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.
Visual arts are conventionally classified as spatial arts; they can be apprehended in a single moment. Yet, arguably, they also codify a temporal dimension which is elided by the spatial vs. temporal art dichotomy. Acrylic paints dry very rapidly, dry to a darker shade, and create layers of application that have a uniform level of saturation throughout a brushstroke. These facts about the medium compel the acrylic artist to constantly mix colours for each part of a painting, mix colours a smidgen lighter than they intend it to appear in the final work, and achieve any gradations in colour intensity implied by the lights and shadows on the subject using as many tints and shades of the local colour as may be required to achieve smooth transitions. By contrast watercolours dry relatively slowly, dry to a lighter tint, and create applications that have a gradated saturation going from high to low from the centre of a brushstroke to its peripheries [modulo the wetness of the paper].
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.