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The general task of this book [is] to elaborate the
style of attention which works of art solicit. The
John Armstrong, director of the Aesthetic Programme of the School for Advanced Study at the University of London, is concerned here with "our private, individual response to particular works of art." He delineates the various techniques that we use when we approach art and how we use them to appreciate what we are seeing. The book is short, eminently readable and contains sumptuous illustrations which he uses to good effect in making his points. But the points he's making all deal, as his subtitle suggests, with internal reactions and personal likes and dislikes. This is fine up to a point, but there does come a point where this kind of intensely individualistic approach really abandons the idea of art and particularly of great art.
Obviously there are personal reasons why one individual likes Rembrandt best and another likes Michelangelo. Framed in this context, such preferences are not all that significant--who is to say ultimately which is the better artist ? Does the attempt to differentiate even make a whole lot of sense? But carried to it's logical extreme, and it breaks down long before the extreme, the idea that there is much significance to each individual's unique interaction with artwork undermines the concept of art itself. Given the 5 billion people on the planet, it is entirely possible that there's at least one person who will like just about anything that someone puts down on paper. The salient question is : does the fact that someone reacts favorably to it make it art? I would argue that it does not. Armstrong uses the metaphor in the quote above of "seeing people share a joke others don't quite catch." But an emphasis on individual reaction eventually leads to just such a situation, one where we are all incapable of detachment and only react to those jokes (or paintings) which appeal uniquely to us. Then art ceases to be capable of communicating ideas; it is reduced instead to appealing to viewers' emotions. At another point armstrong compares the affection that we develop for certain works of art to the way we develop love for another person, but someone loved Hitler and someone loved Ted Bundy. What do those emotions have to do with the absolute value of the objects of the affection?
Great art, those works which we generally recognize as canonical, should not merely be attractive to a few, but accessible to and appreciated by the multitudes. Art should be universal, not individual, and should prompt a general reaction in most of us, not in an elite or in a handful of folks. There are two excellent books by Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (1975) & From Bauhaus to Our House (1981)(Tom Wolfe 1931-) (Grade: A+), and one by Jamie James, The Music of the Spheres : Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe (1995)(Jamie James), which together explain how art, which was once held to objective standards of beauty, became so subjective over the past century or two. Mr. Armstrong's book is an entertaining and instructive guide to some of the ways that we process what we see when we look at art and how certain works come to be our particular favorites, but for a compelling vision of how art should be judged in general and of the shortcomings of the modern individualistic approach to art, try Wolfe and James.
-REVIEW : of The Intimate Philosophy of Art by John Armstrong (Paul Tebbs, Booksunlimited uk)
-BOOK SITE : Move Closer (FSB Associates)
-ESSAY : What if there were no such thing as the aesthetic? (Steven Connor)
-ESSAY : The $29,900 Styrofoam Cup : Do the art cognoscenti like the work they buy? (Karen Lehrman, Slate)
-DISCUSSION : This week, Sarah Lyall and Katha Pollitt examine Move Closer by John Armstrong and the advice it gives about viewing art. (Slate)
-REVIEW : of Move Closer (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)