Beautiful, Troubling Art: In Defense of Non-Summative Judgment

Abstract

Do the ethical features of an artwork bear on its aesthetic value? This movie endorses misogyny, that song is a civil rights anthem, the clay constituting this statue was extracted with underpaid labor—are facts like these the proper bases for aesthetic evaluation? I argue that this debate has suffered from a false presupposition: that if the answer is yes (for at least some such ethical features), such considerations feature as pro tanto contributions to an artwork's overall aesthetic value, i.e., as merits or flaws which make something have more or less overall aesthetic value. As the case of ethically laden, aesthetic evaluation makes clear, however, good aesthetic judgement is irreducibly multi-dimensional, e.g., "the movie has an engaging soundtrack, tasteful camera work, and takes a misogynistically prurient perspective on its female lead.'' Such a "non-summative" judgement refuses to reduce those various dimensions of aesthetic value to a single aggregate aesthetic evaluation, like "it's a 6/10" or "it's a pretty good movie!" I defend both the modest claim that such non-summative evaluations are not mistaken and the extremist claim that summative (i.e., unidimensional) aesthetic evaluation is defective by considering other domains of normative assessment in which summing seems inappropriate, notably including evaluations of people's character.

Author's Profile

Patrick Quinn White
Harvard University

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2024-03-28

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