Research Group
in Analytic Philosophy

Aesthetic Value, Location, and Narrative: The Case of the Parthenon Marbles

Date: 09 February 2021

Time: 16:00

Place: Online


While it is commonplace to attribute aesthetic value to artworks, especially those found in museums around the world, any detailed appraisal and justification of aesthetic value is bound to reveal a number of challenges. At the theoretical level, there is wide disagreement regarding the source, extent, and proper appraisal of aesthetic value. But even within a particular theory of aesthetic value – be that a view that attributes an inherent value to artworks, or a theory that focuses on the sentiments brought forth to the spectator – the aesthetic value of an artwork seems to depend on a number of factors and to vary often according to perspective. Some of the factors that affect aesthetic value seem to be particular to only some art forms. Location is such a factor, which apparently affects the value of visual artworks, such as paintings, sculptures, or buildings. One way in which location affects aesthetic value is by altering an artwork’s perceptible properties (so, the ample light of a cathedral might illuminate a painting differently than a museum, or a narrow space might make a statue look too cramped and less beautiful). But location can also affect the aesthetic value of an artwork independent of its effect on the work’s perceptible properties. The essay focuses on one of these features, namely how location affects the aesthetic value of an artwork by altering the narrative that is associated with it.

Narrative is usually associated with literary works and, to some extent, musical compositions, films, etc. But some works of visual art can also express narratives (for example, paintings narrating the lives of saints or historical events) and, more commonly, can be viewed as parts of artistic narratives. These artistic narratives combine historical elements related to the artwork’s creation with its artistic features, affecting the artwork’s aesthetic value. In some cases, the narrative is formed by comparison with other artworks that are present nearby (for example, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes are viewed in connection with the older frescoes on the chapel’s walls). The artwork’s location, in such cases, seems to have a direct effect on the narrative that it is part of, and, correspondingly, the aesthetic value attached to it.

The essay examines the effect that location has on narrative and aesthetic value by focusing on the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum and the debate about their potential relocation to the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It leaves aside the debate’s legal and moral arguments, and instead concentrates on the debate about how placing the statues in one of the two locations affects their aesthetic properties. In summary, the British side claims that viewing the Parthenon marbles in the British museum allows us to appreciate them as part of world art history, enhancing their universality and importance as paradigms of creativity and beauty. On the other hand, the Greek side claims that the aesthetic value of the marbles can be properly gained and appreciated only if one is to view them as parts of the greater whole they originally belonged to, namely the Acropolis site that lies next to the Acropolis Museum. Moreover, the universality and importance of the marbles as part of a world art history narrative can be maintained in their Athens location, since their surrounding artworks also contain the same values.

I review and evaluate the arguments made on the two sides of the Parthenon marbles debate, and reach some general conclusions about how location affects the narrative associated with an artwork and the aesthetic value that it has, as well as some tentative suggestions about how aesthetic value can be enhanced in the case of visual works of art.