Adorno observes in his posthumous opus Aesthetic Theory: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore” (2). Adorno’s pessimism about art in his time and ours arguably presupposes a problematic definition of art and artistic merit. In what follows I’ll rehearse his arguments, give a charitable gloss of considerations which lead him to his position, and argue that they are consequences of his subscription to something like the institutional theory of art. I’ll then present Levinson’s historical theory of art as a sound alternative to the institutional theory of art, develop an evaluative framework for assessing artistic merit, and show it is compatible with Adorno’s attitudes towards art while being immune to problems he identifies with the prospects of art in his time and ours.
Surveying the squishy underbellies of the artist, the art critic, and the neuroscientist in their capacity as aesthetic theorists it becomes 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.