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How to Enjoy Art (nearly all of it)

We were walking the banks of the Thames on one of those bright winter days early in 2022 while waiting to pick up the grandchildren from school. We came to Tate Modern and we can no more pass a gallery than I can pass a pie shop so in we went despite the complex Covid precautions. We saw blood red strands of wool, thirty feet long, draped from the ceiling; these represented both menstruation and patriarchy according to the explanation. There was an ironing board arranged in a certain way to represent the destruction of the ecosystem and a painting of three grotesque figures in a desert that claimed it said something about Donald Trump and his supporters. Really? Does anyone ever change their opinion because of this sort of thing?

In my youth I had a contempt for art. It didn’t come from parents nor from teachers, but from my youthful sub-culture at both school and university. At school art was compulsory for two years; I had no desire whatsoever to produce anything that might be called “art” and in the two annual exams I was awarded 15% and 22% before being allowed to abandon the project. I liked all other subjects without exception. At university I would have been considered – and considered myself – to be “hearty” rather than “arty”. I always remembered an Australian contemporary, a Rhodes scholar, a titan on the rugby field and later of the legal system. “Is there anything you’re not good at, Bruce?” (not real name) he was asked. “Yeah – aaart”, he replied proudly. To this day when I see sculptures hanging around the place I mutter the word in that accent. I don’t think that people in later generations characterised themselves as being non-artistic in this way, but we certainly did.

Yet I had another side: as a teenage hitchhiker, especially in Italy, I loved churches and galleries. I joined Italia Nostra to get cheaper access to them and spent precious pocket money that might have been spent on Chianti on postcards and prints to take back to my room. I particularly liked the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, but also late medieval landscapes. In both cases I think these represented the lingering and dying sensations of childhood, the possibility of magic and fairy tales. Ernst Haeckl, inventor of the idea of ecology, offers a rather obscure explanation for this, translated as, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”. It means simply that we can recapture our own past in aspects of the historical past.

There is no contradiction between the enjoyment of art and contempt for it. On the contrary, a measure of contempt for anything makes it much easier to enjoy. Compare art with cricket: I love cricket, I played the game into my seventies and I have never been forgiven for once saying that cricket was the meaning of my life. But that makes cricket very difficult to watch. Most cricket to me is played in forms which do not allow the full subtlety of the game or deny its proper ethics and sociability or is just done badly. It’s just not cricket: I am prevented from enjoying cricket by having an ideal of the thing. It seems to me that many people are prevented from enjoying art (or things that might be considered art) by such ideals. How did we get from the Sistine Chapel to Tracy Emin’s dirty bed clothes?, they might ask. But I don’t have that problem. In fact to me the Sistine Chapel is dreadful – a piece of kitsch agitprop which the artist was forced to produce as propaganda for the dominant ideology, though I would concede immediately that the techniques demonstrated by Michelangelo are considerably more demanding than those demonstrated by Tracy.

For all that it wasn’t an intellectual priority I was forced to think and talk about the nature of art most of my adult life. One reason for this was that several times each October I was involved in discussing a paper by the Scottish philosopher W.B.Gallie; it was published in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society in 1956 and is called “Essentially Contested Concepts”. It argues that there are crucial concepts in our discourse which are neither “straightforward” (capable of definition) nor “confused” (not worth talking about), but have a status in between such that we can never agree on definitions and boundaries, but they are worth talking about. His own three example are “art”, “democracy” and “a Christian life” though I often also included “sport” in the discussion. In each case there must be “exemplars” which are indisputable; as a result I can reveal that at least three quarters of students if asked to name something that is indisputably a work of art mention the Mona Lisa. I find Gallie’s general argument important and generally convincing and I thought it was a useful introduction to the nature of political argument, but I still maintain an open mind on whether it applies to art. Does debating whether motor cars or chocolate rappers or, for that matter, pickled sharks are works of art really result in the intellectual “progress” which Gallie requires? Perhaps it does.

There was another reason for me to think about the nature of the visual arts and that was Roger Duclaud-Williams (real name this time), an undergraduate contemporary of mine who became a colleague and friend. Roger and I usually lunched together and talked about nearly everything under the sun. He was one of the most intellectually curious and rigorous people I’ve ever met, but he was completely blind so the visual arts barely existed for him. It was possible to explain almost anything in sport so that he could grasp it, but impossible to explain what effects the greens and golds in a Byzantine mosaic had on me. Yet Roger’s lack of sight even seemed an advantage in some ways in cutting out what was merely imagery and allowing him to understand the important forms of meaning and connection. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but that is only for propagandists, not for the intellectually curious. I concluded that art could have no real meaning and was a luxury addition to the human condition analagous to the taste of food and drink.

The rules for enjoying art should follow clearly from these observations. Don’t entertain a high-highfalutin concept, ideal or purpose of or for art. Many prominent modern artists make statements along the lines of, “Art has no prescribed forms or boundaries . . . ” and you should agree with them. You don’t need to worry about whether it’s good or bad nor about whether you personally like it or not. The more important questions concern context, motivation and technique. Is it interesting? Is it fun to look at? Pay only the most sceptical of attention to what the artist says (this is usually only a problem with modern art – and, of course, historical art is necessarily more interesting than contemporary because it requires more understanding of purpose and technique). It’s fun to look at 4,000 soap powder packets in Tate Liverpool – and even more fun to listen to old ladies from the hinterland of Lancashire discussing them. Damien Hirst’s pickled shark (1991) is fun to look at and his title, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, is brilliant, but I’m yet to be convinced that they are connected.

The choice of galleries and when to visit them is important. It’s probably best to avoid the more popular galleries unless you have a special arrangement of some kind. Given the inflated status of “art” in most cultures they are ridiculously overcrowded. I was in the Uffiizi in Florence shortly before Covid: the queues were horrendous and all the well known paintings were surrounded by hundreds of East Asians who weren’t even looking at the pictures, but attempting to photograph them, the experience of “art” reduced to a ritualised tick-list. In St. Petersburg we told our guide that we didn’t want to go to the Hermitage because we weren’t in Russia to walk rapidly past six million non-Russian works of art. He did persuade us in but specifically to see the exhibition of two dozen major impressionist works (valued together in the half billion dollar range) which had been recovered from the dacha of a former member of the Politburo. The phenomenon was interesting in several ways.

The best way of experiencing (say) the National Gallery is to go on a course. I did this inadvertently as the husband/consort of a head teacher who needed a male with time on his hands. So I have stood fascinated in front of Holbeins and Canalettos using works of art as a way of understanding the past. The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester as a teaching gallery has always been excellent in this way even without having an instructor. And often a gallery whose contents are rooted in its locality can be the best of all experiences of art. One of my favourites in this respect is the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Houston, Texas. It isn’t a question of how Remington’s paintings rate as art or whether you like them, but you come out of that gallery convinced that you have a better understanding of how images of the “Wild West” came about and thus of an important dimension of American self-images.

Thus the sceptic can treat art as he or she treats religion, as a source of visual delight and of learning – though rarely the sort of learning the artist or the patron would have wanted. I see no argument, however, that these sources of learning and pleasure could justify public expenditure on art schools and art councils.

Lincoln Allison February 2022