In an article ostensibly about art forgery, Denis Dutton (philosophy professor and Editor of Arts & Letters Daily) concludes with these words:
Establishing nominal authenticity serves purposes more important than maintaining the market value of an art object: it enables us to understand the practice and history of art as an intelligible history of the expression of values, beliefs, and ideas, both for artists and their audiences — and herein lies its link to expressive authenticity. Works of art, besides often being formally attractive to us, are manifestations of both individual and collective values, in virtually every conceivable relative weighting and combination. Clifford Geertz remarks that “to study an art-form is to explore a sensibility,” and that “such a sensibility is essentially a collective formation” whose foundations “are as wide as social existence and as deep” (Geertz 1983). Geertz is only partially right to claim that the sensibility expressed in an art object is in every case essentially social: even close-knit tribal cultures produce idiosyncratic artists who pursue unexpectedly personal visions within a socially determined aesthetic language. Still, his broader description of works of art, tribal or European, is generally apt, along with its corollary is that the study of art is largely a matter of marking and tracing relationships and influences.
This explains why aesthetic theories that hold that works of art are just aesthetically appealing objects — to be enjoyed without regard to any notion of their origins — are unsatisfactory. If works of art appealed only to our formal or decorative aesthetic sense, there would indeed be little point in establishing their human contexts by tracing their development, or even in distinguishing them from similarly appealing natural objects — flowers or seashells. But works of art of all societies express and embody both cultural beliefs general to a people and personal character and feeling specific to an individual. Moreover, this fact accounts for a large part, though not all, of our interest in works of art. . . .
Despite his mild caveats about "idiosyncratic artists" and "personal character and feeling," Dutton is expressing a view of art held these days by a number of philosophers, scientists, and social scientists, especially those who consider themselves "Darwinians", that art is mostly the product of biological impulses hard-wired into the brain, impulses that prompt us to create works of art for primarily ritualistic and "collective" reasons. (Some of these scientists simply stop at asserting that art is the byproduct of certain biological operations that appeal to our preferences for "symmetry" or that allow us to feel satisfaction at task-fulfillment, etc., leaving it to the evolutionary psychologists or the anthropologists like Geertz to speculate about how art evolved as a social adaptation.) It is a view that is astonishingly hostile to "aesthetic theories that hold that works of art are just aesthetically appealing objects" (the "just" is oh so telling), and is, in many of its manifestations, especially hostile to artists or critics who deviate from the biological/cultural dicta announced by those such as Dutton and presume to create or champion works of art that don't follow the time and gene-honored customs they've explicated for us.
And, in my opinion, it's all quite dreary. The initial move is to proclaim, in some formulation similar to Dutton's, that art proceeds from "both individual and collective values," but to both slight the importance of mere "individual" values (they're all traceable to the genes, anyway) and to skirt around the problem of defining "values" at all. Art is determinedly influenced by society and culture and that's that. To give more attention to "just" aesthetic concerns would be to "endorse precisely the concept of the eighteenth-century curiosity cabinet, in which Assyrian shards, tropical seashells, a piece of Olmec jade, geodes, netsuke, an Attic oil lamp, bird of paradise feathers, and a Maori patu might lay side by side in indifferent splendour." In other words, all of these pretty things are trivial in comparison to what art can tell us about culture, and aesthetic analysis is irrelevant to the more important task of "marking and tracing relationships and influences."
Besides being an overwhelmingly tedious conception of what art and the study of art can be, this approach is, as far as I can tell, simply wrong in terms of what artists and writers, at least in the "Western" tradition, have actually done. Perhaps ur-artists in their "ancestral environments" performed the function assigned to them by Dutton and Geertz, but could someone name for me any great artists in the modern world who did not "pursue unexpectedly personal visions," who instead regarded their art as a wonderful opportunity to embody various cultural beliefs? Who thinks Milton wanted merely to be part of a great "collective formation," no matter how devout his religious or political beliefs, or that Paradise Lost, one of the greatest "embodiments" of "values, beliefs, and ideas" in all of literature, is not first and foremost, is not primarily, a great "personal vision"? Who reads or views Shakespeare to experience his plays' "socially determined aesthetic language"? How absurd.
To say that an artist or writer works in a context that has been established by his/her experience of his/her society's practices or assumptions is at best trivial, at worst simply tautological. What other experience is he/she going to have? Her work expresses salient social or cultural presuppositions or "refects" her society's various realities and their ideological foundations. So what ? Is this all it does? Is this the most important thing it does? It was to do these things that she became an artist? A writer who comes to his work, inevitably, with all of the "individual values" he has acquired over time produces a poem or a novel behind which can be seen his. . . individual values? This is very silly.
Beware all "thinkers" who come bearing news they've discovered how to explain art (or most human activities, for that matter) by appealing to our "human contexts." It's the first clue that these thinkers likely don't know very much about art, probably don't even much like it. This is a corollary to my suggestion in an earlier post to avoid those who presume to direct us to what is beyond the "merely literary" in works of literature. In this case, we are informed by those of whom we are assured they know all about those "human contexts" that of course art is not worth the attention of serious people if all we are doing is noticing that which is "merely art."