Looking at Pictures
Looking at Pictures
No doubt there are many ways of looking at pictures, none of which can be called the right way. Those great artists of the past who have left us their opinions on painting -- Leonardo da Vinci, Dürer, Poussin, Reynolds, Delacroix -- often gave reasons for their preferences, with which no living artist would agree; and the same is true of the great critics -- Vasari, Lomazzo, Ruskin, Baudelaire. Yet they lived at a time when the standard of painting was higher than it is today, and they thought of criticism as a more exacting profession than do most contemporary critics. They admired, more or less, the same works of art; but in their criteria of judgement they differed from each other even more than the painters, who at least had in common certain technical problems. The once fashionable phrase 'he likes it for the wrong reasons' exposes not only arrogance, but ignorance of history.
But this is not to admit that the opposite character, the man who professes to 'know what he likes' by the light of nature, is right in this, or any, field. No one says that about any subject to which they have devoted some thought and experienced the hazards of commitment. Long practice in any occupation produces a modicum of skill. One can learn to cook and play golf -- not, perhaps, very well, but much better than if one had refused to learn at all. I believe one can learn to interrogate a picture in such a way as to intensify and prolong the pleasure it gives one; and if (as all those great men whose names I have just quoted would certainly have agreed) art must do something more than give pleasure, then 'knowing what one likes' will not get one very far. Art is not a lollipop, or even a glass of kümmel. The meaning of a great work of art, or the little of it that we can understand, must be related to our own life in such a way as to increase our energy of spirit. Looking at pictures requires active participation, and, in the early stages, a certain amount of discipline.