The expectation that any art should be liked

(Written by Pete F, a Philosophy & Literature graduate who is currently studying for an MPhil in Philosophy at UCL. Interests include language, art and Wittgenstein)

Andrew Hirst wrote here a little while ago about the expectation that certain (read:’classic’) art must be liked. I think the phenomenon he described is importantly symptomatic of an expectation that the most appropriate reaction to art in general is enjoyment or pleasure.

Hume and Kant

Such prominent writers on aesthetics as Hume and Kant more-or-less took it for granted that aesthetic experience, at least of beauty, was pleasurable in and of itself, or was perhaps itself a special form of pleasure. Of course they acknowledged that not everyone will take pleasure in the same art, but largely attributed this to, say, prejudice, lack of sensory refinement or a less-than-wholly disinterested attitude. On these sorts of assumptions, taking pleasure in art is a condition on proper aesthetic judgement of art. Claiming not to take pleasure in a play of Shakespeare’s, then, will be tantamount either to saying that it is not good art, or that one is not a good judge.

Of course both Hume’s and Kant’s positions are much more subtle and interesting than the caricature sketched above, but I think that the prominence of the idea of pleasure and enjoyment as an appropriate aesthetic response holds in their thought has had a huge effect on the way we often frame issues of enjoyment and understanding in art.

Common terms applied to engagement with art

Let’s look at a couple of terms commonly applied to engagement with art.

The verb ‘to get’, when used with relation to art, has complicated connotations. On the one hand, it is used to signify a beneficial experience of art which might be linked with or equated to pleasure. Hence, “Now that I get it, I love listening to opera.” But more often it is used to signify a lack of enjoyment of particular art, as in, “I’m sick of pretending: I don’t ‘get’ art.” ‘Getting’ something is also linked to understanding, as in, “I don’t get the joke.” Here liking and understanding come together: the speaker does not find the joke funny (enjoy it), but they are attributing this to a lack of some knowledge or understanding relevant to enjoying the joke.

Of course, in both cases, “I don’t get it,” can be used rhetorically by the speaker to imply that the reason they don’t get it is because there is nothing to get. Here the speaker implies that their understanding is perfectly sufficient, and that their reason for not enjoying the art/joke lies in the art/joke, not with them. There is no clear-cut philosophy of aesthetic appreciation implied by our use of ‘to get’ with relation to art, but its prominence in casual discussion hints at a link between enjoyment and understanding like the one described above, and one which may lead to the assumption that people who don’t enjoy, say, Shakespeare’s work, simply don’t ‘get’ it.

A second very commonly used word is ‘to appreciate’. This word seems even more clearly to denote enjoyment, and to predicate it as a central part of aesthetic response. I think that Wittgenstein’s remarks on this word provide quite an interesting alternative perspective, however. He invites us to imagine a person who expresses great enjoyment when they hear a poem in a language they don’t understand. This person, although they clearly enjoy the poem in some way, don’t seem to count as appreciating it, because they can’t understand a word of it. Appreciation is not simply a response to art, but a certain type of engagement with it. And this engagement need not be pleasurable as such.

We might agree that someone appreciates a piece of music if they can recall and describe it, have a feel for the tone of emotion conveyed by a certain bit, notice where new instruments join and where motifs are repeated. And this might hold even if they profess not to enjoy the piece at all, or to think it is a bad work.

Overly intellectualised?

I do not want to paint an overly intellectualised picture of artistic appreciation, and the above is of course not the only way one can manifest one’s appreciation of a work. Indeed, I am inclined to agree with Wittgenstein that “It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible. To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment.” (Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Section 20) It can consist in a great many things, and many of these will be highly specific to given occasions. What I think is clear is that if we rely too heavily on enjoyment and pleasure as markers of aesthetic response, then we lose much of the rich detail of everyday aesthetic engagement.


