There are many evils in the way English is taught in high school: it is hideously inflexible; too fixated on ‘content’ and theory; it breeds and rewards obfuscation—but its most serious fault, the gravamen of my complaint, is that it leaves the student with no clearer idea of why literature matters. The question is a critical one, as art is constantly pressed to prove its value, and the fact that we often struggle to answer it is the symptom of a much wider problem—that in a society plagued by scientistic, utilitarian excesses, it is ever harder to take art and imagination seriously.
I take it as a datum that art matters to us in an essential way. Saying that literature is valuable because it teaches critical thinking or, better yet, formation of character, or that an artwork matters because of its supernal message, seems to me to miss the point completely. The value of an artwork is more primitive—we encounter it first in experience. When we listen to a celebrated classical symphony, or stand before a painting by Rembrandt or Monet, the sense of wonder strikes us before we could say why, spontaneously, we come to regard it as a piece of great art. Art does not need to be wonderful—it could also be harrowing or traumatic—but it needs to be overwhelming, immensely and endlessly interesting.
Here a temptation arises—we want to say: the value of art is the prodigious gratification it elicits. It matters because it pleases, like a piece of chocolate. While there is truth in this, the temptation ought to be resisted. To equate art with pleasure is to obscure it, turn it into a mystery: why an artwork moves us becomes not a matter of aesthetics, but one of psychology and anthropology.
But an artwork is, surely, not a mystery. When we look at it close-up, attend to its infinite details, we find clues about what makes it so impactful. This is why, after all, we have art criticism (and no ‘chocolate criticism’). Suppose that you think Chopin’s First Ballade is not a piece of art. To convince you, I would point to its features: ‘Listen here, the meandering melody suggests a search…’ By tracing for you, as it were, the terrains in the world created by the artwork, I invite you to see its beauty and grandeur. If you disagree that the Ballade is art, you may feel compelled to produce some arguments of your own: ‘This passage is too sentimental…that the harmony resolves so effortlessly defeats the purpose…’ And we might go on arguing about it. But the point is that if instead of offering a counterargument, you merely say, ‘I just don’t like it’, then we cannot help but feel that it is a feeble response. Whereas one might say this in explanation of why they do not like a piece of chocolate, it is out of place in a discussion about art.
Distinguishing aesthetic experience from sensory pleasure in this way leaves us with a problem: people often do not agree in their aesthetic judgments. Are Shakespeare’s plays art? (Voltaire and Tolstoy did not think so.) And what about John Cage’s 4’33’’? Sure, arguments could be made, but they are hardly ever decisive. Nowadays, it seems that anything could be art anyway. Does this not make the notion purely subjective, if not empty?
Judgments about artworks are clearly not objective—there is no ‘fact-of-the-matter’ about aesthetic value; but neither is it merely subjective—as we have seen, we can reason about whether an object is art. Immanuel Kant remarked that aesthetic judgments are really somewhere in between—they are ‘subjective and universal’, or, perhaps, ‘intersubjective’. When I say, ‘This Ballade by Chopin is beautiful,’ I’m making a subjective judgment, yet at the same time I expect you to agree. I posit my claim as if it were universally valid, and were you to contradict me, I would be shocked, upset, and, unless you could justify your belief, think you have bad taste. An artwork does not demonstrate its worth by way of an empirical proof. Rather, it demands your attention and appreciation, that you prove your taste by seeing it as art. Arguments in art are not tested against observable evidence, as in physics, but against each person’s sensibility and imagination.
In a world dominated by scientism, uncertainties may be hard to swallow. Yet the fact that aesthetic claims are not provable is not a fault but a strength. Because arguments in art do not compel the conclusion, but merely invite it, the judgement that a work is art is one freely made. I do not accept the nihilist view, sometimes touted, that art is whatever that is displayed in an art gallery. In art, as in ethics, there is no authority—everyone must judge for themselves. Just as a courageous act is commendable only because there was the possibility of acting cowardly, an aesthetic judgment shows ‘good taste’ only because it was not compulsory. Part of why art matters to us is because the sort of art we enjoy, and the aesthetic judgments we make, reveals something about who we are—it unites and divides us. Through art, we become aware of the astonishing degree to which we are similar to others, as well as where we are different. In particular, we might find in the composer a kindred spirit.
What I have been championing so far is the primacy of aesthetic experiences. Criticism and theory, by examining the artwork’s features and constructing its creative logic, demystify the je ne sais quoi that confronts us at first. But the artwork does not thereby lose its magic. A remarkable fact about great art—and, in my view, its distinguishing feature—is that there always seems to be more that can be said about it. A play like Hamlet is timeless because it is a world so richly endowed—with hints and suggestions, but not messages—that there are always more discoveries to be made, more connections to be drawn. The metaphor of a world is apt, because viewing an artwork ought to be an imaginative exploration—one lingers and relishes in its infinite details. Theories can help one make sense of these details, but if they were aimed, instead, at imposing a totalising rational structure, then they are not only doomed for failure, but missing the point.
In How to Read a Poem, the literary critic Terry Eagleton complains about students’ obsession over a poem’s ‘content’: ‘They treat the poem as though its author chose for some eccentric reason to write out his or her views…in lines which do not reach to the end of the page.’ In my experience, too, literary analysis is often taught as an exercise in plucking messages from the text—as if were the work to not have a ‘key takeaway’, its value would hang in thin air. Yet if what made a poem great were its message, why not simply write it in prose? An artwork hints, intimates, and questions, but it never tells.
Too often, when pressed about the value of art, an apologist has to choose between two equally unpalatable options. They must either postulate some utilitarian benefit—which is irrelevant if true at all—or concede that art is valuable because it brings pleasure. But, as we have seen, neither view takes art seriously. More than a source of pleasure, or a message masked in some beautified form, an artwork is a world that confronts us—it demands to be imagined, acknowledged, and endlessly explored.