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Webb Phillips

Related: high art - low art

"High Art, Low Art"

...read a recent caption in The New York Times. The author was in mourning because art museums have stopped showing art and started showing 1910 orange crate labels and Armani clothing instead. What determines one's aesthetic preferences, and what justification is there for believing in them?

At least since Kant's (1790), taste has been considered the ability to appreciate universal beauty. This beauty is a harmony that is detatched from all personal interest. Kant's universal aesthetic seems inconsistent with the vast diversity of different cultures. Inspired by this diversity, Franz Boas put forth his principle of cultural relativism in 1896. Evaluating aesthetics according to cultural relativism, each culture has its own aesthetic, and beauty exists only relative to each culture's aesthetic.

Evolutionary psychologists have tried to revive the concept of a universal aesthetic, claiming that certain inborn universal principles underlie the specific aesthetic of each culture. To prove this claim, the selfless researchers have pored over countless images of beautiful female faces and bodies. Although they have some convincing arguments about (mostly female) attractiveness, sexual attractiveness is the antithesis of Kant's detatched aesthetic, which is pure of personal interest such as lust.

By failing to account for the pure aesthetic, they also fail to account for high art. Pierre Bourdieu attempts to explain how the pure aesthetic emerges from the more crass aesthetics studied by the evolutionary psychologists. The pure aesthetic rose to dominance out of the upper class's detatchment from the physical necessities of life, and it plays a key role in the subordination of the lower classes. Despite Bourdieu's accusations, I still believe in art. It cannot be justified, but for some, it needs no justification. --http://pantheon.yale.edu/~wcp9/aesthetics/, accessed May 2004

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