Philosophy 162 - 8.5.2 Aesthetic Judgment

Aesthetic theory also examines how people make judgments about art. Are aesthetic judgments rational? Do they have justifications, and if so, what kind of justifications?

Kant and Aesthetic Judgment

In the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), Kant, like Hume, considers judgments of taste to be subjective—that is, a statement about the subject’s response to an object. However, he thinks that when people experience beauty, they also think that others ought to feel the same way. Moreover, Kant thinks that art and beauty are not a matter of personal preference because values and ideals are involved. If you enjoy something that is a mere personal preference, like an ice cream flavor, you will not necessarily expect others to like it and will not feel insulted if they dislike it. But the same is not necessarily true for art. For example, maybe you cannot explain why you prefer chocolate ice cream—it simply tastes better to you. However, you can explain why you love Toni Morrison’s Beloved and think that others should read it too. Kant cares about the values involved with aesthetic judgments because he believes that the beautiful prepares people to love what is good.

Sibley and Aesthetic Judgment

How do people justify aesthetic judgments? Are there rules or a specific rationale that are needed? In “Aesthetic Concepts,” British philosopher Frank Sibley (1923 – 1996) distinguishes between two types of remarks people make about art: sensory observations—what anyone with the sense of sight or hearing can observe—and aesthetic judgments, which require sensitivity to details and discernment (1959). Sibley notes that people frequently base aesthetic judgments on sensory observations. For example, you might describe a painting as melancholic because of its blue palette. However, Sibley argues that this does not mean that a person’s sensory observations require that they arrive at a particular aesthetic judgment. Someone could disagree with your assessment of the painting and describe it as calm rather than melancholic. In this sense, aesthetic judgments have justifications but not necessary rules, conditions, or relations between what a person sees and how they interpret or judge it.

The Intentional Fallacy

Who determines what a work of art means? Its audience? Art historians or critics? Some people assert that it is the intention of the artist that determines the meaning of the work of art. For literary theorist William Kurtz Wimsatt (1907 – 1975) and philosopher of art Monroe Beardsley (1915 – 1985), both Americans, this is a fallacy: the intentional fallacy. Wimsatt and Beardsley point out that people are able to describe, interpret, and evaluate a work of art without any reference to the artist’s intentions and, furthermore, that these intentions are often unknown and unavailable (1946).

There are other reasons not to limit the meaning of a work of art to the artist’s intentions. A work of art takes on a life of its own as it becomes known to the public and incorporated into spaces where it is discussed, compared, analyzed, and catalogued. Additionally, intentions do not always land correctly. An artist might intend to provoke a particular reaction and fail to do so, or the work of art might incite a response that the artist could not possibly anticipate. Audiences’ reactions to the work of art are meaningful and, more importantly, not always a misinterpretation if they differ from the intentions of the artist.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax