Artistic and Aesthetic Value

This paper is intended as a commentary on the discussion of a conceptual distinction whose outlines are well-known. Aesthetic value is considered to be a category of value based on perception, whereas artistic value is regarded as containing elements not accessible to perception only. Sometimes the term art-historical value is used interchangeably with that of artistic value. There seems to be rather general agreement about the relevance and usefulness of this distinction in the theory of arts.[1]

One of the few writers in disagreement is Dahlhaus. He adopts the position that a distinction between aesthetic and historical criteria—between what a musical work is in itself and what it is in its historical context—would be abstract and unnatural. He gives two basic reasons for this view. First, many aesthetic categories do contain historical aspects. One could claim, Dahlhaus says, that the use of concepts like newness, originality, *epigonism,[2] and triviality in the theory of arts is based upon a transformation of historical evaluations into aesthetic ones. Second, both aesthetic evaluations themselves and the criteria they are based upon undergo historical changes.[3]

Kulka’s view is exactly the opposite. He insists upon the validity of the distinction. According to him the aesthetic value of a work of art, given to the perception, is something ‘relatively stable’. ‘Historical context and information about other works of art need necessarily be considered relevant to its appreciation.’ For the appreciation of the artistic or art-historical value, however, historical knowledge is a necessary condition.[4]

One of Kulka’s examples is the reception that Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 has received. He quotes it as a work of art that has been severely criticized for its aesthetic shortcomings but, at the same time, praised for its originality, its importance in the history of art, and for its being a turning point, etc. In this case it is obviously the newness of the conception that is highly valued even if the work, as such, is not aesthetically satisfactory.

While I am inclined to admit that there is some truth in this distinction,[5] it seems to me to be somewhat oversimplified. Does not—and now I am turning Kulka’s argument into a question—does not a judgment which refers ‘to the actual properties and relations exemplified by the canvas itself’ presuppose ‘familiarity with other particular works of art and with historical developments’? Kulka seems to think of aesthetic appreciation as a naive state of natural and immediate response, based on pure perception and not including any kind of norms conveyed by artistic education and training, previous experience etc. My reaction is that this kind of a stimulus-response model is rather outdated. There should be enough evidence about to demonstrate that there is no such thing as ‘pure perception’.[6]

At this point, it makes sense to refer to Ingarden’s concept of concretion of a work of art as ‘the joint product of artist and observer’.[7] If a work of art, as Ingarden argues, is a ‘schematic creation’ containing ‘characteristic lacunae’ and ‘areas of indeterminateness’, it requires per definitionem an observer, who renders it concrete by completing it and by actualizing ‘its moments of potentiality’. Thus, there will be several equally possible and intelligible concretions of a work of art, but there will also be poor and inadequate concretions by observers who lack the prerequisites of familiarity with specific kinds of works.

According to Ingarden there can be two kinds of concretions of a work of art, one occurring within the aesthetic attitude and the other within some extra aesthetic preoccupation, and it is only within the first kind that an aesthetic object emerges. Now, it is the aesthetic object and not the work of art which is the territory of aesthetic evaluation and judgment; and as the aesthetic object belongs to the sphere of states of mind or of consciousness, which Popper calls the ‘second world,’[8] the aesthetically valuable qualities manifested to the observer also belong to this world of subjectivity. But even if these qualities are ‘concretely present to the experience’ or ‘given directly to perception’, as Ingarden presupposes, it does not mean that they would be determined by perception only. Perception of an aesthetic object and its valuable qualities depends on the work of art itself, a certain competence from the observer (comparable to linguistic competence) and historical conditions prevailing at that given time. The last of these is lngarden’s starting point when developing his theory of ‘periods of brilliance and obscurity’, which any work of art passes through.

These considerations about the nature of aesthetic experience and evaluation force one to ask whether it is reasonable to speak about aesthetic value as defined by Kulka. It seems to me that Dahlhaus is more likely to be right in assuming that criteria, whose origin lies in historical (or even theoretical) considerations, are transformed into aesthetic ones at the very moment that they are activated within an aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience, within which aesthetic value is constituted, does not cease to be either aesthetic or an experience since the fact is obvious that in the perception of an aesthetic object both the sensitivity and the competence of the observer merge into a single whole.

Kulka also applies his concept of aesthetic value to other objects than artifacts. He assures us that ‘our admiration of mountain panoramas, waterfalls, crystalline structures or spectroscopic effects can also be properly considered as aesthetic appreciation.’ This view, shared by many others, can hardly be denied. But do we really look, within an aesthetic attitude, at natural phenomena and works of art in the same way? It seems to me that a distinction should be made here, which comes close to Schiller’s interpretation of the difference between the ‘pleasant’ and the ‘beautiful’. Schiller wrote in 1793:

Das Angenehme vergnügt bloss die Sinne und unterscheidet sich darin von dem Guten, weiches der blossen Vernunft gefällt. Es gefällt durch seine Materie, denn nur der Stoff kann den Sinn affizieren und alles, was Form ist, nur der Vernunft gefallen.

Das Schöne gefällt zwar durch das Medium der Sinne, wodurch es sich vom Guten unterscheidet, aber es gefällt durch seine Form der Vernunft, wodurch es sich vom Angenehmen unterscheidet. Das Gute, kann man sagen, gefällt durch die blosse vernunftmässige Form, das Schöne durch vernunftähnliche Form, das Angenebme durch gar keine Form. Das Gute wird gedacht, das Schöne betrachtet, das Angenehme bloss gefühlt. Jenes gefällt im Begriff, das zweite in der Anschauung, das dritte in der materiellen Empfindung.[9]

Thus, if it is true that the ‘beautiful’ appeals to us through our senses but appeals to our reason through its form, it would seem reasonable to suppose that the evaluation of aesthetic objects emerging from a broader experience of works of art is a special case. The importance of this distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘art’ as sources of aesthetic enjoyment is confirmed by many artists, including Stravinsky, who writes in his Poetics of Music:

I shall take the most banal example: that of the pleasure we experience on hearing the murmur of the breeze in the trees, the rippling of a brook, the song of a bird. All this pleases us, diverts us, delights us. We may even say: “What lovely music!” Naturally, we are speaking only in terms of comparison. But then, comparison is not reason. These natural sounds suggest music to us, but are not yet themselves music. If we take pleasure in these sounds by imagining that on being exposed to them we become musicians and even, momentarily, creative musicians, we must admit that we are fooling ourselves. They are promises of music; it takes a human being to keep them: a human being who is sensitive to nature’s many voices, of course, but who in addition feels the need of putting them in order and who is gifted for that task with a very special aptitude. In his hands all that I have considered as not being music will become music. From this I conclude that tonal elements become music only by virtue of their being organized, and that such organization presupposes a conscious human act.

Thus I take cognizance of the existence of elemental natural sounds, the raw materials of music, which, pleasing themselves, may caress the ear and give us a pleasure that may be quite complete. But, over and beyond this passive enjoyment we shall discover music, music that will make us participate actively in the working of a mind that orders, gives life, and creates. For at the root of all creation one discovers an appetite that is not an appetite for the fruits of earth. So that to the gifts of nature are added the benefits of artifice—such it is general significance of art.[10]

Thus, if the appreciation of works of art, within an aesthetic experience, is an appreciation of its structural qualities or its ‘form’, which is an intentional creation of the artist, then there is a qualitative difference between the aesthetic value of natural phenomena and of works of art.

The most common instance in which the concepts of aesthetic and artistic value have been tested is the famous problem of fakes and forgeries, which can be stated at follows: ‘can there be any aesthetic difference between an original painting and a forgery if they cannot be told apart?’ The above formulation of the question is Kulka’s. Beardsley’s answer to it is unequivocally negative: ‘In my use of the term “aesthetic value”… two objects that do not differ in any observable qualities cannot differ in aesthetic value;’ and this rule, he believes, ‘helps to distinguish aesthetic value from other values.’[11] Beardsley’s opinion is shared by many, including Kulka and Hermerén.[12] Goodman’s position is different,[13] but so is his starting point, as Hermerén has pointed out, since he describes a situation in which the observer knows from the beginning which of the two objects for comparison is genuine and which is a fake.[14] This knowledge, obviously, cannot be without influence on the observer’s attitude towards the objects, even if he cannot see any difference between them by merely looking at them.

But even if we admit that forgeries and fakes do not differ in aesthetic value from original paintings, basic intuition tells us that originate should be preferred. Why is this? Kulka’s solution of the problem is, as might be expected, that the qualitative difference between an original and its forgery or an original and a fake does not lie—if they are perceptually equal—in their aesthetic but in their artistic or art-historical value. This must be understood as follows: The essential criterion in this case is the originality of the conception, which is not of an aesthetic nature. True artists are not, in the first place, in search of aesthetic qualities but of new ways of grasping reality. Aesthetic qualities are only a means of giving a new conception plausibility. Neither is it irrelevant in scientific research, especially in the humanities, how research results are presented and formulated, although a work’s literary inelegance does not necessarily diminish its value as an important intellectual achievement. It must be admitted, however, that in the arts a lack of aesthetic quality could be more critical, since a satisfactory appraisal of artistic achievements is aesthetic by nature. I therefore agree with Kulka that it makes sense to distinguish between the aesthetic and artistic values of a work of art, but I do not agree with his definition of aesthetic value nor with his use of the concept of perception. Separating artistic and aesthetic value in this sense would, indeed, be ‘abstract and unnatural’, as Dahlhaus put it.

What is confusing in Kulka’s terminology, moreover, is that he uses ‘artistic value’ and ‘art historical value’ interchangeably. With regard to the above discussion it would be more logical to say that artistic value is something that consists of both art-historical and aesthetic values, since it is obvious that a lack of either of these components is a shortcoming. It is not possible for an artist to make an original conception plausible and acceptable, if he is unable to present it in an aesthetically satisfactory form. But it is also true that an aesthetically satisfactory form does not rescue a work of art from the peril of mediocrity and public indifference if its conception completely lacks originality. (This seems to be the state of affairs in today’s art world. On the other hand, it would not be true, when speaking, say, about the music of the sixteenth century. At that time the idea of originality did not play any significant role in the appreciation of art.)

To go one step further, let me take an example from music. Bartók wrote in 1908 a series of Bagatelles for piano. He played them for Busoni in Berlin and reported in a postcard to a friend: ‘Busoni was very pleased with the piano pieces. “Endlich etwas wirklich neues,” he said.’[15] The first Bagatelle has since become a favourite subject for musical analysis because of its curious notation. It bears a key signature of four sharps (as used for C# minor) on the upper stave, and four flats (as used for F minor) on the lower stave.[16]


Now, the aesthetic value of this little piece cannot be estimated as very high. Bartók himself has written much better pieces for piano as well as for other instruments. But its art-historic value, I would claim, is considerable because it is the starting point of a development, which led Bartók to completely new paths of musical thinking. When looking at the score, it soon becomes clear that anyone with an elementary knowledge of musical notation could easily transcribe the piece so that both staves carried the same key signature. This operation would have no effect on its performance, since, on the piano, enharmonic notes are played with the same keys. Thus, as the result would be perceptually equal (as far as two performances of s single piece of music can be perceptually equal), it would not affect the aesthetic value at all. If Bartók had written this piece using conventional notation, its art-historical value would be virtually nil. With only slight exaggeration one could say that the whole significance of Bartók’s first Bagatelle lies in its notation, which the author explained in 1945 as follows:

This semi-serious and semi-jesting procedure was to demonstrate the absurdity of key signatures in certain kinds of contemporary music. After carrying the key signature principle ad absurdum in the first piece, I dropped its use in all the other Bagatelles and in most of my following works as well.[17]

This case seems to be in agreement with my former suggestion that artistic value should be understood as consisting of both aesthetic and art-historical value. The solution of the problem of value in the arts may not, however, be so simple. For if some perhaps historically interesting innovation in the métier of composition was the thing which, combined with certain aesthetic merits, rendered a piece of music artistically significant, then music would be very little more than ‘innocent luxury, unnecessary indeed, to our existence, but a great gratification and improvement of the sense of hearing,’ as Charles Burney described it in 1776.[18] Again intuition tells us otherwise and so it must be possible to assign a more substantial meaning to the notion of artistic value. Aesthetic value is accepted, in some classifications, as one of the ‘simple fundamental values’ upon which more complex categories of value may be based. Vital, hedonistic, religious and theoretical values complete the list.[19] All of these (with the possible exception of vital values) seem to play a definite role in the appreciation and evaluation of works of art. Most interesting amongst them in the present context is certainly the theoretical category, otherwise known as ‘values of knowledge.’

In works of art, values of knowledge can be of two kinds, extrinsic and intrinsic. Works of art can be valuable as documents of something outside themselves. They may contribute to our knowledge of a phenomenon, which they treat as their subject matter. The music historian, for example, can acquire a great deal of knowledge from medieval church paintings, in which musical instruments and musical events have been portrayed. This kind of documentary value that works of art sometimes embody is obvious as far as literature and the visual arts are concerned, but it also holds true for music which reflects in many ways such things as social order, social habits, world view and so on.  It is obvious that the documentary aspect of works of art must be evaluated according to such criteria as how accurate and informative they are in comparison with reality and other sources, etc. However, although art can sometimes posses a documentary function, this is not its raison d’être.

More interesting are the intrinsic values of knowledge in works of art. Great novels can be acclaimed for being ‘true’, and this truth has nothing to do with the truth of events they describe.[20] ‘Truth’ in this sense means rather that art has the capacity of conveying something essential to reality by allowing insights, which cannot be achieved in any other way. Thus, in the arts, there seems to be a specific kind of knowledge and truth, different from that called scientific truth, which is evaluated in terms of correspondence with reality. Perhaps the right term for this kind of truth, the analysis of which is extremely difficult and (for that matter) not a problem of philosophy but of the study of arts, would be verisimilitude or likeness to truth. The truth of a work of art in this sense cannot be measured against external facts. It lies entirely in the work of art itself. A similar kind of truth can even be found, as Saarinen has pointed out,[21] in some philosophical works, like Sartre’s L’être et le néant, which comes close to art. Now, artistic value, as opposed to aesthetic value, must be at least partly a function of ‘truth’ in the above sense.

How, then, are ‘artistic value’ (in this interpretation) and ‘aesthetic value’ related to ‘art-historical’ value, which assigns a work of art its place in the history of the arts? Does a work of art have to be accepted for its aesthetic merits in order to gain art-historical value or is it rather truth value upon which its position in the history of art depends? Previously I suggested that artistic value should be considered as a sum of the aesthetic and the art-historical values of a work of art. But perhaps this is not so. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the art-historical value of a work of art depends on both its aesthetic and its artistic value, the latter being a function of its likeness to truth.

If it is accepted that art does not exist for the sake of aesthetic pleasure alone but is capable of conveying an insight into reality, then we have to acknowledge art’s cognitive status. Then it becomes obvious that the value of a work of art does not depend on the act of evaluation, within an aesthetic attitude, by a single person, but is rather a social institution belonging to Popper’s ‘third world,’ where objective knowledge in general is to be found.[22] Artistic value in this sense is the result of innumerable acts of evaluation, some of which have been on a careful study and analysis of the valuable qualities of that work of art. If this is true, it has consequences for art criticism. The value of a specific work of art, which has generally been estimated as high, cannot be suddenly destroyed or annulated by a single critical statement such as the following (from the leading newspaper of this country) about Stravinsky’s Cantata: ‘The work itself is of no delight to anyone. It is a pale reverberation of the Symphony of Psalms, dry serial brain gymnastics in a consciously ascetic style.’[23]

The critic’s right to his own opinion is, of course, undeniable, but a statement like this tells us more about its originator than its object. As David Best has pointed out, ‘one can be just as wrong, objectively wrong, in artistic and literary judgments as in judgments about physical objects, mathematics and science.’[24] An established work of art is immune to criticism for which no rational arguments have been given. Artistic value is as objective as knowledge and, to quote Popper,[25]

Knowledge in this objective sense is totally independent of anybody’s claim to know; it is also independent of anybody’s belief, or disposition to assent; or to assert, or to act. Knowledge in the objective sense is knowledge without a knower: it is knowledge without a knowing subject.

Substitute ‘value’ for ‘knowledge’ and ‘evaluate’ for ‘know’, and you have an adequate description of the character of artistic value or, at least, a major part of it. This is, I think, what Cocteau meant by saying:

“Regarde”, disait une dame à son mari, devant une des cathédrales de Claude Monet, “on dirait une glace en train de fondre.” Cette dame avait raison, mais ette n’avait pas obtenu le droit de le dire.


