Aesthetic Normativity

The whole field of aesthetics has become significantly less fashionable in recent years as it has continued to encounter scepticism over whether aesthetic judgements are anything other than an individual’s subjective judgement. On this view, aesthetic judgements tell us nothing about the object in question as a matter of fact and speaks solely to the disposition and preference of the individual making the judgement “x is beautiful”. Such judgements on this view are nothing more than opinion, and that there is no relationship whatsoever between human experience and of cold empirical objective reality – “x is beautiful” on this view is the same as saying “I like x”. However, when we put the sceptical view of aesthetics under pressure, it quickly begins to crack and unravel, particularly as one soon finds that scepticism of this kind is deeply rooted in an ideology of extreme toleration bound up with post-modernist thought. Those that oppose this view of aesthetics are reluctant to say that these judgements are statements of fact, but they are normative statements that indicate “appropriateness” or “inappropriateness”. We are inclined to think that those not able to see that “puppies are cute” for example, is making an “inappropriate” judgement – it is not objectively a true or false statement, but aesthetically there exists a response that is appropriate for us as humans with our biological and psychological disposition. As Hume points out:

“… a thousand different sentiments, excited but the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object. It only marks a certain conformity or relation between the object and the organ or faculties of the mind; and if that conformity did not really exist, the sentiment could never possibly have being. Beauty is no quality in thins themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

Put simply we each see an object differently because we each have varying tastes and preferences, but the faculties that perceive the object, the reason and sentiment employed to cast judgement and ultimately determine the objects merits aesthetically are still derived from a constrained set of normative determining factors. This includes a very significant element of communicability within aesthetic judgements, indeed there is a school of thought that aesthetic judgements are at least in part a kind of phatic communication that allows us to check if we are appropriately positioned in our world view, and this is why we often seek validation and confirmation in our aesthetic judgements – if it were purely one’s own opinion then the communicative nature of aesthetic judgements would be nothing more than vacuous subject matter with no real meaning. It does not seem likely that phatic communication is all there is to aesthetics, but there does seem to be an element of educability and conformity of aesthetic judgements. Another key aspect here is that the emotions utilised during aesthetic experiences are “disinterested” as Kant put it. In that we can sense the emotional response to a given aesthetic experience from a vantage point in which we are not directly invested in the experience. This in contrast is totally the opposite to moral judgements which hold sway over our behaviour precisely because we are emotionally invested in the outcome. Nevertheless morality, just like aesthetics is constrained, and judgements formed within a predefined social and psychological framework, and as such these judgements are neither entirely subjective nor objective. Instead they are what can be call normative – a subjective response within an existing framework from which we are able to determine if judgements are appropriate or inappropriate – not to be confused with correct or incorrect.

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