Appreciating Art

by Thomas O’Dwyer

LesParapluies by Auguste Renoir
Les Parapluies by Auguste Renoir

The first real work of art I ever saw was Auguste Renoir’s Les Parapluies. I was a teenager, and the painting had arrived in Dublin following a 1959 agreement between the governments of Ireland and Britain. This they had signed to solve an arts wrangle as tortuous as the Greek Elgin Marbles saga. The Renoir was part of a collection bequeathed to Ireland by Sir Hugh Lane. A Cork-born art collector, Lane died on board the Lusitania, which a German torpedo sank off the coast of Ireland in 1915. His collection of 39 paintings include works by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Morisot, and Degas. He had first left his collection to London’s National Gallery, but it was later found that he had attached a codicil to the will. It stated that he had changed his mind and wanted his paintings to stay in Dublin. The addendum was signed but not witnessed, and the London gallery declared legal ownership.

The dispute roused Irish nationalist passions, already at fever point in the fight for independence. Hugh Lane’s aunt was Lady Gregory, a patron of W.B. Yeats. They led Ireland’s cultural elites in a campaign to honour Lane’s last wishes. The governments renegotiated the 1959 agreement in 1993, and it comes up for renewal again this year. The new accord divided the paintings into two groups. London restored 31 of the pictures to Dublin, and every six years the cities trade the remaining eight, Les Parapluies among them.

This was Renoir’s last large painting of a Parisian scene, finished during a slow transition in his life. X-ray analysis has revealed that he painted it in stages over five years up to 1886, during which time its theme shifted from bourgeois to working-class. In an early stage, the young woman wore a fashionable middle-class style and had a parasol. In the final version, she wears a simpler dress of a working-class girl. Most of the painting resembles Renoir’s previous impressionism, but the woman somehow seems both happy and sad and stands apart from the bourgeois crowd.

There are rare moments in life when one may look on some object and say this may be the greatest thing I have ever seen. Standing in front of Les Parapluies was such a moment for me then. (Another struck when I first stood in front of the Taj Mahal). I knew nothing of the Lane collection, and less of Renoir. The painting looked enormous, a door into the gallery wall through which I could step into a world of blue elegance and poignancy. I was not a closet artist; I couldn’t even draw. Pictures had always been small square things hung on walls to break monotony and then ignored. The Renoir made me not so much a lover of art as a lover of the unfamiliar. The girl had a beauty I did not understand, different from the pretty, saccharine images of the Virgin Mary we had grown up around. She suggested an amorphous romanticism somewhere behind the diurnal drabness of city streets. When a French film called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg came to Dublin, I rushed to see it, because of the Renoir, and was not disappointed. When I first took a girl away for a weekend, we went to Cherbourg, because of the umbrellas.

I now knew that serious art did not hang on walls; it could hang about in the most unexpected places of our lives. Art appreciation was not art history; it was life appreciation. I learned from Les Parapluies that a work of art was more than what it is. It stimulated thought, it forced a viewer to draw emotions from personal experiences. It suggested a need to listen, to observe and to respond. Be still, and know that I am Renoir.

Many decades later, I came to wonder again about art appreciation during a recent visit to the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseums in Amsterdam. Impenetrable mobs of tourists surrounded Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Vincent’s Sunflowers. No one pondered the art, but all jostled for the best positions to take selfies on waving smartphones. There’s an even worse experience at the Mona Lisa corner in the Paris Louvre. No one knows if the tiny Gianconda peering through the bulletproof glass at the raucous crowds is even the original Leonardo so loved. It may be a print, as good as any that one can pick up in the museum shop for 30 euros. What are the crowds appreciating in these places? Scanning surviving newspapers for art reviews, it becomes apparent that it is the art itself that is appreciating, not its viewers. And they measure appreciation in dollars, by the multi-millions, not in emotional or life experiences.

In a crushing indictment of a hyped art museum display, the late Australian art critic Robert Hughes captured my recent experience in Amsterdam.

“The general public, one may predict, will see very little. Its members will struggle for a peek through a milling scrum of backs. They will be swept at full contemplation speed (about thirty seconds per image) through the galleries. They will find their hope to experience van Gogh’s art in its true quality thwarted … Then they will be decanted into the bazaar of postcards, datebooks, scarves — everything but limited-edition bronze ashtrays in the shape of the Holy Ear. At last, laden with souvenirs like visitors departing from Lourdes, they will go home. Vincent, we hardly knew ye.”

Art, I don’t know who you are anymore. It shouldn’t be complicated, as Jean Cocteu explained: “It’s not that hard to understand art. If it hangs on a wall, it’s a painting, and if you can walk around it, it’s a sculpture.” But why is this splatter of coloured patches or that giant spider worth so much? (Willem De Kooning’s Interchange sold for $300 million; Louise Bourgeois’ Spider sculpture for $29 million. The most expensive painting ever is Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, sold in 2017 for $350 million).

But what the buyers pay is not “worth” – there is no such financial term. If a pet rock is worth $300 to me, I’ll buy it. To you, it’s worthless, and I’m an idiot. The proper financial word is value, and the question is how people value things. I might decide an object has an intrinsic value – that alone has been a minefield of philosophical debate since Aristotle. There is the bigger-fool theory – someone else will pay more, so I’ll grab it now. And there is what most of us suspect is the driving force at art auctions, the look-at-me theory. “I am rotten rich; I have super taste; you can see my ego from Mars without a telescope.”

