For what really is [Susan Sontag's] New Sensibility? Perhaps it is just an expanded sensibility, a richer and more generous definition of what “counts” as art: not a lowering of standards, but an expansion of candidates to be judged by the criteria specific to their mediums and movements. Moreover it is a willingness, or more accurately, an enthusiasm to contend with new aesthetics and new ideas.
Rachel Rosenfelt & Jennifer Bernstein, The New Inquiry
What is "beauty"? In classical (read Thomistic) metaphysics, it along with "truth" and "goodness" are known as "transcendentals", qualities that a thing possesses, inherent in and to them. Beauty is an "it", some thing to be explored.
Since Kant's critiques, however, this entire approach seems not just intellectually dubious but even kind of silly. Yet, we western folks, unable to rest easily with the reality that there are some things we can appreciate - painting and sculpture, music and architecture, photography and literature - without having to ask the question, "Why?", wrestle with the question, "What is art?"
The above epigram is from a rich essay at The New Inquiry, which mines two other, equally rich essays. The first, from Scott McLemee, is a marvelous appreciation for the work of Andy Warhol*. The second is a nearly-30 year old essay by George Scialabba on Susan Sontag. All three essays deal with the question, "What is art?" All three seem to conclude that it might, indeed, be some thing, a ding-an-sich that, like Nietzsche's disdainful definition ("I know not what"), that nevertheless defies any clear definition. Scott praises Warhol's mimesis, yet also cites without criticism a review of one of his early short films that calls Warhol out for nihilism. George praises Sontag for being provocative, for being daring, while also (it seems to me, at least) not pointing out the glaring discrepancy between his own, highly moral approach to understanding, and Sontag's insistence that aesthetics eschew a moral sensibility for something akin to ars gratia artis. The ladies at The New Inquiry suggest, in closing, that aesthetics is "wholly subjective".
While not wishing to disagree with four individuals who are not only far more intelligent, but far more articulate, than I could ever hope to be, I do want to take issue with this final notion. Indeed, I want to make the point that, if it is indeed true that our appreciation for beauty is nothing more than stapling our preferences upon the world (and here I can almost quote Feodor's comment on this post; being as I appreciate Rorty's approach to understanding the world which can be so described, a criticism based on a rejection of this way of understanding the world seems like a contradiction), then we should be clear that "criticism" as a cultural past time is moot.
Or, perhaps, we could say that both art and criticism are whatever we call art and criticism, after a lengthy, heated conversation in which participants come to some sort of conclusion as to the relative merit of applying those terms to specific forms (far more Rortyan here, I think).
An example. A recent commenter insists that Andres Soranno's provocative photograph "Piss Christ" has no artistic value. I, in turn, believe it does, albeit an adolescent one. Without desiring to denigrate this commenter, I must ask, "OK, what are your criterion for deciding what is, and what is not, art?" Is it, as you say, something you know when you encounter it? If that's the case, there must be some sort of criteria, unarticulated yet coherent enough to provide a basis for an aesthetic judgment, that you apply when you encounter something.
My point in all this is quite simple: Determining something as difficult to grasp, collectively, as beauty should be a case-study in Rortyan social conversation. We should agree that there might just be things in the world - films and books, paintings and buildings, music and photographs - to which we can apply that word and not rob it of any meaning. After at least reaching that agreement, which does not include any preconceptions about "high" versus "pop", "moral" or "immoral", "sublime" and "horrific", perhaps we can understand that criticism might just be a necessary first step in redefining, at each instance, what that word means for us as a society. In this sense, at least, we can move beyond tired and unintelligible discussions about subjective versus objective, moral and immoral, and restore to beauty something akin to its prior place as something transcendent.
*This single essay has completely changed my mind about Warhol. Thanks, Scott.