Defining Art, Creating the Canon: Artistic Value in an Era of Doubt

Defining Art, Creating the Canon: Artistic Value in an Era of Doubt

Defining Art, Creating the Canon: Artistic Value in an Era of Doubt

Defining Art, Creating the Canon: Artistic Value in an Era of Doubt

Excerpt

In recent years aesthetic concepts of art and value have had a very rough ride. Their formalist and expressivist varieties have lost much influence through being unable to explain what it is that enables aesthetic and/or expressive effects, and also being manifestly at odds with the hugely influential Duchampian tendency in visual art (and its parallels in literature and music).¹

'Institutional' approaches, in contrast, have accommodated this tendency. They have done so by redefining art per se, on the basis of non-exhibited contextual properties rather than aesthetic ones. This doubt concerning the scope of the aesthetic, however, raises its own immediate problem. For it seems to reduce artistic meaning and value to the expression of context-dependent ideas about art and its cultural settings. But if this is the

¹ The most impressive attempt on these lines in recent years is Derek Matravers's elegantly argued
Art and Emotion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001). Its central problem is that the notion of expressive
properties with which it operates is based on feeling. However, it can be argued that the expressive
qualities of art far exceed correlation with specific feelings, and that even the medium which Matravers
is strongest on, namely music, can only be linked to feeling in a much-qualified way. For more on this
issue see Chapter 7 of the present work. A rather more curious case of contemporary expressivism is
that offered by Thierry de Duve in his book Kant After Duchamp (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT
Press, 1997). Here de Duve argues that decisions as to whether or not something is art are determined
by aesthetic feelings, and that the case of Duchamp fits in with this approach very effectively. There are
many problems with this theory, most of which stem from de Duve's rather eccentric use of Kant. A
more general one is his idea that judgements concerning what is, or what is not, art, are always based on
aesthetic feeling. This seems to foreclose, counter-intuitively, on the possibility that one can sometimes
just make judgements of the kind in question, without, thereby, being aesthetically engaged.

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