Does Philosophy of Art-Criticism Rest on a Mistake?

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. [1] 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. [2]


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.” [3]

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. [4] 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. [5] 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.


[1] I summarized Prichard’s arguments here.


[3] You can read my summary of Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste,” here:

[4] 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:

Kaufman, Daniel A. “Critical justification and critical laws.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 43, no. 4 (2003): 393-400.

Available for free here:

[5] 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.


29 responses to “Does Philosophy of Art-Criticism Rest on a Mistake?”

  1. This was thought-provoking and clearly articulated. Thanks.

  2. Gottlob+Frege

    Thanks for posting this provocative and interesting essay, Daniel. My initial reaction is that normativity and the “authoritative critic” are being dismissed a bit too quickly. The critic or artist, by becoming immersed in the history of an art form and the intention of the artists involved, can increase our understanding of and our appreciation for a work of art.

    And this, I gather, is what is meant by “delicacy of imagination, breadth of experience, and lack of prejudice”. My cousin, for example, is an artist and a practicing Buddhist in the Vajrayana tradition, and he has greatly increased my understanding of and appreciation for Buddhist and Indian art. Growing up in the 70s, a mandala was something I might encounter while getting high in some fella’s dorm room, but what what the odd geometric structure, and the creatures depicted, might be designed to convey, I did not have the faintest idea. Similarly, I would get a lot more out of discussing It’s a Wonderful Life with Martin Scorsese than with my mom. He might, for example, make me aware of certain stylistic decisions that Capra made that had not have occurred to me, and this, in turn, could increase my appreciation of the film.

    And this is, I think, epistemological: by discussing mandalas with me, my cousin is making me aware that X has properties that I did not understand and was not aware of. I don’t, however, think this implies there has to be some ultimate convergence of opinion about the merits of a particular Mandala or about Capra’s film.

    I am not implying that you would disagree with me about these examples, and I really don’t know whether I believe aesthetic values are themselves mind independent properties or not.

    And any rate, thanks again for posting and for the work you put into this site.

  3. Jay Jeffers

    Fascinating and thought-provoking essay, Dan!

    A couple questions, or maybe just clarifications:

    1) You’re something like an emotivist when it comes to evaluating aesthetic value, rather than an error theorist, yes, to continue the comparison with meta-ethics?

    2) You’re including intellectual reasoning (reason to believe, etc.) in your (emotivist-ish) view of valuing overall, rather that in a normative/rational bucket?

  4. First, let me observe that your reply only makes sense on Hume’s treatment. It makes none, with regard to Kant’s. [That’s ok, but I’m only going to discuss Hume’s, so I want to be clear on why.]

    I have no doubt that those with a certain amount of expertise and experience with art — and with other “objects of taste” — can help us to see/hear/taste things that we might not have otherwise and that this might make us like those things. But it may not. We may see/hear/taste everything that the “expert” critic wants us to and still not share his evaluation of the thing in question.

    The issue regarding normativity is this: does the fact that the expert critic likes it entail that someone else ought to? In the absence of an objective standard, the only normative position one can take is one based in a *subjective standard*. “You ought to like/not like X, because that’s what an expert judge would like/not like.”

    The trouble, as explained in the essay, is that there is *zero* chance — none — that expert judges, no matter how similarly expert, will like and dislike the same things. So we lack even a subjective standard, and without one, the idea of a normative taste cannot be sustained.

  5. If by an emotivist, you mean someone who takes a certain position as to the non-propositional character of evaluative statements, I would not commit to that nor do I think I need to.

    I don’t understand the second question. Could you rephrase?

  6. Dan,

    Does your view leave room for a ‘structuralist’ form of authoritative normative claims? As you might remember, I’m developing a theory of ‘“moral accounting’, which applies the structure of traditional accounting to moral issues. It doesn’t speak directly to what moral obligations people have (that judgment is outsourced to ‘society’). But once we acknowledge that people have moral obligations, we can use longstanding accounting principles to impose some helpful structures. For example, the Bookkeeping Principle requires that assets (power) and obligations are always in perfect balance. So even if we don’t know what moral obligations someone has, we can still make normative statements with authority, like “people can’t have moral obligations that are impossible to fulfill with the assets they have.”

