Aristotle tells us that it is impossible for any of us to know what another’s pleasure feels like. This is a comment made almost as an aside in the Ethics, but it has fascinating implications if you think about it.
The mathematician who makes a mathematical discovery cannot possibly describe what it feels like — even to another mathematician. The feeling is unique. If we are standing with another person in an art gallery or sitting next to her at a concert and she tells us the work she is seeing or hearing is beautiful, we cannot possibly know what she is experiencing. This is especially true if she has much greater experience with fine art and brings to the painting or performance a wealth of that experience and this is our first time in a gallery or concert hall.
Indeed, unless we are poets, we can’t really describe our own pleasures to someone else anyway. Poets do it better than the rest of us, but even they can do it only up to a point. Given that value judgments involve an element of pleasure (some would say that’s all they are), the implications of this insight are considerable. For one thing, it explains why there’s so much heated disagreement in the arena of ethics and aesthetics, where discussion tends to focus almost exclusively on the feelings involved. Such discussion is pointless. But if it rises to the level of an examination of the elements in the work that generate the feelings, it may lead to agreement.
There are elements other than pleasure involved in value judgments. For instance, in painting there is technique, color, composition, theme, mood, expression, originality, all of which can be seen by the attentive spectator. But once these have been pointed out — and they should ground any judgment we might make about the value of the painting — the spectator may or may not feel pleasure in viewing the painting. It’s impossible to say. One must be able to come into contact with art on an emotional level in order to know its beauty. And no matter how hard we think about a work of art, knowing what makes it great cannot guarantee that we will feel anything, even though we might like to think it should. The important thing to note here, however, is that whereas the pleasure we experience is clearly subjective, the elements in the work itself that generate the feelings are out there in the world. They are objective and they anchor our value judgments. Once again, if the discussion circles around our feelings it will lead us nowhere. But if we concentrate on the features of the works we are experiencing, we might come to an agreement about the things we like or dislike. At least, we can come part way toward an agreement. Ultimately it depends on whether or not the things we see and hear give us pleasure.
Thus, to focus entirely on the pleasure that great works of art and literature do or do not engender in ourselves and others is pointless, as Aristotle’s comment implies. We must agree that we will never know if someone else feels the same way we do about anything. But there is more to art and literature than simply the feelings it engenders. And only by asking why we feel the way we do about a painting, a musical performance, or a novel can we ever get out of the quagmire of subjective feelings and begin to examine the grounds for that subjectivity: what is it that engenders the pleasure we feel — or perhaps should feel but don’t?
Art is not purely subjective. The feelings of each spectator are subjective, to be sure. But, we can learn about art, just as we can learn to be more astute in our ethical judgments, by opening our minds and listening to what others have to say — especially those who have more experience than we have, or a higher level of expertise. Not that they are necessarily correct in what they say, but they probably know more than we do. The key is to ask what it is that gives pleasure to others if we are to begin to feel something like that pleasure ourselves. To turn away with a shrug and say it’s just subjective is to close ourselves off to a part of our shared world, and deny ourselves pleasure that might just be out there waiting for us.