(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.
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.