It certainly seems to be essential to most accounts of art that some human agency is involved, generally in the form of a deliberate decision to do or make something. The artist then has to take responsibility for whatever is produced. However, should we think of this as quantitative, such that increases in the artist's explicit, conscious involvement in every 'brush stroke' is correlated to an increase in artistic worth? I don't think so; that would lead us to conclusions that are difficult to accept. For example, we would have to discount much of the work of Rubens because, as was common at the time, he had a whole workshop of assistant artists to whom he delegated parts or even all of a commission. We would also have difficulty with a great number of 20th Century artists who have incorporated chance elements, or audience interaction, into their work. Finally, we would have to accept a architectural or engineering draughtsman as the greatest of artists.
I just answered a similar question, and much of what I say thereis relevant here too:
However, what is new in your question is the idea of art (theother question concerned fiction and, given the context, Iinterpreted that as meaning popular fiction, e.g. thrillers). Theproblem is, can a work's aesthetic value be judged separately fromits moral value (or lack of it)? The usual answer, which follows Kantand others, is 'yes'. In the Critique of Judgement, Kant argues thata judgement of beauty must be disinterested, which is to say wecannot bring other types of judgement in as determining factors.'Other types', he says, includes moral judgements. His example is apalace (such as Versailles; don't forget he was writing in the periodof the French Revolution), which could be judged a beautiful piece ofarchitecture and design, but a political abomination. We can, andmust, separate out the project of coming to judge aesthetically fromthe project of coming to judge morally.
However, this could mean two things. It certainly entails that itis possible to form aesthetic evaluations separately from moralconsiderations, and even that if one wants to form aestheticevaluations, then one has todo so. But Kant's position does not entail that one shoulddo so. The 'should' is (using Kant's language) a hypotheticalimperative (If I want to judge X aesthetically, then I should bedisinterested in it morally) and not a categorical imperative (Ishould judge X aesthetically). Thus we have the case of ChinuaAchebe's famous lecture on Conrad's Heart of Darkness,in which he (i) accuses Conrad of racism and (ii) argues that forthis reason the novel is ruled out from being considered a 'greatwork of art'. Now, the first claim is, in so far as any claim aboutliterature could ever be, an empirical matter, but the second isnonempirical, one that instead has to be answered by philosophicalinquiry into the relationship of aesthetics and morality.
See also this question andanswer:
Thank you for your questions. Onecan imagine a strong 'no' answer to your first question, which isfounded upon the following argument. It stresses the notion offiction. If the novel or film is called fictional, that means itdeviates from, and is known to deviate from, an accuraterepresentation of reality. Fictionseem to function by creating 'worlds' that we as readers or viewerscan occupy in the mode of 'as if'. To get carried along by a story,to be affected by it in any way, is to treat it 'as if' it were real.So, to be sure, in the midst of the experience, the differencebetween fact and fiction is blurred. Now, of course, normally wedon't carry on being affected after the film is over; we're able tosee the story as fiction and thus the world it presented asfictional. So (this argument continues), why should oneelement of its fictionality bother us? Or, expressed differently, whyshould we assume that readers and viewers are perfectly capable oftelling the difference between fiction and reality in every detail,except this one?
What objection can be made to the aboveargument? What is 'discrimination' (as the word is used in yourquestion)? Let us define it provisionally something like this: atreatment of or attitude towards one group on the basis of anirrelevant criterion, and thus an unjust treatment or attitude. Suchdiscrimination likely originates in feelings of self-interest: onemight (in the 1950s or 1960s, for example) feel threatened by thepotential political and economic power of African-Americans; onemight in some more intimate way feel threatened by someone'ssexuality. However, though discrimination may begin like this, itperpetuates itself throughwhat can only be called 'fictions'. For example, the fictions thatblack men are less rational, or less able to control their impulses;the fiction that gay men are more likely to have dangerous mentalillnesses. The upshot here is that those who discriminate in thissense are, indeed, unable to tell fact from fiction. And thus afiction that repeated those stories would have to be accounted insome way immoral.
Still,though, might it not be argued that somereal life criminals are X. Therefore, it is not discriminatory todepict a man or woman from group X as an antagonist. Similarly, somereal life days are rainy, and it would be ridiculous to accuse a filmof perpetuating myths if it had a scene set on a rainy day. Thisargument would hold water, if fiction was somehow a randomly selectedsubset of reality. However, fictions create worlds for our 'as if'occupation. So, the standards of fair representation are set not bythe real world, but by that fictional world. Every feature hasmeaning. The rainy day scene is probably linked to the emotional lifeof a character, and is not a contingent weather system. In thefictional world of your hypothetical film, there is only oneterrorist; thus 100% of all terrorists are black. If those whodiscriminate unjustly are unable to tell the difference between someinstances of fiction and reality, then they may be equally incapableto telling the difference between some instances of an accidental orrandom element in a story, and a statistically meaningful one. Nevertheless, I believe the arguments I have put forward here should not be taken so far as to justify a political correctness gone mad; rather, they serve best as reminders to producers of fiction not to be naive, and not to forget the potential power they have over audiences.
