Here’s looking at you
It may have fallen out of fashion in university circles, but the study of aesthetics still asks all the right questions, writes John Armstrong
AFEW years ago I had a summer job as a tour guide, visiting the great galleries of Europe. After we’d left the Louvre and were back on the bus, I overheard a senior military officer who was one of my charges speculating about the Mona Lisa : ‘‘ Why is it meant to be so good?’’ He pondered a moment and then answered his own question: ‘‘ It’s 500 years old.’’ His wife wasn’t impressed: ‘‘ There are lots of older pictures, but they’re not so great.’’
The question was a good one, but the answer given wasn’t very helpful.
Although it’s true that the Mona Lisa is old, that’s not really a reason to love it, or much of a guide to experiencing its power and beauty. The officer was raising the secret question we often want to ask when looking at a picture in a gallery or at the house of a friend: ‘‘ But is it any good?’’
We want to know what’s meant to be so precious about this work, and we want to know how to gain access to that.
The question of artistic value, asked seriously and seeking a powerful and intimate answer, ought to be at the core of all our study and thought about art.
It’s an intellectual scandal that this question is almost always ignored, dodged, or postponed. If we don’t believe that individual works of art can be of real and substantial value to us, what’s the point of studying them or having galleries where they can be displayed to the nation?
But if we sincerely believe, as we should, that some works are of deep human worth, then that should guide all our dealings with art.
The most ambitious and to my mind most successful approach to answering this great question is to be found in the comparatively neglected discipline of aesthetics.
Aesthetics investigates and reflects upon the value of art: not the economic value, but human worth, the sense we have that it matters. The name derives from an ancient Greek word meaning sensory perception. Aesthetics focuses on the qualities of experience, so it is as relevant to natural scenery, interior design and city planning as it is to the fine arts.
What makes a work of art valuable to us is the quality of the experience it affords when we contemplate it.
One of the most important voices in the discussion of aesthetics has been that of Immanuel Kant, the formidable 18th- century German philosopher. He was excited by beauty, and by related visual qualities such as harmony, grace, tenderness or balance, and by the difficulties we have in discussing them. Basically, these qualities are all connected with liking and with pleasure. Kant took aesthetics to be the study of the perceptual pleasure that we get from art and nature. He also thought we tend to get confused about pleasure.
Suppose, to follow Kant’s way of thinking, you’re looking at the Mona Lisa and someone asks you if you find it beautiful.
You might say that you’re intrigued by the mystery of who the sitter really was, or curious about the episode when it was stolen in 1911 or amazed by speculation about its economic value. You might hate the way it’s been made a cult object and reproduced everywhere.
If you’re a bit of an art historian, you might mention that it is an early example of the sfumato technique: the smoky, misty shading that allows us to gain a sense of threedimensional shape without the use of hard, clear edges.
All that is well and good, but it doesn’t answer the question. After all, a picture can be interesting without being beautiful; it can have a racy history — or even encode terrible secrets — without being beautiful, without being a fine work of art.
If we concentrate on these issues there’s a way in which we are missing the value of the work. We can reveal this by a little thought experiment. Suppose, in a parallel world, it wasn’t the Mona Lisa that was stolen, but the neighbouring landscape? We’d no longer have that reason for being interested. Or what if, in that imagined world, sfumato had been widely in use before Leonardo turned his hand to it?
What Kant is really trying to tell us is that we don’t easily recognise our needs when it comes to art. We continually intrude concerns that, however serious in other areas of life, cannot reveal the worth of the work to us. We know in our heart of hearts that we don’t care about, say, the history of Florentine costume, although the picture can tell us something about that. And we know we don’t because we don’t pursue such knowledge in other ways; we don’t go reading up on the subject after we’ve seen the painting.
These thought experiments turn our attention away from the accidents of history to the essence of the work.
‘‘ From what distant planet has she fallen into this blue landscape?’’ asked 19th- century French critic Theophile Gautier. He was in love with the slightly disdainful smile, the sense of a hidden secret, and found the picture frankly seductive. A few decades later English critic Walter Pater gave a famous description: she seems, he said, to have gathered up all the wisdom of the ages, knowledge of all that is good or evil.
