Thursday, September 09, 2004

I may not know about art... 

The theft of Edvard Munch's The Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo prompts Tom Utley to speculate about the value of art in an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph. How much does it matter, he asks, if The Scream is never returned and is therefore unavailable for public viewing? After all, we have plenty of photographs. Would anyone miss the original if it were replaced with a poster?

These philistine thoughts have been prompted by my first ever visit to the Louvre, where I went with my family last week. Like so many other visitors, we made a bee-line for the Mona Lisa, because everyone knows that this is the painting that you just have to see when you are in Paris.

I couldn't help noticing that in the great stream of tourists following the signs to the Leonardo, hardly any of us glanced for more than a couple of seconds at the hundreds of masterpieces we had to pass on the way. Perhaps if they had put price-tags on the paintings, instead of the artists' names and dates, we might have been more interested.

When I finally saw the Mona Lisa, after my 50 years on this Earth, I found it a terrible disappointment. I don't know quite what I was expecting. I suppose that I was hoping at least for some glimmer of understanding of why this was the most talked-about painting in the world - at best, for a rush of joy at the sheer beauty of this, the real thing.

What I got instead was, well, the Mona Lisa - looking exactly as she does on a trillion coffee mugs, posters and tea-towels the world over.

There was a very slight "coo" factor - the thought that these brush-strokes had been made more than 500 years ago by Leonardo's own hand, and that the master must once have stood exactly where I was standing in relation to his work.

But it was no greater than the coo factor that you get from seeing the suit of armour once worn by Henry VIII, now displayed at the Tower of London, or the prayer book that Lady Jane Grey was holding when she was beheaded. As far as aesthetic pleasure went, I confess that I got more from looking at the pretty American tourist in front of me in the queue than from contemplating La Gioconda's peculiar smile.

Utley sees the journey to the Louvre not as a quest for "aesthetic pleasure", but "just to tick the box marked 'Mona Lisa'." He suggests that to seek more would be nearly impossible, at least at the Louvre:

In our defence, it must be said that if we had given the other paintings and statues in the Louvre the attention that the cognoscenti say they deserve, we would have been there for the rest of our lives. There are just far too many of them for any of us to begin to appreciate them. But, if I am right, most of us don't get a great deal of pleasure from paintings - and we wouldn't appreciate them very much no matter how long we stood gazing at them.

We traipse around galleries because we know that this is a civilised thing to do. We certainly try to enjoy what we see, and of course some paintings strike us as quite pleasing. But not as pleasing as all that. Not as nice to look at, anyway, as the girl in front of us in the queue.

Given, the relatively little payback he gets for viewing the original paintings, Utley questions their value full stop. He tries to put some perspective on the £30 million value of The Scream.

To put it into some sort of perspective, £30 million is about the equivalent of the per-capita income of 108,000 Indians for an entire year. How can anybody in his right mind claim that the aesthetic pleasure to be had from owning an original of that silly, swirly picture (not even the original, since Munch painted some half a dozen versions of it) is worth that much?

But of course, the art market isn't really about aesthetics. A mere difference of attribution can make a hundredfold difference in the amount that people are prepared to pay for a painting. "After" Vermeer? Let's call that £140,000. "By" Vermeer? Stick a couple of noughts on the end. Never mind that the picture is exactly the same - no more or less beautiful - whether it was painted by Vermeer or the girl next door.

Utley can only dream that the never-ending journey to stare out paintings without real appreciation -- "half pretending, half longing to enjoy them" will someday be rewarded when a painting lifts the "philistine scales from [his] eyes."

