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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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