The Arbitrariness of Aesthetic Judgment

Journal of Value Inquiry 55 (4):625-646 (2021)
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Realists about aesthetic judgment believe something like the following: for an aesthetic judgment of be correct, it must respond to the intrinsic aesthetic properties possessed by the object in question (e.g., Meskin et al., 2013; Kieran 2010). However, Cutting’s (2003) empirical research on aesthetic judgment puts pressure on that position. His work indicates that unconscious considerations extrinsic to an artwork can underpin said judgements. This paper takes Cutting’s conclusion a step further: If philosophers grant that it’s possible to appreciate artwork on the basis of unconscious biases, then we never can be fully confident that our aesthetic judgment is undergirded by the intrinsic aesthetic properties of an artwork. Furthermore, if judgment on the basis of unconscious, external reasons cannot be ruled out, we cannot be confident that our aesthetic judgments are ‘correct’. I argue that Cutting’s research is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the extrinsic, unconscious factors that influence aesthetic judgment. Expectation bias formed via social influence and context greatly influence aesthetic judgments and are unavoidable: we inevitably form expectations based on all kinds of contextual cues independently of any actual exposure to the item in question. Such factors make it terribly difficult to be confident in our aesthetic judgments. Even if there are objective properties that mark out some items as aesthetically superior to others, we cannot be sure that our judgments are responding to those properties.
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