    Moral accounting offers an incomplete analysis of morality, but the part of morality it does address it addresses teleologically: it assumes the purpose of governance is to help people live up to their moral obligations (whatever society decides they are), and then uses that purpose to critique both the obligations as society lays them out, and the governance used to encourage people to live up to them. That approach would seem to work for art criticism as well—if you presume a purpose, you can still ask how well it is being achieved, and someone with the right framework can offer authoritative normative answers about consistency, completeness, etc. in a limited sphere.

  7. Jay Jeffers

    Sticking with my rubric to keep the two issues somewhat separate:

    1) When you juxtaposed the objective/rational treatment of aesthetic value with Ayer’s view, and then criticized the objective/rational approach, I read Ayer’s view as coming out ahead, at least, and felt that reinforced with you saying that you do not believe aesthetic evaluation is self-consciously normative.

    Where did I go wrong? Is emotivism just one option within subjectivism, so the latter is all you’ve defended here?

    2) In pointing out that the philosophy of art criticism is essentially epistemology, and then, let’s say, deflating the pretentions that art criticism is objective, I wasn’t clear if epistemology runs along with art criticism and perhaps suffers the same fate for similar reasons, or if this comparison was meant to hold epistemology proper apart from art criticism as appropriately objective/rational.

  8. Re: 1., Hume is a subjectivist, but not an emotivist. Emotivism is a theory about the semantic content of evaluative statements.

    Re: 2., I have a very decentralized, framework-specific conception of warrant, which is similar to that found in the later Wittgenstein.

  9. Jay Jeffers

    OK I think I can jettison #2 now, making the rest one remaining topic (though I am interested in your answer on #2, it seems like a topic for another day).

    The way the essay unfolded appeared to me to leave Ayer standing at the end of a scuffle. In other words, the rational/objective/normative model was abandoned, and Hume and Kant’s attempt to retain an authoritative model was shown as misguided, leaving Ayer’s statement about judgments of value (which includes taste) expressing emotions rather than stating something true or false.

    But based on our back and forth and a re-reading, I’m thinking your view is, Hume before the attempt to undergird the authoritative critic, or Hume without the effort to save aesthetic evaluation through a side door, or something like that?

  10. For though beauty is seen and confessed by all, yet from the many fruitless attempts to account for the cause of it being so, enquiries on this head have almost been given up; and the subject generally thought to be a matter of too high and too delicate a nature to admit of any true or intelligible discussion. (from ‘The Analysis of Beauty’ by William Hogarth 1772)

    Indeed but he still has a go and offers us the serpentine line of beauty. Are there proportions which please more than others? There would seem to be. The golden section known to the Greeks occurs in the joinery of today. There is key, mood, raga, rasa, cadence, a limited number of basic plots. Probably these elements mirror the deep structure of the mind/brain but do not affect everyone similarly which is predictable. If someone after visiting the Prado were to say – I’m not sure about ‘Las Meninas’, is it great art?: you would mentally draw a line through Art as a subject for conversation. We tend to navigate using such landmarks in a subjective objective way, enjoying epistemic doubt and Keatsian negative capability. ‘without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.

  11. Pretty much, yes.

  12. Your first point sounds pretty much like the “ought implies can” principle that is most identified with Kant. I have no objection to it, per se.

    My point is meta-philosophical, so I’m not sure it impacts on what you are talking about. Although it sounds like your view would be most comfortable within some form of contractualism.

  13. jofrclark

    Thanks for this Dan. Very thought provoking. A few thoughts … and feelings.

    Reading between (beyond?) the lines as well as paying attention to the diction used, the essay portrays the philosophy of art/art criticism historically in terms of the use of objective analysis, rationality, and logical warrant. This is inherently the intellectual realm. By implication, historically intellectual thought has been the only acceptable realm of epistemology, the “traditional realm of moral philosophies.” This thought discourse, by implication, has also been a linguistically bound discourse in terms of lectures, essays, theses, etc.

    Perhaps that’s the mistake. It’s that the meaning of art can’t be apprehended through words or intellectual thought.

    You observe the inherent emotionality of art; subjective, feeling, sense, pleasure, emotion. That would imply that aesthetic discourse is a discourse in emotion that is inherently non-linguistic – a relational discourse between the artist and asthete in terms of sensuality, circumstance, and symbolism. Is it then even possible to apprehend the meaning of emotions/aesthetics through objective intellectual thought/words? Would this not be like trying to use a telescope to smell a flower?

