How should cultural critics regard claims about the artistic value of literary works in the European traditions? Should such arguments be taken seriously, as experts offering essential information for living a human life well? Or should they be regarded skeptically, as the ideological counterpart of two centuries of Western hegemony? There are, after all, an uncountable number of artistic practices in human cultural history. And if, in a quiet moment, critics are unable to explain why, say, twentieth-century Anglophone novels are more worthy of attention than Ottoman shadow puppetry or the art of knot tying, then perhaps skeptics of the contemporary humanities have a point. Perhaps the prominent scholars of this particular practice are simply the pretentious snobs of an unjustly privileged elite, and perhaps this particular literary-artistic tradition should not play a significant role in education.
Answering this challenge involves first getting clear on what could even count as an answer, and a contention of two recent books is that critics and philosophers have been confused about what it means to deny aesthetic value. Michael W. Clune’s A Defense of Judgment and Dominic McIver Lopes’s Being for Beauty: Aesthetic Agency and Value both contend that the debate is misled when conducted in terms of the broad category “art,” and that answering skeptical challenges has to start within the density of specific artistic practices. If the justifications are thus humbler than more enthusiastic predecessors—great artworks do not improve readers or transform the world here—they are all the more plausible. And if English professors turn out to be something less than history-transcending authorities, that humility is key to recognizing what they actually can contribute to one’s decisions about which works of art to spend time with.
Clune’s A Defense of Judgment is a forceful polemic calling for English professors to defend themselves as experts, though of a slightly peculiar sort. To start with his most provocative example, he argues that a close study of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry offers insights about the fusion of racial identity and class position in social life. Race makes class visible, Brooks shows; the fact that so many of the least privileged workers in American society are visibly racial minorities enables the perception that their oppressed position is not individual but structural. Through seeing racial difference, an otherwise invisible class difference becomes visceral.
Because this kind of reading isn’t simply the contemplation of the beautiful, at first blush it seems not to be an artistic experience. Yet for Clune it’s still a kind of artistic appreciation—really, the only kind appropriate for poets like Brooks, whose work advances intellectually rigorous claims about political and social life. So critics with expertise attuned to poets like Brooks are by their nature transdisciplinary: they have a “broad and thin” knowledge of academic disciplines like sociology and political theory, alongside focused and deep knowledge of particular authors, periods, and places. Though some elements of their knowledge extend only superficially across many different areas, that breadth is itself a skill.
The fusion between aesthetic appreciation and intellectual analysis here is a difficult line to walk (one I’ve attempted myself, in arguing that reading Victorian novels for their moral philosophy is a way of enjoying them). But Clune’s theory of literary appreciation does at least do justice to the specificity of literary experience: it can account well for the difference between reading a poem and, say, contemplating a landscape. And it is strengthened by his insistence that critics should not overstate their intellectual competence. Rather than social activists or free-ranging intellectuals, at the end of the day critics are simply masters of a few discrete capacities in written culture (example: “the ability to show students what you are seeing in a work”). So while they must use ideas from other disciplines to comprehend literary works, the expert critic also recognizes the scholarly standards of those disciplines in so doing.
Yet literature professors have often had significant difficulty acknowledging their expertise and corresponding difficulty in justifying their status to skeptics, Clune contends, for broadly two reasons. First, a commitment to democratic equality has made it difficult to espouse hierarchies in any form: judging one work of art to be worse than another—much less judging one person’s capacity for judgment to be worse than another’s—has seemed to many a violation of the moral ideal of fundamental equality. But this is a mistake, Clune argues: aesthetic experience isn’t the product of a capacity for disinterested pleasure shared universally, as Immanuel Kant thought. David Hume’s account is better: aesthetic experience is the result of a learned sensitivity. It’s not that some are born able to judge art while others are not; it’s that some receive an education others don’t. The inequality between those who have the skill and those who don’t is thus inevitable but also untroubling (at least philosophically).
The idea that literature professors are just experts in one moderately reliable way of living with beauty is a humbler view of the discipline than it has sometimes claimed for itself. But it is not nothing.
Second and more perniciously, a major impact of capitalist social life is the widespread attitude that there are no qualitative differences between preferences. In response, Clune enlists a surprising mix of thinkers to contend that some desires really are better than others: John Stuart Mill, who insisted on a difference between higher and lower pleasures; Karl Marx, who thought left politics required refusing the equalizing effect of the market; and finally Agnes Callard, whose analysis of aspiration shows how, for aesthetic education, “normativity lies at the end of the process rather than at the beginning.” We may not now experience a great work of art as good, Clune admits. But we can listen to the sense that our preferences could be better, and aspire to enjoy masterpieces.
Why should anyone agree that great works of art exist, or that’s it worthwhile to change oneself to enjoy them? Here Clune turns to Michael Polanyi’s theory of the tacit knowledge of the expert. Sciences whose judgments are transparent to outsiders, whether of art or of anything else, are a fantasy. Expertise involves a long process of acculturation, and at the beginning of the process initiates must simply imitate without understanding the actions of the expert. This leads to the unfortunate difficulty that when an expert makes a claim or judges something worthwhile, the criteria informing this judgment will never be immediately clear. But it is not therefore arbitrary: the expert is constrained by the other practitioners of the practice, and more importantly by the work of art itself.
