Art and its Canons

The Monist 76 (4):524-534 (1993)


My recent book, Principles of Art History Writing, presents and defends a relativistic theory of art history. That book describes the changing styles of acceptable interpretations of such artists as Piero, Caravaggio and David. The validity of an interpretation, I argue, must be judged relative to the standards of its time. At each time, there is a certain consensus about what kinds of interpretations are worth taking seriously. Because those standards change with the times, the interpretations admired by earlier generations may today seem confused, problematic or wrong-headed. But such changes in standards of interpretation are compatible with objectivity in interpretation, for what defines objectivity is a certain consensus about what styles of interpretation are acceptable. One aim of the philosopher of art history is to provide a history of these changing standards.

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