Peter Lamarque and Gregory Currie: Cognitive and Aesthetic Values in Cultural Artefacts

Cultural artefacts come in many different shapes and sizes and are of many different kinds. They might be tools or weapons, paintings or songs, houses or jewellery. Sometimes it is obvious what values they possess. Practical artefacts made to serve practical purposes are valuable largely to the extent that they perform their functions well. Of course they might also be well designed and look good or feel good to use. That seems like a different kind of value. We might call it “aesthetic” value in contrast to purely practical value. Yet practical artefacts are usually praised both for their efficiency in doing what they are designed to do and for their (aesthetic) look and feel revealed in their design. These often go together. So in very many cases the aesthetic and the practical turn out to be not entirely distinct.

What about works of art? Traditionally aesthetic values are thought to be dominant in the arts. The value of looking at a painting, hearing a song, or musing on a poem lies, so it is said, in the pleasures these activities afford. Practical functions don’t seem important. Are not works of art valued “for their own sake”? But maybe that is too quick. Nor is it clear exactly what being valued “for its own sake” means.

Our project is to explore questions of this kind, addressed to cultural artefacts broadly labelled “works of art”. The focus will be specifically on aesthetic values and cognitive values, examining not just what such values are but how they are related. What do we mean by “cognitive” values? In brief, these are values centred on the advancement of knowledge or understanding. Cognitive values can be thought of as a species of practical value and they are commonly associated with certain art forms (notably representational arts) that are thought not only to afford aesthetic pleasure but also to add to the stock of human knowledge, including self-knowledge and what is sometimes called “know-how”.

Rather than engaging in a purely abstract or philosophical investigation our aim is to focus on three very specific but radically different case studies in the hope of shedding light on these kinds of value:

• The Palaeolithic wall paintings at Chauvet Cave
• A selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, on the theme of time and mortality
• The Ridley Scott film Blade Runner

We chose these particular case studies for several reasons. We wanted examples of totally different art forms and media; we wanted a wide historical and cultural reach; we wanted artefacts that have already been subject to extensive debate (part of the interest is in the nature of those debates); and we wanted examples that might usefully reveal different aspects of the two principal kinds of values in our study.

We have planned three intensive workshops on these case studies bringing together experts from different perspectives and disciplines: archaeologists and palaeontologists for the cave paintings, Shakespeare scholars and literary theorists for the Sonnets, film theorists and critics for the film. We were delighted, for example, that Jill Cook, who curated the highly successful exhibition on “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind” at the British Museum, contributed to the Chauvet Cave workshop (held on 7th February 2014), as did Andrew J Lawson, author of Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe. Throughout there is also an input from aesthetics and philosophy of art. The interdisciplinary nature of the enquiry is crucial to it. The remaining two workshops will take place at the end of February and in April.

It is difficult to predict what kinds of intellectual findings will emerge overall—that is what is exciting about it—but we are hoping that the unusual juxtaposition of the case studies, the breadth of expertise called on, and the philosophical overview to be developed will yield genuine new insights in the longstanding debate about the values of art in general and the complex relations between the cognitive and the aesthetic in particular.