Aestheticians from Plato to Denis Dutton have been critics of the arts, not scientific investigators. Plato spanked the Greek educators for treating Homer as a source of anything but pleasure, and in his recent invitation to naturalize aesthetics (ASA Newsletter Summer 2003) Denis scolds modern aestheticians for favoring formalism and down-playing mimesis. I would also argue that his favoring biological over cultural explanations of art is more a response to the fact that cultural criticism is often, to put it only a little crudely, anti-art rather than because cultural factors play no role in aesthetics judgments. Aestheticians, in other words, are in the business of engaging intuitions in the service of the future of what they love, rather than looking backward. Usually they favor one or another or some combination of the basic orientations (Meyer Abrams’ term) – mimetic, expressive, formal, and pragmatic, to which I would add conceptual – or they defend the arts in general as values in civilization. It seems natural enough in a scientific era to look to science to anchor the arts, but saying that aesthetic values are rooted in nature does not make them good, and the aesthetic project remains the philosophical refinement of and adjudication among intuitions. Since Denis mentions sports as a locus of value akin to what we value in art, let me pursue the argument with an analogy to baseball.
Sports fans routinely debate such questions as the quality of players, and they employ intuitively plausible criteria when they do so. Ted Williams was a great hitter, but a lousy team member when he refused to hit to left field to beat the Williams shift. Valuing skills may, as Denis argues, have its origins in our biological past, as may valuing a willingness to sacrifice for the group, but those who argue about Ted Williams are interested in what balance should be struck in making the current judgment, not where the criteria underlying the judgment come from. The same holds for judgments about works, artists, genres, etc. We are constantly and in various ways expressing these judgments. Patrons and audiences demand this or that, artists try out that and this, critics call for this and that, and philosophers champion this or that in response to their intuitions of what is needed now. These intuitions are the “environment” that supports or retards this or that development in the arts. Selection is at work and it does not matter to the fan where the judgments come from. What we expect from baseball commentators is an intimate knowledge of what is going on in the game and the same holds for critics and aestheticians. That is why Denis objects to the dominance of formalism; it is a skewed view of aesthetic value – or so he wishes to argue. But formalism is, as Denis himself says, as rooted in biologically based intuitions as mimesis (see E. H Gombrich’s The Sense of Order for some suggestions about this), so science will not help us refine our sense of what is needed now.
There may well be evolutionary explanation for our pleasure in music, poems and pictures, a preference for certain kinds of landscapes, why love occupies so much literary space, and why we value great skill, but it is the task of biologists to explain the source of those intuitions. Denis should, therefore, invite them, not the aestheticians, to investigate the sources of the many values that we find in art. Let them naturalize values; our business is shaping the future of the arts. They are part of the institution of science, and finding the biological sources of value may someday be part of the enterprise of perfecting biology. We are part of the institution of the arts, and thus have a different task, which is not to inquire into the origin of our intuitions about value but to engage those intuitions in the on-going conversations (critical, philosophical, historical) that support and shape the arts. It is a responsibility that academic insulation from the artworld can obscure.
2004 © Roger Seamon