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Come back to Pleasure

Despite his image as the sober genius of high modernism, T.S. Eliot often speaks of art as essentially amusement. The poet, says Eliot, “would like to be something of a popular entertainer,..would like to convey the pleasures of poetry…As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game.”  Such remarks are striking in their deflationary contrast to the over-lofty claims made for art since romanticism. In mordant debunking of the artist’s putative status as world legislator, prophet, and savior, Eliot says he would be pleased to secure for the poet “a part to play in society as worthy as that of the music-hall comedian”. But Eliot’s view of art as amusement is much more than an ironic rhetorical ploy against romantic attitudes. In suggesting what art is and how it satisfies, he revives the classic ideal of aesthetic pleasure that has been buried by almost two centuries of modernity’s sacralization of art.

    Plato’s critique of art never challenged his admiration of beauty as the source of our highest enjoyment, nor his recognition of art’s hedonistic rewards. Art’s very danger was that its seductive pleasures hide its corrupting errors and distract us from the quest for truth. So Aristotle answered that art’s pleasures derive from mimetic truth, that we take pleasure in recognizing images of things that would horrify us in real life. Thomas Acquinas defined beauty for medieval aesthetics as what gives pleasure in immediate perception, while the Enlightenment’s Denis Diderot (renowned as the inventor of modern art criticism) echoed Horace’s classic claim that art’s “supreme merit lies in combining the pleasant with the useful”.  Even the puritanical Prussian Immanuel Kant insisted that however much duty and truth dominate the practical and scientific spheres of life, pleasure rules when it comes to beauty and art. He in fact defined the “feeling of pleasure” (or contrasting “displeasure”) as “the determining ground” of aesthetic judgment.

    Up until modern times, to identify art with the pursuit of pleasure was not at all a way of trivializing art. For pleasure was anything but a trivial matter, not even for philosophers. The ancients (most notably the Cyrenaics and Epicureans) often defined pleasure as the prime good and usually saw it as an essential component of happiness. Even Plato, to make his case for philosophy’s superiority to art and other practices, needed to argue for its superior joys. Looking back on the ancients at the very dawn of modern thought, Montaigne confirms the primacy of pleasure.  “All the opinions in the world agree on this — that pleasure is our goal — though they choose different means to it”. Even, he adds, “in virtue itself, the ultimate goal we aim at is voluptuousness”.

    Montaigne’s unabashed hedonism was not a plea for radical debauchery in the aim of asserting difference.  It was simply an affirmation of the common recognition that “pleasure is one of the principal kinds of profit” and a necessary ingredient in “this most valuable of all the arts, the art of living well”. “Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately”, and this means not denying our natural pleasures but more skillfully managing life to increase their number, power, and enjoyment. “It takes management to enjoy life”, concludes Montaigne. “I enjoy it twice as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends on the greater or lesser attention that we lend it.” 

    Montaigne could emphasize the profit of pleasure, because paleasure (in the post-Aristotelian tradition) was not conceived as a mere passive, pleasant sensation. Pleasure was instead construed as a quality of any activity which enhanced that activity by the dual action of making it more zestful and rewarding, and thus promoting it by intensifying our interest in it. Our pleasure in regarding an artwork thus helps us look more intently and fruitfully at it, enabling us to ward off sensations that would distract us from our aesthetic activity. By strengthening our activity, pleasure can be identified with the perfection of life. As Aristotle praises pleasure as the enhancing completion of activity, so Spinoza later defines it as “the transition of man from a less to a greater perfection”, “the greater the pleasure whereby we are affected, the greater the perfection to which we pass”.

    In short, even when it recognized the value of other ends, philosophy long affirmed pleasure as a crucial, incontrovertible ingredient of life.  “Whether we choose life for the sake of pleasure or pleasure for the sake of life”, wrote Aristotle (far from a radical voluptuary), “they seem to be bound up together and not admit of separation, since without activity pleasure does not arise and every activity is completed by the attendant pleasure.”

    Evolutionary theorists corroborate this ancient linkage of life and pleasure. Not surprisingly, most of life’s most powerful pleasures are closely connected to biological activities of nourishment and procreation that are necessary for the survival of the species. Pleasure’s logic of desire guides us to what we need long before (and much more powerfully than) deliberative reason can. More than making life sweet, pleasure makes continued life possible, by offering the promise that is worth living.  But if pleasure enhances activity and advances life by such enhancement, what, then, are the special forms and values of art’s pleasures?

