Thanks for the Memories

John Haber
in New York City

"That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?"
      "Yes, it is."
      "What does it say to you?"
      "It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos."
      "What are you doing Saturday night?"
      "Committing suicide."
      "What about Friday night?"

The Gere Collection: Landscape Oil Sketches

John Armstrong: Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art

Woody Allen, in Play It Again, Sam, sums up as ever all those lonely fears of life in New York City. Allen's hero suffers through the rituals of dating (of course), through the classic urban intellectual forever in therapy, and, yes, through art. G.-F.-J. Closson, Cascade at Tivoli (Gere Collection, c. 1825)

John Armstrong has an answer to at least two of my anxieties. He addresses any reader baffled by the "hushed tones we adopt" in a museum, "the promise that something is going to be wonderful." One can stop worrying, too, about "the scholarly and dignified air" of art history or criticism. His new book does not exactly put down intellectuals, those who follow "the way of information." However, I can at least insist on "the importance of a work of art to me," in my own reveries and sensual experience. As for dating, you are on your own.

Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art sounds comforting enough, but Woody Allen may have the last word after all. I want to argue that Armstrong never fully engages art, because he never puts the personal reveries to a real test. He never suggests how ideas, all that funny intellectual stuff, can unleash and transform the imagination. In fact, it took ideas—and two centuries—to make reveries so central to interpretation. Quite another intimate look at art, thanks to some sixty early landscape sketches in oil now at the Frick Collection, shows how.

Throwing a fit over fine art

Armstrong may not offer dating tips, but he may well not need them. Still in his early thirties, he runs a program in esthetics at the University of London, deals in the Old Masters, and drives "classic Italian sports cars." Yet his prose would satisfy the most reactionary critics of contemporary art and culture.

His philosophy takes an equally old-fashioned tack. At its heart lies an elegant five-step formulation with Latin titles. Classically, he explains, I begin by noticing the details of a work of art and how they interrelate. Only then can I see the work as a whole, lingering over it to let my own feelings and memories flow. I can at last attain catalepsis, or "mutual absorption."

Sound more demanding than ever, like a twelve-step program for British public schools? Scared that a cataleptic is having a seizure? Not to worry.

For one thing, Armstrong has a way with words and the style of a master teacher. After he gets through the main message, he looks back at three tough philosophers—Kant, Schiller, and Hegel. Like a great lecturer, he turns his summary into a kind of play-by-play, stopping to make each turn in reasoning a recap, a resting point, and a fresh surprise. Three of the densest writers I know come out sounding clear, free of jargon, and even relevant. As far as I can see, Armstrong gets them right as well.

More to the point, neither the Latin nor the Germans seem all that critical in the end. Armstrong disagrees with all three philosophers anyway. When it comes down to it, he has a simple thesis: let yourself go. "Let the different feelings which different parts of the work evoke come to consciousness in their own time." Do not shy away from childhood associations, from that unfamiliar landscape painting to a tree in one's old backyard.

He wants a comforting volume, in its presentation and conclusion. It almost fits into my jacket pocket. It evokes not only one's anxieties facing art, but also the imagination each person can bring. "There is nothing to guide us in the finding of these linkages except consultation of our own response." That power, Armstrong believes, allows art to forge "an emotional, or spiritual, home and comfort."

Who is contemplating whom?

Far be it from me to deny creature comforts, but I live in a rough world, kid, with some rough art, even braving starvation. Woody Allen ends up with Diane Keaton all right, but even Humphrey Bogart takes a hit, and that gorgeous woman in black may yet kill herself Saturday night. Well before that, too, her sensuality will have run out without doing much at all to illuminate Jackson Pollock, at least for Allen and me. John Armstrong's Move Closer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)

My doubts started with the text in my hand. To whom, exactly, is Armstrong talking? The book begins with a novice's questions, reads well, and shuns footnotes. Still, who but a theorist wants another theory of art? Novices tend to go for picture-book surveys by TV personalities, in part because they need further resources. Appallingly, this slim production (at least in the American edition) lacks even an index, and forget about hints on where to turn next with one's new-found love for art.

