Gaut on Artistic Value

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of Gaut. 
My personal comments are in red.

The essay is a defense of ethical criticism, which is the view that the ethical dimensions of an artwork are relevant to its artistic value.

Gaut's version of ethical criticism, or ethicism, says that aesthetic value is not independent of ethical value: " if a work manifests ethically reprehensible attitudes, it is to that extent aesthetically defective, and if a work manifests ethically commendable attitudes, it is to that extent aesthetically meritorious."

The point of the essay is to explain how, exactly, the one is relevant to the other.

The key proposal is that ethicism is a pro tanto principle or rule: the ethical dimension counts toward the aesthetic evaluation, but is neither necessary nor sufficient to account for it.

alue empiricism says that artworks have value for the experience they provide.

So understood, the theory endorses value pluralism: more than one kind of value is relevant to aesthetic value. To take this position, Gaut notes that "aesthetic value" must be understood very broadly, as roughly equivalent to "artistic value." (This move puts him directly at odds with Carroll's position, which distinguishes aesthetic and cognitive value.)

The core requirement of Gaut's ethicism is the idea that works of art can manifest a pro or con attitude toward something.  Some of Wagner's operas manifest an anti-Semitic attitude. There is no reason to suppose that these attitudes are always obvious.

Objections and Replies

(1) The tradition of aestheticism denies ethicism.

Taken narrowly, aestheticism is false. There are many great works of art that are ugly. We cannot have a plausible aestheticism that denies the relevance of EXPRESSIVE features, and attitudes seem to be among these. If aestheticism emphasize the viewer's attitude toward the artwork (as Beardsley does), then that makes ethicism and aestheticism compatible, too. Ethicism says that the ethical attitude is an objective feature of the work, and we can't exclude any features of the work from consideration.

(2) It seems that some works are good because they have positive attitudes towards evil. But ethicism should condemn such works.

Be careful: showing the evil is fascinating or interesting is not the same as endorsing it. Ethicism says that a work that endorses evil is, to that extent, a bad work. Ditto about entering the mindset of evil people.

(3) Artworks prescribe responses from audiences. Some good works prescribe imagining the mistreatment of women. This would be a positive attitude. So ethicism goes wrong.

The objection ignores the way that complex works set up a hierarchy of responses. One thing is prescribed so that we can, in turn, reflect on our response to it. (These works prescribe higher-order responses.)

Furthermore, some prescribed responses are not appropriate; in criticizing a work for prescribing a morally bad response, we are criticizing how the work has been put together. (If it prescribes enjoying the torture of an innocent person, and goes no further in prescribing an appropriate higher-order response, then the work has been created with a morally objectionable attitude. It's certainly correct to criticize it for doing this.)  (But are we really criticizing the artist here, rather than the artwork?)

To the extent that SOME art is valuable for instilling certain attitudes in us, teaching us to emotionally respond in a merited way, it is certainly right to criticize art that prescribes unhealthy and wrong attitudes about people.

We now have a positive argument to support ethicism: If a work prescribes laughter but it's not funny, then laughter is not a merited response. If it prescribes what is not merited by it, then its failure is an aesthetic failure of the work. Prescribing unmerited ethical attitudes is just another case of the same thing.


                        Last updated April 11, 2011 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk