Thursday, 7 August 2008

Peter de Bolla, 'Art Matters' (2003)

Just finished reading Peter de Bolla’s ‘Art Matters’, having been meaning to look at it for several months after it was recommended to me by a tutor at university (who nevertheless had rather disparaging things to say about it). It’s an attempt to analyse the way we experience art (what he calls ‘the aesthetic experience’), through the author’s personal experience of three works (visual, aural, and verbal), out of which he attempts to draw some more general points. So, book-ended by an introductory and a concluding chapter, we are presented with writing on Barnett Newman’s ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’, Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of J.S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, and William Wordsworth’s poem ‘We Are Seven’ (not forgetting an important discussion of British artist Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ in the first and final chapters).

The subject is a tricky, but fascinating and important one. De Bolla knows a lot more about it than me, but he doesn’t flash this knowledge about – there are few footnotes, and the references to critics and thinkers, such as Kant and Hegel, are sparsely spread out and very much to the point when they do appear. That said, one could criticise his style for being overly wordy, even needlessly impenetrable, setting a maze for itself through contorted syntax, nested clauses, and ‘clever’ wordplay. Here is one of the knottiest passages in the book, and the most glaring example of de Bolla’s facetious punning play on language, which I can’t help feeling rather gets in the way of his argument:
Consequently, in attending to something I am in effect making present presence, and in so doing I experience myself as being present to the object of attention…we may inattend to the unattended to, thereby attending to the unintended. In attending to the unintended through inattention, we make what we have previously kept out of attention sit up and attend to us, to our attentive gaze; we ask it to pay attention….An inquiry into inattention must be a call to attention of attention itself.
(Art Matters, pp.62-3)

I realise I may be being a little unfair in the example I’ve chosen, ripped out of context (it comes in the Bach chapter, from the preliminary section where de Bolla is talking about the way we listen to and concentrate on music). But – and this is precisely the main criticism by university tutor made about the book – de Bolla has the chance to articulate and make clear (as far as that is possible) some very complex and perplexing issues, to really grab the subject of aesthetics by the throat and force it to give up some of its secrets. He does this, but at times so obscures what he is doing through the self-consciously flashy manner of doing it. Yes, these are complex issues, I said that it in the previous sentence. But talking about them needn’t necessarily involve such fussy writing – it would still be possible to make them a little clearer, without compromising the meaning.

Another problem might be that de Bolla, while covering a fairly wide spectrum in the aural and verbal works he analyses – a twentieth-century Canadian pianist’s interpretation of an eighteenth-century German keyboard work (with references to twentieth-century American jazz musicians thrown in as well), and a (very late) eighteenth-century English poem – restricts his consideration of visual art to twentieth-century examples. While the canon of western music that is still listened to today is primarily a more recent phenomenon, covering the past three centuries or so, the visual canon as it remains a subject for discussion stretches further back. To talk about Newman, Quinn and the Chapmans is fine – and, indeed, is probably a far more difficult task than talking about more traditional art-works (abstraction is a tricky thing, and de Bolla manages to discuss it in an extremely perceptive manner) – but I did hanker after at least a mention of one of the Great Masters. How would de Bolla’s arguments pan out if he was talking about a work of art that represented something tangible, rather than simply existing in abstraction? I suppose he does this with the Marc Quinn – which is a life-size cast of a human head – but the modernity of that work (the materials used, the acknowledgment of its ephemerality and changing, decaying nature as the blood turns black and decays) still distances it somewhat from the canon.

Criticisms aside, what are the issues that arise during the book’s 150-odd pages. Briefly, I’ll touch on some of them: the more specific ones that arise from de Bolla’s consideration of the three individual works. The Barnett Newman chapter is concerned with serenity, and with scale: to an extant, de Bolla argues, the massive painting scales us, gives us an altered sense of scale and space, alters our sense of existing in its presence and thereby effects our sense of our own presence in relation to this.
Newman’s pictures overtly pose the question of distance; they ask the viewer to scale him- or herself as an act of witnessing the work. This requires the viewer to accept what I have called the necessity of reconciling two competing statements of presence: that made by the image and that announced by the viewer. In the reconciliation of these two positions the distance between viewer and canvas is all but erased, for the optimum point of sight is identical to the space occupied by the image, suggesting that the canvas itself is a part of the picture-seeing mechanism….What I see is seen under the auspices of what the image presents to sight, what it lets me see. Indeed, to put it one way, the pictures itself ‘sees’ me as much as I see it, and this is certainly a function of distance.
(Art Matters, p.51)

After this, Gould/Bach. Music is perhaps the hardest of the arts to talk about, in that there’s nothing really to grasp onto that will provide a method of entry into describing one’s experience of it (unless we’re talking about music with lyrics, I suppose). Works of literature are written in language, which signifies definite meanings (or, at least, which we expect to do so in everyday discourse – though of course poetry plays on and with the ambiguities inherent within words and syntax), and works of visual art more often than not deal with objects that correspond to something we might see in the world around us (as in the case of a still life, a landscape, or a portrait). But music is fundamentally abstract in comparison. Perhaps because of this, de Bolla’s chapter on Glenn Gould’s 1981 performance of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ (which, of course, I’ve written about myself, in a post previously published on this blog), is the weakest of the three considerations of individual works of art. It certainly sees him bring in the most contextual information, relating to Gould’s various idiosyncrasies, and, though I agree with his evaluation of the performance, I feel, far more so than in the other chapters, some rather sharp subjective jolts – ‘that’s just your opinion’; why do you define the state this provokes in you as ‘wonder’?

