Rethinking Aesthetic Value and Judgment: Dramaturgy and the Ethics of Care
Why do performances matter as works of art? How do we find one-off encounters with live art meaningful in and beyond the present moment of the aesthetic event? For roughly half a century, dealing with such questions has tended to turn on one or other account of performance’s criticality—whether in theorizing performance as a genre, or in analyzing particular works and events. However, the commitment to the oppositional concept of critique, not only in theater and performance studies, but in the humanities more generally, has produced a great deal of skepticism towards affirmative approaches to meaning and value. While critique has certainly functioned as a primary value for theater and performance studies, the disciplinary culture of critique has arguably decimated our current capacity to theorize value head-on. Critique cannot adequately account for the cultural significance of contemporary art in the absence of a positive conception of aesthetic value, and yet the dimensions of aesthetic value as they are currently debated in analytic aesthetics hardly seem to be a more capacious alternative.
In response to this problem, I turn to the provocative claim of Stanley Cavell that understanding the ontology of art entails understanding why we tend to treat works of art as if they were quasi-persons — why we value, concern ourselves with, and care about art in special ways normally reserved for caring about other people. While Cavell does not himself go on to elaborate a philosophy of care for aesthetics, I take up this task in view of contemporary performance, drawing upon the ethics of care, dramaturgy, and moral theories of virtue. Acknowledging that philosophical concepts of value and judgment have not resonated particularly well with the temporally-specific conditions of performance, this paper argues that aesthetic value and judgment can be better understood when reframed dramaturgically as dynamic relational processes of caring.
Rebecca M. Groves is an independent dramaturg-curator and PhD candidate in Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University (currently on leave) with BA and MA degrees from Columbia University. Her dissertation, Coming to Care: The Dramaturgy of Aesthetic Engagement and Contemporary Performance, takes a dramaturgical approach to the problem of theorizing value in live art via moral philosophies of care and virtue. For six years she worked with choreographer William Forsythe as Head Dramaturg of the Ballett Frankfurt and then as Executive Director of the Forsythe Foundation in New York. She was awarded a German Chancellor Fellowship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2001 and continues to serve on the Foundation’s Alumni Council Board.