David Davies: "Categories of Art for Contextualists"

The Higher Seminar in Aesthetics

David Davies, McGill University: "Categories of Art for Contextualists"

At the beginning of the concluding section of ‘Categories of art’ [CA], Kendall Walton presents what he takes to be the lesson to be learned from his preceding reflections: ‘If a work’s aesthetic properties are those that are to be found in it when it is perceived correctly, and the correct way to perceive it is determined partly by historical facts about the artist’s intention and/or his society, no examination of the work itself, however thorough, will by itself reveal those properties.’  Furthermore, these facts bear not only on the epistemology of art but also on the very nature of artworks: ‘...They help to determine what aesthetic properties a work has; they, together with the work’s non-aesthetic features, make it coherent, serene or whatever’ (CA, 217) Commentators on Walton’s paper have generally seen him as championing a contextualist epistemology and ontology of art in the face of a broad empiricist consensus at the time. Brian Laetz (2010), however, has challenged this interpretation of CA. His arguments focus on a detail of Walton’s argument whose significance, Laetz maintains, has been neglected by commentators. After outlining Laetz’s two claims, I shall argue that one of them can be addressed if we pay closer attention to the philosophical context in which Walton was writing. Laetz’s second claim, however, calls for a more nuanced response from the contextualist. I argue that, if Laetz is right about Walton’s own understanding of ‘categories of art’, the contextualist should offer a different understanding of the latter.