The Book Club

How To Explain Why People Like Art?

Dear Paul,

Thank for your kind words. I doubt that we’re in disagreement. Any thoughtful person stands in awe of Darwin. And I know that important scientists—to Steven Pinker’s name, I’d add Stephen Jay Gould’s—believe that key aspects of our humanity developed incidentally. Given that art, music, and even consciousness may be in this domain, the study of pleasure will have to consider dynamics that go beyond natural selection.

A good deal of your own effort to extend psychology’s range concerns the problem you study when you run children’s blankies through the duplicating machine. As you point out in How Pleasure Works, we have a strong preference for the original over the copy. Fine art plummets in price once it’s shown to have been forged. Worth can spread by contact: People will bid substantial sums for Barack Obama’s half-eaten breakfast, when similar leftovers at home go into the trash. It’s not just the features of an object that matter; we respond to a sense of what a thing is altogether. Any psychology that denies our tendency to look past qualities to essences is wrongheaded.

But I want to ask whether essentialism goes far enough—whether even the expanded approach of the new psychology captures pleasure as it is experienced in daily life. Let’s look at one of the human capacities that we suspect is not fully formed by biological selection, our appreciation of art. You approach this topic through an exhaustive list of criteria that affect our response to paintings. We value them because they are “attractive in a low-level way,” via pleasing patterns; they depict beautiful things (like flowers); they are familiar; they are associated with positive memories (as of a wedding); they compliment a room; they inflate our status as owners; they may be enhanced by contagion (if someone famous once owned them); and they embody the creative process—that is, the skill of the painter. Those last three criteria are essentialist; they depend on the work’s authenticity.

Armed with this set of attributes, I thought of a profoundly pleasing experience. Once, between bits of book business in Madrid, I snuck off to the Prado and the Velazquez room. I expected to focus on Las Meninas. Instead, I was bowled over by the portrait of Pablo de Valladolid, the jester in the court of Philip IV.

What composed the experience? I might say the humanity of the figure, the vulnerability and openness. The image, or the act of making it, expressed a poignant reality: A master painter was recognizing a master actor, although both were also servants. In my viewing, cultural associations were in play. I thought back to Shakespeare’s fools and forward to Figaro and the career open to the talents. Manet and Picasso came to mind; the painting sat in a sweep of art that was subject, as it is, to the “anxiety of influence.” (Here I am putting in slow motion, and in partial form, what in the moment was a quick response to the Velazquez.) And then there was the canvas’s dark background space, modern and primitive. Was there some yet bleaker aspect? Are fools deranged? The painting is existentialism avant la lettre. For me, the image evoked fear, loneliness, and defiance. Also pride—as I say, in humanity. When I say bowled over, I mean that the feelings possessed me. The pleasure arose from the interplay of disparate, sometimes uncomfortable experiences.

It may be that each factor I have named is covered your survey. Also, I may be understating the effect of context: the Prado! Velazquez! (But then why did Las Meninas—larger, more famous, more familiar, more prominently displayed—affect me less?) All the same, when I look at the list of sources of value, I cannot help wondering whether pleasure has escaped. Pleasure seems both an active experience—engagement with the stimulus—and a bolt from the blue. What I’d like psychology’s analysis to capture is the Gestalt.

In this context, what you make out as transformative, the new attention to the object, not just its measurable qualities, seems suspect. If genuineness is a requisite aspect of the painting’s ability to please; still, it seems a peripheral one. Yes, had the gallery attendant told me that I was seeing a photocopy of the Pablillos, my bubble would have burst. But surely the main aspect of my response was to the composition of the work, and then the context it elicited, the image as it interacted with my consciousness. A display of the remains of Velazquez’s breakfast, however priced by the market, would give little of that pleasure.

I want to ask why this fact, that the painting really is the product of a genius’s eye and brush, is central to your account. Why is essentialism so intertwined with authenticity? Can essentialism say what it is about the object of art itself, its complex content—not just its provenance—that gives pleasure?

One further thought: Here and in your book, you invoke Paul Rozin’s concept, benign masochism, to explain why some pain gives pleasure. Rozin’s account strikes me as imperfect or partial. My isolation in the face of the artwork does not feel like play isolation, if play means make-believe. The painting shakes me. I can leave the museum, but I can’t escape the inner perturbation. I wonder whether the science of pleasure has another step to walk in this direction. Sometimes, we simply like pain; it confirms our sense of how the world is. That’s to say, it appeals to our essentialism, our preference for the authentic in this other sense, the quality of being profoundly true to life.

I suppose that this note is finally one long question, a request for you to review the contribution and the limits of essentialism in our understanding of pleasure. What more does psychology have to say about how we are moved by the encounter with art or with another complex source of joy?


Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.