Okay, novices may like hearing that they can mostly check their intellect at the door. Pick up some facts, just enough so that one attends to a painting's details, then move on. Only alert, well-read audiences will spot the sly dismissals of Anthony Blunt and T. J. Clark. Yet those very scholars turned me on to new experiences in art and new periods in art's history. And that, too, suggests where Armstrong has gone astray.

Skipping names has the nasty air of an inside joke. But it also reflects a dismaying condescension to the intellect and what it offers. Armstrong denies that one faces an either/or, interpretation or sensation, but every example tells quite another story. When he does name someone, he selects a thesis that scholars would mostly ridicule along with him. I shall do her the favor of not naming her, but a writer is out to ban a mythological rape scene, painted by Nicolas Poussin around 1637, as demeaning women. He uses her to oppose the intellectual and moral response to "the passions the work unlocks."

First, this means attacking a straw man. Scholarship itself comes off foolish, when it has the strength to unlock the work. (Poussin does not favor rape, and his painting moralizes enough about it for me nearly to appreciate it.) Second, it gets him into a trap. If one has to choose, why value the passion unless one already likes the art? Most important of all, must I oppose them at all?

My doubts gelled when I realized how little the core chapter matters. By then Armstrong had admitted a problem: reveries do run on, and they can take me away from the picture at hand. So what will bring me back to that state of "mutual contemplation," and how will I know when I am there? How can a painting contemplate me anyway? The core section never counts because it never explains.

Skin deep

Once the loose ends got to me, I could not help noticing a circular argument everywhere I looked. The book tries to solve the question of art's value, but then come the real examples, such as a villa by Andrea Palladio, among the most influential architects of the Renaissance. (Typical of Armstrong's cavalier attitude to factual resources, the novice will not learn its century, much less a date.) Success hinges on proportions: "if the porticos were wider, the flanks would become too narrow." But how do I know?

The question gets, for one thing, at Armstrong's unjustified core values—good taste, charm, and repose. What, then, of art that disturbs them all? Indeed, once one releases the imagination, it tends to unnerve some truisms. Beauty, one hears, is only skin deep, and in different ways art has looked past the skin of things. Rembrandt hid human skin in shadow, Cubism burst it, and Damien Hirst displays a twenty-foot anatomical model without it. Artists still do self-consciously lovely work, but then they need a thick skin these days just to survive.

One starts to note that Armstrong tends to draw his examples from an age of privilege. A connoisseur's standard comes across in the many eighteenth-century pictures. Even after 1800, Armstrong prefers brown landscapes all but undisturbed by Impressionism, much less Modernism and beyond. If one cannot return to a gentler era, one can at least hide from amidst the trees of a proper gentleman's estate.

How do I know? The question gets at Armstrong's very focus, too. I mean the question of value. The chain of justifications has to come to end somewhere. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, said this about knowledge rather than judgments of value, but I hear it again now.

Wittgenstein asks one to look past the systems, to the totality of one's investments in the world. It holds the key to a whole new start, one that values the intellect along with emotions. It asks how they can support and challenge each other in a work of art.

To see what I mean, better rerun that movie. Consider how it makes a museum so funny—and so scary.

Why not?

So is it all subjective nonsense—all the judgments, the reveries, and pretty much modern art, too? Is everyone pretending when calling a work good, bad, or downright suicidal, much less lovely? The script's informal punctuation captures perfectly the woman's bleak monotone. Will it ever end? Perhaps she has more than enough time after all before Saturday night.

For decades, philosophies of art have sought something cooler, less personal, more value-free. Critics aim for the what of art—a firm definition, a way to separate Pollock's drips from the drop cloths cast aside by a house painter. They ask for the who—a proper attribution, an artist's life, a map of human intentions. Or they ask for the how—materials that went into the art object and how it comes to mean something. What could be less respectable nowadays than the why—the notion of value?

