After R. Kelly headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival a couple weekends ago, frequent Kells critic Jim DeRogatis wrote a piece accusing the festival’s audience of not really liking Kelly, or liking him ironically. This prompted a response from Drew Millard, who pointed out (correctly, I think) that there’s a clear and sincere enthusiasm for Kelly and his work among Pitchfork’s indie-centric base, and though there were some ironic appreciators, they were far more visible than they were common. Despite R. Kelly’s personal flaws, a majority of Pitchfork’s audience still finds genuine pleasure in listening to his music, not in laughing at him.
The problem here is that both positions are entirely reasonable. DeRogatis is right that we shouldn’t support sexual abusers like R. Kelly; Millard is right that listeners’ private decisions about what they do or don’t find enjoyable should be respected. But those two positions seem entirely incompatible under our current standards. We’re still undecided about the importance of pleasure in judging art.
We need to judge art. It seems as human a need as food and spitting off high things. But unlike sports or business or politics, there are no set standards for that judgment. And so we’ve created them. In some cases, it’s a set of shared rules about what that kind of art should be: whether a rap song sounds like what we all agree a good rap song sounds like, whether a rock song rocks, rots, or rules. In other cases, such as this one, we judge art in terms of its association with positive moral qualities. In either case, there’s no room for pleasure. There is no genre or form yet created that has as a defining characteristic that the work be enjoyable for others (though there are some that require the work be unenjoyable or difficult), and pleasure doesn’t have much meaning as a moral standard.
There are two primary problems in asserting pleasure as a value. The first is that pleasure is a fundamentally personal thing. Music (or a musician) that one person finds intensely pleasurable might be utterly repulsive to another person, and neither would be right or wrong in any objective sense. Maybe the best thing to come out of the whole discussion is this piece by Jessica Skolnik, which explores how we “draw our lines in different places” when it comes to problematic art, depending on our life experiences, cultural backgrounds, group membership, and a thousand other things. I’d argue that, under the standard of “you can’t enjoy anything you disagree with,” almost no one has a morally consistent approach to what art they do or don’t consume. And that’s OK. Certainly, it’s important to engage with others over their standards and to make the case, from your perspective, why people shouldn’t enjoy a problematic work, why it crosses the line in an unforgivable way. But our collective inability to obey a moral standard we ask art to match shows that there must be more to art than politics, or else it wouldn’t be art. If we’re going to talk about art, we have to attend also to what that other thing is.
The other problem is that art is made by artists, and artists are inevitably flawed people. You can design ideologically perfect laws, buildings, and companies—things that serve a purpose and align perfectly with our values. But since art is considered a form of personal expression, any work, no matter how ideologically pure, is inevitably (and rightly) seen in relation to the person who made it. And when it comes to artists, you get who you get.
Great art is produced through some combination of innate talent, life circumstances, and hard work, none of which have much all to do with “not acting like an asshole.” Indeed, great works of art are frequently produced by horrible people, or even by people who have produced other works of art that are morally loathsome. “We should not give this horrible person money or attention by supporting their art” is a hard position to argue against. But we frequently find ourselves failing to live up to that standard as audience members (John Lennon, to take but one example, was an abuser), and I think that’s not a failing on our parts. Rather, it again demonstrates the complicated relationship between the aesthetic qualities that make art important and the moral and practical qualities we apply to every other aspect of our lives. Moral absolutism becomes simultaneously necessary and impossible when faced with a deeply flawed society that sometimes produces transcendent works of art.
Some critics — myself included, myself especially — have at times over-valued pleasure, reacting to its frequent omission from serious discussions about art, by loudly declaring that it’s the main way we should judge art. It’s a good move, but (as I think many similarly-minded critics would agree at this point) it’s hard to maintain as an absolute standard. For the reasons above and many more, it’s very hard to talk about pleasurableness as an inherent quality of a work rather than something you alone find there. It may be better to think about pleasure as one value among many, and think more about how to make these private line-drawings that Skolnik talked about into shared standards. (The It’s Complicated Project represents a wonderful instance of critics doing this.)
Certainly it would be better than the present situation. In many of our discussions about art, pleasure is left out of the conversation entirely. Either liking Kells is bad because it’s immoral, or it’s okay because such affection is sincere. Little consideration is given to the barren miracle of such pleasure in the first place, and what value that might have even if we grant the problems as real, true, and important things. Pleasure is a squishy standard. When we’re talking in terms of these various moral standards (justice, respect, equality, authenticity, etc.) it’s easy to argue that “pleasure” is just something you experience because of your socioeconomic status and thus your privilege. But as the n+1 editors argued back in April, that short-circuits a lot of productive discussions about art. We may take pleasure in certain things because of our race and class, but within the universe of things that could please people of our race-class combination, why do some things please us so much more than others? Why do some things please us so much that we enjoy them even though we know they’re wrong? And how can we produce more pleasurable things, when the sources of such pleasure are so rare?
In a world where so many things make our lives shittier, those rare instances of pleasure have a positive moral value in and of themselves. If we think about pleasure as one of the things we want art to do, we might consider more carefully how to produce that pleasure while minimizing the harm they do to others. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, I think, and more’s the pity. That’s precisely why it’s such an important problem to tackle.