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Many artworks, some would say certainly the best artworks, are difficult, in a cognitive and empathetic sense, to understand and to appreciate. So suggests David Hume, and so says Bernard Bosanquet and George Steiner. First, I argue that art educators need to understand specifically what these difficulties are, as well as understand that art and art appreciation, in their fullest senses, are practiced mostly among aesthetic elites, that is, "elites" in a nonpejorative respect. Second, I spell out how Hume's, Bosanquet's, and Steiner's intuitions are supported by current neuroscientific and cognitive psychological claims. Ultimately, I draw out the implications for art education, suggesting Aristotle's idea of friendship as an art education's ideal.

In order to judge artworks, that is, to understand and to appreciate artworks, David Hume states in his essay Of the Standard of Taste that a good critic needs a particular kind of art education, one summarized in his five criteria for establishing a standard of taste: 1. "delicacy of imagination"; 2. "practice in a particular art and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty"; 3. "form(ing) comparisons between several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other"; 4. "free(dom) from all prejudice"; and 5. "good sense," which not only checks the influence of prejudice but also by means of keen reasoning allows the good critic to comprehend the artwork in the fullness of its complexity and profundity.1 He also goes on to say that "though the principles of taste be universal and nearly, if not entirely, the same in all men, yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty."2 Additionally, he claims that "a true judge in the finer arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character."3 And finally, "Though men of delicate taste be rare, they are easily distinguished in society by the soundness of their understanding and the superiority of faculties above the rest of mankind."4

I agree with Hume, in principle and in practice, as to the place and necessity of his five criteria for the good art critic's education. However, for Hume's position to remain convincing, we need to know more about why good art critics are "rare," why "few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art." The answer, it seems to me, is that the best and the most profound artworks are difficult to understand and to appreciate. The question of the paucity of good art critics and the difficulty of artworks is [End Page 106] analogous to the competency of practitioners of any skill and the difficulties inherent in that skill's subject matter. The more difficult or demanding a subject matter, the more difficult it will be to find persons with the skills to handle and to develop that subject matter; the more difficult a subject matter, the fewer number of qualified people there will be practicing the skills of that subject matter. Surely, good physicists and good engineers are hard to find because, among other things, physics and engineering are intrinsically difficult subjects. And, of course, educating people in such subject matters is difficult precisely because of those subjects' intrinsically difficult nature. In order to educate men and women effectively in physics, that is, to produce good physicists, we need to know physics' difficulties in order to develop effective pedagogical strategies; this seems to me both fundamental and obvious. I should add that difficulty in respect to subject matter and skill development—that is, education—is not only peculiar to intellectually demanding subject matters, but the question of difficulty also arises in respect to athletics, musical performance, surgery, and other areas, that is, in respect to the education and development of all precise large and small motor skills. Knowing the physical difficulties of performing well in tennis or piano playing are crucial to knowing how to educate good tennis and piano players … and knowing why good tennis and piano players, such as Serena Williams and Vladimir Horowitz, are so rare. In short, knowing the difficulties of any subject matter is necessary for the justification of that subject matter's pedagogy and, indeed, to the advancement of the subject matter itself. Ultimately, I shall explain the nature of art's difficulties and how those difficulties specifically are at the heart of art education and why good critics are rare. Also, if only implicitly, I hope to develop and update Hume's seminal ideas on sound art judgment. Finally, I should say, I do not intend to state all the necessary and sufficient conditions of what makes an artwork difficult, as it were, define the essence of difficulty. Like the very idea of art, I do not think pursuing the essence of difficulty is logically possible, hence not particularly fruitful; "difficulty," like "art," is an open concept.

When thinking of difficulty in art, there are two authors, in particular, who come to mind: Bernard Bosanquet and George Steiner. Now, although both Bosanquet and Steiner may have agenda beyond the question of difficulty itself, agenda in which I have no interest, nevertheless, their discussions of difficulty are most informative. I would suggest that together they form the locus classicus on the subject. Hence, I would like to take a look at both Bosanquet and Steiner and appropriate from them what is clear and best. One of the virtues of Bosanquet and Steiner is that they both implicitly and explicitly treat art as problematic, that is, artists produce artworks that are an amalgam of intellectual, emotional, and technical problems that require from their appreciators varying degrees of intellectual acumen, emotional openness, and commitment to resolve those problems. Afterwards, as [End Page 107] I mentioned above, I will discuss what this all means. Among other things, we will see what is the nature of the artist/appreciator relationship and that from the difficult and problematic nature of art follows an elitist view of art that is both naturalistic and justified.

Bosanquet discusses the difficulty of art in Three Lectures on Aesthetic. In the third lecture, he makes his well-known distinction between easy and difficult beauty. For Bosanquet, "beauty" means "aesthetically excellent."5 For my purposes, we need not define "beauty" or "aesthetically excellent" in any absolute sense. Nor need we agree with Bosanquet's final analysis of beauty.6 The only thing we need to admit here is that it is intuitively clear that there are degrees of beauty or aesthetic excellence, such that some people will judge some artworks to be more beautiful than others. Minimally, if I say, like Hume, that I judge John Milton's poetry to be more beautiful than John Ogilby's, there is no one who will say: I have no idea what you are talking about. In any case, for Bosanquet, when discussing beauty, he thinks it is necessary to consider beauty in a

wider sense, which is also the more correct sense, and the sense come to by education, and that preferred … by persons endowed with much aesthetic insight. … [T]his wider sense of beauty which equals aesthetically excellent must be taken as containing two classes, that of easy beauty and that of difficult beauty.

