Disclaimer: I have almost no prior background in aesthetics, so this is just an uninformed ramble cooked up when I was too tired to read but not sleepy enough to sleep.
Came across this old music theory blog on which Rudolf Serkin was paraphrased as saying: “When two people hear a piece of music, and one likes it and the other doesn’t, the person who likes it is always right.”
That has to be right to some extent — it is often the case that some people hear things in a piece of music which the others are incapable of hearing, things that may be legitimate contributors to the piece’s artistic worth. But it can’t be taken too far either — at some point we have to put down our foot and say that no, “Mary had a little lamb” is not an artistically worthwhile song even if some listeners like it very much (perhaps more than they do the Eroica Symphony).
Furthermore, there are pieces of music which one does not gain satisfaction from listening to (because, say, one is unable to empathise with the emotions conveyed by it, or one has an innate distaste for a certain characteristic of it even as one realises it’s not an aesthetically justified distaste), but which one can still recognise as ‘great’ pieces. That is, one does not need to like a piece of music in order to recognise it as good music. This is roughly my attitude towards the works of Debussy, Faure and Chopin: while I can see how their compositions are great, I get no emotional satisfaction from listening to them. Or, as I like to think of it, I recognise the craft involved in them and hence judge them to be great works even if in a sense I cannot partake of the experential satisfaction they apparently offer to other listeners.
So now it seems like this idea of craft, of a thing being well-made according to (sometimes) vaguely defined standards, could be the essence of aesthetic value. It is more than emotional satisfaction, but it correlates with emotional satisfaction because the really well-crafted ones can take you to heights of emotional intensity that you rarely experience elsewhere.
But anyone who has analysed even a few of the ‘seminal’ musical works in so-called ‘classical’ music (Western art music from 1600 onwards) knows that many of them are great because they violate standards, not because they are the epitome of a certain style. They are great because they managed to turn the original purpose of traditions back on themselves and subvert them for the production of something with such emotional power/beauty/[insert aesthetic characteristic]. But the gold standard isn’t the wanton violation of existing standards. One has to choose which to violate, and for what purpose. And there seems to be no general formula for that. Should this stop us from thinking of music as a craft?