Do the Humanities Need Experts or Skeptics?

From Public Books:

How should cultural critics regard claims about the artistic value of literary works in the European traditions? Should such arguments be taken seriously, as experts offering essential information for living a human life well? Or should they be regarded skeptically, as the ideological counterpart of two centuries of Western hegemony? There are, after all, an uncountable number of artistic practices in human cultural history. And if, in a quiet moment, critics are unable to explain why, say, twentieth-century Anglophone novels are more worthy of attention than Ottoman shadow puppetry or the art of knot tying, then perhaps skeptics of the contemporary humanities have a point. Perhaps the prominent scholars of this particular practice are simply the pretentious snobs of an unjustly privileged elite, and perhaps this particular literary-artistic tradition should not play a significant role in education.

Answering this challenge involves first getting clear on what could even count as an answer, and a contention of two recent books is that critics and philosophers have been confused about what it means to deny aesthetic value. Michael W. Clune’s A Defense of Judgment and Dominic McIver Lopes’s Being for Beauty: Aesthetic Agency and Value both contend that the debate is misled when conducted in terms of the broad category “art,” and that answering skeptical challenges has to start within the density of specific artistic practices. If the justifications are thus humbler than more enthusiastic predecessors—great artworks do not improve readers or transform the world here—they are all the more plausible. And if English professors turn out to be something less than history-transcending authorities, that humility is key to recognizing what they actually can contribute to one’s decisions about which works of art to spend time with.

. . . .

The fusion between aesthetic appreciation and intellectual analysis here is a difficult line to walk (one I’ve attempted myself, in arguing that reading Victorian novels for their moral philosophy is a way of enjoying them). But Clune’s theory of literary appreciation does at least do justice to the specificity of literary experience: it can account well for the difference between reading a poem and, say, contemplating a landscape. And it is strengthened by his insistence that critics should not overstate their intellectual competence. Rather than social activists or free-ranging intellectuals, at the end of the day critics are simply masters of a few discrete capacities in written culture (example: “the ability to show students what you are seeing in a work”). So while they must use ideas from other disciplines to comprehend literary works, the expert critic also recognizes the scholarly standards of those disciplines in so doing.

Yet literature professors have often had significant difficulty acknowledging their expertise and corresponding difficulty in justifying their status to skeptics, Clune contends, for broadly two reasons. First, a commitment to democratic equality has made it difficult to espouse hierarchies in any form: judging one work of art to be worse than another—much less judging one person’s capacity for judgment to be worse than another’s—has seemed to many a violation of the moral ideal of fundamental equality. But this is a mistake, Clune argues: aesthetic experience isn’t the product of a capacity for disinterested pleasure shared universally, as Immanuel Kant thought. David Hume’s account is better: aesthetic experience is the result of a learned sensitivity. It’s not that some are born able to judge art while others are not; it’s that some receive an education others don’t. The inequality between those who have the skill and those who don’t is thus inevitable but also untroubling (at least philosophically).

Link to the rest at Public Books

The OP made PG feel grateful that it has been decades since he had any interaction with professors of humanities.

3 thoughts on “Do the Humanities Need Experts or Skeptics?”

  1. It’s not that some are born able to judge art while others are not; it’s that some receive an education others don’t.

    Those educations need a standard. Where does that come from? Those educated in the standard? Sounds like the Bandar Log are loose on campus.

  2. “Why…twentieth-century Anglophone novels are more worthy of attention than Ottoman shadow puppetry or the art of knot tying”

    The answer to this question is simple: because the former have influenced the minds of the people in the society that the OP is writing in in a way that the latter have not. I would not expect a Turk to be interested in The Great Gatsby unless he intended to study American culture.

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