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UCG Research Seminar: Critical Contextual Aestheticism

When:Th 29-02-2024 15:00 - 17:00
Where:Hoendiepskade 23/24, Groningen, room 216
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The UCG Research Seminar series is dedicated to fostering interdisciplinary discussions and sharing innovative research within our faculty. During our next session, Dr. Ryan Wittingslow will discuss what he refers to as ‘critical contextual aestheticism’, a novel approach to defining art.


Most modern definitions of art fall into one of two categories: (1) ‘functionalist’ definitions, which argue what makes something an artwork is whether it provides a distinctive aesthetic experience; and (2) ‘institutionalist’ definitions, which argue that, rather that aesthetic experiences that make art, it is artworld institutions that baptise something as art. These definitions of art prima facie conflict. Functionalists assert that artworks must possess aesthetic properties, making these properties essential in deciding if something is an artwork. In contrast, institutionalist definitions maintain that aesthetic properties are not critical for determining if something is an artwork. 

Both perspectives have faced considerable criticism. Functionalist theories are criticised for being both too broad, as they may include objects not typically considered artworks owing to their possession of aesthetic properties, and too narrow, as it may exclude the possibility of bad art because aesthetic properties account for both artistic status and artistic goodness. Institutionalism faces different issues, mainly with respect to defining the appropriate boundaries of who and what should be properly considered part of the artworld. However, both theories also have obvious merits. Functionalism acknowledges and argues that artworks are a privileged category, distinct from non-art objects insofar as their aesthetic properties give rise to some function, while institutionalism recognises the inherently social nature of artmaking, artworks, and the artworld.

I cautiously propose a reconciliation. Inspired by Helen Longino’s ‘critical contextual empiricism’, I argue that art arises from social epistemic procedures that encompass both aesthetic functions and institutional practices. Within these procedures, aesthetic functions are developed, validated, and enforced through institutional practices, rather than being solely tied to the artistic outcomes of those practices. I call this approach ‘critical contextual aestheticism’.