I read in a New York Times piece the other day how it is there is raging debate within the scientific community as to the extent to which pleasure we derive from viewing of artworks differs from pleasure we derive from eating candy, having sex, or doing drugs.
One camp believes pleasures inherent are the same, another believes the pleasures are different, a third wonders whether the answer possesses any significance whatsoever.
I cannot speak for everyone else. Personally, however, and in my opinion, pleasure we derive from viewing of artworks differs from pleasure we derive from candy or sex. While I am unable to compare pleasure from drugs, I believe same holds true.
I was in the Cincinnati Museum of Arts (I recommend, really nice museum) last month. The first painting that caught my eye, a painting of a slave market, was astounding not because of the subject — I am black so obviously have no love for the subject of the artwork — but because there was vivid three dimensional depth in an artwork created in the 18th or 19th century. Artistically speaking, the painting was beautiful. Presence of three dimensional depth in a two dimensional artwork, simply astounding.
Another painting that caught my eye combined vividness of heights and visage of mountains with paintings of people located at base of the mountains not in some perspective sort of sense, that is not with the mountains in the backdrop, but with both mountains and people seemingly in same frame. Such compositions are not easy to achieve. The painting was beautiful, breathtaking.
In addition to aforementioned artworks, and other beautiful pieces of artwork too numerous to describe, there were intricately worked vases of different heights, widths, size, and shape, inclusive of two humongous vases, with the second, noted to have been motivated by envy, voted the more difficult to achieve by experts. History has it the potter of the second vase felt she was the best in her genre, was determined to produce the most difficult to pull off intricately carved vase. On arrival of the first vase, however, she lost that title to the competing potter.
Difficulty of producing a vase with intricate carvings is said to be a function of combination of width and height. The first vase turned out slightly taller, the second one by the envious artist, wider yet slightly shorter. Conditional on the width of the second vase, the vase by the envious artist is considered the more difficult to achieve of the two vases.
So did the envious artist win? Actually not true. The first artist proved you need a smaller width for achievement of the height of the first vase. In order to appreciate what the second artist achieved, we confront the reality that the first artist had the wisdom to know what width could support the height she sought to achieve. It was the height standard achieved by the first potter which set the tone for the competition. We conclude then that both artists won. Absent a viewing of the first vase, it is impossible to appreciate achievement of the envious artist.
Based on my own personal experience and appreciation for art, there is an intellectual component to appreciation for art absent in pleasure derived from candy, sex, or I assume by extension, drugs. Consider the artwork I alluded to earlier, the one which depicts a slave market. In presence of a subject to which I am somewhat averse, there is intellectual appreciation for an artist’s form and expertise. Much like songs or movies which embed social commentary, good artwork sometimes forces us to confront subjects to which we may be averse, in this case historical abuse of people via enslavement.
When artwork truly is enjoyed, there are intellectual rationales for its enjoyment, intellectual rationales that can focus entirely on form and rendition, as opposed to subject matter of the artwork in question. But then the artist achieves the objective of confronting us with subjects we do not go out of a way to discuss, confront, or think about. This then perhaps is part of the value of museums, which is, we are confronted with beautifully articulated subjects, some of which we do not have any desire to hang in our homes. It perhaps is no wonder then that while El Greco’s ‘Christ on the Cross’ is on display in the Cincinnati museum, the more subject endearing counterpart, Crucifixion by Salvador Dali is nowhere to be found. I would hang Dali’s Crucifixion in my home in a heartbeat, Greco’s ‘Christ on the Cross’, fat chance.
While the intellectual battle rages on, a battle that likely resides in realm of opinions, as opposed to evidence, for me the matter already is settled. Neither of sex nor candy, both of which I enjoy, both of which provide me with distinct pleasures I seek to retain in my life, have capacity for producing the sort of intellectual pleasure I derive from viewing of excellent and unique works of art.
So does the answer matter? If pleasure from viewing of artworks requires intellectual appreciation, the sort of appreciation not necessary for derivation of pleasure from sex (lots of men and women view women simply as ‘booty’), candy (form in candy ever matter more than its taste?), or drugs (nothing intellectual about a high that never totally satiates), we can argue the answer matters. But then again, drugs excepting, each to his or her own. If it works for you, your answer is as good as mine.