Kant called his philosophy of art The Critique of Judgment, but judgment has gone onto the back burner. For one thing, other matters became more pressing once red squares, drips, and teacups entered the museum. They did not always look like bad art. To some, they did not look like art at all.

For another, art has travestied good taste one too many times. Art that looked ugly and morally offensive one day earned hushed tones the next. Abstract art even flaunts subjectivity, by releasing the viewer from any fixed narrative. Maybe the slim woman in black does have Pollock right.

Reducing value to personal taste sounds bad enough. Attention to shifting tastes makes thing far worse yet. Now art itself plays with standards. Now a viewer has to reflect on values in order to form them. Now critics consider how values go into the very making of art institutions, such as galleries and museums. Judgment, in other words, now takes a back seat to interpretation because judgment itself has become subject to interpretation.

Private uses of art require social experience, an experience open to intellectual analysis. An age of religious contemplation built great churches and a feudal society. An age of personal expression built the modern world. The whole idea of "good taste" calls up just one, rather dated social structure in between. It asks, a skeptic might say, for the trained eye, in an elite circle free from the burdens of the past and the skepticism of the present. It asks, in short, for John Armstrong.

The way of waking dreams

Tell me about it. Marxism and postmodern theory are lots of fun, not to mention real insights by which art can live, but a sense of value will not go away. Nor should it. It comes up whenever one decides to ask a question other than why? It comes up when one agrees to study a work long enough to accept it as art or to interpret it. Besides, that is quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?

One solution recognizes that scholars, those setting puzzles about society, have their own investments, too. One can hardly overlook the politics behind academic trends. Try setting aside elite, restrictive ideology—old-fashioned or postmodern. Why not extend the connoisseur's privilege to everyone? With respect to Armstrong's phrasing, I might call this the way of common sense, and it is basically his way. It has noble goals, I have to say.

It is also the way of the museum as mass market. Why, look at that pretty Monet! It amounts not to stepping back from the prejudices of one's time but rather hiding behind them. Most people still consider modern art a hoax. They may line up for water lilies, but not for Chardin or a medieval sculptor. In other words, they accept too easily Armstrong's tastes and aversion to mind games, and no amount of reverie will help shake things up.

I prefer to draw on every resource I can, to comfort me and to confront me. The active imagination has such power because it can change how I think. Knowing about art makes it more accessible because it enters my most intimate response and extends what I see. I do not have to give up on values. However, I can start to ask questions that honestly set me feeling and thinking.

Facts and ideas will not necessarily change taste. (No, Armstrong cannot convince me to admire François Boucher, although he does makes inroads when it comes to Claude.) Personally, I find Monet more interesting than ever. At least, unlike in a reverie, I have to remain awake—even when tapping the unconscious. Call it the way of waking dreams.

In the end, one might decide that Poussin hates rape as much as I do and yet still see him as sexist and boring. Then again, a double chance to awaken insight into art and gender, plus the allure of conflicting motives in the work, might make one value the painting better. Maybe not. Either way, once the questions start, they will not stop, and they should not.

Gere up for landscape

Good critics demand a strong intellectual foundation. I include facts and theories that can easily baffle newcomers—about the life and time of art and culture. Interpretations, in the plural, never substitute for the work. Like art, for that matter, they require patience.

I do not promise a solution to the puzzle of value, not even a richer, more creative imagination. (To challenge how people number their lives by pill-popping and mass entertainment, Hirst's obsession with life and death actually induces more numbness!) I may suggest a greater unity of intellect and emotions, but that makes them too distinct to start with. Art can appeal for many different reasons, just as a work has no single interpretation—and, I think, no ultimate definition. I return to the particulars of meaning in art, because the particulars of experience require it.

The best I can do is to set aside the question of value long enough to ask more, to learn more, and to understand more. After that, I can only hope the work will engage my interest all the better. I can say why it did, even if I cannot make the answer into a rule for art. I cannot settle for generalities, not even the ones that I have been giving so far—not without looking again.

