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Axiology 101: How Do We Evaluate Art?


For many of us, a feature of our globalized and multicultural society is a growing disinterest in value systems. Talk of systemic corruption, and a barrage of news articles about the evils brought about by this or that faction, this or that ideology, have given us a skeptical outlook on values. We wonder what is good or bad amidst so many conflicting narratives. This series of Axiology 101 articles aims to stir the reader to examine the validity of value systems by providing an introduction to the branch of philosophy that seeks to map out their nature.

The series will be divided into the following chapters:

  1. Axiology 101: The Elusive Nature of Value

  2. Axiology 101: The Good, the Bad and the Ethical

  3. Axiology 101: How do We Evaluate Art?

  4. Axiology 101: The Divine Hypothesis

  5. Axiology 101: The Meta-ethical Subversions

  6. Axiology 101: A Proposed Solution

How Do We Evaluate Art?

In his revolutionary Dadaist manifesto of 1918, Tristan Tzara attempted to redefine artistic sensibilities and abandon the canons of tradition, ultimately divorcing art from beauty. Signed by leading proponents of Dadaism, his manifesto states that “a work of art shouldn’t be beauty per se, because it is dead”, adding that such art “converges into a boring sort of perfection, a stagnant idea of a golden swamp” (1918). The divorce of art from beauty comes as no surprise to us, and for all the semantics on the subject, the reality is that we have learned, for better or worse, to live with and find inspiration in ugly art, or art that is mentally stimulating but devoid of sensory fulfilment. Modern art museums abound, filled to the brim with art that strives to be interesting but doesn’t offer a multifaceted aesthetic experience that touches both brain and heart, affecting every fiber of our humanity.

Figure 1: The Art Critic, Raoul Hausmann. (c.1920)

Perhaps the most revelatory aspect of Tzara’s manifesto, especially for the field of axiology, is its identification of our disenchantment with works of beauty. Is it possible to look anew at revered works of art and see them not as masterpieces but rather as Tzara's stagnant swamps of gold? Can such artworks become representative of banal, antiquated preferences? Furthermore, is beauty something that we can choose to see at one moment in time but then decide not to see at the next, when we are told by others that it no longer exists? If we have indeed decided to subvert or replace our tradition of aesthetic value, then should that replacement not be an improvement rather than a regression towards chaos? As discussed in the first article in this series, Axiology 101: The Elusive Nature of Value, we, as axiological beings, should move progressively towards greater order, meaning, and understanding - towards more evolved values, including aesthetic ones.

Figure 2: The Soul of the Rose, John William Waterhouse. (c.1908)

Ultimately, the experience of beauty is high in the rank of aesthetic experience, especially beauty that goes beyond forms and colors to manifest meaning. This is reflected in our day-to-day awareness of the importance of beauty. Examples abound of how we try to fill our homes and cities with beauty. All of these efforts, beyond a merely sensuous appeal, carry with them rationality. As Roger Scruton points out, "Beauty generally matters - not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display" (2009, p. 9).

Why do we hang paintings in our homes? Why do we design buildings with aeshetically pleasing facades? We might be tempted to answer simplistically that both the paintings and the façade are visually pleasing, but that answer is not entirely satisfying. There is a reason behind every human act, and even the statement “Because I like it” has some inherent value or meaning to justify why we find something sufficiently pleasing to place it in the middle of their living room or incorporate it into a building.

The fact is, we value art as an important part of our lives, as proven by its widespread existence throughout space and time. And its importance derives from more than its ability to please us - if that were the case, the likes of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica or Damien Hirst’s Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain would not be part of the Art History canon. Our appreciation and valuing of art is part of a more complex reaction that derives from reason as well as perception.

Figure 3: Damien Hirst's Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain (2007) Figure 4: Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937)

In simplest terms, we could say that art is a stimulant, but not one to which we merely react, like a sensory stimulant. Rather, we incorporate our cognitive abilities into our understanding of it, or at least our attempt to understand it. We find that at the root of this object before us, there is content, something that it is trying to convey. In that sense, it has a certain meaning that carries within it values that can be interpreted and judged. Beauty is the perfection of form in its task of manifesting meaning and value. We often hear it said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this offers only a partial understanding of our relationship with art and beauty. Scruton sees beauty as the “supreme aesthetic value” (2009 p.17), which allows for aesthetic experiences that go beyond those that merely please the senses. There is no doubt that the aesthetic experience is heavily reliant upon the senses and thus has a very strong sensory value, but the experience does not and cannot end there. The deeper meaning within these experiences, related to the intellect, creates a new and lasting impression on the subject, one that he feels compelled to share.

Figure 5: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich. (1818)

One reason for this apparent multiplicity of meaning within aesthetics is that there exists a great divergence among individual emotions that give a specific nuance to our experience of an object we agree is beautiful. As pointed out by Vessel et al. (2012), "strongly moving aesthetic experiences may come in a variety of forms, not merely beauty and preference” (p.2). Preference, pleasure, beauty, sadness, awe, and sublimity are identified as possible elements of aesthetic experience. So a tension exists between universality and subjectivity in our appreciation of art. On the one hand, we can universally acclaim an artwork as beautiful, and yet on the other, we can make subjectively diverse associations with the same object depending on cultural norms, education, and exposure. Aesthetic judgments are highly individual, but aesthetic experiences are shared. The most affective of these experiences trigger “the central nodes of the Default Mode Network thought to support personally relevant mentation”. The DMN can be described as “a network of brain areas associated with inward contemplation and self-assessment” (p.9).

This variety of aesthetic experiences makes it clear that there are objective qualities that contribute to an object being characterized as beautiful. When referring to art, subjective judgments are of less value if they lack an appreciation for the rationale behind the work. In other words, a valid aesthetic judgment must take into account both the subjective attractiveness of the art form and the clarity with which its message is conveyed. This is not to be interpreted as discrimination against certain art forms, but rather an objective evaluation system for terms such as beauty, art, and aesthetic experience that allows them to be fully appreciated. Appreciation of art requires us to transcend mere taste to contemplate the value of its very existence.

  • Dewey, J. (2005) Art as Experience. New York. Perigee.

  • Eagleton, T. (1990) The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford, UK. Blackwell.

  • Scruton, R. (2009) Beauty. New York. Oxford University Press.

  • Vessel, E. A. - Starr, G. G. - Rubin, N. (2012) “The Brain on Art: Intense Aesthetic Exeriences Activate the Default Mode Network”, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 6.

  • Tzara, T. (1918) Dadaist Manifesto. (signatories: Franz Jung, George Gosz, Marcel Janco, Richard Hulsenback, Gerhard Preisz, and Raoul Hausmann)

Image Sources

  • Figure 3: Hirst, D. (2007) Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain [glass, painted stainless steel, silicone, arrows, crossbow bolts, stainless steel cable and clamps, stainless steel carabiner, bullock and formaldehyde solution]. Christie’s.

Author Photo

Emmanuel Flores

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