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The Critic. Brush pen illustration by Cain S. Pinto.

Have the Artist, the Neuroscientist, or the Art Critic Stolen the Philosopher’s Lunch?

No, but not for want of trying.

One needn’t be an artist, or an art critic, to form an intelligent opinion about some artwork any more than one need be an automobile engineer, or F-1 driver, to recognize a car crash. Nevertheless, one would be mistaken in thinking there is no difference between the artist and the art critic, or the automobile engineer and the F-1 driver. Creating art and providing critical commentary are independent enterprises. Being competent at one role doesn’t by itself augur assured success in the other, while having some insight into art will almost certainly enrich art criticism.  

The perennial tendency to chastise art critics for failing to first be artists is churlish but not altogether impertinent. Good art criticism is alive to the conceptual and practical aspects of the creative process implicated in art works that are the target of appraisal. Of course, this doesn’t imply a good art critic must be able to create art of the same quality. She must simply be cognizant of what goes into creating work of that quality. Part of the reason an enlightened art critic chooses to purse criticism over creation as a vocation is that she accurately recognizes limitations in her craft which will keep her from realising the highest artistic ideals she can envision, and which are beyond her technical facility. Consider Walter Robinson who graciously abandoned art for art criticism after pioneering the spin painting technique later adopted by Damien Hirst, or Jerry Saltz who uses his experience as a painter to guide his interpretation of others’ art.

While art criticism benefits from artistic skill there is also a reciprocally enriching role that a sophisticated critical discernment can play in elevating artistic skill. The artist is typically driven to create, and subsequently governed in their artistic decisions, by a personal vision or intention. And, at least one popular line of thinking has it that art can only really be meaningfully interpreted with respect to the artists’ intention. Arguably, awareness of artists’ intention can only illuminate some aspects of an artistic work. Artists usually work in a given tradition and even iconoclastic artists have very definitive views about what constitutes a good, or excellent, art work. The particularity of artists’ relation to their inherited tradition, or chosen vision of excellence, on one hand and the objective features of their work as these are intelligible to others on the other hand bring into relief the tension between what an art work is in itself  and what it is for others. That is what it is without regard to the artists’ intentions by their own or others’ lights and what it is for an aesthete consciously engaging with it, whether the aesthete be the artist themselves or an impartial audience.

The Artist Vs. The Philosopher

Consider for concreteness the following case, adapted from Jerrold Levinson (2017)[i].” Duncan, an excellent poet and incredibly charismatic individual, believes that an excellent poem is: necessarily one that is thought up in a single instant, or essentially spontaneously arising in the poet’s imagination in an epiphanic moment and, then, requiring only minimal work to put into complete order on the page. Given the high quality of his own work, and the absolute conviction with which he is able to articulate his view of what makes for a good poem, Duncan easily wins over, or browbeats, poets and admirers to his view of what makes for a good poem. As almost everyone accepts his view of what makes for good poetry, Duncan is increasingly convinced of the truth of his account of poetic merit every time he professes it. Clearly, something has gone wrong here even though Duncan, his fellow poets, and his audiences are constantly being guided by his authorial intention. They have ended up with a faulty theory of poetic merit, a theory that can neither explain why Duncan’s own poems are good or why a poem’s goodness/merit might depend on its being thought up in a single instant and then requiring minimal work to commit to the page. They are unwittingly committed to the incredibly tendentious, and strange, views that: any poems by Duncan that they dislike were composed over a long time and did not really arise spontaneously but required great effort, and Duncan might be lying about how they came to him in a flash. Parallelly, poems by other poets they dislike are all like that; and, they can detect how a poem was composed and fleshed out without any revelation from the poet about how they actually composed the poem and how long it took them. They’d have to think, bizarrely, that Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was a bad poem simply because it took him between six and seven years to perfect the voice required to compose it.    

One needn’t have a sophisticated rival theory about aesthetic merit generally, and/or aesthetic merit in poetry specifically, to see that artists’ intentions cannot possibly provide the necessary pieces to fill out the explanatory puzzle here. There is much, much more to it whatever it might turn out to be; aesthetic merit just ain’t in authors’ heads. Another theory which has its many clamouring, but as I’ll argue ill-informed, supporters has it that the scientist who gives an account of what goes on in the brain when we have an aesthetic experience explains all there is to explain about what makes an aesthetic experience excellent, or an art work great. On this view the neuroscientist who tells us what goes on in the brain when we think a specific poem’s great, or a given painting’s excellent, tells us all there is to know about what makes any poem great, or any painting excellent. But this can’t be right.

The Neuroscientist Vs. The Philosopher

Consider the case, adapted from Levinson (2017), of the neuroscientist who conducts experiments to determine what bits of the brain are responsible for the chills, or frisson, one experiences while listening to a great piece of music. The popular, scientistic, and ultimately mistaken, view of the result that the anterior cingulate cortex is implicated in the experience of frisson when a piece of music one likes is heard at a moderate, pleasant, volume concludes whatever makes the anterior cingulate cortex light up is aesthetically excellent. This is obviously, and thoroughly, wrongheaded because terrifying experiences also cause the experience of chills, or frissons, by way of the activation of the very same brain region. What makes aesthetic experiences different from the experience of terror if all there is to an aesthetic experience is the differential activation of the anterior cingulate cortex which is also activated during experiences of abject terror? This problem of overdetermination posed by the multi-modularity of brain regions with respect to various discrete functions neurologists, and lay people, think of as comprising the exercise of perception and agency also rears its ugly, and multifarious, hydra-heads whenever one tries to pinpoint specific regions as uniquely involved in rational [as opposed to irrational] thought. Unfortunately, as Holyoak and Morrison (2012) report, it turns out the very same brain regions are activated whether a person thinks the sentence all whores deserves absolution because Christ died for their sins or the sentence all whores deserve to be killed because they’re immoral.[ii]  Rationality, like aesthetic merit, just ain’t in the head. More accurately, the neuroscientist is not going to be able to give a dispositive account of all aspects of aesthetic merit, or rationality. The reasons for this are many; see the work of Nicholas Rescher on Unknowability to get a sense of the barriers to knowledge of some types of facts one faces regardless of the domain of inquiry. But the one reason of obvious relevance here is that many questions about artistic merit have nothing to do with the differential activation of brain regions, or artists’ intentions.

The Art Critic Vs. The Philosopher

Finally, consider the case of a seasoned art critic—again adapted from Levinson (2017). Lance has spent a good part of three decades as a professional art critic who works with established galleries and high profile clients. Over the course of his career he has developed fairly elaborate views about what makes for a good painting, and though he is partial to the school of abstract expressionism he claims to have good theoretical reasons to think some abstract expressionist artists are much better than others who are overrated. Moreover, he claims that the specific reasons that make the best abstract expressionist works superior are not reducible merely to perceptible features like formal qualities, compositional elements, or colour schemes. In fact, he says abstract expressionisms’ merits over rival schools itself is not explicable in terms of perceptible features of art works. The final court of appeal, as far as he is concerned, is his own unvarnished and prereflective judgement: he knows a great painting when he sees it. His own bildung, extensive immersion in works of the abstract expressionist tradition, and carefully developed rationales for his tastes after the fact, he claims give him enough insight to tell a good painting from a mediocre, or bad one.

A philosopher, or philosophically minded interlocutor, would quickly see that while it is possible that Lance can come up with consistent judgements about what paintings qualify as good, mediocre, or bad on his own views his theoretical apparatus is question begging in its preemptive dismissal of paintings not in the abstract expressionist school. It is not clear Lance will be able to even give a persuasive account of what specific features make a realist painting worse than an abstract expressionist painting he considers to be bad or mediocre. It is completely legitimate to demand from Lance a clear account of the relation between good, mediocre, and bad abstract expressionist paintings and how this relationship may be applied reliably to paintings from other schools. Clearly, he is not rationally entitled to think every impressionist painting is bad to the same degree, or just as bad as the worst abstract expressionist painting. To become rationally entitled to such a view Lance would have to do the work of presenting a framework for ranking abstract expressionist works as well as works from other schools using some sort of rating scale that has a high degree of consistency and inter-rater reliability.

How the Philosopher Keeps his Lunch

After surveying the squishy underbellies of the artist, the art critic, and the neuroscientist in their capacity as aesthetic theorists it is apparent that they are too close to a given art form to take a panoptic view of aesthetic value, have overweening critical predilections that are not susceptible to rational justification, or take an impractically narrow view of what is in fact an incredibly vast and undifferentiated domain of human endeavour. The philosopher of art remains free to remedy these deficiencies in her analyses because she is disposed, and called upon, to rise above the form-specific evaluative standpoints of artists, replace the idiosyncratic judgements of professional critics with rational frameworks that apply across the whole aesthetic domain, and find reliable ways to answer questions not reducible to facts about what goes on in the human body having an aesthetic experience at a given level of resolution. One might cavil that the artist, the critic, and the neuroscientist might themselves take on the role of the philosopher by rising above and remedying the specific deficits of their typical analyses, exemplified in our discussion. Of course, they are welcome to do so. But clearly in doing this they abandon their identity and theoretical precommitments qua artists, critics, or neuroscientists and become philosophers of art themselves. They’ve not stolen the philosopher’s lunch so much as joined her at the buffet.


[i] Jerrold Levinson (2017). Aesthetic Pursuits: Essays in Philosophy of Art. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Keith J. Holyoak & Robert G. Morrison (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. New York, NY: Oxford University press.

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