For Polanyi, expertise consists in a significant part in a different relation to objects: the expert “indwells” in the objects of their field, familiar and dexterous with their subtleties. The judgment of value is a component of this capacity; as Clune puts it, the “sense of a value … is itself often a tacit component of the perception of a feature.” So critics get it wrong if they try to show skeptics how some artwork affords astonishing experience to everyone. Virtually no one will enjoy a great opera the first time they go, but this is no threat to the genuineness of the mastery of the performers or to the value of the opera in question. Rather, critics ought to concede at the outset that experiencing a work of art as valuable is not possible from the view from nowhere, and requires entering an unfamiliar and alien practice.
This argument effectively dissolves the skeptical threat posed by the person Dominic McIver Lopes calls the “anaesthete”: someone who lacks aesthetic experience entirely. Clune’s argument shows that while there’s no decisive response to such a challenge, art is analogous to every practice and its corresponding expertise in this regard. The person who denies there’s anything worth seeing in Monet is substantively no different from the person who denies redshifting tells us anything about the structure of the universe.
Yet skeptical worries seem to remain: suppose one concedes that Anglophone literary studies is a practice with true experts who can teach students to appreciate works, and that aspiring to enjoy such works is often rational. Why does this particular aesthetic aspiration merit a prominent institutional position? Why should educational institutions employ experts in Anglophone literature and require students to learn to enjoy it, as opposed to letting them master the art of styling hair or the techniques of video-game conservation?
Part of Clune’s argument, unfortunately, undermines the most obvious response. As his rejection of Kantian aesthetics makes clear, there’s no overall capacity or unifying measure that would let one compare great poems with great video games or great haircuts, and so there’s no immediate answer as to which expertise contributes most to a human life. This challenge thus requires stepping back from literary studies and considering what Lopes calls “the primitive question” of aesthetics: What place should beauty have in our lives? And answering the primitive question depends on the normative structure of human agency.
If Clune’s target is the way a commitment to equality warps our thinking about value, Lopes’s nemesis is the assumption that value must connect in some way to pleasure. The “hedonic” theory of aesthetic value has long held a hegemonic philosophical position, not least because it seems to offer a powerful answer to the skeptic—one should prefer this work of art to that one, the thought goes, because it will ultimately offer more of something called “pleasure.”
At the core of Being for Beauty is a basically empirical argument rejecting this theory: the hedonic theory cannot explain the diverse facts of aesthetic life, particularly not aesthetic expertise. But Lopes’s experts differ sharply from Clune’s professional critics: as Lopes warns, starting with those trained in the high arts “sabotages explanations of the larger phenomenon” of aesthetic life. Everyday specialists, like the innovative gardener Elsie Reford and the anonymized teenaged video-game conservator “Sam,” offer more revealing examples. And if one defines literary-critical expertise as solely consisting in professional academic training, one misses the perhaps idiosyncratic but nevertheless quite real expertise of figures like Oprah Winfrey.
We will not understand the way value works for such experts if we think of it as inhering in the individual pleasurable appreciation of some artworks. Rather, aesthetic value is a way of making sense of the expert’s reasons as they act within their domain. One acts aesthetically when one’s reasons for acting depend upon an aesthetic evaluation: Reford’s work in discovering how to garden gentians in Canada is rational under the light of the fact that flowers are beautiful and worth spreading. Those reasons flow more broadly from a wider set of social arrangements. If often such arrangements limit what certain agents can do, they also work as scaffolds, making possible aesthetic goods solitary individuals could not attain. That’s because the cooperative dimension takes the form of a practice, with constitutive norms and educational schemas.
Such practices crucially make new act-types possible. One can be an expert in drawing a cup of espresso—indwell in an espresso machine, one might say—because coffee culture with its myriad networks exists. To have reason to perform such an action is, crucially, to have a reason to do it well. And on “the network theory,” Lopes’s alternative to the hedonic theory, this is aesthetic value: the features that explain what doing any particular act-type well really means. Normativity, then, doesn’t depend on the serotonin-scented motivational psychology of the hedonic theory. It’s grounded rather in elements like the structure of one’s “aesthetic personality,” meaning the range, depth, and coherence of one’s aesthetic commitments; the sense of fulfillment that comes with achieving worthwhile projects, like successfully baking a pie or performing a song; and finally the “deep happiness” of being recognized by other people within a practice.
This gives only a limited answer in defense of any particular artistic tradition. Indeed, Lopes warns against too much unanimity, since a world where everyone enjoyed the same things in the same way would be at best a monoculture limiting opportunities for aesthetic achievement and at worst a dystopian nightmare. Moreover, the outsider skeptic can rightly press that aesthetic practices are often elevated or marginalized for extra-aesthetic reasons. “Aesthetic values have been instruments of oppression,” Lopes concludes by warning, and to ignore such history risks self-deceiving ignorance.
In that light, Clune’s expert in the high art of Anglophone literature looks vulnerable. Yet while the critic’s aesthetic authority is less secure than it perhaps at first appears, it is not entirely without defense. Lopes suggests that some aesthetic practices might be “hubs,” education in which opens a large number of doors into other practices where many different aesthetic personalities might find expression. To that extent, institutions might have an interest in cultivating the reading of literature as opposed to the subtleties of lawn care. And more than that, Lopes’s argument for the centrality of the primitive question of aesthetics—and the necessity of an answer for it in living well—offers the philosophical first principles against which Clune’s polemic for a specific kind of aesthetic expertise has force. The idea that literature professors are basically just experts in one moderately reliable way of living with beauty is a humbler view of the discipline than it has sometimes claimed for itself. But it is not nothing.
This article was commissioned by Stephen Best.