indefinitely many such responses we could and actually do have, the attention of philosophers has been devoted largely to two: our responses as interpreters, in which we are described as trying to determine what individual works of art mean, and our responses as evaluators, in which we are characterized as adjudicating on particular artwork’s value or worth. The sense of correctness that theorists have had in mind is that belonging to traditional epistemology, and their primary concern has been to show us, by way of some generalizable procedure, that our interpretations and evaluations of works of art are rationally warranted.
On Prichard’s account, mainline moral philosophy’s “mistake” lies in the fact that no such moral epistemology is possible -– our sense of moral obligation cannot be justified, in the sense of being deduced or otherwise derived –- and the reasons that he gives are essentially skeptical in character. Instead, our sense of moral obligation is “absolutely underivative or immediate,” meaning that individual moral obligations are directly apprehended, putting them outside of the scope of traditional moral epistemologies.
My reason for raising this point about ethics is that I am convinced that the same is true of art criticism. Philosophical theories of artistic meaning and value are essentially epistemologies of critical interpretation and evaluation, and the problem isn’t that they misconceive their task, but that there is no such task. Critics are not judges, and critical evaluations are not the sorts of things that can be warranted, or at least, not in the ways meant by philosophers. In this regard, my current effort should be taken as a companion piece to a paper I originally published back in 2012, in which I argued that critics should not be thought of as interpreters, as Arthur Danto and others have suggested. 
The greatest theorizers on the subject of artistic value have construed it as a species of pleasure and thus as essentially subjective and the relevant judgements as judgements of taste. There are any number of reasons why one might think artistic values and value judgements should be construed in this way, but several stand out. First, we mostly seek out art, literature, music, etc., as a part of our larger pursuit of entertainment, which itself is a part of the even more general pursuit of pleasure, and the language that we use, when praising and criticizing art — when we describe painting, plays, music, literature, etc., as ‘beautiful’, ‘moving’, ‘engaging’, ‘disturbing’, ‘grating’ and the like — is essentially the language of pleasure and displeasure. Second, and beyond the sorts of formal, skeptical reasons for doubting that values exist “objectively in the world” that one finds in the work of philosophers like Hume, there is a certain strangeness to the idea that an artwork’s merits or demerits exist independently of anyone liking or disliking it; that something could be valuable — could matter — without being valuable or mattering to someone. (In ethics, this sort of “argument from queerness” is most identified with J.L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977).)
While a subjectivist treatment of artistic value and valuation may satisfy this cluster of intuitions regarding our experience of and interaction with the arts, philosophers have alleged that it fails to satisfy another, equally significant instinct with respect to our discourse on the arts, which is that art critical discourse is essentially normative, by which philosophers mean that when we offer a positive or negative evaluation of a work of art, we intend not merely to say that we have enjoyed it or failed to enjoy it, but that others ought to as well. Of course, the point isn’t supposed to be that we just think this but that we are entitled to do so; that artistic value judgements, if true, do not merely express the feelings of the person uttering them, but have authority over the feelings of others. Since we do not commonly conceive of feelings and tastes as the sorts of things that can be prescribed, this alleged intuition conflicts with the previous intuition of subjectivity, which is why Kant in the Critique of Judgment famously described the two intuitions as constituting an “antimony of taste.”
Hume and Kant both offer us solutions to this alleged paradox that share the same underlying idea, which is that there is a common human nature that can be rendered “thickly” enough to support norms of human evaluative response (what Kant calls “common sense”). This would then function as a criterion as to whether or not one ought to enjoy something, which, in turn, would make it possible to evaluate people’s experiences of pleasure and displeasure and corresponding judgements of merit or demerit and deem them sound or unsound, regardless of their inherent subjectivity. This point regarding the inherent separability of normativity and objectivity is essentially the one that Hume makes in “Of the Standard of Taste,” with regard to the combined subjectivity and normativity of normal/abnormal sense perception, when he says that “a man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavors.” 
Let’s call the person who likes and dislikes the right things, the “authoritative critic.” Now, neither Hume nor Kant think that it is sufficient for an authoritative critic merely to be physiologically normal, in the sense of possessing properly functioning perceptual faculties, for this would mean that nearly everyone is an authoritative critic, which doesn’t seem credible. The authoritative critic must also must experience things and make judgements from the right position, which, for Hume, meant from the perspective of one who possesses certain qualifying and credentialing characteristics — specifically, delicacy of imagination, breadth of experience, and lack of prejudice — and for Kant meant from a truly disinterested perspective that even eschews conceptualization — and especially the kind that makes reference to a thing’s function or purpose — for conceptualization personalizes one’s experience in a way that renders it unsuitable for generalization and thus, for prescription.
This idea that we might deem people’s pleasure and displeasure and the judgements they make about them correct and incorrect, by appealing to the experiences and judgements of an authoritative critic didn’t hold up for very long. It wasn’t just that as Occidental culture became more aware of the diversity of art, letters, and tastes across the world, the idea of a common, authoritative taste seemed less and less plausible, but in order for an authoritative judge to provide any assistance in determining which responses to works of art are correct and which are not, one would have to believe that everyone who met the criteria for being such a judge would respond in the same way to the same works of art, an idea that is either implausible — does anyone think that any number of credentials, in the Humean sense, would be sufficient to guarantee that everyone who satisfied them would respond in the same way to a particular play, painting, etc.? — or else may be true, but in a way as to be rendered useless. Maybe completely unspecified, abstracted Kantian “persons,” whose experiences are stripped of any and all personalisations and conceptualizations, would experience things uniformly, but since there aren’t any such people (and couldn’t be), there is no way to know what they would like or dislike.