[1] Cf. e.g. Ingarden (1964), Goodman (1985), Kulka (1981), and Hermerén (1983).
[2] In English, there is, to my knowledge, no such word as ‘epigonism’, nor any other word with the same denotation as the German Epigonismus or Epigonentum. In German this is a common concept, especially in the literature about the arts, denoting ‘imitation of models’, copying somebody else’s style with no substantial contribution, ‘traditionalism which has become suspect’, ‘routine in the worst possible meaning’. As a counterpart of ‘newness’ and ‘originality’, it is a category of the 19th century. (Cf. e.g. Dahlhaus 1970: 31ff.)
[3] Dahlhaus (1967).
[4] Kulka (1981:338).
[5] Dahlhaus (1969:39), in another context, subscribes to a related line of reasoning: ‘What is aesthetically absurd’, he remarks, ‘may, nevertheless, have become historically potent.’
[6] Cf. Best (1980).
[7] Ingarden (1964:199).
[8] Popper (1972:108).
[9] Schiller (1793).
[10] Stravinsky (1947:231).
[11] Beardsley (1958:503).
[12] Kulka (1981), Hermerén (1983).
[13] Goodman (1985:99ff).
[14] Hermerén (1983:59).
[15] Demény (1971:89).
[16] For a detailed analysis of the piece see Oramo (1982).
[17] Quoted after Vinton (1966:238).
[18] Quoted after Allen (1962:77).
[19] Ahlman (1976:31, 117).
[20] It is common practice, for example, for the writer of a novel or film script to state that the likeness of his characters to real persons is purely coincidental. This precaution is felt necessary by the author who assumes that his story could also have happened in real life and that some real person might suffer from being falsely identified with one of his fictional characters. (The most impressive instance of such a statement I have come across is by the Finnish novelist Daniel Katz. In a novel entitled ‘As Grandpa Skied to Finland’ he employs the following variant: ‘The characters of this book have nothing to do with reality as they neither had in reality.’)
[21] Saarinen (1983:296ff).
[22] Cf. Niiniluoto (1984:317ff).
[23] Helsingin Sanomat 26.8.1985.
[24] Best (1980:122).
[25] Popper (1972:109).


Ahlman, Erik (1976), Kulttuurin perustekijöitä (1939. 2nd printing). Jyväskylä.
Allen, Warren Dwight (1962), Philosophies of Music History. A Study of General Histories of Music 1600-1960. New York.
Beardsley, Monroe C. (1958), Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. New York.
Best, David (1980), ‘The Objectivity of Artistic Appreciation,’ British Journal of Aesthetics 20, 115-127.
Dahlhaus, Carl (1967), Musikästhetik. Köln.
— (1969), ‘Zum Problem des Werturteils,’ Die Musikforschung 22, 38-41.
— (1970), Analyse und Werturteil. Mainz.
Demény, Janos (1971), ed., Béla Bartók Letters. London.
Goodman, Nelson (1985), Languages of Art (5th printing). Indianapolis.
Hermerén, Göran (1983), Aspects of Aesthetics (Acta regiae societatis humaniorum litterarum lundensis LXXXVII). Lund.
Ingarden, Roman (1964), ‘Artistic and Aesthetic Values,’ British Journal of Aesthetics 4, 198–213.
Kulka, Tomas (1981), ‘The Artistic and Aesthetic Value of Art,’ British Journal of
Aesthetics 21, 336–350.
Niiniluoto, Ilkka (1984), Tiede, filosofia ja maailmankatsomus. Keuruu.
Oramo, Ilkka (1982), ‘Die notierte, die wahrgenommene und die gedachte Struktur bei Bartók. Bemerkungen zu einem Problem der musikaliachen Analyse,’ Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 24, 439–449.
Popper, Karl (1972), Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford.
Saarinen, Esa (1983), Sartre. Pelon, inhon ja valinnan filosofia. Tampere.
Schiller, Friedrich (1793), Zerstreute Betrachtungen aber verschiedene ästhetische Gegenstände.
Stravinsky, Igor (1947), Poetics of Music. Cambridge.
Vinton, John (1966), ‘Bartók on his own Music,’ Journal of the American Musicological Society 19, 232–243.

* * *

Paper presented at the interdisciplinary symposium Philosophy of Music, held at the University of Helsinki, September 5–7, 1985. Published in Essays on the Philosophy of Music, eds. Veikko Rantala, Lewis Rowell, and Eero Tarasti (Acta Philosophica Fennica, Vol. 43, 1988), pp. 217–227.

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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