(Three Lectures on Aesthetic, 44)

So, for the sake of emphasis, Bosanquet maintains that for educated people and people of "much aesthetic insight," beauty is not understood as beauty tout court. on the one hand, he says,

easy or facile beauty is … readily recognizable. It coincides with that which, on grounds which cannot be pronounced unaesthetic, is prima facie pleasant to practically everyone. A simple tune, a simple spatial rhythm, like that of the tiles in one's fireplace, a rose, a youthful face, or the human form in its prime.

(ibid., 46)

Bosanquet furthermore says that even masterpieces can possess "simple aspects" that can account for their universal appeal. Bosanquet's point is that, just because something appeals to "ordinary people and others," that does not necessarily mean its universal appeal "implies a trivial or superficial character in them" (ibid.). Venus of Milo, he says, possesses an easy beauty but is by no means superficial.

Besides easy beauty, there is difficult beauty. Most artworks Bosanquet suggests fall into the class of difficult beauty, which has "rarer appeal" (Three Lectures on Aesthetics, 47). It is in the class of difficult beauty that we clearly see how artworks are problematic. Here, we also see how education in art and "much aesthetic insight" come into play.

Bosanquet suggests three forms of difficulty. He says that, although they do not cover all cases of difficulty, they are evidently comprehensive enough [End Page 108] for his purposes. They are intricacy, tension, and width. The way I read Bosanquet, these three forms of difficulty are distinguished in the following way: intricacy is clearly a cognitive difficulty. Tension and width are empathic/expressive difficulties, the former referring to the tragic characteristics of an artwork, the latter to the comic characteristics of an artwork. Intricate artworks have all that simpler artworks have, and more. As Bosanquet says, using the example of music, "[T]he failure of appreciation is often simply the inability to follow a construction which possesses intricacy beyond a certain degree" (Three Lectures on Aesthetics, 47). The way we learn to appreciate the intricate difficulties of art is by beginning with "isolated bits, which introduce us to the pervading beautiful quality of the texture we are trying to apprehend" (ibid.). Examples of intricacy can be found throughout the arts: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Chartres Cathedral, Dante's Divine Comedy, James Joyce's Ulysses, Jan van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, to name a few.

Bosanquet rather cavalierly says that, since difficult artworks give you too much, "failure to grasp the whole is simply a defect in one's capacity of attention" (Three Lectures on Aesthetics, 48). My sense, however, is that lack of attention, although a part, is not the whole story. When Bosanquet speaks of intricately difficult artworks, he is clearly thinking of the formalistic aspects of art. To understand the formalistic aspects of a work, one, of course, needs to pay attention. However, one also needs to employ analytic, synthetic, and analogical skills. Without such skills, you can pay attention for as long as you like, yet nothing will sink in. With such skills, whether native or acquired, or more likely both, you can then see how this works with that, how this compares to that, how this contrasts to that, how this is relevant or not to that, and so on. In short, attention plus such developed cognitive capabilities, which are the result of "natural insight" and education, allow one "to grasp the whole."

The second form of difficulty is tension. As Bosanquet says: "Aristotle speaks … of the 'weakness of the spectators,' which shrinks from the essence of tragedy. In other words, the capacity to endure and enjoy feeling at high tension is somewhat rare" (Three Lectures on Aesthetics, 48). Not only is there high tension in Euripides' Medea from which we shrink, there is also high tension in Grunewald's Crucifixion or Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead. Bosanquet says that the "common mind … resents any great effort or concentration" that is required to appreciate "great expressiveness" (ibid.). The effort, here, is "imaginative" rather than intellectual (ibid.). Such imaginative effort is what allows us "to frame for [ourselves] as a whole an experience in which [we] can 'live' the embodiment before [us]" (ibid., 49).

As Bosanquet clearly explains, appreciating tension in an artwork is not fundamentally a question of cognitive skills, yet it does require "self [End Page 109] education and natural insight" (Three Lectures on Aesthetics, 49). As I have suggested, the difficulty in tense artworks is a question of empathy. It may also be a question of acceptance of the human condition. Appreciating difficult artworks is not merely knowing what is true about them; it is also feeling what is true to them.7 That is what Bosanquet means by "'live' the embodiment." But, of course, what is difficult in artworks that are tense, that is, tragic, is that they difficult "to look at." our imaginative default setting is denial. We are weak spectators because we do not want to live, even vicariously, those aspects of every human life that are not "comfortable" precisely because they are beyond our control. After reading Bosanquet carefully, it is clear that "self education and natural insight" are directed toward a person's character. To appreciate the tense difficulties in artworks requires appreciators who are empathetically inclined to know and who make the effort to know themselves, to know their relationship to others, and to know their place in the world.

The difficulty Bosanquet calls "width" is treated in a manner similar to that of tension. To appreciate the width of artwork is also fundamentally an empathetic rather than a cognitive problem. With an emphasis on comedy, Bosanquet says, "It is a remarkable and rather startling fact that there are genuine lovers of beauty, well equipped in scholarship, who cannot really enjoy Aristophanes, or Rabelais, or the Falstaff scenes in Shakespeare" (Three Lectures on Aesthetics, 49). Again, he attributes this to the weakness of the spectator: "In strong humor or comedy, you have to endure a sort of dissolution of the conventional world. All the serious, accepted things are shown you topsy-turvy; beauty, in the narrow and current sense, among them" (ibid.). If one, however, has "a peculiar strength to encompass with sympathy [a comedy's] whole width" (ibid., 50), then there follows a "liberation" from the conventional world, like a "holiday in the mountains or a voyage at sea; the customary scale of everything is changed, and you yourself perhaps are revealed to yourself as a trifling insect or a moral prig" (ibid.). As in the case of tragedy, so, too, in respect to comedy the aim of overcoming an artwork's difficulty is self-knowledge.