The Frick gives one a wonderful chance to try just that, with landscapes so brown that Armstrong himself might approve. In its downstairs gallery, it assembles a typically thoughtful exhibition, drawn from a single collection.

Most often, shows based on one private holding do little more than puff up the donor, in hope of contributions. (Remember postmodern questions about museum investments? Wonder what Armani fashions are doing at the Guggenheim, down the hall from six Russian artists who refused a woman's traditional role—or why fashion photography starring Cindy Sherman belongs at MoMA QNS?) Here the very limits of a private taste help in understanding a whole new way for art.

The Gere collection holds oil sketches made out-of-doors. I love the freshness of plein-air painting, and the Frick gives it a history. It reminds one that painting out-of-doors began only about 300 years ago, and it grew slowly indeed in acceptance. Paradoxically, if Vermeer's View of Delft has an uncanny precision, it almost surely must have begun indoors, with the projection of a camera obscura. The Frick asks what happened after that.

A personal history

Yes, the show does puff up the collection, precisely when markets are distorting art. (See the value of asking who benefits?) The Geres have that taste for the soft, brown, and intimate. It leads to the inclusion of Salvator Rosa, who I greatly doubt took his easel outside around 1650.

It bounces along with some painters of marginal import, skipping past Impressionist colors in peculiar silence, toward a dull Degas. The climax comes in the 1860s with a suitably British gentleman, Frederic, Lord Leighton. One sees a Roman landscape by Corot, but nothing like the one upstairs in the permanent collection. A few years ago, a revelatory show in Brooklyn made his paintings the center of some stunning Italian landscapes.

Conversely, the show can easily make one think that these artists discovered the outdoors for the first time. In fact, da Leonardo Vinci had his notebook drawings, and painters always cared about appearances. Think of that Rosa. Upstairs, Giovanni Bellini makes light on the Italian hillside not just come to life, but bring to Saint Francis a revelation.

The show also largely mistakes Europe for the world. By the exhibition's end, I started to wonder what else painters found in the landscape, with traditions not so much as touched on here—such as J. M. W. Turner or Frederic Edwin Church, down to George Inness approaching a century's end.

The exhibition's limits, however, do more than play games with museums and a gullible public. For one thing, it shares a collector's real passion. I enjoyed Leighton especially. I took pleasure in discovering Thomas Jones and a view of the Green Mountains.

More important, I had to think about what did change. If the Frick's claims do not hold up, what did happen as artists moved outdoors? I shall argue that they gave meaning for the first time to Armstrong's reveries. They give the personal at once an intellectual and emotional history.

Extending the human

Think of what looks foreign about this art. How does it differ from painting before it and from Romanticism or Impressionism? As I looked backward from Corot and Monet, I started to see a consistent set of styles and trends, things tied up in the notion of the picturesque.

These works look strangely dark, and they focus on masses—trees, mountain, and castles. In contrast, art was to move from object to backdrop, toward light and an entire vista. One moves from the great outdoors to the experience of space. In the same way, painting starts to lose a taste for waterfalls and riverbanks. It moves from transient phenomena, with the old moral about life's passing, to the experience of time.

The subject was to change as well, from the rural to the social. In John Constable, people finish off the picture. By Impressionism, the suburbs take over. (The dread T. J. Clark taught me that, by the way.) Of course, artists went outdoors at first only to make sketches for larger, more esteemed oils. Panels and paper here have lots of unfinished spots. In the future, work outdoors came to survive for its own sake.

In sum, nature itself changes, from an abstraction, a moral value, to a person's calling. It became the artist's vocation because of what it meant to others as well.

Photorealism today, a response to photography, does what the eye never would. Like Rackstraw Downes, it gives equal attention to every corner. No wonder that in turn it has influenced photographers, such as Thomas Struth. It flattens the canvas, and it shows light as reflection rather than medium. Centuries ago, art had something else on its mind. It did not so much discover nature as extend the reach of the human.

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John Armstrong's Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art was published in 2000 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "A Brush with Nature: The Gere Collection of Landscape Oil Sketches" ran at The Frick Collection through November 12, 2000.


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