  1. I agree that in my article I didn’t exactly go into much detail about how “liking” can be fleshed out. Indeed, I mostly assume to like means to find pleasurable. The notion of appreciation is a difficult one, and I didn’t really want to delve into it in my article for space reasons. I agree that it is possible to appreciate a work that you might not enjoy that much personally, but it seems this only works if you don’t really dislike the work. Imagine someone saying “I like this song, but it sounds really unpleasant to me”. That doesn’t happen, whereas something like “it’s not my favourite song by them, but I appreciate it’s inventiveness” is actually quite common. People can be persuaded to appreciate something they don’t like that much as long as they aren’t too disposed to dislike it in the first place. There still has to be an element of personal pleasure involved in liking the work. I, for instance, find opera really unpleasant to listen to. I have a very small appreciation for the complexity and intelligence behind many operas, but this in no way transcends into actually liking it.

    It’s easy to image, however, someone saying they have a simple enjoyment of a work but don’t really think it is great art (the guilty pleasure).

    Obviously both pleasure and appreciation are important for aesthetic taste, but it seems that pleasure is the necessary condition, whereas appreciation is not. It is something to strive for, and something important to many people, but it just can’t be as important as enjoyment/pleasure is for taste.

    1. I see what you’re saying, and I think it calls for a distinction which I didn’t think to make in my piece above. It seems to me that what you say about the centrality of enjoyment applies perfectly to the relationship of an individual with their ‘personal canon’ – the works they know, prize highly, engage with often etc. It would seem downright odd for someone to claim not to like any of their favourite novels, for example.

      So I think you’re right that enjoyment is crucial in this regard. But I think there’s a separate point to me made about what makes one a good judge or appreciator of art in general. As you mentioned in your original article, there’s a feeling that if one doesn’t like a given ‘great’ work, say that of Shakespeare, then that somehow reflects on one as a person. What I was trying to do above is to show why not liking a given work should not be taken to mean one is a bad judge of it.

      If a person exhibits sensitivity to the relevant features of a work, can respond thoughtfully to it etc. then we have grounds for saying that they are a qualified judge of the work, whether they like it or not. Then, perhaps, it becomes more genuinely a matter of taste. Given that, as you rightly noted, there can be a tendency to call a person’s judgement into question if they don’t like the accepted things, I think this way of thinking about appreciation allows us to avoid this unhelpful tendency.

      Does that distinction work, in your view?

  2. Good article, I really enjoyed it. I did wonder though, how does this notion interact with that of kitsch, the enjoyment of things *because* they are terrible (usually because they have a poor aesthetic)? When reading the article I found myself wondering where we fit into this when we have parties where we wear ugly clothes and eat horrible 70s food. I suppose you could call it just another kind of aesthetic or another dimension of appreciation of it, though it’s slightly more complex because we do get genuine pleasure out of experiencing dislike, even revulsion.

    1. That’s a very good question. I guess, in line with my final comment, I think it will vary from case to case. But we can probably say a bit more than that.

      We do make distinctions between people who have a ‘naive’ appreciation of kitsch, and an ‘ironic’ appreciation for example. Then, perhaps, both of these will differ from a ‘new sincere’ appreciation (if such a thing exists yet, I’m not sure about the notion’s critical value).

      One thing I find interesting about the ironic appreciation of kitsch artworks is their sensitivity to the ‘authenticity’ of the producer, even though that authenticity is precisely what’s disclaimed by the ironic appreciator.

      So people can have very different reactions to, say a t-shirt with a big picture of a kitten on it from the 80s, and an identical copy made by a company which has caught on to the trend for kitten t-shirts. It’s strange because you would expect that the ironic appreciator who never *really* thought the picture of the kitten was cool anyway wouldn’t care whether it was made ‘naively’ or not, but they often do. On the other hand, perhaps, someone who just really likes pictures of kittens on their clothes is less likely to be sensitive to the intentions of the production. Perhaps.

      Again these are just some gestures, it would be better to try to flesh out a more specific example, so maybe I’ll come back to you if I come up with one. Does that answer your question at all or have I missed your point? I guess my main response is that it’s interesting how the different ‘modes’ of appreciation of kitsch would react differently to the ‘revulsion’ you describe. The ironic appreciator would perhaps take the revulsion-factor as a source of aesthetic merit (provided there revulsion was not the intention – the ‘authenticity’ requirement I described above) whereas the genuinely kitsch sensibility (if I can call it that) would presumably not feel the revulsion in the first place, and would not like it if they did.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s