I think there's a way to do honor to both sides. What makes works of art valuable isn't independent of human experience. It has something to do with the kinds of responses they call forth in us, though there's no simple story to be told about this. Philosophers sometimes put this by saying that aesthetic value is response-dependent. It's hard to imagine what we could mean by saying that a work of art was aesthetically valuable even though given the way we're wired, more or less no humans would ever find it valuable. And so there is a "subjective" element to aesthetic value: subjective in the sense of depending on how we respond to things.
That gets us started, but it also seems to open the door to the response that it's all just a matter of subjective taste: I like chocolate, you don't and there's nothing more to be said. So let's turn to Britney vs. Beethoven.
The first point is that there's no need to deny that a Britney Spears song can have real value. This is true even though some people will never like Britney Spears. Her music has a capacity to call forth responses in many us (yes, even me) that provide at least some enjoyment. That counts. It depends partly on what we're like, partly on how are tastes have been tuned, but partly on the music itself. But the typical Britney tune doesn't have a lot of staying power. After a few listens, we're likely to get tired of it; whatever it has to give gets given up pretty quickly.
A late Beethoven quartet seems to me at least to be different in this respect. The music may not be immediately accessible in the way that a lot of pop music is, but once you get yourself attuned to it, it rewards repeated listening. Its pleasures are more durable and more subtle. If I could have only one CD with me on the proverbial desert Island, I'd pick the Beethoven over the Britney not because I'm a snob but because I'm confident that I could keep coming back to the Beethoven without getting bored.
This isn't to say that it works this way for everyone, and it's certainly not to say that classical music is always better than popular music, but it suggests why it's not very plausible that all of this is simply subjective and nothing more than matters of taste. Some things really do seem to have a more durable capacity to produce aesthetic enjoyment than other things. It doesn't seem strange to say that the former are more valuable.
This doesn't mean that there's always a firm answer to questions about what's better than what. For my own part, I find it pretty implausible that any such thing is true. That leaves room for at least some of the subjectivity that your friend has in mind. But that doesn't mean that all aesthetic judgments are equally good.
One final note: what I've written may make it sound as though I'm plumping for a very reductive view of aesthetic value as what we might call "button-pushing" capacity. In fact I don't think that comes close to doing the matter justice . But over-simple though it may be, I hope that what's been said goes at least some way to addressing your worry.
The way you have framed the question makes it a little hard to answer, as the term "aesthetic" is often used to refer to a wide range of experiences. So, in the broadest sense of the word, the aesthetic properties of an event or thing are its affective or emotive properties, e.g. a melancholy field, joyful music, a haunting conversation. Perhaps most of our experiences have some affective dimension --even our exchange (which I hope is friendly and welcoming). In this broad sense of 'aesthetic,' entertainment films, books, plays all have aesthetic features and values (some are witty, joyful, insipid, sexy, etc). I suspect that the question behind the question concerns what some might call "high art" versus the works one finds in popular or mass culture (the world of entertainment). On this general topic, philosophers today seem to be having a field day doing philosophy in the context of popular culture. There are dozens (at least 50 and growing) books out now by professional philosophers on such topics as football, Harry Potter, Superheroes, the television show Lost, the Simpsons, the Beetles, Batman, James Bond, Narnia, and more. So, the current state of play in philosophy is to value doing philosophy with the classics (philosophers have done important work inspired by Dante, Dostoevski, Greek tragedy) but also with a wide range of books, films, television that many might think of as merely entertainment. We are, in other words, or many of us are, on your side in wanting to find value in as wide a source of creative endeavors as we can, including works of entertainment. Though there are limits.... I do not know of any plans for the publication of a book called People Magazine and Philosophy. Two presses that are very big on philosophy and popular culture are Wiley Blackwell and Open Court.
Well, some theists have considered all human beings as works of art, though in their view the real artist is God. And some artists have made art work out of their bodies (body art) and some philosophers (Nietzsche) have thought that one should view one's whole life as a work of art in which the person is the artist. But our current concepts of art would make it very difficult for parents to understand themselves as actually making artwork when they give birth to and raise children. Our art institutions (currently) have little room for framing or housing children to be observed (as in a gallery or museum or in a theatre or in nature as part of environmental or earth art). Perhaps, though, there is one sense in which a child may be considered LIKE a work of art insofar as it is natural to take aesthetic delight in one's child (finding her or him beautiful, for example). Still, the child has a life of his or her own, and thus the child would be profoundly different from actual works of art. For actual works of art are (more often than not) thought to be owned by the artist and they rarely have needs of their own, talk back to their creators, go to school, and eventually move out to have a life of their own.
