Aesthetic vs Artistic Valuation (Part 1)

Aesthetics is that category of human behavior that studies our responses to and evaluations of beautiful things. The topic is closely related to ethics and there are a number of ways in which the study of ethics can inform any discussion of aesthetics. For example, an ethical deontologist might be more inclined to the belief that there are aesthetic values that are independent of the subject. The utilitarian might be more inclined to formulate an aesthetic theory that emphasized the ways in which beautiful things enhance the pleasure of subjects and rank the value of such things based on that. So there are natural corollaries that can be mapped across the two fields. So closely intertwined are they that there have been some philosophers that have claimed that ethics is actually a subset of aesthetics. Wittgenstein alludes to this in Philosophical Investigations:

Anything–and Nothing–is right. And this is the position you are in if you look for definitions corresponding to our concepts in aesthetics or ethics.

The aim of aesthetics as a discipline in philosophy is to come to an understanding of what beauty is in the same way that ethics aims to determine what the good is, particularly in relation to human behavior. “Aesthetics” is also a term used to describe a branch of activity that is only tangentially philosophical. In the same way that there are “ethicists” who are not philosophers, there are “aesthetes” who use an aesthetic value system to value objects.

What is deemed “artistic” is not necessarily related to aesthetics at all, though one could argue that at one time it was. Whereas the beauty of a particular artifact can inform ones appreciation for it, its artistic merit is not determined at all by its aesthetic qualities. (I am using visual art as the paradigm example, however I suggest that this analysis is applicable to all artistic activity). Peter Kivy has suggested a clear distinction between the two terms in Sound Sentiment (1989):

[One] way of using the “aesthetic”/”artistic” pair is to narrowly construe “aesthetic,” but to construe “artistic” more widely, so that the class of properties relevant to the artistic evaluation of art works is larger than the class of aesthetic properties of art works, all aesthetic properties, however, being relevant to artistic evaluation, the evaluation of art qua art.

Kivy is right to make the distinction, but in my view is incorrect about the scope. Whereas he includes aesthetic properties in his list of artistic properties, I would argue that they are mutually exclusive sets. One is purely formal (aesthetic) while the other is entirely defined by socio-historical norms (artistic). To reiterate, this has not always been the case. Artistic value is a relatively new cultural phenomenon that would have been completely alien even in the classical period. The cult of the artist does not come into vogue until the Romantic period.

The confusion that has resulted, particularly over the past 150 years, is a result of the gradual bifurcation of artistic and aesthetic merit. The art definition problem that has preoccupied a handful of philosophers for the past half-century is a direct result of the widening gap between aesthetic and artistic valuation.

Aesthetic judgment can be made on a particular artifact without taking its artistic merit into account at all. This can be demonstrated by the fact that there are numerous examples of objects with only limited aesthetic value that are highly prized as artistic objects, while conversely many artifacts that have aesthetic appeal are not valued as art objects.

FountainThe paradigmatic non-aesthetic art object is of course the famous Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. Although the piece may have aesthetic properties under certain conditions, it is clearly not on the basis of such that the piece is now included among significant works of art.

Leaving aside then the aesthetic properties of artifacts, what exactly are artistic properties?

A nice circular answer would be those properties of an object that are included in the definition of an artwork. This is in one form or another exactly the type of definition that has emerged in the wake of Duchamp and other revolutionaries of the last century. Beginning with Dickie and extended by Danto, the Institutional definition of art emerged to deal with the inflationary universe of art objects that had emerged. Unlike aesthetics where one could still make at least a token appeal to the subjectivity of the experience of art, the institutional theory posited the idea of the conferral of art status upon an artifact by some external entity. Determining who or what entity is entitled to confer such status becomes the critical point of contention, rather than whether or not this transfiguration (to use Danto’s famous word) actually occurs.

In my next post on this subject I will make an attempt to depart from the socio-historical approach and discuss in what ways there may be necessary and sufficient conditions for the inclusion of particular artifacts in the general category of art.


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