Utley makes two enormous mistakes if he wants to really appreciate original paintings. First, he seeks pure aesthetic value from them, forcing them to communicate pleasurable epiphanies. Second, he commodifies art; his obsession with the "art market" accurately reveals that it is absurd to quantify the value of an individual work of art. I think he plays down the "coo" factor a bit too much. Physical proximity to the same artefacts that were handled by historical figures--not to mention great historical figures--does help to give us an emotional connexion to the past which our society sadly lacks. But he also hints at the real reason for his lack of appreciation of the Mona Lisa; he hasn't given any of the lesser known paintings any sort of attention. Or, to use Utley's terminology, he hasn't tried to "appreciate" them either. He lacks a context. He can coo at seeing a painting which he is told is historically significant, but he has no idea of its actual significance. The Mona Lisa, The Scream, a painting by Vermeer, they all have value because he is told they have value by the "cognoscenti"; but not being one of the cognoscenti--and apparently not knowing how to become one--he is forced to commodify paintings, following a paradigm for value with which he is presumably more familiar.

Utley's Philistinism is, as my last sentence indicates, not entirely his fault. I would criticise him for failing to see that the Mona Lisa in a museum surrounded by other Renaissance paintings studied and displayed by experts is a very different context from the Mona Lisa on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. But what if the museum curators are also at fault for not making this context useful his "appreciation" of the paintings. What Utley fails to recognise is that appreciation follows from understanding. You can't really appreciate a painting just by staring at it; you have to learn something about it. It is the job of the museum curators to help convey this understanding.

But museum curators have long been divided about how--and whether--to do this. There is a school of thought that information about the paintings be kept to a minimum, lest the viewers be distracted from the paintings themselves. In the United States, many curators have attempted to provide more information--particularly through multimedia presentations--to those who are interested by placing a small section to the side of the exhibit where people can who wish to learn, rather than appreciate, can go to find out more. Needless to say, this is not a perfect solution. But I don't want to fault the museum curators too much; they are trying, and doing so with small budgets and severe limitations of physical space. One innovative approach was recently tried at the Michaelis Collection in Cape Town, where the curators turned all the paintings back-to-front. As one curator pointed out, "Researchers, collectors and curators always look at the backs of paintings because they have a lot of information on them, such as signatures, dates and notes from collectors, which the general public don't have access to." This is the sort of historical information which helps the public understand that original paintings, unlike reproductions of coffee mugs, have histories. One visitor even pointed out an attempt at forgery--of a Vermeer, as it happens. Sadly, the curator's approach may not have been as educational as it might have been; the curator of the exhibition admits that it is "conceptual": "I'm trying to refigure the notion of what a museum is all about," he says. "I want to subvert people's expectations so that they're forced to look at familiar objects in a completely different way."

What I am trying to oppose here is the idea that art can or should be appreciated in a vacuum without study. The point is perfectly illustrated by Mike Drout's commentary on the response of Peter Robinson in National Review Online's The Corner to the horns on Michelangelo's Moses. Robinson states:

What we see in Moses here--Moses the law-giver, Moses the chap who has just had an awful (in the old sense) encounter with God--is the results of an artist's effort to represent visually something that exceeds the boundaries of the representable: the horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding. That, anyhow, is how it appears to me at first blush. (The proper question here, I suspect, is not 'What does it mean?' but 'How does it feel?' That is, the issue is less one of symbols and semantics than one of aesthetic force and religious passion.)

Herewith, at last, a completely satisfying explanation of what Michelangelo was attempting. The convention of portraying Moses with horns may very well have arisen because of a mistranslation of one or two terms of Hebrew into Latin. But Michelangelo uses it not out of confusion or ignorance but for the high purposes of his art.

Drout points out that this passage is characterised by "gooey, unsupported assertions of greatness and sublimity", rather than genuinely enlightening discussion. The importance of the mistranslation as the origin of Moses's horns should not be dismissed. Well after the mistranslation was discovered, the horns persisted in the "visual tradition" of art: something that can be verified by placing beside Michelangelo's Moses numerous other contemporary and earlier works of art containing the figure. The horns were an essential part of Moses' identity. As Drout points out, the idea that the horns are an "objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness" does not explain "Why horns?" and does provide a convenient analysis with which one can't disagree, "since there's no arguing with how something feels." Drout concludes:

Look, it's great to appreciate art, and art should make you feel something. But the job of the critic is to attempt to explain what the art does and why it works that way.

I would add that to appreciate art the viewer must also make an effort to understand what the art does and why it works that way.

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