Michael Blowhard hypothesizes two concert attendees, one of a Black Sabbath show (Oz-era, one hopes), the other of Pollini playing Chopin. They both report that the show was “great,” and Michael has a few questions, which I will number for convenience:
1. Knowing nothing else about these two people, would you feel capable of saying that one of them had a “greater” experience than the other?
2. What is the relationship between the greatness of a given work and the greatness of the experience a spectator/consumer/user has? Does any such relationship exist, necessarily, at all?
3. Is it possible, or even semi-possible, to assert that greater works deliver greater experiences?
4. By what measure and on whose authority?
5. And to what extent does the answer depend on who’s doing the experiencing?
Let’s get one thing straight first: the aesthetic experience, like all experiences, exists entirely in the mind of the audience. Of course the stimulus, the work, is real, but no aesthetic experience is possible without an audience. Art is art by virtue of communicating something to someone else. The viewer recreates the work for himself, which can be done well or badly, and it is only the recreation that counts. The viewer is his own artist, not in the deconstructionist sense of all interpretations being equally valid, but in the sense that only he is responsible for bringing the art back to life. As J.V. Cunningham puts it:
Poets survive in fame.
But how can substance trade
The body for a name
Wherewith no soul’s arrayed?
No form inspires the clay
Now breathless of what was,
Save the imputed sway
Of some Pythagoras,
Some man so deftly mad
His metamorphosed shade,
Leaving the flesh it had,
Breathes on the words they made.
To experience a work of art well is to see what is there and nothing that is not. Let’s simplify Michael’s hypo a bit, controlling for the variables. Imagine the same person reading the same book twice, say five years apart. Everyone has reread a book and said to himself, “My God, how did I miss that the first time?” This happened to me with Portrait of a Lady the third time I read it, a couple years ago. Finally I’d had enough adult experience, and paid close enough attention, to understand, among other things, the solipsism that makes Gilbert Osmond such a monster, his insistence that everything in his universe reflect his pinched self. I can judge the aesthetic value of my three readings because I have direct introspective access to all of them. The third reading was deeper, broader, more complete — greater, in a word.
The answer to Question 1, however, is no. In the trivial case the Chopin fan may be a chronic liar who slept through the concert and praises it to impress his friends. More seriously, there is something to be got out of Black Sabbath, though less, perhaps, than what can be got out of Chopin. Quite possibly the Sabbath fan has concentrated so much better than the Chopin fan that he has had a superior aesthetic experience, though from an inferior work of art.
Which brings us to Question 2. Greater art offers the potential, but only the potential, for a greater experience. The viewer must realize that potential, and the work lies fallow unless he’s up to the task. Intensity, I should emphasize, is not the standard, but propriety. People are often deeply moved by bad art because it happens to accord with their prejudices. This is like being deeply moved by the sound of your own voice. We have all reread books that mattered to us as adolescents, only to be horrified at how bad they really are. The first reading sours in retrospect, and it should. The experience was meretricious: you were taken in.
To Question 3, which is the guts of the matter, we’d better be able to answer yes, otherwise critics, English teachers, and culturebloggers may as well hang up their collective spurs right now. Fortunately we can. There are things to notice in works of art. It is better to notice them than not to. Great works of art simply have more to notice. Nobody’s in charge, of course, and there is no quantitative standard (Question 4). We argue about what is there and what is not, and the best argument, if we’re lucky, carries the day.
If the answer to Question 5 isn’t obvious by now, imagine that the Sabbath fan, who hates classical music, was forced to attend the Chopin recital and the Chopin fan, who hates metal, was forced to go to the Sabbath show. Wouldn’t both of their experiences suffer in consequence? Sure they would.
Aren’t you sorry you asked?