A while ago Brian Micklethwait had a bit about discomfiture in art to which many bloggers linked approvingly:
As for the endlessly repeated claim that art is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, I don’t buy that. And I don’t believe the people who say that they do buy it are being honest. I think that a picture which they have no problem with, but which they believe makes other people whom they disapprove of uncomfortable, makes them very comfortable indeed, and that that is the kind of discomfort (i.e. not discomfort at all, for them) which they like, and are referring to with all this discomfort propaganda. They no more like being genuinely discomforted by art than I do.
As a psychological observation this is acute. No one ever talks this way about art that discomfits him, personally. And good art is never described in these terms — only epater le bourgeois stuff, which of course discomfits no one, certainly not the people who describe it as discomfiting, and not the people it’s supposed to discomfit either. “Discomfort” is the last-ditch argument of bad artists or their flaks, like museum directors.
So I almost agree with Brian, except I’d lop off the first sentence. Have you ever talked at length with someone who was far more intelligent than you? Such a person seems armed with all of your thoughts and experiences and much more besides; he answers objections that you have formed fuzzily or not at all. You get the most out of it by shunting aside your own prejudices, as best you can, and following him as he elaborates on his, which are more interesting. Later on you go back and reintroduce yourself, as it were, to your original prejudices, and compare and contrast. The experience is, in a word, discomfiting, not because your interlocutor tries to shock you like a cheap artist, but because he says things that have not occurred to you, and novelty is always unsettling.
Great art is like that, except that its commerce is with a mind greater than any you know personally and on a subject on which it has meditated deeply and you may not have thought at all. Henry James goes so far as to say “it is a very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the mind of the producer… No good novel ever proceeded from a superficial mind,” and he’s talking to you, Charles Dickens.
Brian discusses visual art and music mostly, and I’m talking about literature, being wary of generalizations about all arts, although I seem to make them often enough. So maybe we are talking at cross purposes. But for all arts (oops, I did it again) the ideal aesthetic attitude is receptiveness — a provisional acceptance of the author’s cultural situation, the benefit of the doubt. You have to be willing to check your damaged self at the door. Many respectable aesthetic theories, like Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” and the “pseudo-belief” of T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards, reasonably begin with the attempt to inculcate this attitude: we need to read Christians and pagans without being either. So yes, good art makes you uncomfortable, but only incidentally, and anyone who makes a big point of the fact is a bad artist.
(Update: David Fiore comments. Great artists aren’t just different, David, they’re better. Get over it.)