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An Intimate Philosophy Of Art
By John Armstrong
(Book Review)

October 2000
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
19 Union Square West
New York, New York 10003
ISBN 0-374-10596-0

196 pages. 37 illustrations.

Gabriel Faure, Gueseppi Verdi, and Hector Berlioz all composed Requiem Masses. If one were to speak of meaning in those compositions, then it will most likely have to reside in the text which, allowing for minor artistic adaptation, had been formulated over centuries by the Latin church. It is doubtful today whether most listeners understand or even note that essential meaning. But the composer's content -- structure and style -- and his expression -- the emotional load; emphasis, his own assimilation of and departure from models and modalities, past and present, together with his calculation toward a listener's empathy and participation at performance -- That remains central and moving. Faure gazes politely toward Heaven; Verdi seems excited more by Damnation; and Berlioz glories in the latter, loudly and with four brass bands added. (And Gregorian chant is all together different). Each is subject to their inspiration, their age -- and ourselves as listeners. But we learn 'to read' their art, and are enriched. They sustain a perennial repertoire.

If meaning were all in art, we could just read the transcript. But the question of 'Meaning' -- conceptual, philosophical, rational and verbal -- has for some time been a foremost and frenzied bone of contention among select and influential circles in critical writing about art. If emotion were all, we each could bellow our own noise. Happily, MOVE CLOSER: An Intimate Philosophy Of Art by John Armstrong adds an insightful, sober, and appreciative voice to the debates -- Happily, not just because the book is intelligent and well-written, but because it voices a necessary corrective, one which, currently, often seems a submerged and minority schooling.

Move Closer is a book about aesthetics. Aesthetics, like its more popular offspring -- art appreciation -- is a topic crucial to art, but it is difficult: Cultural and emotional responses are never easy to define or discuss. Legitimate boundaries within and about artwork -- what we bring to art, and what we take away -- are nebulous and vary. Our approaches, individual capabilities, barriers of time, place and culture, what we recognize as potentials in art -- indeed, what we recognize as art -- evolves, degenerates, regenerates, and that sometimes intermingles. But were we to void or dismiss because a thing is indefinite or difficult, we would never have arrived at quantum physics; nor would art offer much value.

Daphnis and Chloe, 16th cent.
Oil on panel
© The Trustees of the
Wallace Collection, London 2000

As a young student in Poland, I and my classmates all knew, the surest way to spark heated debates was to ask several gathered Americans a question on English grammar, vocabulary or usage. Unless they were grammarians or teachers, (and even then) debate was assured. Native speakers 'wing it.' A reader here is presumed to read English and have eyes. Looking no more insures appreciation of art, than speaking insures effective communication. Nor, conversely, will language study make us Shakespear. Massive 'exposure' to art, or even classroom talk needn't open any eyes. Those extremes mark out a broad world in between. Move Closer begins with the situation in which we approach art we are told we should admire... and don't. Move Closer will not make automatic connoisseurs -- part of its point is that, with art, participation cannot be regularized -- but this book leads a reader through to cultivating informed judgement. It offers a grammar, a means, and usage for experiencing art.

Move Closer is a book I now wish I had written. (Can anyone give a greater endorsement?) I approached it with prejudice -- oh... 'art appreciation.' As one who reads art histories, criticisms, philosophies, and a lot more, I noted the lack of professional vocabulary -- jargon -- but I was soon aware that Armstrong unfolds a lucid, well-ordered examination of the individual's experience of art, and does so in clear language. Move Closer begins its first chapter, "Affection," assuming the worse: an antipathy to much of art, or at least, to much that is celebrated. It is an honest start, and one comes away with some grasp of how we develop ties to objects, places, art: to why things take on affective import.

Artists and those conversant with art are sensitive to the pecular strengths and idioms of various media; today many artists even intentionally experiemnt with patina -- the veneers of age. Armstrong's chapter, "The Way of Information," addresses effect and response in this area. "Resources," the following chapter, enters more deeply into materials and how they condition our involvement with artwork. "Reverie" examines the dynamics of individual associations; all of which which leads to an excellent discourse on the modes and motivations of "Contemplation." (It is surprising and much welcomed, salutary, to see St. Augustine's ratiocination, meditation, and contemplation -- in all five aspects, again distinguished and discussed.) Armstrong's content builds its exposition logically. The chapter, "Investment," covers the realities of what a viewer brings to art -- what is individually read in, what is socially conditioned, in ages past and at present. The book at end analyzes assumptions, expectations, responses of past theorists -- Kant, Hegel, Schiller, Goethe, many others -- and of each likely viewer. It leads a reader through technical and historical practice, clarifying much of those differing philosophies and aesthetic modes which hover about art proper; and it ends in summary with "Private Uses of Art". Move Closer is an encyclopedia of thought and experience masquerading as a friendly, afternoon conversation.

The reception of art, like music, like language, does vary with person, place and period, just as even within a country a word may differ greatly in usage, connotations, even meaning. For Chaucer, 'loud' and 'lewd' were pronounced alike, and that author used that to fashion interesting -- and hilarious -- insinuation. Gregorian chant is still today a sensibility very different from Faure's or Verdi's; and received very differently now than when it was first composed. For many, such are tastes deeply loved and rewarding, once acquired. Armstrong's book gives, not an appreciation for all art, but an informed awareness and means by which to cultivate appreciation, to open new sensibilities. Much of current art criticism tends to concentrate on the dictionary meanings in philosophy, printable scores of notes for history. Move Closer skillfully does examine "the personal roots of our engagement with art -- the private, unacknowledged ways we actually see, feel, think, brood, and daydream as we stand before the work itself."