    The aesthetic position would be that one actually knows through a feel, a sense, an inkling. Epistemologically speaking, the correction to Prichard’s mistake is to then consider emotions themselves as potentially knowledgable apart from any intellectual, rational, objective thought or words whatsoever. Emotions are themselves doxastic – they represent in the mind a conclusions to a (spontaneous) process of assessment that has the potential to be justified and true. This would be the intuitive realm, not the intellectual realm. This would also be a position well beyond traditional (current?) epistemology. The epistemic question would then become – what do emotions give us knowledge of?

    I myself would say that emotions/aesthetics ultimately provide a discourse in beliefs/knowledge of value. Value (good/bad, right/wrong, better/worse) is a manifest reality; it is true, and beliefs about that truth are assessed intuitively and represented in our mind in the form of a feel, of emotions in all their many forms and permutations. Such passionate beliefs/knowledge are most purely communicated between individuals aesthetically – through art and apart from any objective intellectual criticism/belief and apart the form any linguistically bound/expressed thought.

    Your feelings?

  14. “I myself would say that emotions/aesthetics ultimately provide a discourse in beliefs/knowledge of value. Value (good/bad, right/wrong, better/worse) is a manifest reality; it is true, and beliefs about that truth are assessed intuitively and represented in our mind in the form of a feel, of emotions in all their many forms and permutations.”

    = = = =

    My view is pretty much the opposite, in every respect, including the representationalism.

  15. davidlduffy

    Really interesting stuff, as usual when you write. I wonder how people have thought there could be a unitary treatment that could span choosing the “right” colour of paint for a bedroom and the aesthetic pleasure of reading your prose in the current essay. At a sociological level, we may recognize experts whose judgments in each of these domains we would respect. In the former, that their powers of visualization etc mean they can predict what might please me in a year’s time. In the latter, maybe that they can predict what I would enjoy after studying and becoming a better writer myself – part of the critic’s role is to educate taste. I alluded recently to the fact that trained musicians listen left-eared, while naive music lovers listen right-eared, presumably reflecting the left-hemispheric specialization in carrying out complex sequences of actions.

  16. Personally, I’ve been becoming more and more convinced that aesthetics is simply an over-interpretation of common language expressions of pleasure or displeasure. When I say “that’s beautiful!’ what more am I saying than that “it pleases me?” But some people have a difficult time with the notion that not every ‘objective’ statement may be an evocation of some mind-independent reality. So the over-interpretation becomes over-generalized. And then the over-generalization itself begins permeating language to the extent that personal expression becomes judgment which then elicits efforts to achieve agreement.

    But I must admit for myself, no matter how agreeable it is to no matter how many people, including admitted experts who – and I don’t deny this – have been especially trained in the language for it – if I personally find that it does not please me, I have no use for it in my home….

  17. Zac

    You have a strong and clear breakdown of the terrain, even if my intuitions don’t totally match up. My first question is what about aesthetic disputes where you considered the other person’s position absurd. Can you in each and every one of those disputes talk your dispute away? Render it merely subjective? Or do other forms of validity worm their way in? Maybe I can make those the stakes if we require total consensus for aesthetic judgment to pass. You talk about the interpretive and evaluative dimensions, but mostly lean on the latter to decide that consensus, and hence validity, is impossible. But there are plenty of times that valuation relies on interpretation, and not all interpretations are created equal. I judge a film because it means such and such. You would dismiss someone panning 2001 because it supports white supremacy, and well, I think you would be right. That’s ridiculous.

    But I guess I also have issues with requiring total consensus. We don’t even get that in obviously objective matters for one. See, recent history. To take something leaning into the objective tho, but with some wiggle room, consider Go. I’m talking about the game. You make shapes by groups of stones. There’s a general consensus about a lot of bad and good shapes, shapes that can and cannot be captured, but those judgments are rarely total because the validity of the shape depends on the rest of the board, since you can always develop new shapes that might be invulnerable. It has considerably more possibilities to consider than chess and requires a lot of intuition. Players call it reading. At a higher level there are different philosophies and strategies about approaching the game, and these disputes develop and die historically, with dispute probably inevitably remaining open. At first glance, we think it should be an obvious question whether a shape, in a given circumstance, is bad or good, but even AI (which have only beaten professionals in the past few years) have to work in probabilities. They can’t answer that in the way you say aesthetic judgment must be answered. There is no yes and no. Players can choose to stop playing out an area because they agree that the shape can’t be captured, or they can dispute it and play on, but they can rarely play out all possibilities. Is that merely subjective? Well, no. It’s not a binary question We can’t expect total agreement, even from experts or AI. We can only make better or worse judgments.