    One powerful tradition, inspired by Kant, insists on a very specific type of aesthetic pleasure, narrowly defined as the intellectual pleasure of pure form that arises from the harmonious free play of our imagination and other cognitive faculties.  Distinguishing the beautiful from the pleasant by its being totally disinterested and remote from sensual and emotional satisfaction, Kant denounced as aesthetic “barbarism” any taste that demanded “charm and emotion for its delight”. Even in fine art where ideas and concepts come fruitfully into play, Kant nonetheless insists “that the essential element consists in the form” (Critique of Judgement, 65, 190).

    But other modern traditions in aesthetics, such as the Nietzchean and pragmatist, construe the pleasures of art more generously than those of pure form.  Art first affords, at the most basic level, the variegated pleasures of sense — rich qualities of color, shape, sound, etc. One should not forget that the term “aesthetic” derives from the Greek word for sense perception.  The pleasures of intensified perception, typically derived from the artwork’s particularly rich or intense sensory qualities, are part of what makes it stand out from the ordinary flow of perception as a special aesthetic experience worthy of the name of art. Heightened affect or emotion is also a commonly noted pleasure of art; and then there are art’s pleasures of meaning and expression that satisfy our need for significance and our desire for communication. Such pleasures motivate not only the creating artist, but also the critic and public who engage in interpretation both to explain the pleasures they derive from the work and to deepen them through enriching interpretations. 

    The pleasures of meaning and expression point to another crucial dimension of art’s enjoyment which is often obscured — its deeply social dimension.  Too often it is assumed that art’s enjoyment is subjective, hence essentially private and narrowly individualistic.  But even if one feels one’s aesthetic pleasure in one’s own mind and senses, this in no way precludes the shared character of our enjoyment, nor the fact that our enjoyment is heightened by our sense of its being shared.  Whether in the theatre, the concert hall, the museum, or the cinemateque, our aesthetic experience gains intensity from the sense of sharing something meaningful together, of communicating silently yet deeply by communally engaging the same potent meanings and visions of beauty, and experiencing shared pleasures. Art’s power to unite society through its enchanting pleasures of communication is a theme that resounds from Schiller to Dewey, who boldly claims that “art is the most effective mode of communication that exists”.  By creating and reinforcing group solidarity through the sharing of communicative pleasures, art’s entertainment performs a crucial social function whose evolutionary role in the development of human culture and society should not be overlooked.

    Individually, these different points about art’s pleasures are reasonably familiar, but it is worth recalling them together to remind us of the diversity of art’s pleasures.  For the common critique against art’s pleasures and entertainments — that they are trivial, devoid of substantive value, and degrading of art’s genuine worth — rest on ignoring this diversity by making two false assumptions: first, that there is basically one kind of aesthetic pleasure in art’s entertainment, and, secondly, that this pleasure is always shallow, trivial, and distractive from interest in art’s real meaning and truth.

    Since Alexander Baumgarten invented modern aesthetics and Kant established it as a central philosophical discipline, German philosophy has dominated philosophy of art.  The decline of pleasure’s prestige in recent aesthetics can be seen in its critique in twentieth-century German thought.  Disdaining the value of “merely artistic enjoyment”, Martin Heidegger insists that art’s defining function “is the setting-into-work of truth”.  Hans-Georg Gadamer likewise attacks the immediate pleasures of aesthetic experience by insisting instead on art’s meaning and truth, assuming apparently that these values are somehow inconsistent with more immediate pleasures.

    The conflict of these values is still clearer in Theodor Adorno, who (together with Max Horkheimer) coined the disparaging notion of “the culture industry” to denigrate all popular art that does not eschew pleasure and entertainment. For Adorno, artistic pleasure and cognition are starkly opposed: “people enjoy works of art the less, the more they know about them, and vice versa.” In the contest of values, it is clear for Adorno that pleasure must be sacrificed to truth: “In a false world, all hedone is false.  This goes for artistic pleasure too.” Art should “not seek pleasure as an immediate effect…In short, the very idea that enjoyment is of the essence of art needs to be thrown overboard…What works of art really demand from us is knowledge or, better, a cognitive faculty of judging justly.” 

    Sadly, recent American aesthetics has sometimes followed this puritan line of denying art’s pleasure to affirm its meaning and cognitive import.  Overextending Duchamp’s remark about his famous artwork Fountain, Arthur Danto claims that “aesthetic delectation is a danger to be avoided”, since it trivializes art as something “fit only for pleasure” rather than a vehicle of deep meaning and truth, something profound and important, even metaphysical.