I will make several points, before we move beyond Bosanquet: 1. There is "no constant line" (Three Lectures on Aesthetics, 50) distinguishing easy and difficult beauty. 2. Some people are more "gifted" cognitively and emotionally at appreciating art. 3. Appreciating art is a question of "sincerity of character." 4. Appreciation depends on education, that is, "teachableness, and the absence of self-absorption and the yearning to criticize" (ibid., 51). I mention these points because, according to Bosanquet, we are not all created equal, neither in a cognitive nor in an empathetic sense when it comes to appreciating art. There are some people, as a result of natural cognitive ability and empathetic inclination, who are better capable of appreciating art than others. There are some people who have greater access to quality [End Page 110] education, the kind of education, as Bosanquet suggests, that will cultivate and enhance not only our intellectual capabilities but also our empathetic capabilities as well. Furthermore, one person might be very keen when it comes to appreciating poetry and particularly dull when it comes to appreciating music or architecture. This should not be particularly surprising, since people differ in ability and appreciation across a wide range of subjects. Later, we will see Bosanquet's intuitions to have been sound.

George Steiner also speaks of difficulty in the arts. His discussion both overlaps Bosanquet's and goes beyond it. Steiner says there are four difficulties in art: contingent, modal, tactical, and ontological. He summarizes these difficulties in the following manner:

Contingent difficulties aim to be looked up; modal difficulties challenge the inevitable parochialism of honest empathy; tactical difficulties endeavor to deepen our apprehension by dislocating and goading to new life the supine energies of word and grammar. … Ontological difficulties confront us with blank questions about the nature of human speech, about the status of significance, about the necessity and purpose of the construct which we have, with more or less rough and ready consensus, come to perceive as a (work of art).8

Although these difficulties, according to Steiner, specifically refer to the literary arts, nevertheless, they can be, with little violence, expanded and translated into the other arts. Surely, the questions of looking things up, empathy, "grammar," and the ontological status of the aesthetic qualities of the artwork itself play a significant role in appreciating not only literature but also music and the visual arts.

As in the case of Bosanquet, we can divide Steiner's difficulties into cognitive and empathetic/expressive difficulties.


1. Contingent difficulties are clearly cognitive. Steiner mentions the necessity of looking things up when reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Coleridge, Eliot, Pound, and others. In short, "In the overwhelming majority of cases, what we mean by saying 'this is difficult' signifies 'this is a word, a phrase or a reference which I will have to look up'" ("On Difficulty," 267. Like Bosanquet on intricacy, Steiner, too, is a bit elliptical when it comes to contingent difficulties, that is, it is not simply that, once you've looked something up, you now understand it. Again, as in Bosanquet's case, there are still questions of analytic, synthetic, and analogical skills required to complete our understanding of a line in a poem, a figure in a landscape, or a measure in a score. Although not explicit, Steiner suggests as much when, for example, he says,

The word may be archaic: when Venus laughs on every wight in the The Merchant's Tale or we meet with mighty dints in The Knight's Tale, [End Page 111] we may no longer know what Chaucer is telling us. [Or] The obstacle may be one of dialect. … [Or] The expression can be arcane and technical; it might not be apparent to the reader just what "bliss" T. S. Eliot promises when he qualifies it as pneumatic (finesse lies in the Attic and theological antecedent to the epithet).

("On Difficulty," 264)

Like words in a poem, figures in a landscape, or measures in a score, are "in Coleridge's simile, 'hooked atoms,' so construed as to mesh and crossmesh with the greatest possible cluster of other words [figures or measures] in the total body of language" (ibid.)


2. Understanding a work of art is not comprehending or appreciating it. As Steiner says, we can "get it," yet not "dig it" ("On Difficulty," 267). Even after looking things up, we may still find some artworks inaccessible, hence, modal difficulties. We understand but do not empathize. We cannot feel what all the fuss is about. Education in a cognitive sense is necessary but not sufficient. Hence,

Learning, the suspension of reflex, can make us understand at the cerebral level, the dynamics of judgment which made Rosa Bonheur a painter far more highly valued than Cezanne or which induced Balzac to set the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe above those of Stendal. … But we cannot coerce our own sensibility into the relevant frame of perception. We are ashamed to concede any modal inhibition, confess ourselves closed to any expressive act however remote from our own time and place.

(ibid., 269)

However, like Kant's "pathological love," aesthetic sensibility cannot be commanded. Surely, learning can expand our empathy for a wider range of objects. Only after learning more about the history and the problems of painting in the mid-twentieth century, as well as reading Mark Rothko's biography by James Breslin, has it happened, as it were evolved, that I now (not having been commanded) "dig" Rothko's work. I should add that learning can also diminish one's empathy. I used to dig rock 'n' roll and rap. No more. Finally, no doubt, there is a sense of what I would call natural empathy. As we shall see, although we are all empathetic to a greater or lesser extent, some people are naturally or genetically more empathetic to some things rather than others. Some people can be carried away by Wagner's operas, while, for others, they are just too many notes and too much noise, no matter much one has or has not been taught.