    That said, I had a friend who said she loved Old today. I very much doubt that I would like it, but I’m happy for her that she did. It’s better to like something than not. Shyamalan hasn’t made a film I liked in years, but I doubt that aesthetic judgment is about total consensus on one metric, up-thumb or down-thumb, Siskel or Ebert. We can imagine it in other ways tho. I think our sense of the terrain of aesthetic judgment should be more diverse. Why can I not like a movie, for instance, but still see its value or see why people value it and accept that? What’s going on there? When I look at a lot of aesthetic arguments I don’t see something I can make a cut-and-dry judgment about. This judgment about judgments isn’t as simple as it first seemed.

  18. jofrclark

    Curious. So does that mean you would not only reject aesthetic criticism as being epistemic in any way but also reject aesthetics itself as being in any way epistemic? Art does not access meaning or truth in any form?

  19. “Personally, I’ve been becoming more and more convinced that aesthetics is simply an over-interpretation of common language expressions of pleasure or displeasure.”

    I don’t know. This weekend I went with my wife to an exhibition of local artists. The works were more or less what you’d expect – there’s a reason why some artists remain local. Not bad, sincere, sometimes technically interesting etc. but eminently forgettable. The building – an ancient abbey – was far more interesting than the works.

    But then we entered a room and – we looked at each other and said: “what the hell is this?” It’s not that we particularly liked these works, I wouldn’t hang them in my living room. But they were so much more powerful, so much more expressive that we suddenly realized that yes, there is a difference between good and not so good art – forget about de gustibus non est disputandum, good art is not a matter of pleasure or taste.

    (When we talked to the artist, we learned that she was only “local” in the sense that she had her atelier in that town. She has exhibitions all over Europe.)

    On the other hand, I must admit I find this essay strangely abstract, and quite far removed from the art world as I know it. When talking about authoritative and/or professional art critics, it’s usually more interesting to examine the galleries they are associated with, the artistic movements they support, their friends in the art world, the media that pay their wages, the Zeitgeist even. I don’t doubt that they are professional and/or have authority, but their authority is to a large degree a sociological phenomenon and I’m not sure philosophy has the tools to examine sociological phenomena.

    And now I painted myself into a corner. On one hand, I believe that the artistic quality of art works is more that taste, subjectivity and pleasure. Even I can – sometimes – see the difference between mediocre and good art. On the other hand I believe that the judgements of professional art critics – and therefore my own judgements, because I’m not a blank page – are loaded with lots of baggage that has little to do with the works.

    I suspect I’m in a corner where plenty art lovers have found themselves. I guess philosophers love to examine if there’s a way out of it, but personally I don’t believe it’s possible.

  20. “On one hand, I believe that the artistic quality of art works is more than taste, subjectivity and pleasure. Even I can – sometimes – see the difference between mediocre and good art. On the other hand I believe that the judgements of professional art critics – and therefore my own judgements, because I’m not a blank page – are loaded with lots of baggage that has little to do with the works.”

    My way out is to see everything (the art works, ourselves) as being necessarily culturally embedded. Our brains are culture-saturated, culture-enabled. Cultural elements are not baggage as such. They are central, essential.

  21. “I alluded recently to the fact that trained musicians listen left-eared, while naive music lovers listen right-eared, presumably reflecting the left-hemispheric specialization in carrying out complex sequences of actions.”

    I would have thought that trained musicians would be thinking in terms of a technical/theoretical framework and so intellectualizing and using the left hemisphere more which is more linked to the *right* ear. Whereas naïve music lovers would be more focused on direct emotional reactions to tones, harmonies etc. (left ear, right hemisphere). No?

  22. A comment I tried to post in response to a comment by David Duffy apparently did not go through, so here it is again (with some general thoughts added).

    David wrote: “I alluded recently to the fact that trained musicians listen left-eared, while naive music lovers listen right-eared, presumably reflecting the left-hemispheric specialization in carrying out complex sequences of actions.”

