110. A Note on Understanding Art

Many think we criticize works of art to find out which ones are better than others—to discover excellence and then, in reference to some overarching standard, rank works from the best to the worst. However, this view might overvalue value at the expense of really understanding art. In his article “Merit as Means”, Nelson Goodman wrote: “Judging the excellence of works of art or the goodness of people is not the best way of understanding them. And a criterion of artistic merit is no more the major aim of aesthetics than a criterion of virtue is the major aim of psychology.” So perhaps the function of criticism is not so much to determine how good a work is but rather to help us grasp what a work has to offer us. Alexander Nehamas, in his book Only a Promise of Happiness (Princeton: 2007), elaborates:

“We don’t read the critics of Hamlet, or Hamlet itself, in order to determine how good the play is but in order to grasp what it has to offer us, which requires us to understand what it says; what it says may turn out to be truly magnificent, but making that judgment is never the purpose of reading. If we can’t wrest them [interpretation and critical evaluation] apart, there is no good reason for thinking that critical evaluation is the end for which interpretation is the means; it could easily be the other way around, a positive evaluation giving a reason for proceeding to interpret further—merit as means, in Nelson Goodman’s words.” (43)

So perhaps we should avoid interpreting a work so we can critically evaluate it and judge as good or bad. Rather, we should see critique as a means to discover a more comprehensive, fair, nuanced, and rationally defensible interpretation so that we can have a more rewarding (or avoid a non-rewarding) aesthetic experience. Failure to do so is bound to unnecessarily limit our experience of art.

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