Defining art, defending the canon, contesting culture

British Journal of Aesthetics 44 (4):361-377 (2004)
Abstract
This paper criticizes contemporary relativist scepticism concerning the universal validity of the concepts ‘art’ and the ‘aesthetic’. As an alternative, it offers a normative definition of art based on intrinsic aesthetic meaning contextualized by innovation and refinement in the diachronic history of art media. In section I, anti-foundationalist relativism, and softer versions (found in the Institutional definitions of art) are expounded in relation to art and the aesthetic. In section II, it is argued that antifoundationalism is conceptually flawed and tacitly racist, and is, in effect, a cultural expression of global consumerism. Section III analyses the scope of the aesthetic in non-western contexts, and then offers a critique of the Institutional definitions as also being conceptually flawed, tacitly racist, and consumerist in orientation. In section IV the positive basis of a normative definition of art is outlined in detail and defended at length against possible relativist objections. It is finally argued that the normative approach taken in this paper shows how cultural conservatism can be a left-wing project.
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