    I would have thought that trained musicians would be thinking in terms of a technical/theoretical framework and so intellectualizing and using the left hemisphere more which is more linked to the *right* ear. Whereas naïve music lovers would be more focused on direct emotional reactions to tones, harmonies etc. (left ear, right hemisphere). No?

    This is how I see it in more general terms. When you intellectualize art work or objects (or anything for that matter) you participate in or create a specifically theoretical or technical framework over and above the general cultural framework within which the thing being perceived or discussed necessarily exists as a perceived (etc.) object. Engaging with this technical/theoretical framework may in itself be a source of pleasure (or pain!).

    People will make different judgments on the necessity, worthwhileness or appropriateness of developing complex theoretical or technical structures for particular purposes, and what is over-intellectualizing or inappropriate intellectualizing to one person may not be so to another.

  23. It was just waiting for moderation, Mark. I’m at the auto mechanic’s shop.

    All comments have to be approved. They do sometimes wind up in the Spam folder and get missed, but that wasn’t the case here.

  24. jofrclark

    Isn’t pleasure epistemic? Does it not carry meaning and knowledge, knowledge of the good? Culture is built on the collective human experience of what is generally good, what is pleasureful, the general welfare. Culture itself in some ways gives us insight into the common good. This would include the pleasure of relation to family, friends, community – the good of compassionate belonging.

  25. Since I’m getting a lot of criticisms that are somewhat similar, a few things to clear up any confusion.

    1. The philosophical conception of justification is normative. A justified belief is something you *ought* to accept, and a justified action is something you ought to do.

    2. Applying the concept to taste: if so and so is justified in liking x, that means you ought to like x.

    3. The only way to defend this idea is either to demonstrate (a) that there is some objective value to x or (b) that there are authoritative tastes.

    4. I explained why I think the idea of objective values is a bust.

    5. I also explained why I don’t think the idea of authoritative taste — one on which a person who has it, has tastes that *ought* to be held by others — is credible.

    6. That there are people whose tastes are influential or enjoy significant agreement affects none of this at all.

  26. I think the problem I have with your essay is that – if I understand it correctly – you frame it as a matter of “taste”. In my experience, it’s perfectly possible to recognize a work as good art, and dislike it at the same time, just like it’s possible to recognize a well-roasted coffee and dislike it. It’s not, or not only, a matter of taste.

    Have you ever been to the Musée Picasso in Antibes? Most of the works there left me stone cold, although even an amateur like me could see they are good art. If your point is that nobody should like a work of art because it has certain properties or because an authoritative voice claims you should like it, then I agree. If you’re claiming that good art has no properties that make it different from mediocre or bad art – well, that’s not my experience as an occasional art lover.

    I also have some difficulty to understand the distinction you seem to make between authoritative taste and people whose tastes are influential or enjoy significant agreement. Philosophically speaking the distinction may be valid, but if I look at the art world, the people with authoritative taste *are* the influential people. In my opinion, every analysis of authoritative taste should examine how some people got influential in the art world.

  27. I’m afraid I can’t explain it better than I already have.

  28. No problem, neither can I.

  29. Zac

    There’s also an element of maturation involved. I wouldn’t endorse all of my tastes as a teenager. Some tastes just change, but I don’t think it all just changes along a horizontal plane. Sensibility, perception, background knowledge can either grow or wither based off our experience and practice. Maybe this makes me a partisan against the coldly analytic reading, but I think the analytic is implicated in the same partisan fights. I think we’re all caught in the web and have to choose sides. Quine said the web is black with facts and white with convention, but the resulting fabric is gray. Vivian Walsh said it’s also red with value. So pink-gray.

    If I’d taken this piece too thoroughly to heart back in the day, I would’ve missed out on some of the best conversations about art I’ve ever had, which were very much predicated on taking the normative clash seriously. Feeling that oughts mattered fueled the dispute. It didn’t have to be “you ought to have the same affects as me” either. That seems like a pretty crude metric. Maybe we could brainwash everyone into not feeling these other oughts ever again about art, but I doubt it. Art talk is too promiscuous. It ends up tugging at too many of our other, not simply aesthetic values. It seems to speak to our merits as humans, as sapient experiencers. It’s more deeply plumbed I think by Iris Murdoch or John Dewey than A. J. Ayer.