With the concept of the authoritative critic and the argumentative strategy derived from it discredited, the hope of reconciling the subjectivist and normative intuitions about taste and judgements of taste collapsed, and philosophers have been left to choose between honoring one or the other. For those who are inclined to honor the subjectivist intuition, at the expense of the normative one (commonly empiricists of one stripe or another), non-cognitivism and naturalism have been standard — A.J. Ayer wrote in Language, Truth, and Logic that “…statements of value are…not in the literal sense significant, but are simply expressions of emotion which can be neither true nor false” — and the classic epistemological question, “What justifies a judgement of taste?” has been replaced “Which characteristics of objects tend to produce pleasure or displeasure?” which is the province of psychological and social science, not philosophy.
For those inclined to honor the intuition of critical normativity, at the expense of subjectivity, the challenge is to give some plausible account of objective artistic value that not only avoids magical thinking about independently existing values, but which can also explain — or convincingly explain away — the fact that so much of the language that we use, when engaging in evaluative discourse, would at least appear to denote essentially subjective states of mind; that the merits and demerits of works of art would seem to be seen, and heard, and felt rather than known.
I was thus inclined myself, in the early parts of my career. Indeed, my doctoral thesis, as well as all of my early professional publications and conference presentations in aesthetics, were aimed at identifying at least some artistic values that are objective and showing how they might be philosophically, rationally demonstrated.  My strategy was to take a teleological approach, similar in form to that which Aristotle employs in the Nicomachean Ethics. Using both artistic intention and art-historical taxa as a ground, I suggested that we could objectively ascribe to artworks a set of distinctly artistic purposes and functions, the successful/failed fulfilment of which would render them objectively good/bad, with regard to those purpose and functions. I also argued that one could then identify a set of “art critical laws” that would justify -– in the sense of rationally warrant –- critical evaluations.
This was the cause of some minor excitement on the part of some notable figures in aesthetics for a while (notably, I received quite positive reviews from Noel Carroll, who is one of the best in the business), but I quickly lost confidence in it myself, as it fails to remove taste and subjectivity from the evaluative equation. Even if artistic purposes and functions can be objectively ascribed (something I have wondered more and more about as time has passed), the question of whether or not artworks actually fulfil them is going to involve aesthetic and other experiences and judgments that are themselves irreducibly subjective.
Undoubtedly, we often make valuations with the idea that others should agree with us, but philosophers simply assume that the relevant intention is that such valuations should persuade within the rubric of a “publicly rational discourse,” as our professions of knowledge are supposed to; that when praising or criticizing works of art, our expectation that others should agree is predicated on philosophical standards of sound reasoning. But why should we think this is true of professional critics or, for that matter, of anyone engaged in critical discourse? There are any number of circumstances in which we endeavor to influence others -– whether in belief or sentiment –- not on the basis of reasoning, but by any number of non-rational modes of persuasion.
Philosophers typically make this assumption, without any reference to actual critical literature or discourse, and though there may be places where we find critics engaged in dispassionate, rational disputation, my own surveys of the critical literature, anecdotal as such surveys inevitably are, reveal an impassioned, rhetorical, fundamentally interested (as opposed to disinterested) mode of discourse and confrontation. In short, critical disagreements look a lot more like battles between partisans and enthusiasts than like exercises in rational disputation. This should come as no surprise to us, as people like it when others like the things that they like.
Philosophy’s orientation towards this subject represents a longstanding anxiety over the legitimacy of the critical enterprise, one that is symptomatic of a more general discomfort with the non-rational and emotional dimensions of human life, for which epistemologically-obsessed theorizing has served as both an expression and a panacea.  Philosophers are inclined to make all value judgments and disputes normative, because they are thereby made amenable to philosophical analysis and become the philosopher’s business. The trouble is that in doing this, philosophers are not approaching an existing first-order practice (criticism) from a second-order position (philosophy of criticism), but are inventing their own first-order practice, which they then purport to investigate from a second-order perspective. But, as already mentioned, this simply begs the question of why anyone should have any interest in such an invented practice.
Certainly, I could never take such an approach as the entire motivation for my own early work in aesthetics was to make sense of -– in the manner of providing a philosophic reconstruction –- critical practice. My problem, or at least one of them, was that I mistakenly assumed that critical practice is self-consciously normative, something that I no longer think it is.
Finally, some may want to say that philosophical inquiry may compel us to override what we ordinarily think and say about the value that works of art have for us -– and even sometimes what professionals think and say –- but in this regard, I must agree with Stanley Rosen, who argued in Metaphysics in Ordinary Language (1999) that if ordinary language and ways of thinking cease to be the ultimate arbiter for the acceptability of philosophical theories, then philosophy becomes “indistinguishable from poetry … or from arbitrary rhetorical assertion” and leaves us with “no basis on which to distinguish genuine and specious philosophical speeches.” Admittedly, this is a metaphilosphical point, rather than an aesthetic or art-critical one, but as we have already seen, much of what I think is wrong with the current theorizing on the subject of critical evaluation is essentially metaphilosphical in nature.
 I summarized Prichard’s arguments here.
 You can read my summary of Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste,” here:
 See, for example:
Kaufman, Daniel A. “Normative criticism and the objective value of artworks.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60, no. 2 (2002): 151-166.
Available for free here: https://bearworks.missouristate.edu/articles-chpa/136/
Kaufman, Daniel A. “Critical justification and critical laws.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 43, no. 4 (2003): 393-400.
Available for free here: https://bearworks.missouristate.edu/articles-chpa/137/
 Perhaps the most straightforward, explicit acknowledgment of this anxiety, in the philosophical literature on art criticism, is found in Monroe Beardsley’s, The Possibility of Criticism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), esp. P. 10.