Book of the week
Pictures especially bring out the self-consciousness in people, the feeling that looking at them is an unnatural activity involving physical contortion (head stuck forward while stepping back) and intellectual pretension. While gallery-goers each spend an average of less than three seconds examining a work, some just stare and stare, hoping dogged attention will enable them to somehow get the picture.
How to look; how to see for yourself, without being nudged into response by some bossy elucidator (Sister Wendy, say, with her sentimental enthusiasm and roguish innuendos)? The difficulty, these days, is that click-and-switch facilities have enabled us to avert potential boredom with unprecedented ease. It is now assumed that no image is worth eye-time unless it sells itself to you quick as a blink.
Faced with anything older than, say, a Forties film noir, the viewer yields to impatience. Old paintings or sculpture, or even architecture, may be given a go (in three seconds flat) but they really stand no chance. Formally and iconographically they are incomprehensible.
John Armstrong directs the aesthetics programme at the University of London's school of advanced study, and deals and collects on the side, we are told - mainly 18th and 19th-century painting. He is not exactly a populariser and his aim in a short book with an 18th-century-sounding title is to coach the reader into a full response to works of art. To this end he cites buildings in Rome, Venice and Siena, and paintings dating mainly from the Age of Enlightenment.
He says, relax. Consider your "imaginative stock", the things that, from childhood, arouse your sharpest, Proustian response. If, like Ruskin, you loved clouds and leaves and then the Alps as a child, apply that capacity for love to images thereof. Consider proportions in buildings, the play of shadow on baroque facades, the relationship of one head to another within a picture. Let your mind wander: "Reverie makes the present moment richer."
I'm baffled, I must say, by Armstrong's approach. This affable veteran of the aesthetics seminar and the Italian study tour mentions nothing more recent than a Thirties Matisse, and even that lovely smooch of an odalisque is treated with laughable caution ("Although the ends of the fingers of her left hand have not been closed, imaginatively their completion is allowed or...").
What's the problem in looking at a Bellotto view of Verona? What is the obstacle in studying a Claude, beyond the initial demand of giving it time? Why ignore the more immediate and, arguably, even more bewildering demands of modern art?
Armstrong gives no hint of appreciating any argument in the field of aesthetics beyond Ruskin versus Whistler and the great "flung pot of paint" libel suit of 1878. Bloomsbury is his limit. Presumably this slim volume was conceived in the course of an agreeable vacation in beautiful Tuscany and written while still wearing one's attractively distressed panama hat.
So, how do you look at works of art? You know how to watch a film - just keep looking - and you have learned how to use pause, rewind and fast-forward on the video. So you also know that the more you view the more you see. You can, if you want, examine screenplay, direction, editing, performance. It's the same with other media.
The bigger the gallery or exhibition the less, proportionally, you should try to take in. Try a quick run-through and decide what you want to return to for a proper look. Some paintings hum at you and deliver straight away. Most - often the smaller ones - take a while to settle you. Bearing in mind that paintings can be anything from immense splurges to miniature intimacies, adjust accordingly.
Sit down. Let the mind wander. Don't look for "meaning". But if events are involved or the subject demands explanation, it will be worth looking this up. Don't, however, spend time listening on headphones or reading labels that would be better spent on the picture itself.
Get the feel of the picture. Don't worry about whether it matches up to facts. Regard it as a real thing, a real person or place, that, like all fictions, has to take you along with it. Be receptive, inquisitive (the better the work of art the more rewarding it is to find out more about it). At the same time remember that if it doesn't work for you that could well be the fault of the picture. In which case move along.
You don't have to rewind non-video visual art. The great thing about a painting is that it exists in a permanent present. A good painting is one that looks better than in reproduction. So one way of becoming involved is to learn from postcards and then to see the difference between them and the real thing. That difference is what sets great paintings apart.