3. "Modal difficulties lie with the beholder. A third class of difficulty (tactical difficulty) has its source in the writer's will or in the failure of adequacy between his intention and his performative means" ("On Difficulty," 270). The artist does not merely use language as a tool. He retools language for [End Page 112] his own constructive purposes. Thus, overcoming tactical difficulty is like learning a new language. As Steiner says, "It is the poet's aim to charge with supreme intensity and genuineness of feeling a body of language, to 'make new' his text in the most durable sense of illuminative, penetrative insight" (ibid.). Of course, again, I would suggest what is true of the poet is true of any artist. The artist needs to "make new" his "language" because what he wants to say cannot be said by merely conventional means; as it were, only his peculiar way of saying can disclose what he wants to say. Think not only of Eliot's poetic "language" in Four Quartets but also the visual "language" of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, or the musical language of John Cage's 4'33". Of course, the artist cannot abandon convention entirely. His is not a private language, which, as Wittgenstein has told us, is impossible. No, as Steiner says, referring to Mallarme, "[The artist] will not forge a new tongue but will attempt to re-vitalize, to cleanse 'the words of the tribe.' … He will re-animate lexical and grammatical resources that have fallen out of use. He will melt and inflect words into neological shapes" (ibid.). I would suggest, again, in addition to the more recent artists mentioned above, what is true of Mallarme is true, during the respective lives, of Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven, and Schönberg, among others. When it comes to tactical difficulties, Steiner claims that the artist's intention is to slow us down [the "maneuver is one of rallentando"] (ibid.). The artist's style and content are not meant to be understood easily and quickly; they are not meant merely to be paraphrased. Appreciation needs to come at a price, the price of intellectual and emotional effort, the reward, as Bosanquet said, of "lived embodiment." Thus, we savor our aesthetic experiences. Thus, their value is increased.

Finally, there is ontological difficulty. Like tactical difficulty, it seems to me that ontological difficulty straddles the cognitive and empathetic aspects of our personalities. As I cited above, "Ontological difficulties confront us with blank questions about the nature of human speech, about the status of significance, about the necessity and purpose" ("On Difficulty," 273) of the artwork. Ontological difficulties clearly have a Heideggerian ring to them. One senses the presence of Heidegger's ultimate philosophical question: Why is there something rather than nothing?9 Contingent, modal, and tactical difficulties invite, perhaps force, us to "think outside the box." However, ontological difficulties question the very existence of "the box." Ontological difficulties, Steiner suggests, take us back to Homer. Homer, unlike Virgil, is not the author of the Iliad and Odyssey. Where Virgil begins the Aeneid with "I sing," Homer prays to the muses to sing through him. Specifically citing Heidegger, Steiner says,

It is not so much the poet who speaks, but language itself. … The authentic, immensely rare, poem is one in which "the Being of [End Page 113] language finds unimpeded lodging, in which the poet is not a persona, a subjectivity 'ruling over language,' but an 'openness to,' a supreme listener to, the genius of speech."

("On Difficulty," 275)

Ontological difficulties invite and compel the appreciator to question and to feel the problematic nature of existence, here specifically in respect to the ontological status of language and the artwork itself, but perhaps also in respect to the history of ontology going back to Parmenides and Heraclitus. For Steiner, unlike some philosophers, there is no escaping, intellectually or emotionally, ontological difficulties in any field of human endeavor.

As I mentioned earlier, my discussion of Bosanquet and Steiner is modestly intended to persuade the reader that difficulty to a greater or lesser degree is a significant characteristic of artworks. Correlatively, it is also modestly intended to persuade the reader what I stated at the outset, namely, that understanding the nature of difficulty in art is crucial to developing legitimate art education. However, now that I have provided a sketch of Bosanquet's and Steiner's thoughts on the subject of difficulty in art, one still needs to ask, "So what?"

If it is true, as Hume, Bosanquet, and Steiner say, that some artworks are more difficult than others, then it would also be true to say that artists, not in any pejorative sense but in the best sense, are elitists (they are choosey, selective) insofar as they challenge both our cognitive skills and our empathetic inclinations. By implication, if artists are elitists, then it would seem to make sense that artists' target audiences are also select; they are smart and emotionally open minded, an educated elite. If you do not fall into that class of people, what the artist is doing will either merely wash over you or altogether pass you by.

Here is a portrait of the appreciator the artist is looking for. In a cognitive respect, the artist is looking for 1. someone who can hold a lot of information in memory; 2. someone who has the ability to deal with abstract rules and expressions; 3. someone who has a strong power of concentration and attention; 4. someone who has a rich vocabulary, in the broadest sense of vocabulary; 5. someone who has strong visual-spatial abilities in order to see how parts make up a whole; 6. someone who has quick visual-motor speed; 7. someone who could arrange pictures in order to tell a story, that is, someone who can reason sequentially; 8. someone who could match pictures or symbols that belong together based on common characteristics; 9. someone who can keenly discern similarities and differences; 10. someone who is able to look at a set of designs and fill in missing parts; 11. someone who is able to distinguish what is essential from what is inessential. A person who does well in the above items is a smart person. He is a person who will meet well the challenges of art's intricacies, as well as overcoming contingent, tactical, and ontological difficulties. As a matter of fact, what I have drawn above, although by no means a complete, is the portrait of someone with a high IQ. [End Page 114] The items I have enumerated are some of the items typically tested for in the Wechsler IQ Test, sometimes known as the Wechsler Adult Intelligent Scale (WAIS).10

Anyone who expects to appreciate works of art, such as I mentioned earlier in this essay, needs to have some, if not all, of the cognitive skills typically measured in IQ tests. This is no different from saying, and should be no more controversial than saying, that one needs to have some, if not all, of the cognitive skills measured in IQ tests if one expects to be a successful accountant, electrical engineer, or research biochemist. Of course, the question of appreciation is a question of degrees. So, there are some people who are not particularly smart who will appreciate, on some level, difficult works of art. However, those same people no doubt to some extent will be frustrated by not being able to meet the artist's full expectations. In this sense, it might be said that many people appreciate the best in art at the same level that many people appreciate scientific theories. Surely, it would be fatuous and disingenuous of me to say that I understand and thus appreciate physics to the same extent as Richard Feynman or that I have the same understanding and appreciation of game theory as John von Neumann.

People are smart for two very broad reasons: they have acquired or they have inherited high IQs, or both. This is what Hume roughly means by "the soundness of … understanding and the superiority of faculties." This is what Bosanquet means by "self education" and "natural insight." Of course, precisely to what extent genes and to what extent learning play a role in one's ultimate cognitive abilities is still open to (often hot) debate. Although there are those who will argue the extremes—that is, our cognitive abilities are entirely genetically determined or our cognitive abilities are entirely environmentally determined—most thoughtful discussion suggests that cognitive abilities are from 40 percent to 80 percent inherited.11 The reason I mention this is that, in a cognitive sense, it should not be surprising that good critics are rare or that many people find the arts in the best sense difficult. Like the classes of appreciators of other difficult subjects, the class of the appreciators of art is quite small. If I were being generous, I would say that many people in industrialized countries go to museums, to the theater, opera, and non-pop concerts, but most not often; and most go because of social pressures of various kinds rather than an intrinsic interest in the arts. Perhaps many people in those same countries read literary classics. If, however, I were being realistic, and not merely cynical, I would also suggest that very few people are either motivated or have the cognitive ability to tackle the intellectual nuts and bolts of those arts. Many people flirt with the arts, but few have the cognitive ability to meet the challenges set forth by arts and the people who have created them. Here, clearly, an understanding of the difficulties in art is essential for art educators, that is, if one wants to motivate better and to enhance further potential art audiences. One final remark: [End Page 115] I take it that it is noncontroversial that artists, certainly the best artists, have high IQs.

Does this all mean that, if you are smart, you will then have a full appreciation of artworks? Will Feynman and von Neumann appreciate exceptionally well Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" or Marcel Proust's La Recherche du Temps Perdu? Given their indisputably high IQs, I would say that, in respect to cognitive ability, Feynman and von Neumann have the necessary conditions in place to become extraordinary appreciators of art, that is, given a proper education in the arts, such as Hume suggests. However, they may still lack a sufficient condition: empathy.

Aside from the extreme cases of autism, Asperger's syndrome, and psychopathy, most people are not impaired empathizers. Most people are capable, as a result of both their biology and culture, of empathizing to a greater or lesser degree. According to the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the great majority of people fall somewhere between the extremes of "systemizing" and "empathizing," the systematizing side of the spectrum representing male characteristics, the empathizing side of the spectrum representing female characteristics.12 As Baron-Cohen states at the very beginning of his book, The Essential Difference, "The female brain is predominantly hard wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard wired for understanding and building systems."13 "Systematizing is the drive to analyze, explore, and construct a system. The systematizer intuitively figures out how things work, or extracts the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system."14 Systematizers are interested in inanimate things. And although they are "driven" to systematize, they tend to be emotionally detached from their subjects. Thus, they would be effective in overcoming contingent, tactical, or ontological difficulties or difficulties of intricacy. According to Baron-Cohen,

Empathizing is the drive to identify another person's emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion. Empathizing does not entail just the cold calculation of what someone else thinks and feels. … Empathizing occurs when … an emotion is triggered by the other person's emotion, and it is done in order to understand another person, to predict their behavior, and to connect or resonate with them emotionally.15

Empathy is a "double mindedness" as opposed to "single mindedness."16 Baron-Cohen argues that we should consider empathy to be a "skill" or a "trait," something that can be measured, "such as height," "something in which we all differ."17 According to Baron-Cohen, like cognitive ability, empathetic ability can not only be measured, but it has a clear and strong biological basis as well as a cultural component. In a cultural sense, biases of various kinds—that is, parental styles, gender stereotypes, and roles—contribute both negatively and positively to empathetic ability. In a biological [End Page 116] sense, hormonal levels and genetics contribute both negatively and positively to empathetic ability.18 As a matter of fact, Baron-Cohen argues that it is not only IQ (what he calls SQ, the "systematizing quotient") in a population that can be plotted on a bell curve, EQ, "empathy quotient," can also be similarly plotted. Like cognitive ability, empathy ability is not a binary operation. "In reality, empathy is more like a dimmer switch than an all or none switch. … On this view, empathy varies in a population."19 In a chapter titled "The Empathy Gene," Baron-Cohen, realizing this to be a controversial topic, says, "[I]n this chapter we examine evidence that some genes are associated with your score on various measures of empathy."20 Although he is careful not to be misconstrued as a radical genetic determinist, nevertheless, Baron Cohen argues that, based on studies of a) identical twins, b) genes that affect serotonin levels, c) genes that affect emotional recognition, d) genes associated with autism, and e) empathy differences between the sexes, it would be foolish "to sweep genetic evidence under the carpet."21 As Baron-Cohen suggests, depending on whether one is in caring or abusive relationships, one can move along the curve to the left or to the right. However, although developmental conditions play a significant role in one's empathy quotient (EQ) score, nevertheless, there are clearly genetic influences at work. For those who fall towards the left side of the EQ curve, connecting emotionally with others is more or less problematic. Those who fall toward the right side of the EQ curve make and keep close friends easily. I would say that the same, in principle, applies to art objects insofar as they present us with the empathetic difficulties of tension and width, as well as modal, tactical, and ontological difficulties. Given that art objects are the paradigm cases of human emotional expressions at their best, it is no surprise that they invite an empathetic response. Additionally, it is no surprise that some people will respond easily and others with difficulty to those aesthetic expressions.

Let me just add briefly that Baron-Cohen is not the only scientist who argues that empathy has both a cultural and biological basis. In "The Neuroeconomics of Mind Reading and Empathy," Tania Singer and Ernst Fehr argue for a neuroscientific model of empathy, "suggesting that observation or imagination of another person in a particular emotional state automatically activates a representation of that state in the observer with its associated autonomic and somatic responses. The term "autonomic" in this case refers to "a process that does not require conscious and effortful processing, but which can nevertheless be inhibited or controlled."22 They, like Baron-Cohen,23 claim there is scientific evidence that reveals that empathy can be measured by means of functional MRI. Furthermore, Stephanie M. Preston and B. M Frans deWaal argue that, in order to understand empathy in its fullest sense, you need to understand not only how empathy is about "I feel your pain," that is, its proximate cause, but also that the ultimate cause of empathy along with kin selection and reciprocal altruism confers [End Page 117] reproductive success on an organism.24 What Preston and deWaal are arguing in their paper, among other things, is that empathy has deep evolutionary, and thus genetic, roots.25 Baron-Cohen, again, makes a similar point when discussing empathy and other animals.26

So, to sum up, according to recent scientific evidence, people differ in empathetic ability, in principle, in very much the same way they differ in cognitive ability, that is, based on what they have acquired through learning and what they have inherited. As far as Baron-Cohen is concerned, 1. he spells out the environmental and biological bases of empathy; 2. he develops the idea of an empathy bell curve; and 3. he argues, on average, females tend to be more empathetic than males. Furthermore, his claims, like the other scientists cited, are based on rigorously researched psychological and physiological testing. Two final notes on empathy are called for: 1. according to all the scientists cited, it is particularly relevant to my interest in difficulty in the arts that the empathetic personality throughout is characterized as socially sensitive, sensitive to communication, and naturally imagines others' thoughts and feelings; 2. as in the case of the challenges facing art educators in respect to cognitive development, so, too, is it necessary that art educators understand empathetic-related difficulties in art in order then to realize to the greatest extent the potential of art appreciators.

So, who would best exemplify that rare critic of which Hume spoke? Who would be most adept at resolving the difficulties presented by the world's artistic masterpieces? What is the ideal of art appreciation at which art educators are aiming. The answer is someone who embodies both the systematizing capabilities of John von Neumann and the empathizing capabilities and sensibilities of Jane Austen. That androgynous ideal embodies a rare personality, one both capable of understanding an artwork with the critical eye of the systematizer and possessing the sensitivity of one well tuned to the feelings others. Where the systematizer aspires to abstraction sacrificing the individual, the empathizer feels and celebrates the peculiarities and nuances of the individual at the expense of hard- and-fast rules. Where the systematic personality is detached and can easily overcome the cognitive difficulties of explanation, prediction, and control, the empathetic personality is ready to be engaged and absorbed in expressive objects; it seeks attachment and intimacy, and it readily accepts invitations to alternative imaginative worlds.

To appreciate the human condition as expressed in the world's artistic masterpieces, you must be born and be taught to think like a scientist and feel like a novelist. The aesthetic object, indeed, is a member of a class, but there is also a sense of its "being there": it is this aesthetic object at this time. The individuality and the peculiarity of the art object are its power and value. In this sense, the art object is not "translatable" into another language, and it cannot be paraphrased; it is not merely part of a sample. Abstract [End Page 118] thinking provides us with the possibility of considering different points of view, of considering multiple interpretations. Empathy puts us into the shoes of another; it encourages "mind reading." All of this suggests that the marriage of these most human characteristics allows for art appreciation at its very best, the very best of sensitive interpretation, deliberate evaluation, and criticism, as well as a keen social sense of conversation. Ultimately, art appreciation is a shared social phenomenon, albeit a shared phenomenon of those of similar "hearts and minds."

For those with low IQs and EQs, that is, for those who cannot adequately overcome the difficulties of art, artworks for the most part will remain inaccessible. They will perhaps find enjoyment in the arts but not to any great or profound extent. For them, the art experience will be, as I have suggested, a flirtation, a source of snobbism, hence superficial. They will not be able to rise, cognitively or empathetically, to the artist's high creative standards. This elitist view of art contradicts John Dewey's anti-elitist view. However, Dewey thought art elitist for the wrong reasons. He wrongly thought that art becomes alienated from day-to-day life because of pernicious capitalistic forces. Chafing against the sentiments of the American "Gilded Age" during which he was reared, Dewey thought art was among the most democratic expressions of the human mind. Consequently, he was vehemently opposed to what he called "the museum conception of art."27 Dewey thought that the art world, in an ideal sense, was a classless society in which all artists and appreciators were created equal. Thus, the Parthenon is not essentially a work of art: it is "a civic commemoration."28 Thus, again, it was born, grew, flourished, and was integrated in Athenian society. Under spell of Marxism, Dewey says pejoratively that art has been put on a pedestal; because of nationalism, militarism, and money, it has become remote and dislodged from the culture in which it was born and by which it was sustained. Now, "every capital must have its museum of painting and sculpture, etc., devoted in part to exhibiting the greatness of its artistic past … and the loot gathered by its monarchs in conquest of other nations."29 Now, there is "a separation of art from objects and scenes of ordinary experience that many theorists and critics pride themselves upon holding and even elaborating."30

Dewey is not entirely wrong about the museum conception of art in the sense that nationalism, militarism, and money have contributed to it. In this sense, I must agree with Dewey that an elitist view of art is hollow. However, contrary to Dewey, I would say that, although money and power can buy artworks, they cannot necessarily buy or sustain good taste. The de Medici bought Botticelli, the Catholic Church Michelangelo, Albert Barnes (ironically a friend of Dewey's) Cezanne. However, notwithstanding such transactions, our aesthetic interest and praise of those great artists' works are not sustained by who bought them or where they ultimately happen to have landed. I would suggest that, if Dewey had stuck to his Darwinian [End Page 119] roots, which run deep in Art as Experience,31 rather than spoiling them with Marxist rhetoric, he may have come to the scientifically and thus naturalistically justified elitist view of art I have argued above. In short, an elitist view of art may be sound, in spite of the abuses of monarchists, papists, capitalists, or anyone else.

Artists have high IQs and high EQs. They are socially sensitive and sensitive to communication insofar as they seek to lay before the public expressive objects of the highest caliber. Some say that, in a evolutionary psychological sense, artworks are advertisements. They are ultimately advertisements for sex and reproductive success. That may be true.32 Here, however, I would like to suggest another kind of advertisement: why artists, male or female, produce high-quality artworks requiring high-quality cognitive and high-quality empathetic ability. Yes, artists ultimately are seeking reproductive success. However, they are also seeking the best of friends.

Aristotle's idea of friendship is particularly helpful here. Thus, I want to suggest that the artist and the appreciator of art are mutually in search of friendship, in principle, that perfect friendship that Aristotle describes in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle says, "Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good in themselves."33 The salient features of Aristotle's view of perfect friendship fit snugly into what I take is the artist/appreciator relationship. Friendship in the best sense is a relationship of equals. Friends are equal in cognitive and empathetic ability. Such friendship is a reciprocal relationship, in the best sense, that is, such that the win/win character of the relationship is a win for both while having intrinsic value for both. These are not only rare relationships, but they are relationships that "require time and familiarity."34 Perfect friendship is a delight "in loving [for its own sake] rather than in being loved."35 Ultimately, a friend is an extension of oneself, one indispensable for the attainment of self-knowledge and virtue.

Although there are obvious differences, in detail, between a real perfect friendship of which Aristotle speaks and to which he aspires and the ideal perfect friendship I am suggesting between artist and appreciator, nevertheless, my suggestion is legitimate, as well as an enhancement to understanding a naturalistic elitist view of art. Of course, in an ideal perfect friendship, often friends do not meet in the flesh and, therefore, do not know each other in any ordinary sense of the word. Yet, in such relationships, there is mutual nourishment. For the most part, ideal perfect friendships between artists and appreciators are relationships between dead artist and living appreciator. However, in the ideal perfect friendship, I would say that it does not matter who is dead and who is alive. What matters is that the relationship exists at the ideal level where there is virtue, loving for its own sake, and where [End Page 120] persons meet in terms of work done in the fullest sense and the response to that work. That is where the core of the friendship exits, where friends' work and friends' responses—that is, creative and sensitive interpretation, evaluation, and criticism—come to realize who and what they are. What the artist wants in this respect is response equal to the cognitive and empathetic effort that he or she has put into the work, nothing less. Furthermore, although the artist may have a variety of motives for seeking appreciators, surely the artist's essential motive must be that an appreciator will appreciate in an aesthetic sense the artist's work for itself and that the work is an act of virtue, coming from that which is best in the artist's character. Perhaps one might go further and say that the artist wants the appreciator not only to complement the work, but perhaps also to improve upon it by means of smart and empathetic appreciation. In this sense, the artist/appreciator friendship is, in principle, the same as the composer/performer friendship. Certainly, the composer expects only the highest-quality performances of his or her works, while, at the same time, the best performers seek those composers' works that challenge best their technical and interpretive skills. The hack composers will only attract mediocre performers. Performers of no talent and second-rate education will never rise to demands of the best composers. You cannot be J. S. Bach's friend unless you bring to the friendship the same level of loving and virtue that Bach expresses in his scores. Thus, no artist wants half-baked responses, responses that cannot rise to his or her high standards. Of course, the same goes for the appreciators; they are seeking friendships, that is, experiences that have intrinsic value; they want quality art, art that is not going to insult their intelligence or their sensibilities. On both sides of the artist/appreciator ideal perfect friendship, the demands are high, just as Aristotle suggests that the demands are high in our real perfect friendships. And just as Aristotle says, even the "supremely happy and self sufficient man" will need friends,36 thus, I suggest, the artist and appreciator need each other, as well. In respect to the art educator's ideal, Aristotle's idea of friendship turns out to be the development of a most intimate relationship between artist and appreciator, and ultimately a community of friends, what some recent philosophers have called an "art world."

Let's give Aristotle the final word:

[I]f all this be true, as his own being is desirable for each man, so, or almost so, is that of his friend. Now his being was seen to be desirable because he perceived his own goodness, and such perception is pleasant in itself. He needs, therefore, to be conscious of the existence of his friend as well, and this will be realized in the living together and sharing in discussion and thought; for this is what living together would seem to mean in the case of man.37 [End Page 121]

Christopher Perricone

Christopher Perricone has had articles published in the Journal of Aesthetic Education, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Philosophy and Literature, the British Journal of Aesthetics, and the Journal of Value Inquiry, among others. He has also had poetry published in literary magazines, as well as a volume of poetry, A Summer of Monkey Poems (1996). Most recently, his "Playing Catch" appeared in All along the Fence (2016), an homage to Harry Duncan.


1. David Hume, "Of the Standard of Taste," in Art and Philosophy, ed. William E. Kennick (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), 491ff.

2. Ibid., 495.

3. Ibid., 496.

4. Ibid., 497 (my italics).

5. Bernard Bosanquet, Three Lectures on Aesthetic (New York: The Library of Liberal Arts, 1963), 45. Further quotations from this work will be cited in the text.

6. See Dale Jacquette, "Bosanquet's Concept of Difficult Beauty," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43, no. 1 (1984): 79–87. Jacquette rightly questions Bosanquet's concept of difficult beauty in the following way: "The concept of difficult beauty supports the suggestion that in subjectively relative aesthetic judgment there is ultimately no sound basis for distinguishing between ugliness as it is usually conceived and what is merely perhaps extremely difficult beauty" (80). As Jacquette goes on to point out, Bosanquet himself recognized that his concept of difficult beauty lead to the "aesthetic paradox about the nonexistence of true ugliness" (81). As I say in the body of this essay, I am not interested in accepting in its totality Bosanquet's idea of difficult beauty; nor I am interested in his paradox, notwithstanding its tantalizingly enigmatic nature. I am interested in the interpretation of difficult beauty, suggested by Jacquette, which is not hopelessly logically flawed:

7. See John Hospers, Meaning and Truth in the Arts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946), 139–208. There, Hospers discusses the distinction between "true about" and "true to."

8. George Steiner, "On Difficulty," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36, no. 3 (1978): 263–76, at 275. Further quotations from this work will be cited in the text.

9. Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961), 1.

10. See Elizabeth O. Lichtenberger and Alan S. Kaufman, Essentials of WAIS IV Assessment (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc, 2009).

11. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve (New York: Free Press, 1994), 105; see also Arthur Jensen, The g Factor: The Science of Mental Ability (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998); T. J. Bouchard Jr., "Genetic and Environmental Influences on Adult Intelligence and Special Mental Abilities," Human Biology 70, no. 2 (1998): 257–79; Ming-Chang Chiang, Marina Barysheva, David W. Shattuck, Agatha D. Lee et al., "Genetics of Brain Fiber Architecture and Intellectual Performance," The Journal of Neuroscience 29, no. 7 (2009): 2212–24.

12. Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 3.

13. Ibid., 1.

14. Ibid., 3.

15. Ibid., 2.

16. Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 16.

17. Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference, 2.

18. Ibid., Chapters 7 and 8.

19. Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil, 19; see also 19ff. [End Page 122]

20. Ibid., 127.

21. Ibid.

22. Tania Singer and Ernst Fehr, "The Neuroeconomics of Mind Reading and Empathy," Neuroscientific Foundations of Economic Decision Making 95, no. 2 (2005): 341.

23. Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil, 28.

24. See Stephanie D. Preston and Frans B. M. de Waal, "Empathy: Its Ultimate and Proximate Bases," Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25, no. 1 (2002): 1–72.

25. Ibid., 5ff. Along with their clear evolutionary agenda, Preston and de Waal discuss neuroanatomically based differences, that is, neural corrleates and genetic substrates, as well as developmental differences, that is, mother–child relationships.

26. Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil, 141ff.

27. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958), 6.

28. Ibid., 4.

29. Ibid., 8.

30. Ibid., 6. See also Richard Shusterman, Pragmatic Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), Chapters 7 and 8. Shusterman is a populist like Dewey. However, his discussion of popular and high art is driven entirely by cultural critique, as it were, that modern science (especially evolutionary biology and psychology) had nothing to contribute to our understanding of art.

31. See Christopher Perricone, "The Influence of Darwinism on John Dewey's Philosophy of Art," The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, ns 20, no. 1 (2006): 20–42.

32. See Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind (New York: Anchor Books, 2001); see also, Christopher Perricone, "What Women Want: (Among Other Things) Quality Art," Journal of Aesthetic Education 45, no. 3 (2011): 88–102.

33. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1968), NE1156b9. The exact passages are the Bekker numbers ff. They are universal to all Aristotle translations, since they are based on the extant Greek texts attributable to Aristotle. They indicate book (that is, chapter) number, section, and line.

34. Ibid., NE1156b26.

35. Ibid., NE1159a27.

36. Ibid,. NE1169b3.

37. Ibid,. NE 1170b13. [End Page 123]

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