So, while art auction prices keep appreciating, what’s left outside the billionaires’ vaults for the rest of us to enjoy? We each have thousands of images on our computers and devices; the very walls blast out graffiti and screens blast out politics, violence, porn, and commercials. How does one even “appreciate” art today? Take a selfie in front of a Degas? Is it like appraising a sofa? Would I choose a sofa because it’s bigger or more comfortable or better looking than another? Choices bring us in contact with the mysteries of objective and subjective. My wife thinks one sofa is a bit bigger than another; I disagree, but it’s easy to settle with an objective tape measure. I think this one looks more comfortable; she disagrees. Problem – now we’re subjective, and there’s no tape for that.

In this era of fractured truths and perceptions, we are warned that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. But sofa-makers and other merchants try to discover facts about our opinions so they can mould opinion itself. If I ask you how far away is that sculpture in a gallery, it’s easy to settle any disagreement – tape measure. If I ask which picture you like, there is no possibility of “verifying” the answer. A statement of taste is a preference I recognise as subjective, and you are entitled to own it. I may go behind your back and roll my eyes, but that’s another valid subjective opinion. We are always expressing preferences, but it is not always an easy task. Who’s better – Shakespeare or Arthur Miller, Van Gogh or Michelangelo, Auguste Rodin or Barbara Hepworth?

Science has increased demand for metrics everywhere, the computer and data science even more so. In auction-house art, the metric is money, money money. Art becomes a commodity, and the critic is an investment adviser. That leaves those lacking tens of millions to look for other criteria. In the 1960s, London Corporation was debating a new colour scheme for the city’s famous red buses and what that might cost. An irate citizen penned an inevitable Letter to the Times: “I’m delighted to know that no final decision on the colour of the new London bus has been made and hope it will not be determined by finance alone. To be guided in these matters by money values means to be guided by no values at all.”

Who then is to define value for a Salvator Mundi? Enter expert opinion. In art, as in other fields, say wine tasting, experts use their knowledge and values to tell others what they might like. Or what they might like to invest in. The similarity of people in broad groups means some principles guide the expert but is not precise. When it comes to critics assessing the value of beauty, we have a choice of two cliches – reach for the revolver or head for the hills. The purposes of art are never clear – to exalt, inform, share concepts and emotions, to amuse and entertain. Plato took the easy way out with his world of forms. In his mythical space existed perfect models of our imperfect everyday crap. Horses there glowed in perfect horsiness, unlike the smelly workaday beasts on earth. He suggested there was a world of absolute beauty, goodness and justice against which to measure our ramshackle realities.

“You lovers of sights and sounds delight in beautiful tones and colours and shapes and all the works of art into which these enter, but they have not the power of thought to take delight in the nature of beauty itself. That and that power to approach beauty and behold it as it is in itself is rare indeed.” (Plato, The Republic). Aristotle, in Poetics, said, “beauty consists in a certain size and arrangement of parts.” Well, being the great catalogue maker, he would say that, wouldn’t he? For the Greek thinkers, the beautiful was that which produces specific effects upon our feelings. The conclusion from this was that judgments of taste are so subjective, that the same object may be both beautiful and not beautiful. It depends on the circumstances.

David Hume wrote in his Treatise of Human Nature: “Beautiful, on most occasions, is not an absolute but a relative quality and pleases us by nothing but its tendency to produce an end that is agreeable.” Clive Bell, in Civilisation, said: “No one imagines that a work of art lying on an uninhabited island has absolute value.” So much for intrinsic value in a piece of art. People take pleasure in the looking, not in any inherent value of the objects themselves. Intrinsic value is a bit like the virgin birth – true believers have been declining for decades because it’s not a sensible or possible concept.

Different people in different places derive pleasure in different ways. Ideas of beauty that are valid for all persons are hard to justify. Now we even have suggestions that appreciating the art of another tribe is the sin of cultural appropriation. (This proves that idiotic definitions of sin don’t fade away when religion declines). Ideas of beauty that are valid for all persons are hard to justify. The masses of multinational tourists seething around The Night Watch or the Victory of Samothrace in the art museums of Europe might indicate otherwise. But that would only be valid if they were appreciating the art, relating to the object rather than their selfies.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre, Paris.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre, Paris.

Critics in the past used to argue that pleasures of the senses of the lesser kind – food, drink, popular music, could not compare to those of the more elevated kind, labeled aesthetic. Different people experience food and wine in different ways, depending on the circumstances or location. So too, the arts affect different people in diverse ways.  There are a large number of individual relationships between people and what they read, look at or listen to. Different people find different things funny – there are no clear standards, but there are elusive common principles. It even extends to personal relationships. P.G. Woodhouse wrote that “sexual attraction is so much a question of the taste of the individual that the wise man never argues about it.”

In the visual cacophony of the digital age, we can still believe that art can be good or bad.  I’m with the 19th-century Japanese artist Kakuzo Okakura. He believed that art “is a worship of the Imperfect, a tender attempt to do something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.” In his Book of Tea, Okakura wrote: “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgment matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.”