    However different the aesthetic philosophies of Heidegger, Gadamer, Adorno, and Danto, they all share, besides their anti-hedonism, a common heritage in Hegel. It was Hegel’s ambitiously metaphysical idealism that displaced the classical connection of art and pleasure. Founding the fatal modern tradition that makes fun the foe of true art, Hegel subordinated art’s role instead to the quest for spiritual truth. This quest, however, Hegel continues, leads us beyond art to the higher realm of religion but ultimately culminate in the spiritual pinacle of philosophy.      To grasp the fateful logic of Hegel’s strategy, it is worth looking more closely at his argument. While recognizing “that art can be employed as a fleeting pastime to serve the ends of pleasure and entertainment”, Hegel complains that such art is not “independent, not free, but servile” to “alien objects”.  In contast, he advocates that “fine art is not real art till it is free”. But art’s freedom for Hegel is defined as “independence” in the quest for “the attainment of truth”. Art achieves this freedom only “when it has taken its place in the same sphere with religion and philosophy, and has become simply a mode of revealing to consciousness and bringing to utterance the Divine Nature, the deepest interests of humanity, and the most comprehensive truths of the mind.” 

    From such a starting point, we can readily trace our sad aesthetic trajectory of sacralizing art by denying or denigrating its pleasure, particularly its more earthy pleasures of robust sensuality.  In secular society, museums and concert halls have replaced Churches as the place where one visits on the weekend for one’s spiritual edification. The typical mood of these audiences is reverently solemn and humorless. Joy and laughter are altogether out of place. People now attend the sacred halls of art as they once attended Church, gratified that they have come, and gratified that they soon may go.

    With this sacralization of art comes the rigid hierarchy of high and low (a counterpart of the sacred/profane distinction). Entertainment is automatically relegated to the sphere of profane lowness, no matter how aesthetically subtle, sophisticated, and rich in meaning it may be. Even in the realm of high art, Hegel introduces a rigid hierarchy of art styles and art genres, based on their level of spiritual truth and their remoteness from materiality. The plastic arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting lie at the bottom of the ladder because of the physicality of their media.  Poetry, in contrast, stands at the top because, through its ideal medium of language, it approaches the spirituality of pure thought.

    The sacralization of art that Hegel initiated is not simply an enemy of art’s pleasures, but an adversary to art’s potency and value by subordinating its functions to the aims and biases of idealist philosophy.  Art may share the heights of absolute spirit with religion and philosophy, but only as an inferior member that, still worse, has essentially outlived its usefulness. According to Hegel, art’s most important spiritual truths have already been superseeded by those of Christian religion and idealist philosophy (especially his own). “Art no longer affords that satisfaction of spiritual wants which earlier epochs and peoples [like the Greeks] have sought therein and found therein only.” Having “lost for us its genuine truth and life”, art has become (in Hegel’s dire words) “a thing of the past”. To prevent its degeneration into the entertainment function of “immediate enjoyment”, Hegel insists on turning to aesthetics as the science of art. No longer able to generate new spiritual truths, art can at least provide the subject-matter for scientific truth about its realm of spirit.

    Hegel’s choice of art’s truth over its pleasures thus not only reflects his subordination of art to philosophy but his more radical view that the crucial spiritual role of art has already reached its end.  But if art’s spiritual career is over, why not return to pleasure and forsake the idealist project of sacralizing art to ensure its importance?

    Idealist sacralization once gave art energy and value. As the nineteenth and twentieth centuries moved us toward a more secular world-view, the abiding religious energies and habits of worship that could no longer find their object in traditional Church dogma were powerfully displaced into the field of art, engendering the extremes of romanticism and l’art pour l’art, where aesthetics seemed to subsume religion as the most exalted expression of spiritual creation.  By now, those religious habits have worn thin, as has art’s sacred aura, whose loss, through art’s new modes of mechanical reproduction, forms the focus of Walter Benjamin’s reflections on popular entertainment.

    So what can be gained today by persisting in Hegel’s sacralization of art through the rejection of entertainment? His dour program of progressive spiritualization prescribes not only art’s subservience to truth and its inferiority to religion and philosophy, but also its demise as a vehicle for new spiritual discoveries.  Is it not time for aesthetics to reconsider the neglected promise of pleasure?  There is surely a need to challenge the dogmas that belittle the value of art’s pleasures and deny the merit of its role as entertainment.

    One dogma that needs questioning is the triviality of pleasure. This dogma is already rendered suspect by the already cited arguments of pre-Hegelian philosophy and post-Hegelian evolutionary theory which testify to pleasure’s crucial, vital, and wide-ranging role in our lives. Pleasure’s importance is often intellectually forgotten, since it is unreflectively taken for granted. We tend to forget its deep significance, because we also assume its uniformity and tend to identify pleasure as a whole with its lightest and most frivolous forms.  A similarly misleading presumption of uniformity is operative when one concludes that popular art must be aesthetically inferior because one identifes such art with its worst examples and assumes that its character and value should be more or less uniform in all its works.

