It is necessary to consider the historical aspirations of an aesthetic endeavor before evaluating its consequence. The social historian and the intellectual historian judge the work of art very differently, and as a result, the success of an aesthetic project is inexorably bound to the predispositions of its appraisers.
The social historian seeks to capture the lived experience of an age. From his perspective, even the most banal of artistic creation testifies to the intellectual and emotional realities of the culture in which it was produced. The human expression contained within the work of art is enough to justify it to posterity. Other concerns, such as beauty and intellectual depth, hold only marginal importance.
In contrast, the intellectual historian appraises the artistic endeavor for its capacity to shift the intellectual discourse of its age. The apathetic among this school will judge a work of art solely by virtue of its success in influencing other artists. From this perspective, artistic production is just another iteration of the popularity contests that dominate academe: the more citations generated, the more valuable the work.
Both standards of artistic merit are trivial in the eyes of the historian unwilling to position himself as a disinterested observer. Those who maintain that art must strive to capture the sublimity of human experience will judge the work of art for its insight and its beauty. If art functions as the medium through which humanity continually reconfigures its soul, nothing can justify the work of art save the passion of its intellectual wonder.
Let us aspire toward beauty – toward a vision of man undaunted by the dignity of wonder. If efforts fail, there shall be praise for daring.
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