Shelley on Artistic Value

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

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

The essay is an attack on value empiricism.

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

AND, furthermore, that no two artworks have exactly the same value.

But how can value empiricism be true? The empiricist normally says that each artwork provides a unique experience: we can't "separate" the experience of Mozart symphony No. 29 from it -- in other words, nothing but symphony No. 29 can give us the experience it can give us.

So why is this experience VALUABLE? (Notice that there are really two questions here. First, why is the experience valuable? Second, what makes us say that it's uniquely valuable?)

  • You can't answer that it's valuable because the symphony is valuable. That's what's at issue.

  • And you can't just say that the experience is valuable because it's of THAT symphony, for the claim of inseparability has insisted that the experience and the features of the symphony are inseparable. So saying it's valuable as an experience of THAT work is just another way of saying that the experience is valuable because the symphony is valuable. We already ruled out THAT explanation.

If we say it's the PLEASURE, then it's not clear that we have something inseparable from that particular experience. I can pleasure from drugs, too! Perhaps drugs will give me the same pleasure, or at least pleasure that's just as valuable!

The question, then, is why is THIS pleasure so valuable? (And now you can't say because it's of THAT symphony, because you just run into the same problem explained above.)

The empiricist can say that it's not the experience but rather the phenomenal character of it that's so valuable. (The phenomenal character is what it's like. It's the experiential aspect of the experience.)

Reply: We might grant that each artwork gives an experience with a unique phenomenal character, but why should we say that only that artwork can give us an experience of THAT value? Some other experience could still give us just as much value. Taking drugs, for instance.

Some empiricists try to get around the problem by saying that UNDERSTANDING the work is important to the experience and its value. (It's the phenomenal character that is present to those who understand it. Budd said something like this.)

Reply: But we understand BAD art, too. So that can't make it valuable.

To avoid the problem of bad art, we'd have to say, instead, that the experience is good when we understand a good poem. But now we need some explanation of the value other than the value of the experience, because the "good" of the experience is now derived from the "good" of the artwork.

So what is that explanation? We're back at the question of why artworks are valuable, which we haven't yet answered.

The empiricist doesn't like to admit it, but the theory has made artworks into MERE TOOLS, just like drugs.


                        Last updated April 6, 2011 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk