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    The general task of this book [is] to elaborate the style of attention which works of art solicit.  The
    cultivation of such a style is of importance because it is in the quality of our engagement that the
    human worth of art is apparent--art matters in virtue of the kind of experience it invites the
    spectator into.  There is no access to art except in private--in looking, thinking, feeling as we stand
    before an individual work.  Cultivation requires that we draw upon our own resources of sensitivity,
    reverie and contemplation, our capacity to invest our ideals and interests in the process of looking.
    Without these we can only know about art as detached observers who look on without being able to
    participate (like seeing people share a joke others don't quite catch).
        -John Armstrong, Move Closer

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.


Grade: (C)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -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)

    -ESSAY : Art For Politics Sake (Christopher Caldwell, Commentary)
    -ARCHIVES : Hilton Kramer (NY Observer)
    -ESSAY : Art Nouveau Was Neither, Vast Exhibition Shows (Hilton Kramer, NY Observer)
    -ESSAY : Coming soon to a wall near you... (Nick Curtis, This is London)
    -REVIEW : of  What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (Charles Oliver, Reason)
    -African Art: Aesthetics and Meaning (from Univ. of Virginia)
    -The American Century (Whitney Museum)
    -American Museum of Photography
    -Archives of American Art (Smithsonian)
    -Artchive World's Largest Supergallery
    -Art Crimes: The Writing on the Wall (graffiti)
    -Artcyclopedia: The Guide to Museum-quality Art on the Internet
    -ArtiFAQ 21OO--designed to predict how art will influence our lives in the next hundred years. Through probing past Art inspirations and scientific methods students can use available data to make reasonable forecasts for the future
    -Art of the First World War
    -Artstar: your complete Art resource
    -Automobile Advertising of Yesteryear
    -Ballarat Fine Art Gallery (Victoria, Australia) (buy prints and posters)
    -Carol Gerten's Fine Art--A Virtual Art Museum
    -Collage: 20,000 works from the Guildhall Library and Guildhall Art Gallery London.
    -Richard Dadd (1817-1886)
    Eakins, Thomas
        -ESSAY:  The Ache in Eakins (John Updike, NY Review of Books)
    -Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
    -The Fine Site
    -The Frick Collection and the Frick Art Reference Library
    -The Getty Center (Los Angeles  CA)
    -Guide to Museums and Cultural Resources on the Web
    -Henri Matisse Art Gallery
    -Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia)
    -Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
    -Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
    -Kate Greenway Collection (famed Mother Goose Illustrator)
    -Kyoto National Museum Masterworks
    -"Leonardo Da Vinci"--Mark Harden's Artchive
    -Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)
    -Matinee Today Film Art--Fim Posters
    -Maxfield Parrish
    -Memorial Art Gallery (U. of Rochester)
    -MoMA (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
    -Monet at Giverny (Montreal Museum of Fine Art)
    -The Museum of Bad Art--"art too bad to be ignored"
    -Museum Network--explore 33,000 museums worldwide
    -National Gallery of Art
    -National Gallery of Australia
    -National Museum of American Art
    -On-Line Picasso Project
    -The Pierpont Morgan Library (Dan Friedman--Webmaster informs us that it is both a museum and a center for scholarly research)
    -Pre-Raphaelite Passion
    -Renoir, Pierre-Auguste (Web Museum)
    -Resource Library Magazine: American Art Online
    -Rodin Museum
    -Smithsonian American Art Museum
    -Thomas Eakins
    -Uffizi Gallery
    -Van Gogh (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
    -Van Gogh Museum
    -The Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery
    -Walker Art Center
    -Web Museum, Paris
    -Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling (Leonardo Da Vinci)
    -World Art Treasures
    -WWII Propaganda Posters     -ESSAY : Transport me. Please : I want to stare at something amazing, something that pulls me beyond myself. (Eric Metaxas, Arts & Culture)
    -PARODY : Non-Controversial Christ Painting Under Fire From the Art Community  (The Onion, June 2001)
    -ESSAY : Against the dehumanization of art  (Mark Helprin, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY : The $29,900 Styrofoam Cup :  Do the art cognoscenti like the work they buy? (Karen Lehrman, Slate)
    -ESSAY : Jed Perl on Art : Theorists and Appreciators (New Republic)
    -ESSAY : Tolstoy's prophecy: "What is Art?" today, on Tolstoy's curmudgeonly book on art & morality (James Sloan Allen, New Criterion)