Categories and Comparisons of Artworks

British Journal of Aesthetics 52 (1):45-59 (2012)
The degree of justification for a judgment of artistic value is normally directly proportional to the size of the comparison class that is brought to bear in making that judgment. If that comparison class is very small or nonexistent, justified judgments are unlikely or impossible. So which artworks, if any, are comparable? The claim that evaluative comparisons can be made among artworks within a fine-grained category—abstract expressionist paintings, for example—is relatively uncontroversial. But is there any way that we can compare artworks that have only a very coarse-grained category in common (such as two works of visual art), or that are in completely different coarse-grained categories (such as a symphony and a sculpture)? I argue that both very similar and very different artworks can be compared evaluatively. Comparisons within fine-grained categories are common, and reflection on critical practices shows us that they depend crucially on qualitative assessments of artistically valuable properties. Once qualitative assessment is recognized as underwriting artistic criticism, it follows that even rough-grained categorization provides no essential barrier to comparison, securing the possibility of well-justified evaluations of disparate artworks
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