(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.