I’ve been thinking a lot about why people make art and what they hope to achieve by doing so. That of course leads me to wonder how people judge art, how it affects them, and why it has the impact it does. I haven’t come up with any specific answers, but it boils down to one question: what makes good art?
I think the answer to that question (if there really is one) lies in the distinction between liking a thing and appreciating it. And yes, there is a difference, a HUGE difference. In fact, they’re not even related, although they seem to go together so often that we, flawed beings that we are, readily infer a relationship. After all, if someone doesn’t like a thing, how can they possibly appreciate it? Conversely, if you appreciate something, you must like it. Right?
To like something is to have a favourable emotional response to it, regardless of any objective value that thing may have. You can like trashy movies and fatty, greasy hamburgers, knowing that these things are junk for your mind and body, but they give you a pleasant sensation and, therefore, you like them. Their value comes strictly from the pleasure you derive from them.
However, to appreciate something is to recognize the value (positive or negative) of that thing regardless of whatever peculiar emotional responses you may have to it. The example I like to use is that of a young man, Harry, giving his fiancée, Elaine, his late grandmother’s wedding ring as a gift. Elaine may think this little piece of jewellery is hideous — it looks dated and tacky, it’s not her style at all — so she doesn’t like it. But she also knows that Harry loved his grandmother dearly and treasures the ring because it reminds him of her. Elaine recognizes the sentimental value that the ring has for Harry and the significance that this gift has for her relationship with her future husband, so she appreciates the ring because it is meaningful, even though she doesn’t actually like it.
So yes, you can like something without appreciating it and appreciate something without liking it.
Nonetheless, it is true that we often grow to like things we appreciate when those things have a positive value — like Harry’s gift — and grow to dislike things we may once have liked when they take on a negative value. This can happen either because what we value has changed or because we have come to recognize some aspect of the thing that we just didn’t see before. As Ophelia succinctly stated, “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.” (Of course, things can get much more complicated than this, but I think you get the general picture.)
So, I can say that a book was well-written and artistic even though I didn’t enjoy it in the least, because its value as art comes not from my particular and subjective responses to it but from the quality of the writing and how the narrative structure and flow help the story unfold. Perhaps it wasn’t even supposed to be an enjoyable story, perhaps it was intended to evoke feelings of sadness or anger. No one really enjoys being sad or angry, at least not in an uncomplicated way, but even painful stories have their value because they touch some of the deepest, darkest pits of human suffering in ways that allow us to feel vulnerable while knowing that we are not alone, that others share our experiences.
Then again, some stories are just intended to cause pain for the sake of causing pain, as many gross-out horror films tend to do. Even the insanely popular television show Game of Thrones has been criticized for showing disturbing events intended to evoke merely visceral responses, a tactic that many think cheapens an otherwise brilliantly constructed tale.
So what are the practical implications for art, then? This is a thorny issue, but I would argue that the whole purpose of art is to expose us to ourselves, to tear off the masks we put on and shove a mirror in front of our faces. Sometimes we will like what we see, and sometimes we will not. But good art is not to be liked or disliked, it is to be appreciated. It has a value, and that value is most often to reveal the emotional truth that lies beneath the surface, unpleasant as it might be. Yes, those emotions relate to or are caused by events, but the purpose of art is not to give a mere play-by-play account of the events themselves but to demonstrate the personal impact on those affected by them.
Essentially, the value of art lies in its ability to connect us to each other and to ourselves, or to show the horror of the disconnection that many of us feel at some point in our lives, which in its own way gives each of us a way to relate to each other. And that’s something I think we can all appreciate.