Art certainly can get us to do things or think in a certain way, and it is that which made Tolstoy attack it, since it controls our emotions, he argued, and took them down very dangerous avenues. It is going too far though to define good art as that which produces the right sort of response, since a lot of art we admire as art might evince in us a rather questionable response.That is, we may think highly of the art but not of the emotions it produces, or what it inspires us to do. You have touched on an interesting aspect of art, though, which is that it produces different effects on different people, and so we are bound to wonder whether it is irretrievably subjective in nature. I am afraid that trying to define the value of art in terms of its effects will be just as variable and subjective as any other attempt at getting that relationship pinned down.
Your question is about the relation between aesthetic value and moral value. Must something with great aesthetic value also have moral value (or, at least, not be morally harmful)? Some traditions of thought (within art criticism as well as within philosophy) insist on a sharp separation between aesthetic value and moral value -- allowing the rap music you mention to be aesthetically great but morally despicable. Other traditions consider aesthetic value and moral value to be inextricably linked -- treating the moral failures of a piece as aesthetic failures as well. Within either tradition, you may be right to praise the rhythms and sounds and creative imagery of a piece while denouncing the values it espouses, but according to the first tradition its moral failures has no bearing on its aesthetic worth, while according to the second its moral failures will always detract from its aesthetic worth. Likewise, within either tradition, you may say that a work that has moral value is a better work than a work without moral value, but according to the first tradition the addition of moral value does not add to its aesthetic value.
Here are are some (brief) arguments in favor of the first tradition:
A1. Things are aesthetically valuable insofar as they create sensual pleasure. Things are morally valuable insofar as they promote or preserve respect towards others. Pleasurable sensations and respectful relations are two different things, often at odds with one another, so judgments concerning the two ought to be kept separate (even if we want to consider both in judging the overall worth of a particular piece).
A2. The aesthetic qualities of a thing (beauty or ugliness, balance or imbalance, grace or stiffness, simplicity or complexity) are intrinsic to that thing while the moral qualities of a thing (kindness or cruelty, respect or disrespect, honesty or dishonesty) are qualities that it has in virtue of its relations to other things. There is no correlation between such intrinsic properties and such relational properties (ugly people are just as likely to be kind, graceful people are just as likely to be dishonest), nor is there any correlation between those who appreciate these intrinsic properties and those who appreciate these relational properties (art experts are no more, and no less, likely to be moral). So the presence or absence of morally valuable qualities is irrelevant to the presence or absence of aesthetically valuable qualities.
A3. One of the great things about art is the way that it enables us to explore and extend our imaginations without concern for the moral constraints of social life. Such imaginative play is psychologically healthy insofar as it is freeing, and it can be socially beneficial insofar as it reveals possibilities that would not have been discovered if we hadn't bracketed morality. If moral considerations enter into our judgments about what is or is not good art, they will also constrain on our imaginations in ways that detract from these important functions of art.
Now, here are some (equally brief) counterarguments in favor of the second tradition:
C1. Aesthetic value is not only about sensual pleasure; it is also about ideas and attitudes. (Otherwise, it is mere titillation, not art.) And moral respect includes respect for the sensual pleasures of others. So aesthetic value and moral value cannot be sharply distinguished on the grounds that one concerns pleasure and the other respect.
C2. Judging aesthetic qualities such as beauty (or ugliness), balance (or imbalance), and simplicity (or complexity) depends on attentiveness to extrinsic as well as intrinsic features: the historic significance of certain words or figures, the cultural associations that accompany certain sounds, the setting in which a work is performed, and so on. Equally, judging moral qualities such as kindness (or cruelty), respect (or disrespect), and honesty (or dishonesty) depends on attentiveness to intrinsic as well as extrinsic features: the style in which help is extended, the coherence of one's overall self-conception, and so on. Although there is no correlation between beautiful people and kind people, or between art experts and moral experts, there is an important overlap between the abilities that enable one to appreciate a satisfying play of opposites in art and a satisfying play of opposites in morality, for example, or the abilities that enable one to find the thread that unites a series of images and the thread that unites a series of people. Thus, it would be wrong to try to isolate aesthetic valuation from moral valuation.
C3. The limits of our imagination have an important bearing on the limits of our understanding and the limits of our action. Exploring and expanding our imaginations in some directions rather than others is bound to point our understanding and our action in some directions rather than others. In freeing ourselves from some constraints, we introduce others. Imagining morally unacceptable violence, for example, can normalize violence and obscure nonviolent alternatives, for example. Thus, it is important to include moral considerations in our aesthetic judgments.
I expect that you will find some of these arguments more compelling than others, and that you will think of various revisions and additions. What I have done here is give you a start on thinking things through for yourself.