It’s not much help asking whether these descriptions are true. What we can say is that they are the result of prolonged, careful attention and they attempt to sum up a personal reaction in a way that expresses the critic’s love for the picture.
The point of such writing is not that we should come to agree with it in detail. Rather, we should be inspired by it to respond in our own way, but with an equal depth and perceptiveness.
We might discover for ourselves the visual echo of the meandering road on the left and the fold of the gown over her shoulder ( on our right). We might come to notice that the upper line of the rocks, in the top right of the picture, rhymes visually with the depiction of light catching her sleeve on the lower right.
We might come to feel the harmony of textures: the way the distant, dreamy landscape is at one with the tiny folds where the dress covers her breast.
These, and many more details, take us more intimately into the picture. We come to grasp the uncanny visual density that supports its perfection, its absolute artistic beauty.
What’s striking is that Pater and Gautier aren’t telling us things about the picture; they are telling us about what it is like to love it. Of course, they were fairly well informed about facts, but that’s not the driving force of their descriptions. When crowds form in front of this picture, they are really looking for their own slice of what those 19th- century devotees of aesthetics enjoyed.
Usually, however, there is little help, or what help there is meets a different and much less important need: gossip, the story of a theft, the speculation about secret codes.
The ambition of aesthetics is to return us to contemplation of the object, to enrich and support our visual encounter with it. When it comes to looking at art, we’re often impressed by external information, by the things you can’t see. There is perhaps a sense that looking at art ought to be intellectually hard, that a certain amount of intellectual suffering is the necessary price of any worthwhile activity ( also known as the masochistic theory of culture).
This leads to something rather awkward and painful. The leading ways in which art is studied and talked about today concern themselves in the main with matters of secondary importance. It’s not irrelevant to know who painted a picture, how it relates to the social conditions of the time, what the symbolic references are. These matters can and do feed into our relationship with the work.
But they only feed something else: on their own they are minor matters.
There’s a parallel with people. Knowing someone’s income, or when they were born or what their job is, can all contribute to a good relationship with them. But caring about or loving a person involves a completely different stance towards them. And so it is with works of art. Yet a great deal of prestige attaches to expertise in such matters.
And so a misleading idea gains currency. The vision of what it is to engage well with art comes to focus on knowing a lot of unobvious things about them, and on having access to ‘‘ secret’’ information. It is misleading because, very often, great works of art have few secrets: they are exceptionally direct. There really isn’t much you need to know about Leonardo’s Mona Lisa , except what your eyes tell you.
What we need to cultivate is sensitivity: the qualities of visual encounter, the skills of perception, the arts of contemplation.
The old remark that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder — that artistic merit, in other
words, is subjective — sounds at first like a serious problem for aesthetics. Indeed it would be, if the task of aesthetics were to promote universal agreement.
But that’s a false and unimportant goal. The aim of aesthetics is to cultivate the quality of our own relationship to individual works. The problem isn’t that people disagree about beauty or artistic merit. The problem is that so often we miss the most important point.
The quality of our engagement with an individual work cannot be gauged by whether others agree. It’s like a personal relationship. Of course it is subjective. But we often need help or guidance if it is to flourish. Subjectivity isn’t an objection to aesthetics: it’s precisely what aesthetics addresses.
Aesthetics has not flourished within academe because it seeks to cultivate sensitivity rather than impart technical knowledge. It requires us to be creative in our looking and to develop our resources of response. So it is particularly badly served by the conventions of academic writing that preclude the sort of evocation, the transmission of intimate experience, that Pater did so well.
And yet, aesthetics cannot really go away. Its central concern, the quality of visual experience, is one to which we always return when we think seriously about the value of art. It arises from a question that is at once natural and baffling: ‘‘ Tell me, really — in a way that will hit home — what is so good about this work?’’
It’s a question that we always need pose, and to answer anew. John Armstrong teaches philosophy at the University of Melbourne. His books include Conditions of Love and The Secret Power of Beauty.
The essence of beauty: Visitors to the Louvre admire the Mona Lisa , left; and the painting, right, which sums up a civilisation of feeling and thought