But moving, on we finally reach what is perhaps the pick of the three essays (saving the best for last): an analysis of Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’ that both is and is not a model exercise in ‘close reading’. De Bolla doesn’t really talk that much about specific linguistic features – his analysis tends to focus instead on the philosophical implications of a particular phrase. Rather than discussing rhyme, or rhythm, or syntax, he’ll worry away at a single line for several pages, talking about naming and numbering and the relation between words and reality, language and experience, a child’s and an adult’s perception of the world, of life and of death. It’s masterful, though not exhaustive (and not intended to be so), and leads on to some of the most important ideas/ conclusions in the book.

‘Thoughts that lie too deep for tears’ is a Wordsworthian phrase de Bolla picks up on, and he makes an important argument about what he thinks an aesthetic experience is not. It is not, as one might generally suppose, of feeling (though this is present, undeniably – de Bolla is, as he readily admits, talking about occasions when he was in a state of being ‘profoundly moved’ by works of art). But that is not the most important thing. The most trivial things can spark off torrents of emotion in different people – what de Bolla is primarily interested in is not the trigger to the individual, subjective emotional response that a work of art might provide, but in the knowledge that the artwork might have – knowledge about itself, about the world, even about the viewer. Seeking out art for solely emotional needs, then, leads to it becoming almost commodified (in de Bolla’s example: I’ll listen to Beethoven’s 3rd piano concert tonight in order to give myself (in order for it to give me) the feeling of elation familiar to me from that work – like an artistic happy pill).

In the final section, de Bolla talks about the aesthetic experience and the problems in defining it, for it is at once subjective yet rooted in the ‘art-ness’ of the work itself, which (as Michael Wood also argues in his ‘Literature and the Taste of Knowledge’), ‘knows’ something (though not in any propositional sense – it doesn’t ‘know’ easily-describable/utterable data). Yet to sense this sense/knowledge, we are still rooted (trapped) in the subjective – we can only perceive the quality inherent in the work of art from our own point of view. No two people can have the same aesthetic experience. It is not reproducible outside of oneself.

Perhaps it’s because of this that de Bolla resorts to using generalised words like ‘wonder’, ‘amazement’ and ‘spell-binding’. Perhaps it’s inevitable, something one just can’t get round once one reaches a certain point in the discussion of art. After all, even the resolutely taciturn Derek Bailey approaches the mystical when he talks about the ‘magical side’ to the sort of interaction encountered in free group improvisation (‘Improvisation, Its Nature and Practice in Music’, p.112). Still, I’m a little sceptical of de Bolla’s resort to the word ‘wonder’ to define the essential quality of the aesthetic experience – at first, it seems a little randomly chosen, though I think he just about justifies its use by the time we reach the book’s conclusion. It’s about acceptance of solitude, arising from the subjective nature of the necessarily individual aesthetic experience, as outlined above – although I can convince someone else of the validity of my own experience, I can never convince them to share exactly the same experience. It’s also about sensing a knowledge that one can never quite grasp – the (great) artwork never quite gives up its secrets, and neither does the human condition, the condition of living in the world, the transience and ignorance of being human. Art helps us to accept this, at the same time as forcing us into thinking about it, exacerbating this thought – it tries to cure the wound it creates (or, at least, the wound it dis(un)covers, brings to light). This fragility, this keen balance, this disturbing quality, is what de Bolla so admires about Marc Quinn’s head-constructed-out-of-frozen-blood sculpture, ‘Self’ – though he carefully distances his appreciation of this work from the simple and short-lived ‘shock’ factor purveyed by artists such as the Chapman brothers, which leaves little of lasting value after the initial startling impact. There is, then, a distance/difference between ‘wonder’ and ‘surprise’ or ‘shock’ – the latter being something which must necessarily end far sooner.
Confronted with something new and for which we are unprepared […] we find it very easy to accommodate the new and to render the force of the shock unremarkable. Wordsworth had a good phrase for that which takes a little longer; he called it the ‘shock of mild surprise’, and the milder the surprise, generally speaking, the more enduring the shock…Much contemporary visual art has the capacity to shock in spades: many of the works in the Saatchi Collection displayed at the 1998 Royal Academy ‘Sensation’ show would provide good examples – the sculptures produced by the Chapman brothers that distort the human body and displace the sexual organs come to mind –of how surprise quickly runs out of steam, loses it appeal, fades into the familiarity of being shocked.
(Art Matters, p.142)

It is on the state of wondering fragility, rather than shock, that de Bolla concludes. His is not a perfect book (more criticisms over at, but it is a valuable one, and timely too, in that it is becoming so common to read and hear misunderstanding definitions of the role and nature of art in modern society. Of course, our appreciation of art is to some extent ideologically driven – de Bolla doesn’t deny this, but he allows art its autonomy, its independence – he goes some way towards defining it what makes it art, its reason, mode, and method of existence. In the process he suggests the ways in which it can teach us some valuable lessons – and the most valuable lesson of all is perhaps that these lessons will be lessons in not knowing as much as in knowing.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I met Pete at Cambridge St Johns around 1980.
I knew then the boy would go far.
Two things remain in my mind:
The spectacularly encrusted state of the toilet pan in the student house
his ablility to devour ice cream sundae at The Casserole House, and get every last scrap out of the glass