Daphnis and Chloe, 1743-45
Oil on canvas
© The Trustees of the
Wallace Collection, London 2000

How Armstrong succeeds is shown by his selection of the centuries old theme of Daphnis and Chloe. Here he presents the 16th century panel attributed to Niccolo Pisano, and contrasts it with Francois Boucher's oil of same title (1743/5). Armstrong treats these in the book's chapter six, "Investment," under the rubric of "Passion." The author had discussed earlier two contending, modern views of art reception. One was proffered by Bloomsbury writer and painter Clive Bell: "We need to bring nothing with us from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs." An opposing approach lies with Professor Lisa Jardine, who, in the words of Armstrong, has been "...clearly stalking the picture rooms bristling with worldly concerns...." (Jardine, objecting to the violence depicted in The Rape of the Sabines by Poussin, then on loan to the National Gallery, had suggested it be taken down.) Armstrong then dissents: "Neither the Bell option (forget it's a sexy scene you're looking at) nor the Jardine option (only think about the fact that it's a sex scene) is convincing." In Move Closer, one learns that there is more at work, and that it is very important to realize that.

Armstrong, in a close viewing of Pisano's work, reviews not only composition and execution -- the artist's technique, but highlights how that serves an intent and mood which remains valid, eloquent, even now. Pisano, even for a modern viewer -- at least once attention is focused to it -- does display "a unvenial sexuality -- shy and serious." And that view of life, and art, as Dante affirmed, implies that for Pisano, as well as for many viewers today:

The material world prefigures obscurely the destiny of the soul and in doing so awakens a realization of that higher destiny: physical love as first step towards spiritual love.

That in itself, no matter how persuasive, is only perception, an interpretation. But for Armstrong, -- and many in art -- that is the point. Much of art, certainly throughout centuries, is a phenomenon between the artist's work and its viewers, past, present, and future. And all history notwithstanding, neither human nature, nor the human condition can be so alienated from itself that any significant experience becomes inaccessible or without value. And art thus embraces an expansive potential.

Armstrong compares Pisano's Daphnis and Chloe with Francois Boucher's later oil painting. Here, the author admits: "It is sympathetic to the modern taste for role playing and artifice in sexual life." He observes:

Sensuality, in this picture, is not regarded as something primitive or unhygienic, to be spurned with increasing civilization, but rather as itself an achievement of civilization and culture. Sensuality itself is presented as an art-form, something which is to be refined, assisted with artifice, and prolonged (haste is the downfall of sexual pleasure) by bringing into play more and more subtle resources of enjoyment.

Much of the purpose behind the analysis, and Move Closer, is exemplified in Armstrong's conclusion:

These pictures indicate how very different emotions, attitudes and interest can be invested in works which have, specifically, similar depicted content. And this draws attention to the very different things that can happen to interests which get recruited into the process of looking. Far from judging the sexual content of the two pictures in the same way (either ignoring it or prejudging both as vehicles for sexual pleasure), the difference between the pictures, their contrast in mood and style, is brought out by the varied ways in which sexual interest engages with each.

I have asserted that Move Close is a welcomed, corrective voice in current art writing. But this is not a book for academics and critics. It addresses a general readership. It is lucid, consecutive in reasoning, and treats important issues -- issues which involve each individual artlover. If such aesthetic practice is disregarded, and 'Art' allowed to withdraw into the arcane preserve of some totally cerebral 'art world' or Socraticist academe, a quality of living, a human potential, would be diminished. Armstrong himself does note this:

The Positive work of culture, work that fills the entire subsequent course of history, is the pursuit of an adequate reintegration of thought into life. Adequate, that is, as recognizing the merits of, rather than suppressing reflection. Culture seeks to reconcile what has been divided, but at a higher level.

And he adds:

In so far as art is a way of bringing ideas back into intimate connection with feelings, imagination, desire and perception it is a means of allowing us, as rational beings, to find ourselves at home in the world of appearances, the world in which we must live.

That this a very real need, and that we are in danger of denying it in our new millennium, appears ever more evident. Ultimately, such beliefs must lie in human nature, as a postulate. Neither reason, nor argument can prove or disprove an a priori. And either we affirm or deny. Move Closer affirms against the dull, mundane, the reductive, which we suffer:

Life desensitizes us. In general, to survive we have to reduce our sensitivity to the stimulation we receive. We have to reduce our awareness -- too much goes on for us to attend to it all -- we need to filter out background noise, avoid being distracted by things we catch out of a corner of the eye. Add to this the dulling effect of habit...

Certainly, since the 18th century, a lot of irrelevant, emotionalistic nonsense has been effused about art in the name of aesthetics. (Just as, currently, much irrelevant, rationalistic nonsense is churned out in the name of Philosophy or The Conceptual). But -- Abusus non tollit usum (Abuse does not lay aside proper use.) Nightingales do not live in America. Yet Americans have quite pronounced, if differing, responses when they encounter it in literature. In four different states of The Union, 'honeysuckle' defines four very different flowers; yet Americans form coherent and common feelings upon meeting the name in Shakespear. John Armstrong's Move Closer doesn't dismiss or reduce such realities to mere lexicology or exact science. The book does, intelligently and in clear prose, examine how to 'move closer' to art itself. In aesthetics, 'art appreciation,' art is recognized as a performance which transcends its score; elusive, personal, but very real.

Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy Of Art by John Armstrong should be among one's books on art. Armstrong is director of the Aesthetic Programme of the School for Advanced Study of the University of London; and is also an art dealer, specializing in eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings.

--G. Jurek Polanski

Jurek Polanski has previously written and art edited for Strong Coffee in Chicago. He's also well known and respected among the Chicago museums and galleries. Jurek is currently a Visual Arts Correspondent for ArtScope.net.

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