In some quarters of academia, aesthetics is a dirty word. It calls to mind aspects of Western intellectual history that some feel are best left abandoned, such as ivory-tower professors who spout theories about the good and the beautiful without having had much contact with either. For skeptics, aesthetics is synonymous with ungrounded theorizing about the value of artworks. The discipline seems unforgivably suspect because so many works of aesthetics over the years have considered a small subset of artworks, inevitably residing in the Western canon, as standard bearers for the quality of art made anywhere, by anyone, and at any time. While claiming to be an objective measure of what it is that artworks do, aesthetic theory seems irreconcilably ideological, an instrument for reinforcing the values and prejudices that have kept a few artists and art consumers in comfort, while making sure that many more artworks and artistic practices lurk in obscurity and comparative poverty.
Aesthetics is, then, an unpopular pastime, although a few brave souls still write aesthetic theory (Danto 1997; Kraut 2007; Kuspit 2004; Levinson 2006). Many other scholars have critiqued aesthetics by means of cultural studies and sociology, disciplines that start not with theories about artistic merit but rather with empirical data concerning artistic practice. Cultural studies and sociology seem methodologically sound because they rely on ethnography and case studies, techniques that presume to minimize the author’s prejudices about a subject and empower practitioners and spectators to speak for themselves. With multicultural, feminist, gay and lesbian, and postcolonial studies continuing to flourish and generate torrents of