Let Me Explain

Right, where are we. How much ground have we conceded and how much can we keep. We’ve admitted what we’ve always known and would admit when pressed: that aesthetic opinions are opinions, not facts. Very well. That’s the sum total of our concession, and I’m sure we can all remember conceding the same thing when we were fifteen and judging the contest between Austen and Bronte or the Beatles and the Stones or folky Dylan and rock Dylan (yes, thank you, I am a dinosaur, I told you that, I said on my birthday I was 175) or NWA and Eminem or whatever it may be. De gustibus non est disputandum. Fine. Granted. But we go on disputing just the same, and a good thing too.

It’s all an illusion, but what of that? So many things are illusions, aren’t they. As a matter of fact I wrote an essay about that for TPM Online recently. We live in a great sea of illusions, that we know are illusions if we think about it, but we need to live as if they weren’t. We need to think, or half-think, or think in an ‘as if’ sort of way, that what we do matters, that our lives mean something, that there’s some point to long-range planning. It’s the same with aesthetic opinions and judgments. We need to pretend they are meaningful, or at least sort of meaningful, semi-groundable, quasi-real, or else why bother? And since not bothering is boring and depressing whereas bothering is interesting and engaging, we keep the illusion.

And then, what if they were groundable? What if aesthetic judgments were in fact factual, like judgments about evidence or documents? What if someone could prove mathematically that ‘Hamlet’ was better than Bridget Jones’ Diary or vice versa? Would we even want that? Hardly! In fact the idea is revolting. So perhaps the very ungroundedness, the subjectivity and dependence on personal experience, association, resonance – on the individual mind and self – is what we like about art? I don’t want to prove that Austen is better than King, I want to explain why she is, so if you have interesting reasons why the reverse is the case, I’m interested to hear them.

It all has to do with exploration, I think. As well as with what Schiller (and wmr in comments) said about play. Art is gratuitous, and it needs to be gratuitous to do its work, and to work. If it’s not (at least somewhat) gratuitous it stops being art – what we think of as art – and becomes something else. Vitamins, or education, or discipline, or some such. Good things, but different from art, and answering different needs and desires.

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