A Gentle Guide to Armchair Art for the Hungover ; Tuesday Book: The Intimate Philosophy of Art by John Armstrong (Allen Lane, Pounds 16.99)

Article excerpt

JOHN ARMSTRONG'S book is a self-help manual for art-lovers that offers advice on how best to conduct oneself in the presence of artworks. Written in a disarmingly nonchalant style, it is full of valuable and provocative insights that go against the grain of many contemporary assumptions.

Armstrong begins by noting that we are often disappointed by so- called masterpieces, and that our disappointment may be due to the criteria used to judge artistic value - such as price, age or historical influence. By the same token, he takes issue with art historians who study artworks as though they were forensic scientists at the scene of a crime, seeking evidence of ideological failings and contradictions.

Armstrong believes such information does not usually foster affection. Rather, we need to draw on what he terms "our own history of impassioned looking", and our own powers of visual synthesis and reverie. Here he cites Ruskin's claim that his love of art was rooted in his childhood experiences of landscape.

Armstrong's plea for a revaluation of the 19th-century notion of the "innocent eye" is eloquent and timely. But the argument is compromised by his highly selective notion of the passions involved in art appreciation. Although he mentions that there are artworks, such as Michelangelo's The Last Judgement and Picasso's Guernica, which are disturbing and distressing, he is almost exclusively concerned with non-confrontational viewing.

This approach is bold and unfashionable - no Caravaggio, Goya or Van Gogh here. But there is a high price to be paid for pacifism in aesthetics. Too often, Armstrong presents us with art-viewing scenarios that lack intensity and modulation. His ideal seems to be a limbo where a bland viewer casually scans a bland artwork.

In the discussions of architecture, the emphasis is on finding old buildings comfortable, while "charming" is the highest praise for pictures. Thus a Renaissance church near Florenceis "the kind of space in which to recover from carsickness or a hangover. …