    For this reason, it is important to emphasize once again the variety of pleasures in art and life. Think of how this variety is strikingly expressed in our vocabulary of pleasure, which goes far beyond the single word. While theorists of pleasure have long contrasted the extremes of sensual voluptuousness (voluptas) with the sacred heights of religious joy (gaudium), there is also delight, satisfaction, gratification, gladness, contentment, pleasantness, amusement, merriment, elation, bliss, rapture, exultation, exhiliration, enjoyment, diversion, entertainment, titillation, fun — and the list could go on. While the pleasures of fun and pleasantness convey a sense of lightness that may seem close to insignificance, the notions of rapture, bliss, and ecstacy clearly should remind us just how profound and potently meaningful pleasures can be.  Such pleasures, as much as truth, help constitute our sense of the sacred, and help found our deepest values. 

    But in highlighting the power and significance of these exalted pleasures, it would be wrong to dismiss the value of the lighter ones.  Merriment can offer a welcome relief from the strains of ecstacy, but also provides a useful contrast to highlight its sublimity; besides, lighter pleasures have their own intrinsic charm. The purpose in learning the diversity of pleasures is not to select only the highest and reject the others, but to profit best from enjoying them all, or at least all that we can happily manage.

    Aesthetic thinkers have not always been blind to the varieties of pleasure.  In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke usefully analyzed the differences between the pleasure of beauty and the delight of the sublime. Perhaps today we could learn something useful from comparable analyses that contrast the amusement of TV sitcoms to the exultation of rock concerts and the titillation of erotic cinema. In any case, the manifold field of pleasures that comprise our appreciation of the arts presents a wide and inviting field for new aesthetic research.  This is as much a field for artists to investigate through exploratory artwork, as it is a site for critical and philosophical analysis.

    Besides the triviality and uniformity of pleasure, we must confront perhaps the most stubborn dogma of all: the opposition of pleasure to meaning and truth.  This presumed conflict lies at the heart of the rejection of art as entertainment. Hegel wrongly assumes that if we seek and find pleasure in the arts we cannot also find truth and understanding. High-minded post-Hegelians like Heidegger, Adorno, and Danto seem troubled by the same fear, expressed most baldly in Adorno’s claim that the less we understand art the more we enjoy it and vice versa. The misguided opposition of pleasure and knowledge rests on the false assumption that pleasure is some sort of overpowering sensation that is unrelated to the activity through which it occurs and further distracts from that activity by its own power.  This assumption rests in turn on a shallow empiricism that equates experience with passive sensations rather than activity.

    In contrast, the classic appreciation of pleasure finds support in Aristotle’s idea that pleasure is an inseparable part of the activity in which it is experienced and which it “completes” by contributing zest, intensity, and concentration. To enjoy tennis is not to experience agreeable feelings in one’s sweating racket hand or running feet, it is rather to play the game with gusto and absorbed attention. Likewise, to enjoy art is not to have certain pleasant sensations that we might obtain from something else like a cup of good coffee or a steam bath; enjoying an artwork is rather to take pleasure in perceiving and understanding the work’s qualities and meanings, where such pleasure tends to intensify our active concentration on the work, thus improving our perception and understanding.

    This classic understanding of pleasure has not been altogether abandoned in modern times. Reformulated with the technical refinements of analytic philosophy by Oxford’s Gilbert Ryle, it also found a more accessible, aesthetic expression in the words of the poet/critic/philosopher with whom we opened our essay. Affirming art’s essential linkage of pleasure and meaning, of enjoyment and understanding, Eliot writes: “To understand a poem comes to the same thing as to enjoy it for the right reasons… It is certain that we do not fully enjoy a poem unless we understand it; and on the other hand, it is equally true that we do not fully understand a poem unless we enjoy it. And that means enjoying it to the right degree and in the right way, relative to other poems.” 

    As pleasure does not preclude but rather strengthens understanding, so advocay of enjoyment does not entail a levelling of evaluative standards.  Some works should be enjoyed more and differently than others, because they are better or different in style. Bad works should not be enjoyed when properly understood, Eliot concludes, “unless their badness is of a sort that appeals to our sense of humor.”  Drollery, we should not forget, also belongs to the multiform pleasures of art.

    I close with a cautionary reminder. Advocating art’s pleasures should not mean substituting them for the pleasures of life while also neglecting those victims of injustice whose lives know more misery than joy. Nor should we forget that even arts of radical social protest gain power from the zest of righteous anger and the thrill of common struggle, pleasures that enhance or complete (in Aristotle’s sense) the activity of protest.  To think that prizing pleasure means condemning art to frivolity and narcotic escapism is one more fallacy based on presuming all pleasures to be uniform and shallow, but it also rests on the trite but deadly dogma that opposes art to life.

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