Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


Art, Aesthetic Value, and Beauty: Narrative Resemblance Concepts and Empirical Research

Michael Ranta (Centre for Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University)

Traditional attempts to define aesthetic key concepts such as "art", "aesthetic value", and "beauty" have frequently meant finding their core characteristics or necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. At the same time, the history of art has been one of more or less radical creativity that has challenged and often departed from these concepts, making essentialist aspirations unfeasible and, indeed, obsolete. As Morris Weitz (1956) has suggested, art might instead be thought of as an open concept. Inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein's remarks on the nature of games and language, he claims that the class of artworks is constituted by a complicated network of similarities - a "family resemblance" - rather than by any core set of characteristics. Concepts such as "beauty" and "aesthetic value" are highly problematic anyway, given their broad applicability within and outside art, and sometimes based on other controversial notions: e.g., "disinterested pleasure" or "aesthetic experience" (cf. Dickie 1974).

Now, as to (aesthetic) family resemblances, one might still reasonably look for underlying generative mechanisms. In this paper, I extend Noël Carroll's (2001) suggestion that historical and contemporary art activities have a narrative connection. A narrative can perhaps, briefly put, be characterized as the representation of at least two (real or fictive) actions, events, or situations with a temporal link on the content side (i.e. concerning the represented world). When it comes to art historical narratives, the incorporated events are given significance by situating them within an explanatory framework that delineates their causal roles and teleological contributions to various goals or outcomes. Some such historical narratives function as identifying narratives that establish the art status of contested or disputed works. The notion of narrative connectedness can perhaps fruitfully also be related to such other aesthetic concepts as "beauty" and "aesthetic value". In opposition to aesthetics as a philosophical branch relying primarily on art practices or historically prevailing language uses, I also argue that one must take account of empirical studies: e.g., from evolutionary theory or brain research. Such studies may contribute to a fuller, more supportive understanding of aesthetic concepts' narrative connectedness. I use a number of examples from cognitive psychology to illustrate this point.